But in the End, It Really Doesn’t Matter

By Cam Mather

(Michelle’s Note: This is the blog post that I found to be a bit of a downer, but Cam was determined to post it.)

We recently enjoyed our yearly summer visit with Ken and Madeline Snider. Ken was born in the house we live in, almost 90 years ago. Madeline taught at a one-room schoolhouse a couple of miles from here.

I always enjoy their visits and learning what life was like here so many decades ago. Unfortunately I started this visit in a bad mood. The drought was still my reality. Oh, we’d had a day of rain, but one day of rain in 40 doesn’t end a drought and on the day they visited it was hot and rain-free again.

Just before they arrived I was working in the barn foundation gardens. The greenhouses that I put together have worked out well this year. They look awesome and we’ve had the nicest cucumbers that we’ve ever grown, from inside the glass greenhouse. As I was working away I noticed a weird little pile of fresh soil beside one of the raised beds. I investigated it and I realized that a mole, or vole, had tunneled into the tomato garden. As I followed its trail I found several pepper plants that had toppled over. It appeared as though the little critter had chewed their roots. At that moment Michelle called to let me know that Ken and Madeline had arrived. Personally I wanted to get the manure fork and spend the day plunging it into the garden until I impaled the creature that was destroying one of the bright spots in the garden. Apparently I have rage issues.

Ken and Madeline had brought copies of some photos from when they lived here and frankly this depressed me too. I love seeing them. I love seeing what the barn looked like. Now there is just the concrete foundation left. There was a photo of the schoolhouse where Madeline taught. I’m assuming the photos are from the 1930s or early 1940s.

There was one photo that really haunts me. I’ve seen it before but I didn’t have a copy of it. But it’s seared into my brain. I can call it up anytime I want, but mostly I try and push it aside. But there it was again. The photo of the view taken from the east. The one that shows a hay field running all the way to the house. Flat. Unencumbered. No hills. No ponds. No rock outcrops. Just a simple, flat hayfield.

hay-field-from-the-east

That hay field is no longer there. Now it is a sculpted, hilly piece of land quickly turning into a forest. I tried to duplicate the photo position but you can’t see the house through the trees anymore. From the vantage point where I was while taking this photo, on a rock outcrop, I’m actually standing at a much lower position than where the original photo was shot. Long before the soil was removed and dumped in the road.

same-view-in-2012

Now ‘forest’ sounds impressive. And it is. Nature reclaims land so quickly. The birch and poplar and pioneer plants have quickly moved back. But the sad part for me is that it’s no longer flat.

About twenty years ago they were upgrading the road past the farmstead. The area is hilly and so the road needed fill. So the construction company contacted the people who owned the house and asked if they could get fill from the property. The owners did not live here. They lived elsewhere. So they gave permission. I don’t know whether they were paid.

The earthmovers came and took away that hay field and with it, whatever topsoil that had been built up. The soil around here is marginal at best, so it’s not like it was the world’s finest high quality loam. But it was significantly better than the sand they left behind. And now as I contemplate expanding our gardens I have to face the reality of these areas. Nature has reclaimed the area. And we have hills and a pond and big rock outcrop. And grass. And trees. But when I dig I discover what sand looks like after 20 years of nature trying to built up topsoil. And it’s not good. Each year grass grows and dies and leaves fall and rot. But it’s a very slow process.

As Ken and I sat on the porch discussing the photos I was trying to get the lay of the land. Where the old driveway was. Where the drive shed for all the haying equipment was. And Ken finally said “I have trouble figuring out some of this stuff since they took the fill away.”

I’m sure some days I could have just “shluffed” this off. But with the heat and drought and the moles and my bad frame of mind I just found it bleak.

When Ken lived here it was a mind-boggling amount of brutal physical labor, just to survive. Not to get ahead. Just survive. Eventually he moved away and got work in the city. And Madeline continued to teach. And governments ended up with more money to pay teachers and provide generous retirement funds. And society grew richer and can take better care of our older citizens.

And now Ken and Madeline have sold their home and live in a retirement community. I asked Ken if they have a kitchen in their apartment, but it turns out that their meals are prepared for them. And my mind boggled at the concept that in his lifetime Ken has gone from breaking his back to feed himself and his family every day, to a time where someone else feeds him. Without him or his family having to grow the food himself. And most of us just accept this as the norm.

Now many other cultures less wealthy than our own also support their elders very well. But it usually means a family working hard to provide excess food for that individual who has earned the rest. But in many developed countries it’s the norm to have a society rich enough to feed our elders without help from their families. It’s done through the miracle of fossil fuel-based industrial agriculture. And it’s pretty amazing.

I wonder if some day someone will prepare all my meals for me, without me having to work for it. I don’t think this will happen. I don’t think this will happen for most people my age in the developed world, at least not in the way we envision it. I believe the collapse of fiat currencies and the increased energy return on investment to get what liquid hydrocarbons are left in the ground will force everyone to have reduced expectations. A farmer without the manservant of a million years of stored sunlight in diesel fuel can’t feed 50 or 100 people.

I think of Ken in his 20’s worried about farm. Worried about the hay harvest. Worried about a sick animal. Worried about paying for that new stove or farm implement they desperately needed. And I think about me worrying about the loss of the topsoil so thoughtlessly decades ago, and how after the hottest, driest July ever, growing food is going to be so much more challenging, and how even if I did have the income to save for a retirement, I don’t think our society will have the resources to feed me the way we can today. I’d better get my daughters interested in farming.

Then I wonder if the worry is worth it. In the words of Linkin Park… “I tried so hard, and got so far, but in the end, it doesn’t really matter … ”

21 Responses to “But in the End, It Really Doesn’t Matter”

  • Warren Abar:

    Really enjoy reading your blog and to see there are people out there who understand the true reality of things. You are dong the right things and that in itself is it’s own reward.

  • Ash:

    I think this was a great post, very realistic. Everyone always calls me negative or depressing when things like this post are spoken about. I call it the Doctor telling the patient they have cancer, truth. Like Ayn Rand says – You can ignore reality, but you can’t ignore the consequences of ignoring reality.

  • Blanche H.:

    To Farmgirlwanabe: Check out coconut oil for dementia. It works. it is the medim chain triglycerides, I think.
    Cam,…you hang in there!

  • This reminds me of the farm I worked on as a teenager. Acres and acres of prime farm land on a dairy farm in te Eastern Townships of Quebec. The farm had been in the family for generations and was expropriated for a highway extension…not just the land that was needed for it, but the whole farm. Yes, the family was able to buy another piece of farmland nearby, but that meant one less farm producing food for the population. It’s sad, almost depressing to see farmland destroyed in the name of progress.

  • greelyrita:

    There have been a lot more depressing posts than this one. This one has a realistic, non-rant tone that is actually nice. I don’t enjoy hopping up and down rants shouted from a soapbox.

  • Glee:

    This is the despair that comes in “the middle” I always find the middle the hardest part. Starting off you have the wonder of a new thing to spur you on – like in spring planting. At the end, you have the prospect of reaching your goal – harvesting, but in the middle that’s where your metal is tested. It’s when you ask yourself why did I ever start this? What will it matter in the end? It’s where sore muscles and lack of sleep loom largest because day after day you can’t see your results because you’re too busy making it all work. Whoever it was that said it doesn’t matter in the end was wrong. It all matters – we all matter, and most of all, YOU matter. Keep on keeping on.

  • william:

    Wonderful,realistic and insightful article.People seem not want to hear the truth.The best defense is a good offense and having a plan to sustain yourself if the need arises is my goal.We must always look on the bright side though and be grateful for what we have been blessed with here in Canada.

  • Cathy:

    “If all people had to survive by the labour of their own hand – there would be far. fewer. people.” I don’t believe this… there would be larger families, more farms and less expectancy of the government to take care of us in our old age. I believe family is suppose to take care of family in our old age. Not government. “Retirement” was your kids and grandkids taking are of you with genuine love and respect.

    Reality suck sometimes. Manure happens, and what happened to, “We take care of our own families and business”. Hard physical work is throughout history the norm, not governmental dependancy.

    How do you define success? What you have taught your kids or what you have been brainwashed by advertisers to believe?

    Is what you are living gloom and doom or the New (Old)American Dream of self sufficiency. Did you expect no voles, a bed of roses you don’t have to weed, a field that mother nature has graciously reclaimed after man screwed it up, that’s wishful thinking that what if’s will not fix? You can’t control what you don’t own. Don’t pay your taxes or your mortgage and see who really owns the land.

    The earth will fix it’s self in time if man stops interfering. Who are we to think we can fix and control everything? God was doing just fine inventing everything until he gave us free will to mess it up.
    OK, I’m done ranting….I feel better now. If you want to rant, tell God your displeasure, he’s big and heard it all. He can handle it.

  • Jane:

    I dont find this gloomy at all. It is just a reality. One that few people realize these days when they have someone provide everything from their food, power, waste disposal, and even have someone tell them what color they can paint their house. I also get sad looking at old pictures of our farm. In my case it is because of Americas insatiable need for more resources. Where I live in western Pennsylvania our areas land has been raped so many times over. First coal mining, then shallow well drilling, then the discovery of the first oil just north of me led to oil wells, then strip mining, now we have deep well fracturing leasing every piece of property (except mine) for miles around poisoning the land and water. More farms go under daily. There literally will be nothing left of this wonderful land soon, and no one can see that. They just see the few dollars that these drilling companies wave in their face. It just makes me so very sad. It is like Chief Seattle said, ‘when will we realize we cant eat money’.

  • Deeda In Seattle:

    I’m sorry the visit left you depressed; I look at it like…you are slowly changing the farm the way it used to be, correcting a bad mistake that hopefully we learned from! The topsoil was replaced by sand, yes, but no one lived there then…and I’m sure the road was definitely needed, and the sand provides drainage…it’s just the ‘circle of life’ (Lion King–deep, I know!)and we are part of the mistakes and corrections.

    Your blog is fun to read, and a dose of reality of how hard farming can be, and how rewarding. I hope that the drought will not be a permanent trend–even the dust bowls in America in the late 1920s did let up after awhile–but part of the problem was the farmers and their methods, which improved. I just hope the general warming trend of the greenhouse effect doesn’t make the farm belt of North America into another Sahara desert! But even the Sahara used to be a lush tropical area!

    As for your visitors, I can relate to the need of Retirement communities, I caregive for our 98 yo grandmother, visit my mother who is 82, and worry about other elderly relatives who are aging fast. Whether it would be their personal families making their meals or a cafeteria, they need to be cared for somehow–our society lives for so long now that if they can afford it (Seattle costs around $2500/month) at a retirement community, with staff, a nurse, dieticians, janitors, –it has to be done! I hope my mother moves into one (with a kitchenette!) for the support and socialization–but as a product of an immigrant culture (Chinese) that grew up during the depression–she thinks it’s too expensive, though she can easily afford it! Sigh.

    But we all try and do our best. Keep up the Blog and be proud of what you do, what you share, and what you teach us all!

  • Connie Murray:

    OK, it is a little gloomy the thought of no oil or at least no affordable oil. I just hope the US doesn’t get involved in some bogus War in Iran (like we did in Iraq) in an effort to grab their resources. Drought is nationwide in the US and at the grocery store I saw a 5 lb. watermelon going for — wait for it — $7.99. My own veggie garden is really too small be self-sufficient. We’ve got lots of nice tomatoes, cukes, green beans, lettuce and this year (first time ever) we have potatoes. Actually the potatoes I grew in sandy, lousy soil and when the drought hit, the tops died off. I took my plastic kiddie rake and raked through the dusty soil and bunches of potatoes appeared. I was amazed because all my other potato growing attempts for years have produced lush tops and no spuds. So maybe the secret is grow what’s suitable for the land? Good post, Cam. Keep ’em coming!

  • Jeff M:

    Err make that your grand daughters!

  • Jeff M:

    We need more small scale food producers like you making due without oil. I think that for reasons you give in this blog that many people are returning to the land in anticipation of the hard times to come when we cant afford to buy bread grown with $300/barrel oil. And that is one reason to be hopeful.

    I cant say that my efforts to be more food self-sufficient have been unmitigated successes. I like to think that I am getting my mistakes out of the way now when oil is cheaper than what it will be.

    By the way if you can I recommend planting some red pine in that thin sandy soil. It grows well in sand and in 100 years when they are ready for harvest your daughters will have some soil there where there is none thanks to decomposing needles.

  • Farmgirlwanabe:

    Cam and Michelle – its not bleak and I agree with Gerrit – its realistic. The thing that worries me the most about getting old, as I have seen so many of my parent’s friends suffer from it, is
    dementia – at this point in time no amount of money or lack of money can make a difference – there is no cure for that right now and it robs an individual of all that they hold dear – their memories of a well lived life with all its ups and downs, moments of pure joy and moments of heartbreaking sorrow. All that defines a person because at the end, when you are lying there facing the end its those memories that have been accumulated during a liftime that hopefully you will be able to look back on and smile more than cry. I have found that I spend less time now on accumulating stuff and more time on giving my children memories that will last in their minds for longer than ‘stuff’ (except maybe well written books like yours as they will still be on mine and their’s bookshelves.

    Keep on writin Cam, keep on writin’

  • Kirk:

    Ok Cam,

    – Before you read this anti-rant, understand that I think you and Michelle are pretty awesome –

    Remember when you lived in Burlington, growing trees, gardening in the front yard, composting like a hero, doing what ever you could to be responsible?

    Some of us are still there. Giving away our best years and the majority of our day to a job. Then with the remaining few hours of light left in the day, working the garden, maintaining the property, being responsible.

    I would love to be able to live off my own land by the work of my own hands. But, not everyone can survive on that income. So I work a job and pay a wheelbarrow full of taxes. Taxes that will be used to care for people like Ken and I think that’s just fine.

    When virtually everybody worked their own land, and fed their own families that was an awe-inspiring quantity of labour, and it meant much less money for people like Ken [see – dirty thirties].

    If all people had to survive by the labour of their own hand – there would be far. fewer. people.

    So perhaps the answer exists somewhere in the middle.

  • Catherine:

    Cam, that’s the way life was/is, and maybe we need a reminder that we don’t live in Disney World and not everything always turns out “right”. I find too many people now who are just too content to live on the surface and ignore the “meat” of issues. I could go on and on about this, but suffice to say, I appreciate your posts even when they may seem gloomy.

  • Steve Martyn:

    Good post, Cam.

    Death, taxes and change are the only things guaranteed in life.

    Some change is for the good and some is for the bad.

    I believe we are starting to experience a period of major economic change that will impact most of us significantly. I don’t think it will be as bad as the professional doom and gloomers predict, but I also don’t think the past few years are just a blip on the radar and its back to business as usual as the establishment would like us to believe.

    Yes, a hard rain’s a gonna fall. But eventually the sun will emerge again.

  • Dave W, Mayo SC:

    This post was fine. Gloom and doom are a part of life. If we don’t like the post, we won’t read it.

    To use another Linkin Park reference, at least you’re not “One Step Closer” 🙂

  • Great post Cam. It’s really restored my faith in Doom. Let’s have more like it.

  • Gerrit Botha:

    I don’t think your post is bleak; I found it realistic. We have always been either poor or lower middle class and we raised our children to understand that they are our retirement plan. We believe there will be nothing else, pretty much for the same reasons you mentioned in your post and in your books.

  • Lu Anne:

    Michelle was right.

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About Cam
Cam Mather and his wife Michelle live independently off the electricity grid using the sun and wind to power their home and their CSA. Cam is working towards the goal of making his home “zero-carbon” and with his extensive garden he aims to grow as much of his own food as possible. He is available to speak at conferences and other events and has motivated many people to integrate renewable energy into their lives, reduce their footprint on the planet and get started on the path to personal food, fuel and financial independence.
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