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 … ”