THE NEW PARADIGM IS HERE
by Hilary Hodge
[photo Hedwig Storch via Wikimedia Commons]
[published: February 11, 2012 (4:35AM PST)]
I can only imagine how beautiful the garden must have been in the summer. Nine-foot sunflowers lay behind the fence, like fallen soldiers, a testament to a fight for something beautiful. Sun-bleached cornstalks stand guard, still bearing witness to a bountiful harvest. The darkened skeletons of tomatillo plants hang inside garden cages. Rotting tomatoes and their now-black vines lean against a support system intended for the fruits of their labor, a system now holding the memories of moments passed. Today, what was once a community garden is now a plant’s war zone, over-wintered with only the stink of garlic sprouting and a few leaves of chard to set precedent for what dreams may come.
My partner and I moved off the farm that we had been living and working on, to our own digs in an even smaller town in the foothills of California. The education we received in our tenure on the farm in Grass Valley was immeasurable, but we both believed that it was time to move on. Our migration was swift; by the time we had really made up our mind to find a new place, we had found one and were packing our bags. We had given the farmers notice but they had found new tenants quickly and we had moved out with swift measure. We have been here for about a week. It has been quite a change.
Our new home town is small, a population of 125, and the people here are poor. Not poor in the sense that they can’t pay their credit card bills, but poor in the sense that they were never approved for credit cards and have trouble paying for things like their gas bill and for food.
I always think of California as well-off, that resource scarcity is something for Middle America. But things like gas and, for example, garbage service, are different in rural California than they are in our cities. For California city-dwellers, even renters, gas and garbage come as a part of the dwelling, a “perk,” usually tacked on to the rent or mortgage, sometimes as a nominal, though additional, fee.
In rural California, there is no garbage service. There are no trucks that arrive on week-day mornings, beeping loudly, at ungodly hours, to announce their mission to remove the week’s waste. No. Here in the remote towns, garbage must be hauled to the transfer stations when it has become too much to bear for the waste-creator. It is an inconvenience, but it also propels those that have to endure such an inconvenience to take note of their waste and to reduce the output and cost of disposal by recycling.
Gas service, on the other hand, is something that can only be mitigated by a trifling amount of conservation. For many in rural towns, natural gas, like propane, is the only resource for fuel and heating. Even for those of us who don’t use our propane-fueled wall-heaters, or who take very brief showers to stave off water-heating bills, we are subject to the ebb and spoils of the volatile gas market. For our next-door neighbors, $763 was too much to maintain after three months. The primary wage-earner next-door is a 60+ year-old woman and is still working a customer service job to make ends meet. Her household couldn’t make it. Their gas was shut off. Cold showers are one thing. Not being able to use your stove to fashion a meal is another.
For many of us who have touted the “peak oil” mentality, vowing to others that there is likely to be a resource shortage very soon, we have, all too often, not taken into account that there are resource shortages already existing in the lives of many American’s today. This is something I try and write about on a regular basis. Sustainability is as much about living as it is about conservation.
Occasionally NPR will run a story about a small town in Middle American, where single mothers, or the elderly, have to choose between heating their houses and feeding their children or family. Very few of us understand what that means. The concentrated Americans, those in cities, have access to an abundance of resources that are taken for granted. When the light switch is flipped, the lights come on. When the heat is triggered, the fans blow. “Utilities” just seem to work. Many people are siphoning bandwidth off their neighbor’s cable. “Utilities,” however, in their purest sense, have taken on a much different meaning for the people in need in this nation. And while resources are very much in question for our city-dwellers, resources are very much scarce for rural neighbors.
There are those in this country dependent on a system for utilities that offers them hard and unthinkable choices: “Heat your home or feed your family.” For those that cannot sustain the monetary output to maintain the basic necessities for living, they are on the forefront of the weight of unthinkable choices and on the frontlines of the peak oil movement. Here in rural California, the “gas man” doesn’t fill the propane unless you pay the bill. And if you can’t pay the bill, you live without hot water, or a way to cook your food, unless you own a microwave or a crock pot. There is no way to heat your water without an electric kettle. That may be remotely okay for a pot of tea. But imagine trying to bathe. Now imagine a job interview.
The young man next door is on food stamps. He is 19-years old, willing to work; enthusiastic and able-bodied, but can’t find a job. His is a story very common to America today. He helps his grandmother out with the groceries.
I have said this often in my blogs and I have truly meant it; I come from a place of privilege. I have always felt that I have come from a place of a middle-class, white background, and a place that has allowed me license as I have grown both professionally and publicly in this society. But I would be inauthentic to fail to note that the place of privilege, a place I have felt for so long, is a fading reality. It is a fading reality for many in what was once an American middle class.
My background: I didn’t get to go to college because I was rich or because my parents were rich. They weren’t. I got to go to college because my mother had incredible foresight. As the story goes, when my mother and my father divorced, back when I was six years old, my mother did not go after my dad for alimony (which she was entitled to by law). Instead, she invested in her only daughter: writing into the law of her divorce that my father would have to pay for my college education. (As a reality check, I barely gradated high school and hated institutionalized education. I probably have ADHD. I went to community college for four years before transferring to the University of California at Davis with no real focus. I hated school there too. When, in my senior year, I called my mom to tell her that I was dropping out, she told me about the terms of the divorce with my father, and told me about how hard it was to be a working mother without alimony, and she told me that she would promptly “off” me if I didn’t finish school.) I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from UC Davis in 2005.
I cannot put to words what the opportunity has offered me and what a college education has granted me in my adult life. I have been extremely fortunate. But even with my good fortune, I am seeing, more and more, my place of privilege fade away. I have been without a job or an income for almost a year. The work-live situation on the farm that we were on seemed optimal at first but very soon it became apparent that the relationship was very dependent on the whims of the land owners. Now we live on our own, in a 9-unit community, in a very “affordable” place.
The maintenance man on the property put in a community garden for the tenants last year. It’s on about a quarter acre in direct sun. It’s productive. They had corn, carrots, beets, tomatoes, tomatillos, parsley, basil and more. It’s organic and sustainable. But the garden was created, not because the tenants needed a fun project. They needed food. And they used the surplus to make a little money at the farmer’s market. I’ve been nominated to be the resident canner for the year. Everyone could have used tomato sauce and jam this winter. We are all just getting by.
I never realized what it would mean to “just get by.” I never thought I would be someone trying to prioritize between my car insurance and the gas bill. I had always thought I’d have a life much like my parents’ lives. I would have a job, health insurance, enough food on the table and, one day, a retirement. It is apparent to me now that such dreams are antiquated. I now hope for health, rather than insurance. I hope for a stable living situation and alternative sources of income, rather than a job. I hope for a productive life, rather than a living that leads to retirement. Mostly, I hope for happiness and love. I had no idea I’d ever quote “Raffi,” the children’s song artist, in a blog, but here it is: “All I really need, is a song in my heart, food in my belly and love in my family.”
So often I hear about “the new paradigm” in reference to peak oil and resource scarcity as something to plan for, and often, something to fear. What I am understanding, more and more is that the new paradigm is here. There are so many people making the hard decisions now that we all may one day face. There are millions of people in this country already without food and heat, already looking for a place to dump their waste, already sharing a car. And in that, they have found a level of community that few of us have experienced.
For many of us, we started from a place of opportunity, and the idea of “getting by” seems unthinkable and unmanageable. I’m experiencing those that live it and I am incredibly hopeful. My neighbors are not “progressive” or “liberal.” They aren’t making trendy or new-age decisions. They aren’t creating organic gardens because it is the cool thing to do. They don’t have higher educations or have ever experienced jobs where income was abundant. Instead, they live modest lives with a foundation of necessity. And in that necessity, they help each other. They grow food. They share rides. They pull resources. And they are, each one of them, very happy.
If this is something we all must one day face, I know that we will all be better for it.