Posts Tagged ‘agriculture’

Doomsday Preppers: Mike and Grayson

The episode’s final ‘preppers’ (and we’re using that term lightly here) are Mike Umberger and Grayson Smith of Maryland.

I guess they were hoping to get some publicity for skateboarding?

Mike is apparently a former Navy MP and Grayson is a…former Zen-Buddhist monk? There’s a lot of focus on how the guys seem like ‘polar opposites’, but that’s really just the angle the producers are spinning for drama. Ignore it.
Really, just be glad we’re seeing Young People with Little Money on the show for once, instead of the usual Middle-Aged-Guys With More Money Than Sense.

The show tries to pass them off as ‘slackers’–although that really hasn’t been a valid label since about 1995.
Their supposed fear is of a Third World War, which they describe by getting creative and actually giving specifics!: they predict that “by 2017, the Chinese will have cemented their place as the world’s superpower, and will quickly blockade the US&A”—something to do with too much of our food being imported instead of grown at home? At least it’s a novel idea!

And if you’re worried about blockading Chinese cutting off your foodstuffs, the smart thing to do isn’t to drop a couple grand on one-time-only foodbuckets *coughWiseCompanycough*, but to set yourself up to grow as much of your food as possible. And that’s exactly what these guys are starting to do: one of their fathers owns 100 acres, and so they’ve moved out of the city (which is a good move in itself) and started to farm it in their own way.

Right off the bat, Grayson and Mikelet us know that they’re “not looking to be traditional farmers”. Now, normally when people say they’re into ‘traditional’ things, that’s usually code for ‘old-timey’—which often happen to translate well into self-reliance (think blacksmithing, spinning, basketweaving, butter-churning, &c.
Here, the opposite is meant: when the guys say they don’t want to be traditional farmers, what they’re really saying is that they don’t want to keep Our Culture’s oldest tradition, totalitarian agriculture!
Hmm, what a novel idea! Says the average viewer: “But why would these bright young men not want to associate themselves with the most productive agricultural paradigm ever devised?”
I dunno, maybe because that approach has never been sustainable?, and because its current iteration amounts to little more than throwing petroleum and ‘natural gas’ (which, by the way, is a bullshit greenwashed term anyway—it’s fucking methane!) onto our fields to grow three main monocrops, all resulting in everything from topsoil loss and soil compaction, to eutrophication, loss of fertility, and greatly-reduced biodiversity? All of these translate to fundamental unsustainability. Especially given the fact that global petroleum production has likely already peaked, why we continue to operate under this model is beyond me. Well, it’s not really beyond me—I know exactly why we continue to do it, but the root causes are about eight thousand years old, and most folks these days seem to have trouble comprehending anything past about 50 years ago.

The dudes admit they’re different from most farmers another way: they don’t want to be part of the grid. There they go, using their brains again! Says the average viewer, “But why would they want to remove themselves from the most glorious organization of shelter, heating, cooling, electricity, water, and sanitation, again, ever devised?”
Perhaps because such wonders of the modern age are again, completely reliant on unsustainable nonrenewable resources (coal, petrol, propane, natural gas methane) and painfully indicative of Our culture’s belief in the One Right Way to Live? If you don’t believe me, why else do we build living structures that are identical (and identically connected to the Grid) whether in Arizona or Alaska? When did we exchange regional diversity for cheap two-by-four stickframing, drywall, and vinyl siding? (answer: probably around 1492, when White people showed up on the scene and set about replicating their beloved England/Spain/France, which required extirpating all the indigs and their pesky regional adapted-to-specific-environments lifestyles).

So yeah, Grayson and Mike intend to turn the traditional farm into a self-sufficient one. Exactly!, because sustainable/self-reliant living is real preparedness! Unfortunately, we’re seeing their self-sufficient farm project in its infancy, so they’re still taking baby steps. But hey, baby steps are better than none!:

To start out, we actually get to see them put together a COLDFRAME!
For you non-green-thumb’ed folks, a coldframe is basically a mini-greenhouse—a sun-warmed, glass-topped container that usually translates into about an extra month of growing time before and after the main season. They’re handy as hell.
Better yet, Grayson declares his bias when gathering building materials—“free is better!” WORD. A society that believes everything must be ‘new’ is one destined for failure (oh hey look, here we are!).
I also like the water-filled wine bottles—for thermal mass/solar radiators—that they stick in the ground inside the coldframe. That’s a good trick; I might have to steal that idea and implement it into my coldframe.

And it just keeps getting better, because HOLY SHIT, not only did the narrator actually say PERMACULTURE, but they even got a captioned definition!! This might just be a miracle—one of the most unenlightening shows on what has become a channel of regrettable, sensationalist programming actually gave its average viewers a like, 30-second glimpse of something actually worth learning about! I just wish they’d done it sooner on an earlier episode, because folks watching this might get confused and think that permaculture-in-action looks like gray, unproductive farmland.

It doesn’t.

But that land won’t be unproductive for long, because it just keeps getting even better, when they wheel out the CHICKEN TRACTOR!!! Grayson explains the genius of these moveable coops, which allow the birds to eat bugs (pest control/less feed to buy), scratch up (aerate) soil, and defecate (fertilize!) everywhere! If you move the tractor every day, pretty soon you wind up with light, fertile, bug-free soil, which is exactly what you want if you’re looking to grow all your own food.

Unfortunately, the producers apparently weren’t content with educating average visitors with three fantastic items of self-reliant living, and felt the need to remind us that we’re watching Doomsday Preppers. And so, for the mandatory producer-enforced stunt, the guys head into the woods to set up spikey booby traps to catch watermelons!

Yeah. It’s especially sad when you think about what they could have filled that time with—maybe the guys could have shown off their properly-carbon/nitrogen-balanced compost pile, or waterless humanure setup, or root cellar—who knows??

Being new transplants (gardening pun?) to the area, the guys throw a barn party, to meet their neighbors (building community is a huge part of offgrid living that we rarely hear about) and I guess maybe recruit folks, because let’s fact it—with 100 acres, these guys have all the ingredients for a kickass intentional community. There’s a Jack White-looking guy in a fur coat and derby hat at the gig, so I guess the producers told attendees to dress as outlandishly as possible?, because hey, let’s make sure nobody takes millennials seriously.

The experts give them just 51 points for five months’ initial survival. Ugh, experts: first off, these dudes aren’t even real ‘preppers’;
therefore, the form their ‘preparedness’ takes results from their operating on a completely different paradigm from the one the scoring system is designed to evaluate;
And finally: everyone has to start somewhere. If NatGeo sends a film crew back to their homestead in two or three years, I bet we’ll see some serious off-grid organic horticultural goodness. Best of luck, dudes!


Doomsday Preppers: Lindsay & Ray

Our next episode, ‘Prepper’s Paradise’, begins with some excellent footage of amber waves of monoculture grain. This is appropriate, as the first profile looks at Lindsay and her husband Ray, of Boise, Idaho.
© NatGeo/Sharp EntertainmentThese ‘urban homesteaders’ run the North End Organic Nursery, ‘Idaho’s only all-organic nursery and garden center’. Lindsay also has a local radio show (called ‘Talk Dirt to Me’, haha!) that deals with organic gardening, self-reliance, sustainability and all that goes along with it.

With all this talk about food, it’s only natural that their concern is for a “collapse of the world’s agricultural system”, which is a fairly reasonable fear; one only needs to take a big-picture view to see the tenuousness of our present situation. Of course, speaking of a ‘collapse’ implies a certain abruptness which I don’t think is very likely. Personally, I’d articulate it as a ‘degradation of our culture’s system of totalitarian agriculture’, but that’s just me.

As Lindsay explains, “back in the day, everybody was prepared, because they weren’t so reliant on other people to make sure their lives worked.” She goes on to say that the vast majority of folks today are “severely detached from their food supply” (in other words, they have no connection to how or where their food is grown); this means that our largely-urban population is left to rely on a tiny number of farms to keep them alive. And those farms—though tiny in number—are quite large in size, because the crops they are growing are massive tracts of vulnerable monoculture grains—mostly maize, soya, and wheat—with the backing of multinationals like Monsanto, Syngenta, &c. Like the rest of our culture, these industrial farms operate under a paradigm which places human lives above all others, and views farmland as useful only for producing food for people, or none at all; any non-human lifeforms (or any that do not directly benefit humans) who occupy the land are viewed as vermin and generally systematically exterminated.
Factor in the just-in-time nature of our food-distribution system (witness the oft-repeated mantra of “three days of food on the supermarket shelf”), the fact that—as our helpful caption reminds us—food often travels 1,000 miles or more to reach the supermarket, and the fact that 2012 was declared the hottest year on record in the contiguous United States, and it’s easy to see how the degradation (via loss of productivity, interruption of distribution, &c.) of this system would leave a lot of people hungry. That’s not to mention the economic side of things, in which rising ‘unemployment’ would leave people with no green paper to exchange for supermarket groceries in the first place.
As I’ve said before, our culture’s civilizational experiment has formed itself into any number of shatterpoints, and should any of them break down, the consequences would be wide-reaching: nothing happens in a vacuum.

To combat this uncertainty, Lindsay and Ray have stored four years’ worth of food, which—compared to some on this show—isn’t too impressive. However, they’ve taken food security to the next level, by making it (and education about related issues) the focus of everything they do (or pretty close to it). In addition to running an organic nursery, they have an incredible garden; although they never say it outright, their backyard is totally what the permaculture folks call an ‘edible forest’, or at least, it definitely has the makings of one. In addition, they build and sell the most solid-looking rocket stoves I think I’ve ever seen. There’s a shot or two of Ray welding one together, but the footage of him showing it off wound up on the cutting room floor (as the best material seems to do, in favor of more ‘dramatic’ scenes). Blerg.

Speaking of Ray (who kind of scares me, former Marine that he is), what’s his motivating fear in all of this?
All together now!: “rioting and looting!” Maybe if our system wasn’t designed to rob people of their self-reliance (in exchange for reliance on the fragile system), an interruption of the industrial food system wouldn’t have such dramatic consequences? So to deal with this possibility, they have built a nice little bug-out location up in the mountains of Idaho. This includes at least one cordwood cabin, as well as a greenhouse and huge root cellar (which, sadly, we also don’t get to see).

They’re always looking for new folks to join their bug-out team, so Ray and the group interviews two new candidates. It seems these potentials are active-duty in the military, which somehow means we can’t see their faces or hear their real voices. So, to test their mettle, they do a mock bug-out to the rural retreat with the new guys. This involves loading up the trailer (which apparently has solar panels to run all their radios and power tools, but we don’t get to see any of that) with everything they would possibly need, which doesn’t seem much like a bug-out to me. As I’ve said before, if you have to load up, it’s not a bug-out. Bugging-out is when you believe the time has come to go, and so you grab your bag and high-tail it outta there, either on foot or with your vehicle of choice. While they’re loading up the trailer, Ray says that he “[doesn’t] want anybody to see this.” So, do it ahead of time? I’d have no problem calling it a bug-out if your trailer is already packed, ready to go in the driveway, and all you have to do is hop in and drive off.
So their convoy reaches the gravel road that leads to their bug-out location, at which point Ray sends the two recruits on ahead to scout it out (he’s prepared a surprise for them, but of course they don’t know it). This ‘surprise’ turns out to be just a guy standing around inside the cabin. They shout some army stuff, he gets down on the ground, and they zip-tie his hands. Not terribly exciting; dude didn’t even have a weapon drawn or anything. After their stellar performance in the whole scenario, the group welcomes their two new members.
I also want to mention that throughout most of the segment, Ray and his team members (but never Lindsay) are all dressed like the Seven Trumpeters from last week’s show—clad in an assortment of coyote-brown ‘tactical’ Velcro contraptions and woodland digital camouflage, with tricked-out black guns – in other words, doing their best to look like modern imperial soldiers. It just seems like a weird juxtaposition to me, considering their public front is an organic gardening center.

After the ‘expert’ assessment, Lindsay and Ray get 78 points (I understand it was originally 84 points, which would be the highest score yet), for fifteen months’ survival time.
In the end, let’s close with Lindsay’s final words which give a good summation of the state of The Mess. As she calmly and rationally explains, “People are under the illusion that we have so much food all around us, and that we live in this wonderful modern age, and all I can say is that you’re wrong. There is so much fragility in our system, and it can collapse at any time. These things are just time-bombs waiting to happen, and they will happen.” WORD.

Doomsday Preppers: Lucas Camerons & Kevin O’Brien

The season continues with the episode ‘In the Hurt Locker’ (a title which actually comes from a line in the episode about having no money). We start off in the Bible Belt with a look at Lucas Cameron and his group of ‘Seven Trumpet Preppers’. As our narrator tells us, Lucas, his wife, son, and parents are all “God-Fearing Christians”.
7Trumpet PreppersA few weeks ago I was explaining Doomsday Preppers to a friend, and he asked me what kind of ‘doomsday’ the folks were prepared for.
“Oh, you know,” I said, “pretty much everyone says financial collapse, with the odd earthquake or volcano thrown in.”
“What?!” he stammered, “Those aren’t doomsdays! An asteroid is doomsday!” His point being, there’s a difference between something being the end of your world, and the End of The World.
Well, on this episode, we have the first group preparing for that latter category, stemming from their particular book of faith: Lucas and the rest of the Seven Trumpets fear a “global earthquake described in Revelation”. They somehow think this will relate to the big, bad wolf of the Eastern US, the New Madrid Seismic Zone. Which…isn’t global…but whatever. Maybe they think that’ll be the first Trumpet, and the rest will follow.

Once again, like everyone else, their real fear is that in the days after a quake, “people will turn to lawlessness”. Well, probably, but let’s first recognize that—just as there is no one right way to live—there are more ways of keeping order in a society than relying on arbitrary “Don’t do _x_!” laws decided on by elite old men, which are fully expected to be broken. Given a big enough disaster, a long enough timeline, and the absence of a dominating militarized government, it’s conceivable that we might actually see a return of an organically-evolved system of tribal law. Of course, we’re dealing with a guy who wears a miniature set of Ten Commandments (the world’s most famous set of anti-tribal laws) around his neck, so I don’t really expect them to understand.

Anyway, to deal with the likelihood of lawless, hungry folks hemorrhaging from cities, the Cameron clan has spent a comparatively-meager $50,000 fortifying their farm and home; like Tom Perez, they call their fortress home The Alamo.
And to help with the defense and upkeep of the place, Lucas has recruited prepper friends with a very telling variety of skillsets. These include a soldier/‘private military contractor’-type, a guy who works night shift security, and Lucas’s father, a lifelong farmer of row crops and beef cattle. Additionally, Lucas and his buddy Spence work together to fabricate machines including a wind turbine and another one of those ‘wood gassifiers’ things (I have yet to really understand how they work) they use to power a generator. And what is this wood-burning fuel-maker made from? An old oil drum and some jumbo ammo cans! Well, that gets a thumbs-up for DIY solutions! However, when it comes to farming, I have to raise this point: like Lucas’s pa, my dad and uncle have been growing maize, soya, and beef cattle for decades. But do I think they could do it without modern synthetic fertilizers and antibiotics and inoculants? No way! If you want to be really able to survive an uncertain future, make friends with someone who has a big, productive organic garden. Y’know, a horticulturalist, instead of a totalitarian agriculturalist.
So to recap, the way the Trumpets see it, one’s essential concerns should be defense (warfare), herding, and maintaining power. For those who say our culture has continued to evolve, let me point out that those three essentials are calling cards of the patriarchal, warlike, sky-god-worshipping Indo-Europeans who rode into history to dominate Europe about the time I’m guessing the Seven Trumpets believe the Earth was created.

Anyway, where were we? Food? Speaking of food, about the only time we see the ladies is when they’re showing off a bit of their massive food stockpile, including a lot of rice in two-liter soda bottles. For dry goods, I think those are hard to beat: bugs can’t get in (I guess mice might be able to chew through), they don’t shatter when dropped, and they stack up pretty neat; win-win-win. Apparently, they also have multiple food caches spread around the farm, which is always a good idea—Nature doesn’t put all her eggs in one basket, and we shouldn’t either.
We also hear that the family has a fair amount of food on-the-hoof: five goats, a score of chickens, and two-score cattle. That’s not bad, but again, can they keep them fed through a winter without relying on maize? And furthermore, would they really want to?—remember that ruminants like cattle evolved as grazers, not grain-eaters; grass-fed beef is way better.

Like most long-term thinking folks, the Seven Trumpets plan on reloading a lot of ammo when things head south. We get to see grandpa (who owns a firearms business) and Lucas teach his son how to reload shotshells, which they use as an opportunity to quiz him on his gun-ethics.
“What are guns for?” “Killing people trying to kill you.”
“That’s right,” says grandpa. “Guns are just weapons, like a carpenter’s saw.” Wait, what?

Always interested in swelling the ranks of the ’Trumpets, Lucas has been in contact with a new arrival to the area, who just happens to be a familiar face from season one…Kevin O’Brien! This means we get to see an update on his ultimate prepper homestead, right? Unfortunately, no. While the O’Briens bought 130 acres of lovely countryside, they still have no home, so they rent a house nearby and take frequent camping trips to get familiarized with the land. There’s a bit where the kids make it abundantly clear they have no intention of ever living without indoor plumbing, haha.
So, to try out for the ’Trumpets, the O’Briens head over to the Cameron compound and do some target shooting with that crew. They seem pretty pleased with his performance, but have a more rigorous test in mind for him, one for which they’ve called in the big guns, literally. Because who shows up next but the ‘experts’ themselves, Practical Preppers! Hot damn, this is turning out to be an all-star episode!
Kobler and Hunt roll up with black guns, night-vision, and more tactical crap than I’ve ever seen before, to play to role of ‘raiders’ that O’Brien and the Seven Trumpets will hopefully detect and defend against. Which begs the question—exactly what kind of raiders do these guys expect to deal with? Are they planning on facing hungry hordes of unprepared city-folk, or the local band of Navy SEALs?  Seriously; boys and their toys, *eyeroll*.

Luckily (unlike some of the other invasion drills we’ve seen), at least these guys’ guns are loaded with blanks (Kevin is armed with a spotlight in hopes of blinding the night-vision). Anyway, the experts manage to sneak up right under the others’ noses, and during the shooting, Lucas’s AR jams! Haha! I think I’ll stick with my EastBloc dunk-‘em-in-mud rifles, thank you very much. Despite all this, I guess everybody considers it a successful learning experience, and Lucas offers to bring Kevin into his group.

In the experts’ assessment,
O’Brien gets 62 points—keeping chickens (his daughter names her chick Nugget. Right-on, that’s the way to do it!) gets him extra kudos for food resupply—for 9 months’ survival.
Lucas—who the experts say needs to buy some two-way radios—gets 74 points for 14 months.

In their update, the O’Briens have moved to a new location with a stocked fish pond, wood-burning stove, a bigger chicken coop, and lots of stonework, which looks really good in the woods. Thumbs-up for architectural camouflage. Meanwhile, Lucas reports that they’ve taken the experts advice and bought walkie-talkies, as well as installed a hand pump for their well. Yay for the best kind of sustainable energy, people power!

Doomsday Preppers: Franco & Allen

And now for something completely different, it’s a double-header prep-off!
This segment looks at a pair of prepper buddies in southwest Missouri, Franco and Allen:franco-allenThese guys have similar professions (Franco is an electrician; Allen an electrical engineer), but their prepping style is really unique.
Allen, like most of the folks this season, is worried about an economic decline of the US economy. Franco fears backlash against GMOs, resulting in rising food costs, shortages, and “corruption of food supply through big business.Ever hear of Monsanto?

Franco wisely predicts that “people will riot with food shortages in this country”. Which is funny, because there’s plenty of it out there—I’d say about 80% of the food I eat is liberated from urban trash receptacles—recent studies I’ve read estimate 25 to 50% of all food grown in this country gets thrown out!

Each of these guys has an acre-and-a-half of property, and they’re not content stockpiling freeze-dried and dehydrated astronaut food—they’ve each put together an impressive greenhouse/aquaponics setup, raising tilapia, duckweed algae, &c. The big downside I can see is their reliance on electricity to run their pumps and such, but I’d guess handy guys like these could easily rig up some solar cells to power it.
Dunno if such a thing would be possible, but what I’d really like to see would be an electricity-free aqua system (gravity-fed?), floating plots of filter plants and such.

The guys have a good-natured competition to see who has the best setup; they supplement their fish-and-algae protein with Allen’s fly larvae versus Franco’s red wriggler worms (he eats one, to his daughter’s disgust).

Allen’s daughter (in a candy-apple-red convertible) doesn’t seem to get the point of dad’s preparations—exhibiting an exemplary civilized, domesticated attitude when she declares that “unless he’s making money at it, it’s kind of pointless” (I’m sure she’ll be the first one to knock on dad’s door when something bad happens).

The experts give Franco 49 points (for four months’ survival), and Allen 77 (15 months). Seems kind of lopsided, and maybe skewed: Franco’s mechanical skills only get him 7 points, but Allen’s barter-able fish net him 17 points? I dunno, I think the guys have a good thing going between them, now they just need to recruit some of their neighbors to get a network going.

Doomsday Preppers: John Adrian

Our next episode, “Taking from the Haves”, opens with a look at John Adrian, inventor of the BedBunker, from the Pacific Northwest.
johnadrianhouseRight off the bat, our helpful narrator informs us that “many preppers are most concerned about one specific kind of cataclysmic event.” To which I’d have to respond, those people are idiots. Putting all of one’s eggs in one basket is a good way to set yourself up for failure—something our current totalitarian model of agriculture doesn’t seem to realize, with its vast amber waves of monoculture grain just asking for a blight to come along and wipe it all out.
Mr. Adrian wisely says he’s ‘preparing for the unexpected’. That’s a pretty safe catch-all. However, the truth eventually comes out that he’s most feared of a panicked populace. So, no different from most on this show?

John apparently doesn’t understand the concept of ‘bugging out’—if all your stuff is here, why would you want to leave?—and so he “turns his home into a technological fortress from which he can keep rampaging survivors at bay.” This setup includes: fancy military-checkpoint-style gate (pricetag: $20,000); array of twelve security cameras spread around the house; front door with facial-recognition software; wall-mounted, motion-sensitive pepperspraying anti-burglar device; central computer from which he can control all these systems.
Well, that approach raises a couple of red flags for me. First, his whole setup is dependent on electrical gizmos plugged into the grid; I think a power-outage falls neatly into the category of “the unexpected”, in which case what’s his plan if that grid goes down? Second, he appears to be all alone up on his fortress bluff. Defending that place should the power go out would be a helluva lot easier with a buddy or two to help. That said, the property has some good things going for it, on top of a cliff and surrounded by forest (personally I’d cut down some of the trees closest to the house to give intruders less places to hide).
John wants to be able to stop intruders should they breach his gate, so he takes a weapons expert to the range to shoot watermelons and car doors with a 50-caliber Beowulf. It’s no challenge.

Eventually, John’s main security guy gets his helpers to run a home invasion drill to check John’s preparedness. This amounts to ‘shooting’ the first guy, while the second triggers the fog-of-pepperspray device and runs into the woods, pursued by John’s German shepherd. With these obstacles out of the way, what does he do? Hop in his SUV and drive away! I thought he was all about staying put and defending his home?

The experts tell him to think about renewable food sources (smart), and remind him that he can’t expect to protect the pace all by himself. Exactly! He gets 80 points—a new high—which works out to 16 months survival time.

On Max Brooks, as promised

Like most of the media I’ve loved and internalized, the oeuvre of Max Brooks can be as shallow or as deep as you want to make it.  It speaks volumes to his skill as a writer that I’m able to ask, Is the message of World War Z ultimately conservative? Environmentalist? Nihilistic? None (or all?) of these? Who’s to say?—it’s up to the reader’s own unique attitudes and interpretation to decide.

Unlike a lot of the other post-apocalyptic media being produced these days *coughAMCWalkingDead*, Brooks actually addresses healthy long-term survival approaches for when the SHTF in his works, and I’m very glad that he continues to comically preach his message of zombie PREparedness at universities around the country.
Of course, everybody always just focuses on the ‘what to use to kill zombies’ chapters—and then becomes disappointed when he explains how M-16s, AKs, and rocket-propelled chainsaws aren’t ideal.  Want to have some fun? Hand the ZSG to a twelve-year old boy and see if he picks up on the multipurpose survival knowledge that could see him through hurricanes, earthquakes, or civil unrest.  He won’t, because it’s The Zombie Survival Guide.

But look beneath the surface, and it seems that Brooks’ overall blueprint in both the ZSG and WWZ is to form self-sufficient and sustainable communities out of the wreckage of the old world. Or maybe that’s just how I read it; maybe I’m seeing what I want to see.  Like I said, it’s up to the reader.

Unlike the victims who populate most other zombie media, Brooks suggests a proactive approach to survival, which essentially boils down to the old adage ‘Leave early, go far, stay long’.  He recommends putting together a team not—like everyone else seems to want to—of supercommandos, but of prepared, well-trained individuals with skillsets suited to self-sufficiency—doctors, blacksmiths, farmers—well ahead of time, and taking this team to a remote, predetermined destination far from civilization at the first sign of trouble.

One thing I especially love about WWZ is how timely it is, incorporating “modern fears of terrorism, biological warfare, overwhelming natural catastrophes, climate change and global disease.” As Brooks has explained in various interviews,

“I think the zombie craze is very tied to the times we’re living in. The last time we had a zombie craze was the 1970s, and that was a time of anxiety, a time when people really felt like the System was breaking down politically, economically, socially, even environmentally; there really was this feeling that “it’s not working anymore”, and people were really scared, and they wanted to explore their apocalyptic fears but they didn’t want it to be too real. …. I think we’re living in very uncertain times right now…there’s such anxiety, and we keep getting slammed. And so much of the problem seem so big, and we feel so powerless.  Who knows what a credit default swap is? I don’t!”

Although published in 2006, Brooks foresaw our Great Recession, the election of our first African-American president, and private space companies like SpaceX. In addition, he peppers the novel with wonderful satirical critiques (he is the son of Mel Brooks, after all) of modern society. Our celebrity-obsessed ‘reality’ TV culture, the corruption of Big Pharma, and the hubris of the Three Gorges Dam all get raked over the coals.  By poking fun at lots of Big Ideas (like the fact that whitecollar Americans can’t do anything for themselves anymore, or that our militaries are always fighting the previous war, or that our globalized, import-based economy has neutered the US&A), he effectively exposes the precipice upon which our modern world stands.

Of course, just because Brooks’ world is nearly overrun with the walking dead doesn’t mean that everything becomes primitive; Brooks still sprinkles high technology into his postwar world.  The depleted oceans are crossed on futuristic ‘infinity ships’ powered by solar cells and saltwater (or some such phlebtonium), modern dirigibles dot the skies, and civilian spacecraft taxi astronauts to the International Space Station.

However, what really speaks to me in Brooks’ writings is how DIY and decidedly un-hi-tech his recipe to defeat the undead is: go back to basics (“Everything had a kind of retro feel to it”). Tactics? Straight outta the nineteenth century: marching in two ranks, or ‘reinforced squares’. Weapons? Nothing tacticool, just a semi-auto rifle with a wooden stock “like a WWII gun”, and a glorified head-cracking shovel.
Simple, Efficient, and with a healthy worldview behind it, Sustainable.

On Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’

Happy Midsummer, everyone! Because my current gig leaves me cut off from the outside world for weeks at a time, I wasn’t able to get this posted up on the Solstice exactly, but it’s close enough. As one of the major points of the circular solar year, high summer is one of those times that’s good for sacrifices and ensuring balance in nature. And so, here’s some analysis on one of my favorite short stories.

(A full-text copy of the story can be found on the Reading Materials page. I highly recommend you read it before continuing.)

For starters, from the first time I read it I’ve always thought that The Lottery was set in Britain, not America—the term ‘village’ is rarely used on this side of the Atlantic to denote a small town—as I find it hard to believe that Americans would have maintained a sacrificial ritual for time out of mind (which is not to say that the sacrifice’s purpose isn’t filled by something like say, our wars) without an existing cultural precedent. On the other hand, Brits (and plenty of other civilized Old World groups) have been stoning, hacking, garroting, burning, and drowning people as sacrifices for time out of mind, or at least about as long as they’ve been growing food, it would seem.
So, it was a nice bit of serendipity that I first came upon Ms. Jackson’s short story right around the time Old Croghan Man and Clonycavan Man (a particularly well-preserved pair of Irish bog bodies) were discovered, and while I was starting to read Frazier’s The Golden Bough. So when my lit teacher asked, ‘what’s it all about?’, I already had Sacred Kings on the brain and could pretty easily explain agricultural-fertility ritual sacrifices. (The Lottery is not—as the teacher I was subbing for (when I started writing this back in May) had apparently taught her classes—about population control. Which is funny, because it almost could be: as a civilized agricultural society, food surplus is bound to happen, and with that comes increased population growth; more food, more people, more people, more food, rinse, repeat. It’s simple ecology, folks).

Anyway, in preparing to teaching this class, I found this question on a ‘Lottery’ study guide:
“This story satirizes a number of social issues, including the reluctance of people to reject outdated traditions, ideas, rules, laws, and practices. What kinds of traditions, practices, laws, etc. might ‘the lottery’ represent?”

Answer: at its core, the lottery represents nothing less than our culture’s most destructive, long-standing, and unquestioned practice—our civilizational experiment fueled by totalitarian agriculture, and everything that comes along with it. Yes, it might also be applicable to more recent or smaller-scale issues facing society, but look big-picture, folks; don’t expect things to change if you can’t find the bars of your cage.

In the course of the story, one character in particular spoke to me, leaping off the page and spewing ignorant bitterness and hatred for people who live differently. Here’s a good point to recommend the 1969 short adaptation of the story (featuring the film debut of a very young Ed Begley, Jr.!), because their Old Man Warner really brings the character to life. His sharp, crooked teeth and hollow black eyes combined with the extreme close-up framing his face brings something animal-like to his performance:

Pack of crazy fools,” he said. “Listening to the young folks, nothing’s good enough for them. Next thing you know, they’ll be wanting to go back to living in caves, nobody work anymore, live that way for a while. Used to be a saying about ‘Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.’ First thing you know, we’d all be eating stewed chickweed and acorns. There’s always been a lottery,” he added petulantly.

“Some places have already quit lotteries.” Mrs. Adams said.
“Nothing but trouble in that,” Old Man Warner said stoutly. “Pack of young fools.””

In the story, the character of Old Man Warner represents the unbroken and unexamined tradition of the lottery, and with it civilization and the ideas held by 99.9% of the population, victims of what Daniel Quinn calls ‘the Great Forgetting’.

Knowing the lottery’s purpose (an agricultural-fertility ritual sacrifice), Old Man Warner assumes that to abandon it would be to automatically return to an uncivilized state.
Furthermore, he somehow intuits that the uncivilized way of life is connected to ‘work’, or rather a lack thereof. In my experience, there seem to be two conflicting views of uncivilized life promoted by pro-civilized folks: that it is either nasty, brutish, and short, in a state of continual worry about where the food’s going to come from, or that it is the complete opposite, and that everybody just lounges around eating jerky all day. Neither is completely correct, however.

Regarding Warner’s quip about chickweed and acorns: these undomesticated foods are simply gatherable edible gifts from Mother Earth not requiring a sacrifice—unlike the civilized foods produced by man’s sweat and toil—and are therefore considered inferior by the biased Warner to the corn of the lottery. And are we surprised? Since the earliest Neolithic rumblings (only much later recorded in Genesis), agriculturalists in Our Culture have been told  that they must work, by the sweat of their brows, for their food; to get things for free—or at the very least, for minimal work—is the way of ‘lazy’ Injuns and other uncivilized folk. And even though the majority of people in our culture no longer directly work the land for their food, this notion is no less true.

To quit the lottery, as Mrs. Adams suggests, is to symbolically quit civilization—which is apparently an idea for young people, like the failed revolutionaries of the 1960s, or the OWS crowd. The big question then becomes—can you quit the lottery without going back to eating acorns?

Old Man Warner’s last lines “It’s not the way it used to be. … People ain’t the way they used to be.” further suggest that his fear of change runs to his very core. In him we see the bluepills who are—in the words of Morpheus—so inert, so hopelessly dependent that they will fight to the death to defend the only way of life they have ever known, because their culture has raised them to think, to believe, to know, that theirs—theirs and no other—is the only right way to live.

Aside from the bitterness of Old Man Warner, one other particular passage piqued my interest:
…at one time, some people remembered, there had been a recital of some sort, performed by the official of the lottery, a perfunctory. tuneless chant that had been rattled off duly each year; some people believed that the official of the lottery used to stand just so when he said or sang it, others believed that he was supposed to walk among the people, but years and years ago this part of the ritual had been allowed to lapse.”

In other words, Jackson has just described the idea of ‘priest’ in its most stripped-down form, presiding as intermediary between this world and the other. As the ritual has been forgotten over the years, the position has become secularized. As I re-read this passage, it occurred to me that having a priest officiating over the Lottery is the only difference between a murder and sacrifice.

According to an interview, Jackson’s original intent in writing the story was simply to set a violent ancient rite in the modern present to “shock the story’s readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives.”
Pointless violence and general inhumanity? Sounds like a spot-on description of the modern, fast-food, disconnected-from-the-Wild-and-each-other, self-medicated-with-technology-and-mindless-violent-entertainment way of life to me.

Finally, it’s interesting to consider the fact Jackson wrote the story in 1948, on the heels of the most senselessly and incomprehensibly destructive period of civilized warfare in human history, and right at the beginning of the period that would see our civilizational experiment (and all of its side-effects) get turned up to 11.