Nine Miles of Two Strand – Dave Freer
Nine miles of two-strand topped with barbed wire
laid by the father for the son.
Good shelter down there on the valley floor,
down by where the sweet stream run.
Now they might give me compensation…
That’s not what I’m chasing. I was a rich man before yesterday.
Now all I have got is a cheque and a pickup truck.
I left my farm on the freeway.
Jethro Tull, Farm on the Freeway 1987
I’ve got a pig’s head in fridge.
Honestly, it keeps the milk fresh.
And how does it do this?
Well, by stopping me opening the fridge and looking at it, and knowing I have brawn to make. Pigs are famous, or infamous, for the potential to use everything but the squeal. And I’m thinking of recording that and selling it our Social Justice Warriors in the church of the perpetually outraged. It’s almost indistinguishable in pitch, although the expert might detect an absence of the usual whine in shrillness.
A few years back when we came to Australia, I decided to go full loony and see if we could become largely self-sufficient. I was driven to this by the noblest of green and ecological motives: the fact that I was broke, and food imported to the island – I live on a remote island out in the middle of the Bass Strait, between mainland Australia and Tasmania – isn’t cheap. Emigration had been expensive, and something, somewhere had to be cut. I’ve always hunted and fished and grown veg…
I learned a great deal about producing your own food (as opposed to just adding to it) and relying on what you catch to feed you. First and foremost, you can get thin pretty quickly. Secondly harvesting from a supermarket is a lot easier than harvesting from the wild or the garden. Thirdly, there is always some free-loader who adds nothing, willing to ‘help’ you eat it. Fourthly – that delicious home grown veggie – tastes that way because it’s flavored with a lot of sweat. Trust me on this, it is better when that’s someone else’s sweat.
All too many first world (and a fair number of the rest) have a fairly nebulous idea about where things come from – and not just food and drink. Electricity just comes out of wall sockets. Light just comes out of globes. And water is spontaneously generated in the pipe that leads to the faucet.
We take these things for granted. They are, the way air is. Like air, we never think much about it until our wind-pipe is blocked and there isn’t any coming in to our lungs. And when we go to the supermarket, and there is no meat in the chiller, or no veggies on the racks, why, we think we’re in Venezuela or Zimbabwe.
It may be that the government has decided to ‘help’ by setting the prices. Or that the supply chain that stops cities running out of food in about a day and half is interrupted… or that people have gone full panic that it may, or some politically cushioned-from-his-own-idiocy moron has decided that farmers are irrelevant, easily substituted widgets. That well-run farms and gardens are not important.
The simple truth is when those goods from the primary producer aren’t there, it’s SHTF time for probably 80% of the first world, or more.
Which led to this:
When suddenly Britain had to feed itself in WW2 and there were not enough men to work the land. Heaven alone knows what they’d do now. Funnily I don’t see the latest generation of feminists embracing this eagerly, even if it real equality.
I’m actually less apocalyptic than most on this – I’ve been to Harare (and seen the ‘no parking, fine 300 000 000 dollars’ sign). Robert Mugabe and his cronies had destroyed agriculture in what was the bread-basket of Africa, exporting huge amount of food. Leaving politics and race out of it: he made the easy-to-make error – farmers are widgets, with no skills and no real value. We can take farms at gunpoint and give them – principally to our wealthy urban dwelling cronies (who, trust me on this, are as westernized and used to water coming out of a tap and electricity out of a socket as any urban American) and ‘landless peasants’ – mostly urban slum dwellers. The farms with the best houses and most cattle went to the former, the land which took ten acres to the cow, to the latter. But all would be well, because actual farming was easy, something an idiot could thrive doing. Yeah right. In this ‘Comrade Bob’ is indistinguishable from any latte sipping ‘liberal’ in New York City, or indeed a large part of the population of any large city, isolated from reality. It’s not skin color that makes stupid or ignorant.
Of course it’s not just farming that this holds true for. It’s primary production of any sort, be it fish or coal, or oil or electricity or even water. Or even fiction…
Here’s the thing – humans have been primary producers long before we learned to be anything else. Because, no matter how good a derivatives trader or school administrator you are, if there’s no food, no water, no shelter to live in, the only derivative is death and the only schooling is in how to die. People learn to be primary producers. Or leave. Or die. And people can live on very, very little. You wouldn’t want to. Most of the ‘rights’ you hear shouted about come out of abundance. Being a woman in a society where people starve, means laws and ‘rights’ go to the wall pretty fast. But people do live through it.
The first world hasn’t seen much of a Mugabe problem. Indeed, food from elsewhere, money from elsewhere, kept the people of Zimbabwe alive, even if at a fraction of the quality of life they’d had before. There have been a few trends running in Western world for the last few centuries – firstly farms have got bigger and farming much more efficient. Our crops, our crops our fertilizers our pest control got more effective (whether this is all good is a whole different argument). Secondly our supply chains have got vastly more efficient. Wheat from Egypt kept Ancient Rome alive – wheat from America kept a large part of the world alive. Thirdly… this meant huge numbers of people left the land and moved to the cities. Odd though this may seem to me now, life was better and fuller for a lot of those doing this. They fed the labor needs of industry, which in turn fed back manufactured goods – from tractors to plastic piping that made a farmer’s life easier and more efficient.
Which all sounds terribly hunky-dory (that’s a dory with six-pack) until you look at the details, the ways things spin out. Firstly a lot of people resist change. If we leapt into the unknown – be that the big bad city or that green river with the logs with teeth – without caution, the human race would have had a very short, temporary visit of one generation, if that. Cities grew out of very small villages, and moving to them had to sound good and be confirmed by returnees splashing the wealth, and flashing the finery… or nothing short of starvation, and not even always that could have induced the move. For millennia cities have been painted as ‘better’, which was sometimes true.
Secondly: well what you need to survive and thrive in a crowded urban environment is quite different to what you need in a rural one, and even that was a pale shadow of what you needed as a colonist on a frontier. (And yes, humans are a colonist species. Not white humans, all humans. We colonize new environments. Otherwise we’d all be in a little valley in Africa. Many plants and animals do colonize. It’s natural, normal biology. Get over it.) Selective pressure over thousands and thousands of generations made us good at being colonists, good at being primary producers (of game, of wild food). Take that selective pressure away, favor things like ‘must obey well’, ‘must not think for him/herself, but do what authority tells him/her to do’, ‘must not think too far ahead, because that gets you shortened by a head’… and these become selected for traits.
Of course you don’t select for one set of traits for millennia to have them disappear, just because you’re selecting for something different. Firstly some of those frontier/colonist traits are still useful – the independent thinking and adaptability work well – so long as that’s not ALL of the city dwellers. And secondly, well crossbreeding humans throws up throwbacks, as much as it does in any other animal.
Those throwbacks, or part-throwbacks, are full of traits that would do real well thriving off the land or sea, but less well in the city. They cope (sometimes) but when they get back to the life they fit at… well maybe it’s the soul-ular level rather than cellular one… they don’t just thrive. It’s like you’ve been dealing with sleep-walker who just woke up.
That was me. I came alive when I went diving, got into the bush as a kid. I was lucky in that I could. Being too aware of noise or movement was no longer a dis-advantage. Back in civilization I was trouble looking for a place to happen. Once I got out into the wild places I was, often as not, in trouble. But I wasn’t the pure and unrefined cause of it. Actually, sometimes I was even fixing it.
And slipping back to my hunter-gatherer ancestry I was… at ease with myself. Hard work… was no chore. This was mine, but I was part of it. Stalking I can feel the land breathe with me. In the sea – I know its strength, its uncertainty, and that you cannot fight it, just use that strength. With a spear… or a spade, or a saw, in my hand I am a man, and comfortable with it. Give me a storm and wild night, and the salt spray sheeting in… you bring me alive. Give me a city street, and I am not. A dog and an empty hillside where I am bent against the bitter wind and trying to keep my rifle dry… that’s almost enough space for me. Cubicles and neon, may be warmer, more comfortable and better paid… but I’m a rich man out there.
It’s not for everyone, but it IS for some of us. And the land, and those hard and dangerous tasks need us. Like writers, we are not widgets. Some of us do a much better job of it.
And yet… especially among the young, that old myth persists. The city is better. The city is cool. The city is where you belong.
For some of them it is. Good. I don’t want or have to be there. I am glad they do it.
But for some of us it isn’t.
I wrote CHANGELING’S ISLAND for those who need the sea and sky and the open land. For the primary producers, without whom the cities die. Because we need them out here. And they need it just as badly. I write adventure stories, in which men and women are heroes. This book is that first It’s a love song for the sea, the land and the men and women who love it Of magic and pragmatism. Of honor and a love for the land.
The book comes out on the 5th. If you pre-order it’s $6.49. After that it’s over S10.
“They forgot they told us what this old land was for.
Grow two tons the acre, boy, between the stones.”