Message from Da Nang

Greetings from Vietnam! In the immortal words of Mick Jagger: Please allow me to introduce myself! I am a physical therapist and failed subsistence farmer from America. In this new blog, I'd like to share with you some hard-won experience from our eleven years of farming experience in America, as well as some observations on how life works here in Central Vietnam.

In 1986 my husband and I uprooted our thoroughly suburban lives and moved to the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia in an attempt to become self-sufficient back-to-the-landers. We renovated a derelict farm house and heated it with wood, milked cows and goats, churned butter, butchered chickens, sheared, spun and wove with wool from our own sheep, harness-trained a Quarter horse to field work, raised pigs for pork (while my husband considered himself Buddhist!), and home-schooled our eldest daughter. We gave that all up within a year of having visited Vietnam for the first time in order to adopt two children. With the perspective gleaned from that brief time spent in Vietnam, we realized that we were so laughably far from subsistence that I yielded to the mutiny led by my eldest daughter to return to the promised land of suburban American life. And there we stayed for a number of years until, with the re-election of George W. Bush, my husband and I realized that there was absolutely no hope for America and we started to cast about for some way out. We found that route out in 2005, while on a return trip to Vietnam to do volunteer work. We recognized in Vietnam a place where we might live out our lives while making a positive impact in the lives of others. Our Vietnamese and American daughters were by then grown and there remained only our Vietnamese-born son to consider. So, in 2006, with a reluctant son in tow, my husband and I moved to Da Nang, Vietnam.

It seems counter-intuitive to choose coastal Vietnam as a place to relocate to when climate change and potential sea-level rise are looming before us. I guess that, other than having some familiarity with the place and having a strong sense of mission/destiny/whatever, the deciding factor for me was that I felt that Vietnam was so much better poised to navigate the post-Peak Oil, post-global trade future. Dwellings and places of business here are clustered closely together to facilitate what was, until very recently, a human-powered system of transportation. Most food is grown and marketed locally. Petroleum-dependent modes of transport are recent add-ons, rather than the determining factor in how everything is laid out, as they are in the States. And, despite the dizzying pace of development and Westernization taking place here in the past few years, traditional knowledge and practice are much more accessible than they are in the States. For example, other than my own abortive attempt to re-invent farming based on what I had gleaned from library books and conversations with my elderly patients, the last member of my immediate family who had any farming experience had been my grandmother, who left her family farm in Ireland more than one hundred years ago, at the tender age of twelve. In contrast, folks that I encounter here in Da Nang and the surrounding areas grew up farming and even college-educated twenty-something-year-old city dwellers know how to make do with very, very little--thanks in large measure to the educational opportunities made mandatory by the US-led embargo that relaxed a mere 15 years ago!

Here, in a nutshell, is the essence of what I have learned by meditating on the failure of our farming adventures and through what I am observing here in our new life in Vietnam: COMMUNITY IS ESSENTIAL! Have you ever read the Little House on the Prairie series of books by Laura Ingalls Wilder? I did. In fact, I read most all of them aloud to my home-schooled eldest daughter. In retrospect, I think that I inadvertently merged the idyllic picture of the bountiful life depicted in Farmer Boy, a romanticized account of Wilder's husband's childhood on a prosperous farm in upstate New York with the isolation and do-it-yourself childhood of Wilder herself depicted in Little House in the Big Woods. I had a lot of support in this delusion, of course, having been steeped in the notion of American individualism and supposed self-sufficiency. In reality, survival--let alone thriving--as a solitary individual or nuclear family is well-nigh impossible. We need each other. We have evolved to work and live in community with one another.

You're not going to make it alone, wherever you live. So, the question is: what can YOU contribute to that essential community?