Another Letter from Vietnam

Well, let's start out here with a quote by that noted American sage, Donald Rumsfeld:
There are known knowns; there are things we know we know.
We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns - the ones we don't know we don't know.

That about sums up our situation, peering forward into the post-collapse future, wouldn't you say?

It seems that I piqued the curiosity of some readers of my initial blog post when I referred to myself as a "failed subsistence farmer." Let me clarify what I meant by that. Twenty-five years ago, my husband and I, setting out with absolutely no previous farming experience beyond five years of vegetable gardening in a different climate zone, embarked upon an adventure, the goal of which was to become totally self-sufficient back-to-the-landers--initially in a rental situation and later on our own derelict 13 acre farmstead. It was the most intellectually challenging and, in many ways, satisfying time of my life. We accomplished amazing things that were entirely outside our previous range of experience but, had we had to rely entirely upon ourselves, without an outside income that allowed us to purchase inputs from the corporate-based economy to fill in the gaps where our efforts missed the mark--quite frankly--we would have starved. It was a great and fascinating experience, but the most important thing it taught me was that even the most dedicated and motivated novices will not be able to sustain themselves in isolation. You need community in order to survive. And your group needs not only arable land, skill sets, tools, seed stock, physical strength, empathy for one another, and an ability to "think outside the box"--but you need to have the knowledge and culture base that forms that "box' in the first place.

It is axiomatic in our circles that the complexity that we perceive in our global system of food production and life support is its Achilles heel. It's a fact that most Americans, for example, don't give a thought as to how the buildings they inhabit manage to maintain a constant temperature , nor do they meditate upon the nature and history of the Slim Jim that dangles from a hook beside the cash register of the perennially well-stocked convenience store. We could watch a movie like Food Inc. or read Michael Pollan's brilliant opus The Omnivore's Dilemma and decide that we could bypass all that seemingly unnecessary added transport and processing and just go for simple, natural foods that we could produce ourselves, if we only had a bit of land and learned a few techniques from yesteryear. Let me tell you, though--this stuff ain't simple! Trying to become a self-sufficient farmer was absolutely the most complex challenge I've ever faced in my life.

Despite the implied message of our educational system, humans did not evolve to gain skills and knowledge from lectures and textbooks. We humans are endowed with something called mirror neurons, which are key to how humans learn the language and skills that set us apart from the rest of the animals. (You can read a bit more about mirror neurons here). Basically, we copy what we see and we hone those new skills through practice.

I devoured how-to books on farming and gardening and food preparation and the like, but you need some real experience to attach those abstract new ideas to. For example, it is true that I learned how to castrate pigs from a library book. However, I did have a base upon which to add that nerve-wracking skill. During my years of study to become a physical therapist, we had to dissect a human cadaver--which we did by following the example of our instructors. Later, I spent a lot of time surgically debriding (removing dead tissue from) wounds of very much live people after--once again--observing someone else do it. While castrating squealing, wriggling baby pigs was extremely stressful--to me and the pigs--it did build upon a skill set that I already possessed.

When we were starting to farm more than twenty years ago, the folks whose guidance I sought out--who had spent their youth on subsistence level farms--were already in their eighties. They're all dead now. How in the world can we conjure up that lost culture of subsistence, let alone adapt it to this rapidly changing planet and climate? I really do despair for the US. I'm sitting here, in the very flat coastal city of Da Nang, Vietnam, within two blocks of the South China Sea, fully cognizant of the inevitability of increasingly intense storms and rising sea levels and, ironically, I feel safer here--because I'm living within a culture that knows how to survive under really adverse conditions. I'm sure it's going to be rough here. Much of the surrounding countryside, as well as parts of the city, are underwater at least once a year due to flooding. Dengue fever sweeps through periodically, inflation is rising, and access to Facebook in Vietnam has just been cut off by the powers that be. You've got your concerns and I've got mine. Let's keep sharing our thoughts and experience and try to make the time that we've got left count for something good.