Monday, May 5, 2014

Getting Really Local

Despite T.S. Eliot's declaration to the contrary, I do not find April to be the cruelest month. I really enjoy it, in fact. In the air are promises of summer ease, given my delightful academic schedule. We always have commencement on Mother's Day, but even before that, we have a week free when the soon-to-graduate go to "beach week" for a final communal debauch.

That sort of thing was never for me, even when I was a callow undergraduate. I tended to enjoy some casual-reading time and a bit of geeky gaming with friends, once classes ended.  And unlike so many hyper-parented students these days, back then I had no money.

Still, let them have some fun. Many of them will soon be back at home, looking for work,\ or slaving as disposable units for a large firm that will one day discard them. My students often--with a few really canny exceptions--find my attraction to the land strange. So do older creatures of chain stores and suburban neighborhoods. They cannot see the fragility and temporary nature of these living arrangements. When someone like James Howard Kunstler challenges them (as he did in a Skype visit to a class of mine a few weeks back) the students are either profoundly shocked or they laugh off Jim's dire predictions about the end of easy capital and easy energy.  After all, their smart phones, to which they are addicted, beckon them into an eternal now of continual progress and easy connections.

I'm not so sure about some of Jim's ideas, but I also doubt that our current exploitative way of life can continue, unabated, for much longer. My own solution may not suit everyone, but it involves living a deeply local life. Jim advocates it, especially in how one uses localism to build community. What does that mean?

I began by taking an assessment of what we purchase. How much of it could be sourced from a locally owned firm? How much extra would it cost, if it did cost extra? Second, I began to try, as best I could, to establish a relationship with merchants, contractors who do quality work, and old-school mechanics, not dealerships. This is not as hard as one might think. Our local butcher shop provides premium, but reasonable, meats and seafood from local sources; the beef, pork, and chicken come from our very county.  While meat may again become a luxury item at some future point, for now sustainably raised livestock help local growers retain the land, make money, and pass on essential skills to another generation. Agribusiness does none of this.

Likewise, the mechanics' shop to the east down the road and the tractor-repair to our west employ local people and have owners who live nearby. These folks will work on older cars and farm equipment that the big shops won't touch. Two small-engine wizards get things to work I can't, and I am not bad at it though chain saws will be forever finicky, even with ethanol-free gas in the tank!

Thinking local made us look for plants the same way. We were recently at Herbs Galore, an annual sale by Maymont in Richmond. It's a ritual to go and pull around a wagon of organically raised plants from local growers. Given the use of pesticides and herbicides in the soil of plants from big-box stores, we stopped buying their plants. The chemicals may be killing our bees, as seems to be the case for Neonicotinoids already under a two-year moratorium in the EU.  I will need a lot more evidence before I put chemicals into our land again, beyond the same small bottle of Roundup that has been doing a great job of controlling "Tree of Heaven" on our property. I'm so careful I use a small paintbrush to apply the product!

Perhaps it is the hope that blooms every April, but I'm not ready to give into the resignation of Jim Kunstler or worse, the despair of climate activist Paul Kingsnorth. Humans have a way of muddling along, even though we muddle things up in the process. At Herbs Galore, I saw, however, more than seedlings. I saw a new culture, a new-old type of capitalism, waiting to be born. It's at every locally owned brewery, never new bakery, every little business that finds a niche that Target or Amazon cannot crush.

Get to know your local merchants and cultivate some local skills. Even if doomsayers are wrong, any future with strong communities of committed neighbors will be a resilient one.

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