The Complexity of Simple
January 20, 2016 § 19 Comments
The complexity of simple
Winter came as ice. The slightest threadbare twigs on every bush and tree wrapped in crystal and then dusted with snow like confectioner’s sugar. The entirety of the forest frosted, white outlines tracing contours until the fingers of every brach blended into every other masking the separation of individual trees, and the whole landscape was without depth or form, an unbroken line tracing itself eternally. Time itself slowed, my breath stands still before me while the land begs, “Slow down. Be.”
The road out was blocked by a downed pine tree. I idled the Jeep and went to the trunk to retrieve my chainsaw, a tool that stays packed in the car for just such occasions. Even the main highways were laden with the branches and trunks of conifers whose root balls could not sustain the added weight of their ice laden bodies.
What is often overlooked when people talk about the “simple life,” is just how complex it can be, and just how many tools it can require. Four wheel drive vehicles, chainsaws, power tools, axes, come-alongs, tow straps, water pumps, and all of the hand tools, files, honers, clamps, cleaners and cleansers needed to keep all of it functional. Across the spectrum of internet commentary and niche hipster-farmer magazines that paint rural homestead living as the solution to ecological crisis and collapse, too rarely is it mentioned just how expensive being intentionally poor can be.
Last week I stood outside in the cold, bundled in layers of long underwear and insulated Carhartt overalls, and with the assistance of a more mechanically inclined friend, I replaced the high pressure hose on the power steering pump of one of our Jeeps. The repair was far from complicated, but ten degree weather is not conducive to manipulating steel wrenches or the impossible to reach bolts that are put in place by machines so that humans will struggle to remove them. Repairing one’s own vehicle comes with a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction, almost akin to flipping the bird to the capitalist system that engineers itself around the need for high priced professionals and the near term obsolescence of overpriced parts and components. Such satisfaction quickly fades however, when the next mechanical defect arises.
The engine of my newly repaired Jeep refused to turnover, and I suspected that the eight degree temperature Monday morning brought with it was the likely culprit. The starter seemed to fire, but then the long list of troubleshooting began. My hands stinging with cold even through gloves, I tinker with battery cables and fuel lines. Is there spark? Is there gas? Frozen condensation could be in a line, or on a circuit board, or even preventing the distributor arm from spinning. Motors are a complexity of moving parts, and such complexity is supposed to make our lives easier. But then we become the tools of our tools, and find ourselves serving machines.
I want to scream. I just want life to stop handing me roadblocks. It seems like I struggle just to struggle. The hood slams shut and the metal clang echoes off of the steel roof of the open air carport. I crunch through the ice to the wood pile, and bend my knee to the Earth to load up my arms with split oak.
The wealth gap in the United States is at historic proportions. Apparently, sixty-three percent of Americans cannot afford a five-hundred dollar car repair. This is not a scenario which will be allowed to proceed. The problem with having a handful of people be vastly rich while the majority are poor is multi-fold, but what is often not discussed is the general dysfunction that is generated by so greatly valuing people’s labor and time on such drastically different scales. Even without talking about the do-nothing billionaire class, the gap in pay between the massive portion of the population that works service sector jobs and those who engage in more “skilled labor,” generates an inability of the lower classes to access the services of the middle. Despite having moved to a rural location to build my own off-grid home on land where I can attempt grow a significant quantity of my family’s food, I still work a full forty hours a week between two part time service sector jobs. One of those jobs pays ten dollars an hour. A mechanic commands anywhere from seventy to one-hundred dollars per hour in this region. Such a disparity makes acquiring the services of a mechanic on the edge of impossible and reserved for only the most complicated and necessary repairs.
Legal services are even more expensive. When the county demanded I install a septic system for my cabin, I could have refused, and in court I could have cited the State’s legislation protecting those who build their own homes from the intrusions of county bureaucrats. Had I chosen to engage in such a legal entanglement, I could not possibly have afforded the assistance of a lawyer at the going rate of two-hundred dollars per hour. The cost of compliance with the county, despite knowing full well that I am within my legal rights to refuse, is far lower than would have been the cost of justice. How can I give half a week’s wages to someone for one hour of their time? It would take me a month to afford one of their days.
Medical attention is a publicly acknowledged farce in the United States. Racketeers and mafioso middlemen have fully inserted themselves into parasitic positions across the healthcare industry with the full protection of the state. The Affordable Care Act was a papal blessing by the federal government confirming the right of money changers and paper pushers to hold people hostage to illness and injury, essentially demanding near lifelong servitude to repayment plans. Insurance, of course, is not treatment. No one ever screamed, “Is there an insurance agent in the house?” at the sight of an dying man. So we ignore small problems. We hope that fermented foods will keep us well and go to work sick when they don’t. We super glue wounds that should probably be stitched and as a last resort, we go to the emergency room and ignore the bill.
Those of us at the lower end of the pay scale have been priced out of modernity in many regards, and I imagine this is a trend that is only blossoming, and when fully unfolded, will drag a massive swath of the millennial generation into a similar state of affairs. I would imagine this economic disparity will play a large roll in bringing more people into urban centers, and preventing even those with dreams of permaculture gardens and straw bale houses from escaping them. The young are told that if they want to climb the economic ladder they should borrow enough money to buy a small house and instead to give it to a college. If it’s not one scam, it’s another.
During the summer our gardens are teeming with zucchini, tomatoes, okra, and other vegetables. Sweet potato vines crawl far beyond their primary roots and lavender flowers appear along their lengths. Welsummer chickens hunt grasshoppers in a field and we collect easily a dozen eggs a day from their nesting boxes. The food that we do not preserve or immediately eat we will sometimes sell. I can fetch twenty dollars for a load of produce, eggs, and wild harvested mushrooms. A truckload of gravel laid on our driveway allowing our property to even be accessible by car costs three-hundred dollars. Our own driveway requires about two of these truckloads every spring, and that does not include the road up to our land, which we must also contribute to maintaining. The simple life is expensive, and the honey, eggs, strawberries and other fresh foods we can produce are essentially valueless to the outside world thanks to petroleum. But we have to keep pace. Little house on the prairie only works when everyone is playing. If no one uses a car, it is not expected that you will, and the overall pace of your society slows down. Money is energy and velocity. Your rate of production must be commensurate with that of those around you with whom you hope to trade, or you will be for all intents and purposes, too poor to participate.
An individual cannot work as fast or far or as long as a John Deere. A twenty-four hour globalized world that operates at the speed of electricity generates output at a rate that is beyond the capacity of human hands spreading mulch and pulling weeds. When we look at the threat of climate change and ecological collapse, many of us recognize the need for humanity to slow down, to consume less, to shut down the tar sands mines and the frack pads in favor of draft power and raw muscle. Yearly upgrades of the cell phones and gadgets that isolate us seem absurd especially when we look at the total cost of their production, so instead we envision communities of people coming together to work towards common subsistence. The machine of industrial civilization spins too fast, and burns too much fuel, so we try to walk away, only to come to the harsh realization that as long as the machine is still out there, it sets the pace, and walking away is nearly impossible. The simple life is a luxury. Conscious poverty is the playground of the rich. Want a homestead in the country where you can raise goats and pigs? You better have at least one-hundred-thousand dollars to buy in.
In this world there is only keeping up or being crushed, and keeping up usually means crushing someone else; keeping your head above water is only possible by pressing your boot into the neck of another. Capitalists and fossil fuel apologists relentlessly harp on environmentalists by declaring that no one wants to make sacrifices, that they too drive cars and eat industrial food. Of course, what is intentionally neglected is that plenty of people are more than eager to leave behind the modern western lifestyle, and that it is not a fear of hard work or sacrifice holding them back, but the financial barriers to entry. And for those who can leap the first hurdle of land ownership, there is then the cost of everything one cannot provide for themselves, because let’s face it, no one can be self sufficient. Eventually you will need something from the outside world, whether a box of nails or a broken bone set, and then you will be at the mercy of costs set by a world powered by oil. Even the barest, most primitive lifestyle is only possible with access to a vast territory, a few friends, and a state apparatus that doesn’t limit your existence or steal your children when it finds them wearing furs and eating dandelions.
My friend placed the tip of his screwdriver into the release valve on the fuel bar. Gasoline trickled out. At midday the sun had gently raised the temperature. With the turn of the key, the starter whirred and the engine turned over. I had to laugh. Of course it would start with no problem when a friend had trekked out to help me diagnose the malfunction. He laughed too. Inside the cabin with a steady warmth emanating from the wood stove I prepared a breakfast. My friend declined the homemade sauerkraut, but gladly accepted sausage, eggs, and hot coffee. I had a few steaks in the freezer and I gave them to him.
“Make dinner,” I said as I gave him what I could for his time.
“Thanks, I will.”
We will only get poorer. The low paying jobs will be fewer and fewer as the years pass, and the pittance they pay will buy less and less. Our survival in the rural places will be predicated on either preying on our neighbors by keeping apace with the terms dictated by capitalists, charging each other fees that drain an entire two week paycheck for necessary services, or by working together, giving our time and our skill with no expectation of payment, only the hope that down the line, our own needs will be met with the kindness of others.
I for one will be opening up my land to others. Rent is a backbreaker, and if I can support like minded friends by giving them a place to exist without expectation of payment, I will happily do so. Civilization is a complexity of moving parts, and theoretically, this machine is supposed to serve us. But we become the tools of our tools, and now that this too is breaking down the complexity is a burden, and more and more of us are finding that we exist in a realm of negative returns, so we dream of making something new. While we dream, we struggle.