Posts Tagged ‘nature’

Midsummer Foraging Fun with Garlic Mustard!

[Editor’s note: I originally wrote (and promptly forgot about) this back in June. Ah well, better late than never!]

If you’re not involved in invasive species control, you might not be very familiar with garlic mustard. Which is too bad, because everybody should know about it—this European plant is a major problem in North America these days. Luckily, unlike a lot of the nastier (usually Asian) imports, this one is at least good for something!
In fact, g.m. is one of the oldest known cooking spices—its use dates back all the way to the Old European Neolithic!

Since we’ve just passed the summer solstice, now is the perfect time to get out in the woods and kill two birds with one stone—help rehabilitate our local environment, as well as harvest a tasty seasoning! Earlier in the spring, g.m. can be gathered fresh and the leaves used to flavor dishes, but by now most of the plant has died back, leaving the seed pods for easy identification.

I took a quick barefoot woods-walk this afternoon, and in about twenty minutes managed to gather a good bundle of dried stalks:
Garlic mustard plants (June)
Because the delicate dried pods (or “siliques” for all you botanists out there) that contain the seeds will break open if you look at them the wrong way—and since we’d also like to prevent the spread of g.m.—it’s best to take extreme care while you pull the plant up by the roots to keep the seeds from shooting everywhere.
Garlic mustard pods
Once you have your bundle of plants, you can ‘shuck’ or strip the pods off the stalks; from here, it’s a simple matter of agitating the pods to release the seeds (I ground them around in this stone mortar before rolling bundles between my hands, and then winnowed away the chaff:Garlic mustard chaff
Garlic mustard seeds Now that I’m left with an ounce or so of pure seeds, I’m going to experiment and keep some plain and roast some others (to facilitate easier grinding), and then do some living history and season some venison with it. The seeds by themselves smell deliciously savory, with a hint of horseradish!

Advertisements

Doomsday Preppers: ‘Dr. Dave’

This not-terrible episode wraps up with a look at Dr. Dave Jensen of Colorado, who has supposed fears of an EMP.
© NatGeo/Sharp Entertainment
‘Dr. Dave’ (as the show insists on calling him) is a big proponent of holistic medicine, which really is only logical for a survival-minded person, because as he explains, our modern (read: unsustainable, Petrol Age) approach to dealing with sickness is “based on technology and prescription drugs”.
And so, the good doctor runs a clinic founded on ‘natural and alternative healthcare’ practices…or as it was known in the pre-petrol world, healthcare. Think acupuncture, herbal remedies, ‘traditional Chinese medicine’ and—because this is Colorado!—prescription cannabis.

Of those, the only one I have a problem with is the Chinese junk, mostly because of its obsession with body parts of critically-endangered animal species, but also because I think it’s a whole lotta placebo-effect bullshit. For example, if I was feeling crummy and someone reputable gave me an exotic-sounding tea made from fire-berries that are only found in the mountains of the Sun (or albino rhinoceros pancreas, or something), then I’d think it must be really special stuff!, and I’ll probably start to feel better.
Seriously, when one or two hundred species a day are going extinct, there’s really no good reason why this junk medicine should still be perpetuated—well, except for the one billion Chinamen claiming “it’s tradition!” Yeah, so is patriarchy; doesn’t make it worthwhile.

Because there’s not really too much else to discuss in this segment, here are some thoughts on medicine in a post-collapse/disaster world.
Let’s say hypothetically—even though I don’t believe in isolated scenarios, they make for good thought-experiments—some out-of-the-blue, Hollywood-style disaster (planetwide solar flare or something) goes down offscreen, knocking the civilized world down the ladder of technological progress a few rungs. With electronics now shiny doorstops, things are looking very similar to the early 19th century (instead of consuming Apple products, people are consuming actual apples again!)
Now, assuming that 1) pre-disaster, a sufficient number of people were well-versed in pre-modern medicine (I’m thinking plants with proven medicinal qualities—pennyroyal and willow, likesay, not Chinese powdered lily stamens or whatever), and 2) people remember how to pass on information without electronic intermediaries, what’s to say a happy balance couldn’t be struck between the advances of our current model and the healthcare approach of the recent past?
You know, when something is broken, it is acceptable to pick out and save the things that work and dispose of the rest. What’s worth saving in modern medicine? Antibiotics and sterile theory. What was good about medicine a few hundred years ago? How to heal folks with what Nature provides, without reliance on petroleum or complex technology.
Think of that wistful “I wish I knew then what I know now” sentiment, but applied to medicine.
Penicillin is easy to culture. At the minimum, how difficult is it to throw your medical instruments into boiling water? Ethanol is ridiculously easy to make. Honey is antibacterial…
Meh, as usual, I’m sick of the prevailing, Progress-based belief that if the Grid goes down, folks will immediately revert to trepanning each other with stone tools (which, of course, would require a functioning means of passing on information about both lithic industries and brain surgery!).
But, I digress.

This segment following Dr. Dave really felt more like the pre-Season Three iterations of DP, because there isn’t really a Big Dramatic Build-Project with him. He already has a greenhouse (thumbs-up!), a ’69 Airstream trailer (extra points for retro style!), and a pre-’78 truck and motorbike (no computers=EMP-proof, in theory).
We do see him add a solar panel to the top of his Airstream, to power his growlights and hydroponics setup.

And just for fun—because he’s all about pre-modern medicine—he takes the nuclear family foraging for leeches! Not to nitpick, Mr. Narrator, but is it foraging if the leeches aren’t going to be eaten? Whatever; semantics aside, you can’t go wrong with Mother Nature’s all-natural bloodsuckers. They’re certainly better than going all medieval and just sticking somebody with a sharp piece of iron to bleed them.
And old-time style points if you keep them in one of these jars:

The experts tell Dave he’s done a good job and his trailer project is commendable. Dave accepts graciously and says he’s happy with their assessment, because “it boils down to being sustainable”. Damn right, doc. Are you taking notes, would-be capital-p Preppers?

Doomsday Preppers: Curt S.

This episode only spends time on one other person, ‘Curt S.’ of Somewhere in Oregon.

His artificial, single motivating fear is yet another ‘economic collapse’. While we’re just one episode in, I have a feeling that lone issue will continue to dominate the fears of those profiled on the show, just as it did last season (in which fully 50% described their fear of ‘economic collapse’, while none ever suggested that they understood why such a collapse is historically inevitable. It’s simple sustainability, folks).

In his mandatory talk-to-the-camera soundbite, Curt explains how “Government has been infiltrated by corporations, banks, financial institutions, labor unions, and special interests.” Alright now, ♪one of these things is not like the other ones!♪  Can you spot it? If you picked Labor Unions, you’re right! I’m not sure where this guy stands on the US&A two-party-political spectrum (I’m guessing it’s somewhere in the vicinity of Tea Party), but what’s wrong with labor unions? I pick up that they’ve got a reputation for taking mandatory breaks (“laziness”), but when the alternative is to treat workers like expendable cogs—as our prevailing production economy is designed to do—unions are about the only ones doing the right thing and treating workers like actual humans (or at least giving them the best possible treatment, given the work-or-starve coercion inherent in a civilized production economy).
There’s also a timely bit where he describes how there will be “very little commerce happening in America when the debt is due and the government shuts down!” Haha, how about that?! Of course, our most recent partial shutdown ended by kicking the debt-can down the road another six months, so we’ll likely have to go through the whole compounding Mess all over again soon enough. Also, he’s clearly operating under a civilized, limited concept of ‘commerce’. Believe me, folks on this continent were shipping useful stuff all over the place sans central government long before Whitey showed up.

Anyway, Curt’s family live on 80 acres of high desert, which it seems they’re eventually working towards making more self-sufficient and off-grid. Towards this goal, they’ve “built” a two-million-gallon lake (water supply), hooked up a 2400-watt pv solar array, and set up a 3,000-square-foot greenhouse (or at least, they’ve erected the framework). And then Curt proudly proclaims that he has thirty bug-out vehicles. Wait, what? I really hope he’s a mechanic or something. I can understand the need for redundancy, but seriously: a man, woman, and two children do not necessitate having that many vehicles. Do they even have the precious Juice to run them all? I doubt it.

And to defend the compound, he boasts of owning 30 firearms and 20,000 rounds of ammunition. Dude, it’s too late, but next time you have the opportunity to broadcast the details of your arsenal to the whole world, take a deep breath…and then, don’t.

He takes the kids out back and they all do some offhand plinking. While there’s some initial anxiety (inherent in getting a nine-year-old girl to shoot a large-caliber rifle (SKS love!)), at least he doesn’t frame it all obnoxious and tactical, and drill the idea that they’re ‘gonna hafta shoot marauders one day’ into the poor girl’s head—it’s simply good skill practice in the backyard.

Curt is apparently very proud of his family compound’s isolation out in the sticks—he considers “not being near anybody one of your greatest defenses”—yeah, if you’re a deluded lone-wolf. If you were part of a community of self-reliant-but-connected (y’know, in the interest of ‘commerce’) families, that isolation would be a major weakness.

There’s a section where he gets a welding buddy to help him make a steel shield to block off the stairs inside their house. Note to producers: you lost an opportunity for more ratings—you could’ve shot at it first! And while we’re not sure how they plan to implement said shield (complete with peepholes and shotgun port), Curt spells out the reasoning behind it loud and clear—to keep people from “getting into my home and taking my Stuff!

Naturally, since we live in a Juice-guzzling, automobile-fetishizing culture and this show loves to pander to the lowest common denominator, a big chunk of this segment is concerned with souping up Curt’s old Bronco into a homemade tank “to survive doomsday roads”. I don’t get it—if everyone else is out of gas, who do they think they’ll have to outrun?

Anyway, they add a couple tons of steel plates, pipes, and a cowcatcher—so I think we can safely assume the vehicle’s fuel economy is now measured in gallons per mile?
Once the rig is finished, they just have to test it out, so they decide to replicate a typical driving situation in their hypothetical doomsday, by making a ‘roadblock’ (pile of burning shipping pallets). The armored truck easily plows through, kicks up some sparks, and everybody hoots and hollers and congratulates each other like they just landed a man on the moon or something. Boys with their toys…
Oh, and there’s another source of drama while all this car-modifying is going on—there’s a forest fire! Everybody freaks out (because I guess they didn’t factor local natural disasters into their plans), and piles into trucks and bugs out. But the fire department gets it under control and they promptly turn around and get back to welding. For future reference, if you’re in an area at risk for large fires, perhaps consider building your survival home from a fire-resistant material (I recommend cob); additionally, think about integrating fire-breaks into your compound’s design (hopefully stopping a fire in its tracks, or else letting it pass by with minimal damage).
Which brings me to woodlands, our country’s management of them…and the application via analogy of one to the other.
When I read articles on the effects of climate change, there’s always a mention of ‘increased likelihood of major forest fires’. Usually the author suggests such fires will result from severe droughts, but as long as we’re talking anthropogenic environmental damage, why does nobody ever bring up Smokey Bear? But what could possibly be wrong with that beloved pants-wearing, shovel-wielding ursine USFS propaganda-mouthpiece, you might ask? Simply this: the success of Smokey’s staunch anti-forest/wild-fire campaign (and Disney’s Bambi, for that matter) has resulted not in healthier forests, but in the conversion of woodlands (especially those Out West) into massive tinderboxes, by successfully applying a human moral code to natural processes, labeling forest fires as ‘bad’, and teaching impressionable younglings that they are to be prevented at all costs. In truth, these ecosystems evolved to rely on periodic burningsto remove undergrowth, enrich soil, and actually ‘activate’ certain kinds of coniferous seeds. By preventing regular burning (itself a key element in the economies and livelihoods of many successful, sustainable indigenous American cultures) from taking place, the Smokey campaign allowed scrub, undergrowth, and dead trees (a.k.a. FUEL) to build up, waiting for lightning or a clueless hiker to ignite it. The addition of climate-change-amplified drought and increased wind patterns into the equation simply means that the inevitable firestorms will be all that more intense.

Ready for the fun part? May I direct you to Chris Hedge’s latest missive, cleverly pointing out that the American/Corporatcrat system (although his position is completely applicable to the larger Western/Capitalist/Civilized matrix) currently takes the form of an unburned tinderbox. And like the woodlands of pre-Contact America, periodic burnings are required to ensure the health of the forest. The only question that remains is this: where will the spark come from?

The Suburbs: The Wilderness Downtown

As smart and innovative as the Sprawl II dance-video is, Arcade Fire found a way to top themselves, with The Wilderness Downtown web experience.

wilderness_downtown

note the use of fractal-based ‘roots’ to form the words—
the sublime wonders of Nature!

This amazing interactive is based around the song We Used to Wait and therefore ties deeply into the underlying themes of The Suburbs—roads, connection to place, escape, youth, the wild, and interaction with technology—while at the same time being a potent showcase of digital wizardry (it was designed to highlight the capabilities of Google Chrome and HTML 5).

Unfortunately, TWD is custom-made to each user’s environment, so I can’t put up a video for you to watch; you’ll just have to try it yourself (although this page provides a decent overview). It’s recommended to use the address of your childhood home, which works really well if you grew up in the ever-shifting sprawl of American ’burb-land, because it’s quite likely that said environment no longer appears as you remember it (“this town’s so strange/they built it to change/and while we sleep we know the streets get rearranged”). Me, I grew up way out in the country, which doesn’t pack nearly the same punch.

Once your experience is compiled, we open with an anonymous, hooded young person running through the streets of The Suburbs. Based on the urgency expressed, he’s clearly not just out for a jog. What is he running from? As we’ve seen throughout the album, when the prevailing narrative of Modern Kids raised in the ’burbs is to seek escape by fleeing to the city only to return to the ’burbs as ‘adults’—who wouldn’t blame him for wanting to Get Out?
wilderness_downtown runner
Throughout, we follow our running figure from high overhead, drifting along with a flock of birds, as well as at street-level courtesy of Google.
Eventually, the video culminates with some very-likely eco imagery as the trailing birds begin to divebomb into the ground, causing trees to grow up beautifully and cover the map in a sea of rewilded green. Of course, this is really only effective if the map—and therefore your childhood home—is in a deforested suburb.
This all transpires over the song’s final section, in which Win implores us to “Wait for it!” As I’ve said before, the song is all about cultivating patience in the face of a technologically-increased pace of life, which brings us to The Wilderness Machine.
Now, back during the middle section of TWD—over the “I’m gonna write a letter to my true love, I’m gonna sign my name” verse—we took a break from watching our harried runner and were invited to “Write a postcard or advice to the younger You”, using super-cool fractal-roots. Now, while Arcade Fire was still touring to support The Suburbs, their concerts would coincide with appearances of said Machine—a steampunk-y contraption which would print out postcards submitted from TWD. While that alone is a great way to play around with the back-and-forth between digital and analog suggested by We Used to Wait, here’s the best part: the postcards that the Machine printed out were embedded with tree seeds!—so that you could take someone’s former self’s postcard home and reforest your own environment, thus bringing TWD’s video experience full circle into the real world.
And believe me, nothing cultivates patience like growing a tree.

Doomsday Preppers: David Lakota

We go from one extreme to the other, leaving Alaska for a visit to Hawaii, and a look at David Lakota. As the show describes him, David is a ‘New Age Spiritual Prepper’. Ohboy.
david-lakotaSo, not unreasonably, David has fears for a mega-tsunami that might hit the island. Hey alright, it’s Hawaii, center of the whole Ring of Fire thing, I get it.

Then there’s something where he talks about how he wants to get away and live “free of violence, pollution, hypocrisy, and the self-destructive nature of people.”
Look close, dear reader. Within that sentence hides a single word that holds the Big Lie of Our culture. Do you see it?

It’s people.

You see, David—like most of the folks in Our culture—is a victim of what has been called ‘the Great Forgetting’. The short version goes something like this: by the time aggressive agricultural (“civilized”) cultures started showing up in the ‘Fertile Crescent’ several thousand years ago, so many years had passed since the pre-agricultural times that folks forgot there ever was such a time: when they looked back on their dirty cities, miserable workers, corrupt officials, and intensifying warfare, they saw only farmers! They naturally assumed that farming and city-dwelling were the natural way for humans to live, and that humans had been born as such only a few thousand years before! They assumed that the wretched way they lived was just the way humans were meant to live, and all the bad stuff was just a result of some unsolvable flaw in ‘human nature’.
Of course, discoveries in the field of archeology have showed us that this notion is completely untrue, so the sooner Our culture can rid itself of this fallacious thinking, the better.
The truth is, not all people live a self-destructive life of violence, pollution, and hypocrisy. It’s not Humanity that needs fixing, it’s just one culture—Ours. /soapbox.

Now, should said Big Wave be forthcoming, how will David learn about it? Does he leave his NOAA weather radio switched on all the time? Does he get text-message alerts from the Pacific Seismographic Institute? Nope! He plans on predicting the wave based on his “mystical connection to the land”. Or, alternately, “in a bad dream” the night before. Ohboy.

So, if I lived near the ocean and was worried about a 300-foot-high tsunami wave, my plan might sound something like ‘live at high elevation, away from the coast’. If I heard about a tsunami warning, and happened to be near the coast, my reaction would be something like ‘grab my pack; get to the highest possible elevation by the fastest possible means’. David’s approach is quite different – because he apparently plans on outrunning the incoming wave with a fifteen-mile-long kayak trip! And with no supplies, to boot!
Now, based on what I know about how this show works, I’m pretty sure David’s profile is probably just ‘minimalist kayaking/hiking/rockclimbing canyon-adventure’, spun as a barefoot bugout…but I wish they would just come out and say so. As hippy-dippy as he seems, I have a hard time believing what we see is anyone’s disaster-escape plan.

And so, David—together with his partner Rachaelle—start their adventure with some sea kayaking, followed by some seaside stick-sparring of which we only see a few snippets. Somehow in the course of that, or landing the kayak, David cuts his foot, and their lack of first aid supplies means Natural Remedy Time! Yay! Rachaelle uses a noni plant to clean up his wound, which hopefully won’t become infected. Believe me, foot infections suck.

They continue moving—barefoot—upwards through the jungle, coming across a little waterfall. Before he whets his whistle, David explains that when doing anything—picking plants, hunting animals, drinking water, &c.—one should first ask permission of Nature, quieting one’s mind to hear the answer and such. Now, I’m totally onboard with that kind of stuff (in my interpretation, animism—because it seems that’s what we’re really talking about—is an underlying core of my Bendu-Jedi philosophy), and David is free to do so, but why does such stuff just sound phony coming from bearded white guys? I touched on this last season in my look at Ed Peden, but such stuff would sound totally authentic coming from an Amerindian, or a Pacific Islander, or pretty much any non-haole, really. Of course, there have been white cultures in history from whom this peaceful, ecocentric sort of thing would sound authentic, but unfortunately it seems they got Kurganized about six thousand years ago.

As I’ve said, they don’t have any supplies or food, so they’re probably getting pretty hungry when Rachaelle comes across some wild berries. Apparently it’s not a species that they’re familiar with, but don’t worry, because David has an incredible method for determining if they’re safe to eat. Now, he doesn’t follow the Army Universal Edibility Test, and he doesn’t carry a Petersen’s Field Guide for tropical plants. His method is as follows:
Option 1) Ask your Intuition, “Is this edible?”
Option 2) Ask Nature, “Is this edible?” Because “your body is an antenna”, or something.
Option 3) Just eat it! Because edible things taste good.

Ohboy.

Alright, I’m going to attempt to speak David’s language. Dude, I will now use my mystik Third Eye to channel the essence of the great Atlantean high priest Nur-Ab-Sal to predict that YOU WILL EAT SOMETHING TOXIC AND DIE.

Seriously. Sure, I would bet the first Homo habilis or whoever started learning plants did so through trial and error (“Hey Grog, whatcha eatin’?” “Purple berries.” <Grog dies> “Hey everybody, don’t eat these berries!”), but once they knew, the knowledge was passed on from generation to generation. Injuns and extant hunter-gatherer groups know a whole ton of edible plants, but they don’t learn which ones are safe by just pulling the answer out of the air, they learn by being taught by their elders. So until you’re a member of a functioning tribe, you’re better off with a field guide.

By this point, they’re high up the canyon and getting pretty thirsty (remember: by the time you’re noticeably thirsty, you’re already two percent dehydrated). I guess they had already drunk what little water they collected at the waterfall, because David decides the best hydration source for him is his own urine. Now, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen a prepper drink their own piss, but it is the first time they’ve drunk it straight—usually they’ll run it through a purifier or something first. But not David! He just whips it out, fills up a bottle, and takes a sip. Rachaelle says she’ll pass. At this point I have to wonder how much the producers paid him for this stunt?


Eventually, after some more hiking, scrambling, and free-climbing they reach the top of the canyon cliff. Yay, grungy hippy hug!

The experts tell David to consider storing food at his bugout location. Personally, I think for this kind of contingency it’d probably be best to keep it flexible and not have one set location to be heading for, but that doesn’t mean you can’t hike with at least some food or supplies! I’m all about minimalism and foraging as you go, but even natives would carry some parched maize or jerky or whatever:
“they brought with him in a thing like a bow case, which the principal of them had about his waist, a little of their corn pounded to powder, which put to a little water they ate.” See? Injun cornmeal fannypack. Yum!

The experts also tell David to LEARN PLANTS, and for once, I can’t agree more.

 David gives us a post-filming update, in which he announces that “even more threatening than tsunami, government shutdown, or other natural disaster, is boredom, complacency, and indifference.” And so, with some Thoreauvian quotation (“in wildness is the preservation of the world”) I guess he heads into the wild with his knife, rope, tarp, lighter, and big white dog. Whatever, dude; good luck.

Doomsday Preppers: Bryant Family

We continue with a visit to the Bryant family’s 24 acre homestead in Southern Missouri.
Wilma and Gary live with their son Tony and daughter Heather, and a grandchild, and are concerned with being able to survive EF5 (formerly just F5) tornadoes. Which is not unreasonable, seeing as how they live smack dab in the middle of Tornado Alley. Even less unreasonable is Wilma’s wise observation that “You can’t control nature…and we’re destroying it, so it’s kinda fighting back in a sense.” Correct on all counts. Personally, if I was worried about what seems like an increase in number and intensity of severe storms in recent years, my first order of business would be to hand-build an off-grid house that wasn’t all boxes and flat surfaces  (y’know, because they catch the wind like sails, which are great if you want your house to fly).

Because they seem to be into plain living and self-sufficiency (they live 30 miles from the nearest town), they have about six months of food on hand, mostly in the form of home-canned jars; their pantry is really impressive. However, for someone whose chief worry is violent tornadoes, their pantry is just waiting to be smashed by the first twister that comes through: the jars on the shelves were not protected in any way, whether by something soft to keep jars from knocking against each other, or anything to keep the jars from crashing to the floor. A simple one-by piece of lumber tacked a few inches up across the front of the shelf  would probably do fine.

So, all this talk of self-sufficiency is rather painfully ironic, because Wilma and her daughter Heather are…wait for it…diabetic. Which means that after their six-month supply of insulin runs out, they die. Yeouch. And naturally, because medical supplies are not only unnecessarily expensive but also disposable, the ladies stretch their stores by saving needles to reuse. They also hoard insulin, which leads to their next dilemma.
Insulin apparently needs to be kept cool, and in a long term grid-down situation, a refrigerator is going to be next-to-useless. What is one to do? First, remember: fossil-fueled electricity is a momentary blip on the overall timeline, and people did just fine without it for thousands of years. And how did those people keep things cold? By keeping their things in places that were always cold!—let’s call it ‘ambient temperature refrigeration’. In rural Missouri, the local spring-fed creek does just fine. But do y’know where else stays 50 degrees year-round? Underground! And because this is a prepper show, you know what that means. Bunker time!
So the family decides that they should bury a shipping container where they can keep their insulin cool, and where they (and their livestock (?!?)) can shelter during a big storm. So they get a demolition crew to come in and blow up a section of their front yard, and then they set about removing all the loose soil by hand with shovels and wheelbarrows.

The experts give them 64 points and ten months survival time, which isn’t bad considering they only have six months of insulin and no running water (they have to drive down the road to the creek to fill up their big tank). The experts also suggest getting ‘tactical training’ and building a root cellar – which I’m surprised they didn’t have already, being all homestead-y and such; I’d take a root cellar over a buried-shipping-container-bunker any day.

In the post-filming update, Wilma reveals that she and Gary have gone through a messy divorce, and that while she has been awarded “all the preps”, “they’re out there with guns.” The End.

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.