Category — Features
Apocalypse Diaries: Maine 2016 – on growing and reaping your own
“Control is what civilizations do… If we can control the world, we can protect ourselves from the darkness it contains. We can protect ourselves from what lies under the ground, in the tombs. Who doesn’t want to be protected? But who, in the end, can ever be?”
In the age of COVID-19, it’s a pertinent question: what does the end of the world look like? For Jared – a Kentucky-born, Deep State-fearing, dog-loving permaculture guru I worked with in Maine – collapse was all violence and hellfire, approaching fast but still not quite here. When it came, he warned, it’d be war, every man for his-self and “boy, yew best be prepared.” Or so he told me as we cleared brush and stacked logs, driving the metal waratahs he called T-poles into the wet ground of Maine’s undergrowth, stringing up wire fences for a pending shipment of goats that would, in their own (long prophesied) Satanic way, catalyse a local un-doing, a tantrum to restart the world. But all that was far away as we worked, the June sun high and hot and there plenty to do to “prepare”, as indeed, we well knew we should.
The farm was a small homestead in the woodlands of Maine, that large and sparsely-populated state on the North-Eastern seaboard of America. Its owners were Kurt and Cheryl, a mid-West couple who’d moved there from Chicago. They’d seen the signs of global strife in the wind and had long been waiting, stacking their pennies, planning their move. Finally, it was time, books on Peak Oil and permaculture packed into their truck and the move east made, the retirement that wasn’t quite a retirement but an attempt to hedge their bets: to shift away from the vulnerabilities tied to survival in a centralised system and into one where they knew their supply chains, had links to production themselves. In this, theirs was a common story, or perhaps a common-ing one – for many have heard the calls of future shock coming and taken steps to connect on a scale that’s robust. But the years that followed were tough on their own. They lived in the small house now occupied by Jared and his wife Caitlin, doing hard yards in the garden and struggling, their age and lack of knowledge raw, hearts beating tight with doubt at their choice.
But that had been three years ago, give or take. Now there was a new, still-humble house, its solar panels and neighbouring geodesic dome, a root store, a garage and various sheds, the gardens that stretched out to the south. They’d found Jared on Craigslist and had been won over by his enthusiasm and knowledge, the way he seemed to know just what they needed. And so their scope had increased: rabbits for meat and fur, chickens and ducks for eggs, a mushroom-growing room and the big pond excavated by a digger out back. Kurt still worked full-time in Portland, off early with his near-hour commute, Cheryl mucking in with Jared and his wife, heavily pregnant by the time they put out a call for volunteer help and I answered, my own uncertain movements drawing me north out of New York. In many ways, our reasons were similar: that need for connection and knowledge so-often absent in town-raised brains; that desire to engage with the basics of life, miracles served up on our plates.
I’d never have then guessed the apocalyptic end, but there’d been signs from the start. The tension that lived beneath the flurry of activity, the distrust that drove it – far from unique to life in America but inescapably present: NRA stickers, big trucks, the Stars and Stripes on each hulking house; long driveways curving away from the road. In our emails, Cheryl had raised the hours Jared worked, as many as 12 a day, “day after day, and he expects those working with him to do the same.” While WOOFERS normally work 4-5 hours a day in exchange for food and board, they’d framed their excess demands in that frustratingly American way, as an internship for which I was (begrudgingly) game, the privilege of escape not lost on me as I signed on for a ‘provisional’ two-week stint.
Then there was Cheryl’s stand-offish, almost miserly vibe in the kitchen. The hospitality most people welcome guests with was absent and in its place stood a limited selection of their food, strange rules about when I was allowed to cook and her uncomfortable, lurking presence when I did – as if I might steal her favourite pan, or poor precious oil away down the sink. My offer to make a shared meal was politely refused, so I cooked and withdrew to my room, the awkwardness chalked up to culture, and I left to reflect on gifts and the binds that they make. At times I wanted to shout, “offer me a tea, for fuck’s sake! Let the ritual of giving relax us! (Got any bikkies?)” But there was no voice. In this I was too British, the unquestioning guest, left to marvel at the irony of those who felt the distance of the States, who knew its divisions keenly in an academic space, were trying so hard to be different, and yet still stood, knuckles clasped white around stuff they called ‘theirs.’ But what could you do? It was their place; they made – and lived by – the rules.
Similar feelings reigned in the garden. Cheryl’s frugality combined with Jared’s aspiration and the low hum of her dehydrator was a constant – powdering kale and nettle, drying strawberries and apple – the storehouse swelling with apocalypse-ready goods as Jared and I expanded their garden beds and last seasons’ potatoes rotted in the root store, already in surplus while we worked to grow more. Jared wanted three years supply from each year of production, a goal that spoke to both his intensity and the fear I came to see was driving it. On our walks foraging for the medicinal mushrooms he sold, Jared would offer long monologues on survivalism: from emergency first aid and the self-sufficiency our work aimed for, to how much water the new pond could hold, the ring fence of wild thorns he planned to plant, the guns hinted at in a box in the shed. In face of a cruel world, Jared envisioned himself a saviour; felt its burden as a source of his strength. Only he was equipped with the skills necessary for surviving downfall, his self-aggrandizing rants describing a future not just with no state, but seemingly no other useful people at all.
Finally, trouble struck as it can in the woods, the unexpected death of one of Jared’s prized Alaskan Malamutes – those huge white-furred wolves of Game of Thrones’ fame – sending him into a state of deep grief, the cause of its illness never discovered and the wheel now wobbling, threatening to break. Jared had loved that dog and in its unspeakable absence nothing else mattered. He stopped sleeping, doubled down on a poorly hidden marijuana habit, joint after joint gripped tight as smoke rose and his numbed distance settled over the farm. Cheryl and I took over essential tasks, and it was as if the spirit of progress had left him, however momentarily – for when it returned it came with vengeance and our hours in the garden grew longer still, sweat and labour to answer the grief of his loss, the cruel worldview that it reinforced.
We started work on a goat house, Jared’s plans for purchase brought forward with a determination none dared question and certainly not me. My initial time commitment had passed and the relentless work and unease was taking its toll so I booked a bus out for the following week – my pending exit no doubt a source of further stress as we bolted pallets together and filled gaps with wire mesh, the rudimentary framework completed under Kurt’s calm eye as Jared prepared to drive south in the truck, chased by his own lack of time.
I’d made plans to visit some nearby friends that weekend, so it wasn’t until Monday morning that I came to learn what had passed. Cheryl hurried out of the house as my ride honked and drove off. “You’re not going to believe what happened,” she said. “Jared and Caitlin are gone – and boy did you miss a dust up!”
Jared had returned with the goats – in an absolute state, Cheryl said – it was two hours each way and he’d underestimated how hot it would get in the tray, was worried about their wellbeing and no doubt felt stupid for having rushed it all, every slow car a source of further stress as he swerved and honked in the baking sun, each setback compounding til the farm arrived and his rage poured out. Cheryl copped it first, then it was the goats’ turn, Jared’s anger reflected and their disobedience hard to manage. “One got out,” Cheryl said, “and well, that was just about it for Jared.” He’d started shouting, abusing Cheryl and Kurt: the quality of his help was insufficient; he couldn’t do it all alone; they were incompetent, “so goddam incompetent!” Cheryl clapped back, told him he couldn’t speak to her that way, reminded him that it was their farm, and he was there on goodwill alone. “I don’t think he liked hearing that,” said Cheryl.
What followed veers into farce, a reality I wouldn’t believe had I not seen its outcome myself. Fences were smashed and fields ruined, the plants pulled up in the greenhouse as Jared entered full freak-out mode, roaring at Cheryl – who had by now retreated into the house – that it was his farm, it’d be nothing without him! She had no right to tell him what to do, he’d built this, all of this, the megalomania matched by violence, popping forehead veins and the axe I found by the field once destined for goats, its head snapped in the fury of Jared’s decay and the wires we’d strung left tangled and heaped on the ground. Eventually the storm subsided; Jared returned to his nest to fume and by the time I pulled in on Monday he and Caitlin were gone, her nine months pregnant and their tiny two-door sedan packed to the brim, back to the road with all that they owned.
“Where do you think they’ll go?” I asked Cheryl, still incredulous at it all – that most American of myths, lived here: burn bridges, move on, start again. “Who knows,” Cheryl said. “He was selling mushrooms to a couple of farms up the coast, maybe he’ll try his luck there…” But there was no joy in the shift, despite its relief. As it turned out, Jared had been on edge for a while, his dominance a source of friction with Kurt and Cheryl long before I arrived, his argumentative ways and big vision, his fears of doomsday and the frustrations he carried. No one was ever good enough, knew enough or could keep up with all he was carrying, the saviour, the apocalypse looming down: all had been building – perhaps even explained Cheryl and Kurt’s distance with me, as if I were a similar, untrustworthy strain. “We’d known he was difficult,” Cheryl said, shaking her head, “and I dunno, I’d warned him before but boy, this really takes the cake!”
My last few days passed in clean up mode, salvaging crops and plantings where I could, picking up the debris Jared had scattered, its range testament to the sustained anger that drove him, the control he sought denied and all the frustration behind it spilling out on a hot day in Maine. Perhaps I misrepresent him here, my memories coloured by what was to come. After all, what feather causes a rope stretched to break? But in Jared’s demise lay the same seed that’s corrupted humans since that first voice was heard and we set out to try and tame the wild. As ecological philosopher Timothy Morton argues, it is this very notion of control that frustrates our efforts for coexistence, in both human and nonhuman spheres. Instead, Morton counsels, we must learn to live with uncertainty, with the uncanny and invasive agency of our huge living world, porous and forever in flux. Not scurrying from one collapse to another, as a child flees the scene, but instead working our way down into the soil, embracing both its generosity and all the accountability that comes from living in place: committed to owning both action and future response. In this, we start to approach a different notion of collapse, not the violent cataclysm both predicted and manifested by Jared’s hot fear, but one that has long been amongst us, present in all the harm our prosperity has cast, the outsourcing upon which modernity has relied and the poverty and displacement its quest for control has wrought. To paraphrase the American author William Gibson, collapse is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed.
For Jared, cast out on the road, his thoughts bubbling with the pressure of assault, I imagine it was simply more of the same, blaming at a distance, no guilt on his part, an escape to leave him unchanged. But as Tony Soprano so wisely notes, “there’s no geographical solution for an emotional problem.” To grow well we must first grow up: put roots down and connect, know our place.
Illustrations: Kyle Boonzaier