We can attempt to teach the things that one might imagine the earth would teach us: silence, humility, holiness, connectedness, courtesy, beauty, celebration, giving, restoration, obligation and wildness. David Orr from "Earth in Mind"
May 27, 2008
The World Made By Hand- a Book Review and Tangents
Our little part of Vermont sits in the corner butting up against Berkshire county in Massachusetts and Washington and Rensselaer Counties in New York. So, when I picked up James Kunstler's World Made By Hand I knew the setting intimately. Kunstler, who is more known for his nonfiction books takes draws on the ideas from much of his other writing, including the Long Emergency.
The idea behind the novel is that oil has run out, the United States has been ed in Washington DC and Los Angeles, and there has been two epidemics that have wiped out 1/3 of the population. But that is just the background. The story focuses on one small town in upstate New York and what life is like there. Told through the eyes of Robert who is a carpenter (at least at this point of his life) we see how, in a time when there is no power, no cars, and no centralized government, how the world of this small town evolves. While the plot of the story is driven by various conflicts and adventures Kunstler spends most of his time describing how, in a world without all of the modern "necessities" people get things done.
After reading the first third of the book one night I had to put it down for an entire week. I would get up in the middle of the night and think about the best way to use the land the family cabin is on, I made a list of all the skills I need to learn, I even figured out details about what strengths different family members had how they would be useful. I had to put the book down so that I could refocus myself. After a few days I went from the stressful 'Oh my god this is going to happen tomorrow' attitude to seeing that this isn't immediate but it is possible one.
Last night I picked up the book again last night and finished it. The stress of the week before had subsided and I was excited to find out about the characters. While it isn't a complex emotional story Kunstler does manage to make a reasonable transition from nonfiction to fiction with this novel. I've reviews that criticize his white only setting of the novel but I think it makes sense, he wanted to focus on how things would work, the only diversity is religious. But every book can't be everything, it is just one story so I forgive him the limits he put on the story. It would have been a different book if there were cultural differences that had to be addressed. This is a work of fiction it doesn't have to all things for all people.
The stress that World Made by Hand has left me with has transformed into an excitement that I haven't felt since childhood. While I know none of this is going to happen tomorrow or next month I get a thrill from imagining what exactly life would be like. As a kid I would spend hours imagining so many different realities for myself. What if I was a medieval knight on the road what would I bring? What would it be like to live in "olden days" (Little House on the Prairie)? These questions would fill my mind for hours, including much of my school days. But now I understand that it isn't just if these events happen to prepare for them but that some of these skills and approaches to life might actually be better for me.
All you hear about lately is local food and going green, change for saving our planet has been co-opted by fashion and popularity. What so much of the discussion about these changes forgets is how it affects us as people, right now. We've started making all of our bread products (with a few exceptions) this means that I spend up to an hour a week kneading dough. Not a big deal, except for me it is one of the best parts of my day, sure I could use the mixer to do it but there is something balancing about it, I look forward to it. A lot of these changes involve slowing down and taking more time to focus on ourselves, our families and communities, something that hasn't been important for decades. We live in a country where fame and excessive wealth is considered the apex of achievement. Children are spend more time with nannies and tutors than their own families so that everyone can spend their time 'getting ahead'.
Personally I'd like to slow down a little and spend more time focusing on being a family and enjoying our lives. Of course, that involves financial security but I am not willing to give up our happiness for a financial number that grows inversely to the amount of time we spend together or at least doing things we love.