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Friday, January 2, 2015

A Life of Greatness in an Apocalyptic Landscape

Written by  Hilary White
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A Life of Greatness in an Apocalyptic Landscape
I think I've mentioned that my favourite genre of film is Apocalypse. The Bomb, zombies (supernatural and viral), robots, AI super-computers, vampires, pandemic viruses, asteroids, comets, volcanoes, the sudden totally unexplained failure of all plant life (which is as close to an explanation as we got from The Most Depressing Book/Movie Ever Made Road), talking apes, pod-people aliens, tripod aliens, Triffids, long-forgotten buried dormant dragons, total economic collapse due to Evil Capitalists (too numerous to link), sudden ice ages triggered by industrial emissions reducing the salinity of the Gulf Stream (science!!), sudden unexplained plant-sentience (not making that one up, "They're mean, they're green and they're mad as hell..."), titanic reversals of the earth's polarity, titanic reversals of the earth's magma layer, overpopulation, underpopulation, and rampant Terry Gilliam... I love 'em all.


As long as it wipes out the stupid awful and pointlessly soul-crushing, artificial distraction-culture we've created since the 60s, kills off at least 80% of the population and sends the survivors back at least to the Middle Ages, I'm all for it.
What are all apocalypse movies really about? (Other than the ones that are about the actual Apocalypse and Second Coming, which is about The Real... in an ultimate and definitive way, totally un-metaphorically.) They're about us. About how you and I, we spoiled, over-fed, overindulged and over-distracted modern urbanites, would do in a crisis, when faced with real, physical danger and hardship. They all ask the same question: can you cut it in the real world without your iPhone?

Lately, I've been thinking a bit about what skills one actually needs to live happily and well in a less urbanised, comfort and distraction-driven environment. I'm constantly amazed at how little even my very smart friends know about basic material survival. Living here is making me think a lot about how people lived in other times, what they did to get food on the table, warm clothes and to keep their lives spiritually meaningful. How did people refrigerate or otherwise preserve perishable foods? What sort of practical skills did one need to live in a localised micro-economy?

What sort of non-firearm type of weapon skills could I acquire to take down small game? There is an outdoorsy shop in town that sells bow and slingshot hunting stuff, and the other day my friend and I took a walk around the fields and saw lots and lots of rabbit trails that would be perfect for snare lines.

It's not really that I'm actually expecting an Apocalypse soon. I think that a lot of the so-called "prepper" urge is more about learning to live less artificial distraction-oriented, more authentic and Reality-based lives. It's pretty exciting and fun to think about apocalypse scenarios. Obviously I'm not the only one thinking about these things, since the genre is close to the top of the movie and TV charts. But what does it mean, really?

The old way of living was a lot of work. There really was very little that we would recognise as "leisure" time. Even fairly simple stuff was a lot of daily work. If you wanted heat, you had to get a load of firewood or coal in, enough to last a whole winter. You had to cut it all into manageable bits and heave it into the house and get the fire going every morning. Cleaning clothes was a full day's worth of work. Every single thing we need, warmth, shelter, clothing and food, entertainment, education, social contact, transport, all required ten, a hundred, a thousand times the effort that we put into things.

I lived for a year in a beautiful little 18th century country cottage in Cheshire that looked idyllic, like a hobbit hole, but had no central heat. The place came with a coal fire in the sitting room and an electric hot water tank that was just big enough to half-fill the bath. I bought a plug-in electric oil radiator for my bedroom and had an electric blanket, both of which I was too scared to use because electricity is incredibly expensive in Yookay. It gets chilly, damp and dark in northern England in January, and I was cold a lot. In the mornings, if you wanted heat, you had to spend at least 20 minutes raking out last night's coal ashes and laying the fire, and it took another hour to heat the room. And it only heated that room. (Which was OK because there was only that room, the bathroom and the bedroom upstairs.)

It was a tiny taste of what life was like in the Olden Days. I loved it, but I was pretty sure it would get progressively less fun as I got older. I thought a lot about how enthusiastic I would be about my charmingly old-fashioned lifestyle when I was 90 and still had to rake out the damn coal ashes every morning in the freezing cold.

The thing we always forget in these post-modern apocalypses is that we wouldn't be alone. Humans, given normal conditions (that is, conditions other than those of the last 150 years of hyper-consuming industrialization) form small, localised communities and help each other survive. In the same village in Cheshire in the 18th century when my little house was built, a 90 year-old spinster wouldn't live alone in her cottage, and if she did, she would be part of the larger village community who would know all about everything in her life. If Old Miss White didn't show up to Matins two mornings in a row, the curate would be knocking on the door to see if she was all right, and if she wasn't he would go visit her nearest kin to see if arrangements could be made for some home-help.

This was something that I have become more aware of since moving to Norcia, the little town in the Umbrian mountains where St. Benedict was born and where they still farm, fish and hunt wild boar quite a lot. I've been here less than two months and already people ask where I am and if I'm OK if I don't turn up to Vespers, or if I'm not seen kicking about the piazza for a couple of days.

Life is hard. Our attempt to make that truth go away and stop bothering us has only created new categories of hard. Well-fed, well-distracted secularised urban people are lonely, isolated, depressed, aimless, loveless and shallow. They don't die young of old fashioned diseases, (my great grandfather's younger brother died at 14 after a horse stepped on his foot) but they do divorce and/or remain single and childless, they have a lot of meaningless, loveless sex, (and discover new and exciting sexually transmitted diseases). For the most part, they have meaningless, pointless work, mainly oriented towards selling their fellow urbanites things they neither need nor want. And in the main, they are out of shape and eat bad food and quite a lot of them die of a whole new set of diseases associated, for the first time in human history, with sitting down too much.

150 years ago, most people lived a style of life that was hard physically, but good morally and spiritually. I'm not sure we've really won the trade.


The other day I found myself really moved by a news item about a guy who, by modern standards, had won the lottery of life. He had been an American footballer with gazillion-dollar contracts with the NFL. One day, he just up and quit, saying that he had made enough money footballing and wanted to do something else. He bought a farm and started growing vegetables and giving them away to local food banks and soup kitchens, and teaching outdoor-deprived urbanites how to grow vegetable gardens. The interviewer asked him how he had learned farming techniques. He replied, “YouTube.”

But he was also helped by other farmers in the neighbourhood who taught him a lot about sustainable, non-chemically based small-scale farming techniques. He said he made a good trade, “Not by man’s standards, but in God’s eyes.”

“When I think about a life of greatness, I think about a life of service.”

Some time ago, I saw a meme on Facebook that stuck with me. I think it was a photo of a guy planting a garden, and the caption was simply, “You don’t have to live like they tell you.” It reminded me of something that Peter Kreeft once told me in an interview: that old saying, “You can’t turn back the clock,” is wrong. “Of course you can. You have to, if the clock is telling the wrong time.” If you’ve gone wrong, as an individual or as an entire civilisation, the thing to do is not to just bludgeon your way forward. It’s to go back to the point of divergence and start again on the right path from that spot.

I’m not sure what, exactly, I’m going to do here, but since coming, I’ve remembered that I used to grow a lot of vegetables, and that when I was a kid my mother taught me to knit and to sew and make lace and embroider beautiful things. A place like this, a little ruraltown of 4000 people, far, far away from the nearest big city, and with such a culturally and historically rich heritage, is a good place to make a start at trying to live in a different way. A good place to turn back and find outhow we ought to be living and experiment with greatness.
Last modified on Friday, January 2, 2015