Adventures In Post-Oil Paradise
By Peter Goodchild
27 April, 2009
One thing my wife and I learned from seven years in rural Ontario is that country people are not always willing to welcome city folk with open arms, partly because the land has only so much capacity for supporting anyone who lives there. We also learned how easy it is to burn up money and how hard it is to accumulate it, at least in the present state of the world, where the monster of the “money economy” is still alive. On the other hand, our struggle to survive meant that we learned a great deal that we’d missed in those previous years when we generally had only books for our education. By growing our own food, we explored issues ranging from soil quality to pest control. And by weaning ourselves away from contractors, our knowledge of carpentry expanded from simple household repairs to putting up some adequate small buildings.
On the negative side, one discovery was that many people who live in the country are somewhat ignorant of the arts and sciences, but at the same time they’re quite proud of knowing so little. When necessary, they “prove” their own cleverness by avoiding all subjects about which they know nothing. I found myself in a perpetual quandary when talking to locals. Is it better to smile and nod when they talk about “planting by the moon,” for example, or is it better just to avoid the company of such people? Either choice can be difficult, since there is no way of removing the sense of alienation, the realization that there is no chance of genuine friendship.
It’s also just not true that all country people are kindhearted and honest. On the contrary, there are some who assume that “city folk” are all rich and lazy and that they deserve to be robbed. Perhaps a few decades ago honesty may have been quite prevalent among country folk, but times have apparently changed.
Most country people nowadays know very little even about traditional skills. What my wife and I learned, over seven years, about vegetable gardening came almost entirely from books we had read, and from our own experiments. Local people seemed to have little knowledge of such matters as planting times, about soil quality, or about the best crops to plant. The probable reason for this is that most country people (particularly older ones, who may be physically unfit) now buy their food from supermarkets.
Even when those who dwell in the countryside have traditional skills, they are often unwilling to share them. I had really been hoping to learn more about hunting, for example, but I realized (as I had suspected before) that hunting is very territorial. There are only so many deer or moose, and only so many good hunting areas. Hunters usually travel with partners they have known for years, and they are unlikely to reduce their own prospects by giving away their hard-earned knowledge. This “territoriality” is never openly admitted, and has no basis in law except on private land, but it is quite real.
The financial costs were greater than I had ever imagined. Even though we used a car far less than any of our neighbors, we could not avoid it entirely, and it was always our worst cost: not only the initial price, but the insurance, gasoline, and maintenance. Fortunately we’ve always paid cash for our cars, whereas a loan would have added an even greater financial burden. The irony is that country people nowadays are far more addicted to automobiles than people who live in the city, since there are long miles of highway between one’s home and other destinations such as shops or a job. In fact, one of the biggest problems of the truly poor in the countryside is that they may have no means of getting to a job even if it is offered to them. For everyone, the obvious alternative to the automobile would be horses, but how can horses survive at the present time, with the roads dominated by high-speed automobiles? Besides the car, our big costs were property taxes and house renovations. It was a good thing we had also paid cash for the house and land, because if we had been paying off a mortgage we would really have had trouble making ends meet.
Finding a source of income in the country was far harder than in the city, and I suspect that Irondale is not much different from most other rural areas in Canada. As time went by, we began to realize that there were not many people in the Irondale area who had jobs in the ordinary sense of the word. Most of the people we met were living either on pensions or on welfare, or something similar. The pensioners were sometimes elderly poor people living on nothing but payments from the government. There were only a few people living on company pensions, which provided a higher standard of living. Most people under retirement age, however, were barely surviving, partly because the entire area pretty well closed down during the winter; the main industry was “tourism,” which is little more than a euphemism for “poverty.” One group of employed people who had a reasonable income were the few trades people that the area could support — carpenters, plumbers, mechanics, and so on. The other large segment of the population was the cottagers, the Torontonians, who were likely to show up only in the summer, and only in the best weather. These people didn’t have to deal with the problems of the local economy, however, and their entire presence in the countryside was like that of visitors to Disney World. Such people regarded the wilderness as their personal playground, and were rather resentful of the presence of the locals, even if they occasionally needed their help.
Although the financial costs were inherently great, I think we ourselves were often wasteful. What was the point in buying bicycles and a canoe, for example, since in good weather we were far too busy working to put such things to use? Part of our wastefulness was due to the fact that we had money from selling our house in Toronto. Like so many other people in modern times, we found it impossible to let money just sit in the bank, and instead we just burned it up.
Two of the above points, that country people are not always especially honest, and that the financial costs were greater than we realized, resulted in some serious financial wastefulness on the house itself. After we bought the property, we seemed to find more and more work that needed to be done to make the place livable, and most of it had to be done before the approach of the first winter. We knew very little ourselves about renovations, and at the same time we had very few names to work with, so we ended up hiring people without getting multiple estimates for the work to be done. As a result, we were charged far too much money but were unable to realize that fact until years later. In retrospect, I would even say that some of those renovations should have been left permanently undone. For example, we spent a good deal of money for eaves troughs to be installed around the metal roof of our mobile home, not realizing that a slippery metal roof would result in avalanches of melting snow in the spring, and that those avalanches would simply tear the eaves troughs away.
On the positive side, we learned many things about house repair and renovation. In particular we learned how to do a number of carpentry tasks. I even did a bit of plumbing, at least to the extent of replacing old faucets. Electricity, however, remained for me a rather esoteric subject, probably because I found it both dangerous and expensive. It was also unreliable, and violent summer storms would often mean looking for candles and matches.
We learned a great deal about heating with wood. We not only managed to operate a wood stove properly, but we gradually went through the entire process of cutting down trees, sawing them into lengths, splitting the pieces, stacking and storing them, and so on. I became quite adept at using a chain saw, and using such a machine on a long-term basis requires a good knowledge of maintenance, including sharpening the chain, cleaning the entire machine, and recognizing common problems. As a long-term “survival skill,” operating a chain saw is rather dubious, of course. How will people operate such things as the world’s petroleum runs out? Oil production in 2030 will be half that of the year 2000. In any case, according to at least one expert on the subject, if you calculate the money required to operate a chain saw, and the time involved in maintaining the equipment, you may find that you’re better off using a simple bow saw. I think using a bow saw to put together a winter’s supply of firewood might require many long weeks of labor, but there may be some sense to the theory. Certainly modern bow saws are quite good. The blades are of hardened steel, which means they cannot be re-sharpened and must be discarded eventually, but they last a long time, and buying a lifetime’s supply of such blades would be easy enough. I even bought some antique timber saws, those gigantic and cumbersome devices, often several feet long, that our ancestors used for dealing with logs, and I learned how to set the teeth (bend them to certain angles), using tools that I had made myself, and how to sharpen them properly, although I soon concluded that I didn’t have the ancestral muscles. (Part of the answer is to use less firewood by sealing off unnecessary rooms in winter.)
We learned so many things about vegetable gardening that we didn’t know before: the importance of starting with good soil (which doesn’t exist in Irondale), and the importance of keeping an eye on dates and on weather. We learned to identify and defeat many species of harmful insects. We also tried a great many crops and developed a good idea of what crops work in that area (45N 78W) and which ones don’t. I think in particular we gained a good knowledge of grains. Corn is by far the best grain, since the yield per unit of land is quite high, and it requires very little in terms of equipment for growing, for harvesting, or for processing. By “corn,” however, I mean the older varieties once grown by the native people, not modern corn, which is susceptible to insects and diseases. The other grain that did well was rye, mainly because of the sandy soil.
Our brief experience with raising chickens was quite educational in two senses. The first is that I learned something about the construction of buildings with frames made of 2x4s, and as part of that learning experience I did everything with non-electric tools except for the tedious task of cutting chipboard. I built the first chicken coop with a poured concrete-slab foundation, a “shed” roof (i.e. one slope rather than two), and the outside was made of board-and-batten (vertical boards, with the intervening gaps covered by thin strips). The roof was covered with roll roofing. For the second coop, I deliberately used entirely different methods, partly so that I could gain further experience. The foundation was of concrete piers rather than a solid slab, the roof had two slopes (and hence two gables), and the outside of the walls was covered with chipboard, which in turn was covered with vinyl siding, all of it admittedly not so much “traditional” as “transitional.” The roof was covered with the same material as the first coop, but in the form of shingles rather than rolls. For the most part, I preferred what I did on the second coop, although I now think concrete piers are very difficult to build and position neatly without preformed molds and pre-mixed concrete.
One rather odd thing we learned, or seem to have learned, about chickens is that our long hours of acquiring an education in modern poultry-raising may have taken us somewhat in the wrong direction. Just as we were closing down our entire chicken operation, I began reading a few articles which seemed to indicate that from a survivalist perspective it would be better to get away from modern methods. These modern methods are designed to maximize production of either eggs or meat. But our chickens were living mainly on purchased feed, which was expensive to buy and transport, and out of that feed they ate only the types of grain they liked, and simply left the rest to rot. They were also living in a highly fortified building with a well-fenced yard, all of which protected them from foxes, raccoons, and weasels, but their isolated existence meant they were not roaming the fields in search of vegetation and insects which could have provided free food. It may well be the case that a better approach to poultry may be a less-modern one. The chickens raised in more-primitive cultures, in other words, may be relatively unproductive but might have greater resistance to diseases and predators, and the actual varieties of chickens worth considering may be smaller and hardier birds that are closer to the ancestral types.
Perhaps above all, we learned that it is possible to live with some independence from modern civilization. On the four acres that were ours by law, but in reality belonged more to Nature, the seasons followed one another, even if we were generally too busy to notice. In spring the river roared and bellowed and foamed along its banks, threatening to drown all the earth, in summer the heavy dark leaves might nod over a shy pair of paddlers letting their canoe slip past the long bays and sandbanks, and in winter the river was a study in black and white, with ice and snow and sky contrasting with the black trunks and branches. None of that will ever change.
Peter Goodchild is the author of Survival Skills of the North American Indians, published by Chicago Review Press. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.