Over the long holiday weekend here in Amsterdam, famille Fitzgerald took the train to the Champagne-Ardenne region of France where our neighbors have a run-down farm house they’re fixing up, much like the run-down farm house Martha and I fixed up in Italy many many years ago. We camped out in their back yard, a lush valley field alongside a stream, and reminded ourselves what birdsong sounds like, what stars look like, what life without plumbing or cell phones is like. How it feels to stare into a fire after a long day of manual labor and reflect back over the generations of human beings who have stared into a fire after a long day of manual labor.
I helped my neighbor raise a roof for an outdoor shelter he was constructing entirely from scavenged and recycled materials, felt the heft of a hammer and the bite of a saw, the ache of shoulders that are more used to typing than lifting beams.
We made peppermint tea from peppermint picked from the field. We ate bread that had been baked from grain ground locally, at a mill run by a water wheel. We drank wine that had come from the vineyards that bordered the farm.
And I despaired a bit at how much knowledge of being self-sufficient I’ve foreswarn with my urban lifestyle of the past few decades. There was a time I lived on my own in a cabin in New Hampshire, with snowmelt for water and a woodstove for warmth, a lantern for light and not much else. OK, after one winter I confess I was bored out of my skull. But I learned so much in that season. I learned to know the wood I was splitting was oak, because it smelled like ketchup. I learned what I could and couldn’t eat right out of the forest. I knew the owl that hunted by moonlight on the slope below my porch, and the footprints of the wee creatures that were his prey. I learned so much that we as a species used to know about survival, and can only imagine what 40 odd years of accumulated experience might have taught me.
And part of me wonders it that isn’t the education I should have pursued, or the education I need to pass on to my kids. Because if we don’t lick the problems of climate change, these may be the skills that future generations will need to have, not because of the romanticized Emmersonian impulses that drove me, but because living off the grid, and out of the cities, and from the land is their only option. It may already be the only responsible option. Dark, these thoughts. A line of thinking that Robinson Jeffers caught in a poem I learned by heart in that cabin in New Hampshire, which has new poignancy with the carbon peril, and the fact that I, like Jeffers, now have my own two sons to give advice to:
SHINE, PERISHING REPUBLIC
While this America settles in the mould of its vulgarity, heavily thickening to Empire,
And protest, just a bubble in the molten mass, pops and sighs out, and the mass hardens,
I sadly smiling remember that the flower fades to make fruit, the fruit rots to make earth.
Out of the mother; and through the spring exultances, ripeness and decadence; and home to the mother.
You making haste, haste on decay: not blameworthy; life is good, be it stubbornly long or suddenly
A mortal splendour: meteors are not needed less than mountains: shine perishing republic.
But for my children, I would have them keep their distance from the thickening center: corruption
Never has been compulsory, when the cities lie at the monster’s feet there are left the mountains.
And boys, be in nothing so moderate as in love of man, a clever servant, insufferable master.
There is the trap that catches noblest spirits, that caught–they say–God, when he walked on Earth.
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