Outsourcing is now an option

I grew the tomatoes on the upper shelf. The tomatoes on the lower shelf were part of my weekly vegetable pickup.

Technically, where I live is a food desert. The nearest grocery stores are about twelve miles away. A shocking number of rural people get most of their food these days from dollar stores such as Dollar General. Dollar General stores are everywhere. This makes it easier for me to believe the terrifying statistic that 70 percent of the American diet these days comes from ultra-processed foods.

It’s shocking how few rural people have vegetable gardens. And why should they? They don’t eat that stuff anymore. With transplants it’s a different story.

I’ve always had a garden, for better or for worse, in the fifteen years I’ve lived here. However, I do not enjoy — at all — summer gardening. It’s the heat, the humidity, the bugs, the ticks, the weeds, the briars, the gnats in the eyes. No matter how energetic my start in the spring, by summer the garden is always a wreck.

This summer I have an entirely new option. A young couple who live about two miles away (transplants from the Chicago area) have taught themselves to be superb gardeners. When they first moved here, they had day jobs. But this year they’ve quit their jobs and are making a living with their garden. Mostly they sell on Saturdays at an upscale farmer’s market in Greensboro. But, for a few local people like me, they started a weekly pickup of an assortment of vegetables — community supported agriculture. I was able to downsize my own garden this summer to a very manageable one row of nothing but tomatoes and basil, both of which are easy to grow and neither of which I’d be able to live without in summer.

These two young people taught themselves to garden, mostly by watching a lot of videos. In retrospect, I can see what a good idea that is. Old hands like me tend to garden the way we saw it done as children, and though we may experiment with newer methods, we never reach the state of the art. Whereas the garden I’m buying from this summer is a sight to behold. I’ve never seen anything like it other than at Monticello, or an abbey garden on Iona in Scotland. Almost half the garden is in flowers. They don’t till. Everything is perfectly mulched and well watered. The climbing system for such things as beans and cucumbers is ingenious, not to mention tall. They make their own compost, partly from the compostables they collect from their customers in Greensboro as part of the business. They even make enough wine for their own consumption, from native varieties of grapes.

There may well be some local young people — that is, young people who were born here and grew up here — who are interested in doing this kind of thing. But I don’t know of any. The reason for this, as I see it, has everything to do with the cultural decline of the rural deplorables. In a county that voted 78 percent for Trump in 2020, it’s safe to assume that 78 percent of the calories are coming from Dollar General and fast food from the nearest towns — Walnut Cove and Madison. These people — the people who are making America great again — eat their burgers and chicken sandwiches in the car and throw the bags, wrappers, and empty cups out the window onto the road.

Show me someone who lives otherwise, and the odds will be greater than 78 percent that that person is a liberal.

The nearby gardeners, at their booth at a Greensboro farmer’s market

Are you ready for power failure?

⬆︎ My solar panels can produce, at most, a modest 150 watts of power. That’s enough to keep some deep-discharge batteries charged at all times. The solar power also is a supplement to my small generator.

Clearly the risks to the power grid are growing. This is true not just in the United States. Just two days ago, France issued a warning about winter power failure. Whether in summer or winter, power grids can become overloaded (and, these days, often do). For some strange reason, right-wing terrorists seem to be targeting the power grid. The vulnerability of the power grid to cyber-hacking is well known, though no doubt too little has been done about it. Even solar events such as coronal mass ejections could shut down the power grid and damage major components of the grid that would be very difficult to replace.

Being prepared is not necessarily just a matter of comfort and convenience. In some cases, lives depend on it. Everyone needs a plan. In rural areas such as where I live, short power outages (three or four hours) happen many times a year. I’ve never been through an outage that lasted for days, but that’s always possible.

Getting equipped with backup sources of power and heat is not necessarily something that must be done all at once. Being prepared is expensive. And not only are the things you need expensive to buy, they require maintenance, or they won’t work when you need them. Here at the abbey, I’ve gradually built up my ability to weather longer and longer power failures. Each power failure is a kind of test that lets me figure out what my next priority for improvement should be.

The first big question is: Would your heating system operate with the power down? Few systems would these days. I have a heat pump, which is of course all electric. For backup, I have a propane fireplace and a tank that holds 200 gallons of propane. The fireplace provides a helpful amount of heat, but it can’t compare with the house’s main heating system. Kerosene heaters make me nervous. But if you’re careful with them, they can be a safe source of emergency heat.

How would you cook if the power went out? Here at the abbey, though I can boil water in small quantities on generator power, my emergency solution is to cook outdoors using propane. The gas grill, also propane, is always available.

Refrigeration is a biggy. That’s a problem that can be solved only with electricity. My solution at present for refrigeration uses two battery-powered power inverters. The 1000-watt unit can run the refrigerator for five hours or more. I have two such units, so that one can be recharged from the generator while the other is powering the refrigerator.

Lighting is not a big deal. Flashlights and candles are a given, with better light sources if you have the power. You’ll also need to think about water. Even if your water is city water (as opposed to a well, which I have here), frozen pipes could be a problem in extreme cold, especially if the power is out.

For me, communication is a major issue. Cell phones aren’t enough. I also need to be able to keep my computer and WIFI running in a power failure. How I do that is shown in the photographs below. And because I’m an amateur radio operator, I also need to keep all my radios running, if they’re needed. Amateur radio operators are always about community service if a disaster strikes, not only for communication with the outside world but also for providing a means of staying in touch with one’s neighbors.

⬆︎ This small inverter generator is enough to power my refrigerator, computer, radios, and some lighting. I am wary of larger generators that cannot produce pure sine wave power.

⬆︎ You can’t have too many batteries. These batteries are kept charged by the solar panels. On the right is a power inverter that attaches to the batteries. The inverter can produce standard 115-volt house current as pure sine waves. The inverter also can charge USB devices. My solar power goes into my garage, not to the house. And speaking of the garage, that’s my Jeep on the left. It, too, is a nice thing to have for winter emergencies.

⬆︎ The front panel of the power inverter, with its three USB outlets as well as house current. These days, keeping USB devices such as phones charged is a high priority.

⬆︎ Fortunately, inverters like this made in China are fairly affordable. If you’re not clear on the difference between “modified sine wave” inverters and “pure sine wave” inverters, I’d recommend reading up on that. Pure sine wave inverters are more expensive, but I would not want to run electronics or expensive items such as refrigerators on dirty power.

⬆︎ These two devices contain batteries. Their output is house current and USB. They are expensive. I use these devices mainly to keep my refrigerator running — a high priority that I deem worth the expense. One can be charging while the other is powering the refrigerator. Both can be charged from my solar panels, but charging from the generator is much easier as long as the generator is running.

⬆︎ Maybe someday we’ll be able to live without gas-powered engines. But, until then, you’ve got to have fuel. I never store gasoline, kerosene, or propane indoors, and I insist on the safest possible containers.

⬆︎ Propane for emergency cooking, outdoors. I also have a propane grill.

⬆︎ Kerosene heaters scare me. But they don’t scare me as much as a cold house when it’s 5F outdoors, which happened as recently as last week.

⬆︎ This uninterruptible power supply can keep my computer running for hours. But when the power goes out, I get the generator out of the basement and put it in a safe place outside the basement door. I plug the cord from the generator into a receptacle in the basement that terminates at the red outlet that you can see in the wall behind the UPS. When I built my house, I installed the wiring for that. This is a heavy commercial UPS that I’ve had for years. Its batteries have to be replaced every five years or so.

⬆︎ My radios run on battery power at all times. The batteries are kept charged by the trickle charger in the photo below. In a power failure, by moving a plug, I can keep the batteries charged with the generator.

⬆︎ The trickle charger that keeps the radio batteries at full charge.

⬆︎ I sometimes joke with my neighbors that, in a catastrophe, one reason why they should keep feeding me in spite of my age is that they can count on me for communications during a catastrophe. I have had an extra-class amateur radio license for years, and I take very seriously the responsibility to provide emergency communications for the people around me, not only long-distance communications but also local communications using handhelds, of which I have a great many.


Whether we approve or not, Amazon is now important for rural people, just as the Sears catalog was many years ago. We recently put up new signs to help keep the Amazon trucks from getting lost.

I usually think of myself as a hermit, hiding down in the forest, ruled by a bossy, devoted, and needy cat. But when I think back on the eleven years I have lived here in the woods, it’s remarkable how much social work I have done, just because I looked around this little, red, poor, beautiful, unspoiled, undiscovered county in the Appalachian foothills and saw how much social work needed to be done. It also is remarkable how much help, and how many allies, I have had.

Stephen Sondheim:

You move just a finger,
Say the slightest word,
Something’s bound to linger,
Be heard.
No one acts alone.
Careful, no one is alone.

At first it was just me, transplanted (from San Francisco), disoriented, culture-shocked, with an overwhelming amount of work to be done to make a home where there was nothing but woods. I lived in a camping trailer for a year while building the house, and as soon as the trailer had all the hookups necessary to provide for myself and a cat, Lily the cat came to live with me. About a year later, Ken appeared. (I had emailed him after reading his beautiful viral piece in Salon about living in his van while in graduate school at Duke University.) The energy — literary and otherwise — that Ken brought to the project as he lived here on and off for the next 10 years made a huge difference.

For some context and perspective, I recommend the piece that Ken wrote earlier this year for the Wigtown Book Festival, Letter From the Heartland. Also note the satellite photo below, which shows the little village-in-the-woods in which I live, with the abbey’s piece of the woods marked with red.

I first heard Stokes County’s cry for help in 2012. Republicans had taken over the North Carolina legislature, and they naturally thought that sacrificing a couple of rural counties for fracking was a beautiful idea, since fracking had done such wonders in poisoning the people of Pennsylvania. Before my time here, there had been a previous environmental emergency in the county when a chip plant was proposed, the object of which, I assume, was to take our trees and turn them into fuel and building products, polluting in the process and overloading our winding roads with heavy trucks. Some veterans of that fight (which they won), quickly got an organization called No Fracking in Stokes up and running. I am proud to say that I joined that effort early on. Not only have we not been fracked, the organization was so effective that it became quite prominent in the anti-fracking movement.

For better or for worse, I was soon recruited for the executive committee of the Stokes County Democratic Party. Then I was elected county chair. I was in that position for almost six years, until I resigned recently for reasons that aren’t worth going into. The 2020 election was exhausting, and I hope it will be my last election as a local political operative. At the county level, we lost, big (not that we expected anything else). Trump won this county with 78 percent of the vote, so there is a lot of work to be done. In the future I hope to work much closer to home. But there was much to be gained from six years as county chair: I got to know lots of people, and I learned a lot about this county, including things that some people didn’t want me to know.

If I were filthy rich, I’d have the means to do what the filthy rich do to buy seclusion and security. I’d buy hundreds or thousands of acres and put a fence around it. But because I’m not filthy rich, and because my holdings in land are small, I depend on my neighbors for buffer and for security. That’s one reason why village-building is so important (and always has been): Mutual security, and a sharing of skills, tools, and infrastructure.

I can take credit for only a portion of the village-building that is happening here in this neck of the woods. Most of the credit goes to the man whom Ken calls Ron in Ken’s article for Wigtown. Just as Ron doesn’t fully understand why I’m a liberal, I don’t fully understand why a man with his intelligence, social skill, and generosity is a Republican. But we don’t waste time on national wedge issues, because we have plenty of work to do here in the woods.

For example, my tiller had died, and a $90 visit to a small engine shop failed to fix it. Ron suggested that I buy a new carburetor (a mere $14 from Amazon). Yesterday Ron installed the carburetor for me while I handed him tools. Now the tiller runs like new. He has helped with so many projects here that I wouldn’t be able to list them all. I do my best to return the favor with things that I know how to do, such as programming his (and the neighbors’) radios and giving advice on appropriate antennas and how to install them. They heat with wood, so when there’s firewood to be split and stacked, I can help.

Ken has written quite a lot about private property (This Land Is Our Land) and how much he hates no-trespassing signs. There are far too many no-trespassing signs down in these woods. But I’m pleased to say that many of the signs, and much of the purple paint, is fading as a more village-oriented attitude takes root. Ken and I realized long ago that reforming the neighbors’ attitudes on property would be a longterm project to be handled tactfully. I’m pleased to say, though, that the woods are increasingly being treated as a commons, as they ought to be. When a tree goes down in a storm, the question is not whose land it’s on but who needs firewood. And we’ve all become rather proud of our hidden network of trails in the woods, which Ron maintains. When he asked to build a wooden bridge over the stream where the neighbors’ right-of-way crosses abbey property, of course I said yes. My mailbox is half a mile away, and the best walk to the mailbox goes over the bridge and through the woods.

Ron’s organizational skills have turned this little village into a Neighborhood Watch on steroids. Many of the neighbors now have handheld radios, and Ron and I monitor for calls for help. Help has been needed surprisingly often, such as when a 77-year-old neighbor overturned her ATV on a steep hill and was trapped underneath it in the woods, or when another elderly neighbor had symptoms of a heart attack while in the woods hunting turkeys. Everyone has different skills and different kinds of tools. In a village, those skills and tools are available to all. When a culvert washed out a few weeks ago under the road down in the bottom (it’s an unpaved private road, and maintaining it is our responsibility), one of the neighbors brought in his Bobcat and fixed it. That same neighbor now supplies us with eggs. The best I’ve been able to offer him in return so far was enough of my wild persimmons to make a pudding. Everybody has a garden, and everybody shares. Power outages, wind storms, washouts from heavy rain, accidents — there’s always something. One of the biggest shockers to me is that, though most of the neighbors identify as doughty hunters, they rarely shoot anything. Instead they’re on the lookout for poachers that might threaten the local deer, many of whom (including the white deer) have names. Just this week Ron called the game warden because somebody was trying to spotlight our village deer. Ron and someone he knows recently did a census of the local raccoon population, using trained dogs. Six or eight raccoons were treed, but none were harmed. They know where the owls live. They feed the fish down in our little creek, from which irrigation water for gardens is available to any higher-elevation neighbors with tanks and tractors (else Ron will haul it for them). They’ve put out the word that, if anybody is trapping surplus opossums, we could use some more here. If Pete, one of the horses up the hill, breaks out of the pasture, I hear about it, and where Pete pooped, on community radio. As Ken’s article mentions, I’m the “comms” guy, because I have an extra class amateur radio license. And, yes, we all know how to shoot. Ron and his dad set up a shooting range down in the bottom, and it’s available for villagers to go practice. The noise is sometimes annoying, but it’s more a weekly thing than an everyday thing.

Increasingly, what I’m seeing here reminds me of what I remember from the 1950s — the traditional skills and infrastructure that make a high degree of self-sufficiency possible, just because people make their livings at home. Yes, most of us here are retired, but we still work. In a way, Covid-19 has done the world a favor by requiring that we rethink how much of our work can be done from home and how our neighborhoods can expand into local pods. I know that we can’t all live in rural villages. But virtual villages can exist anywhere. I well remember how much Hillary Clinton was ridiculed (by Republicans) for her book It Takes a Village. The ridicule says a lot about the madness of our era, when many people are taught by propaganda to ridicule the very things they most need and are lacking, including an honest politics that serves people’s actual needs. If America is ever great again (whatever that means), surely it will be something that grows bottom-up, instead of being sold as a scam, top down. Until that time comes, I consider it a privilege to have so much space around me, and a level of security that I wish everyone could have.

A neighbor’s wood pile. I helped split the wood.

Pete’s and Buddy’s pasture

The backroad to the mailbox

The road descends past the abbey toward the creek bottom.

Helping the neighbors build their watch tower (no kidding) up on the ridge. That’s Ron’s dad on the right.

The founding members of No Fracking in Stokes. I’m in the back. Winston-Salem Journal photo.

Me as county chair with Deborah Ross, who was running for the U.S. Senate

Ken and me, June 2011

A limousine picks up Ken for one of his many television appearances after Walden on Wheels was published. Yes, that’s the famous van.

She who rules

During the month before the Nov. 3 election, a film crew from Los Angeles and New York was in North Carolina to shoot a documentary called Swing State. They spent several days in Stokes County. I helped show them around and helped them decide whom to interview. Here they are interviewing local candidates for the North Carolina legislature. The documentary should be released next year. I was interviewed, too, and probably will make it into the finished documentary.

Environmental justice: The people fight back

Al Gore

This is a rather long photo essay. I hope you’ll bear with me.

People sometimes ask me why I choose to live in a rural and seemingly backward place like Stokes County, North Carolina, after 18 years in an urbane place like San Francisco. Stokes is a poor county in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It’s mostly white, and it’s mostly Republican. But it’s also a beautiful, green, un-suburbanized place with mountains, a river, and forests that — as far as I can tell — reach all the way up the Appalachian chain to Quebec. It is an unspoiled — and also very livable — piece of rural America. I love rural America and refuse to cede rural America to Trump deplorables, because rural America can be better than that.

I also learned pretty quickly that I am needed here. The progressive people in this county are greatly outnumbered. But we are fierce, and we stand up for ourselves. We have become so effectively organized that we caught the attention a few years ago of progressive forces outside our little county. That’s why Al Gore and the Rev. William Barber were here today. For the Rev. Barber, it was his second time in Stokes County.

Many of the readers of this blog are in Europe, so you may need to be reminded that Al Gore was vice president of the United States from 1993 until 2001, with President Bill Clinton. Gore ran for president in 2000 and won the popular vote nationwide by half a million votes. But because of peculiarities in the American constitutional system and a disputed vote count in the state of Florida, the U.S. Supreme Court gave the presidency to George W. Bush. Gore, a true statesman, said in his concession speech, “[F]or the sake of our unity as a people and the strength of our democracy, I offer my concession.” Since then, Gore has made environmental activism an important part of his life.

Readers in Europe, and some American readers as well, may need to be reminded that the Rev. William J. Barber II has been president of North Carolina’s NAACP since 2006. He is a theologian with degrees from Duke University and Drew University. I consider him the Martin Luther King Jr. of our day. With his “Moral Monday” resistance tactics in North Carolina, he has become a thorn in the flesh of the right-wing and utterly despicable North Carolina legislature. If rich people want it, the North Carolina legislature is for it. The rest of us don’t matter, except insofar as we can be made to pay for the things that rich people want, such as tax cuts.

The environmental justice issue here in Stokes County is a huge coal ash impoundment at a coal-fired electricity-generating plant operated by Duke Energy. The pollution of ground water, and the air, near this plant have sickened many people and caused many premature deaths. Most of those people are poor and black. They still are fighting for clean water. But they have gotten organized. (There is little need to worry about the residents of the abbey. Luckily we are some miles from this problem, and we are both upstream and upwind. But we care about our neighbors downstream and downwind.)

But this is a photo essay, not a political post.

Photojournalism is in my DNA. So I am very mindful of how photographs can be used to tell a story. I love taking photographs of people, so public events are a great excuse for pointing my camera at people’s faces and getting away with it. I shot 932 photos today, but I selected those that I thought told the story best, those that represent the main characters, and, hopefully, those that contain a bit of emotion.

This is my county. And I love it.

Karenna Gore (daughter of Al Gore) with one of our local activists

A local activist (and excellent fundraiser)

Al Gore

Rev. William J. Barber II

Local activists (and good friends)

A local activist and, I hope, a future candidate for political office

A local activist (and son of a local activist) and Al Gore

A local activist

A local activist

Karenna Gore, daughter of Al Gore

A local activist

A local activist

Stacks of the Belews Creek Steam Plant. The lake is primarily for cooling the steam plant’s water.

A local activist

Rev. William J. Barber II

Al Gore

A local activist

Hands during the breakfast invocation

Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia

Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia, by Steven Stoll. Hill and Wang, 2017. 412 pages. ★★★★★

During the past couple of years, an extraordinary series of books have brought to our attention just what a sorry state the world is in. Ramp Hollow is the latest. Some of the others (many of which I have reviewed here) are:

Thomas Piketty: Capital in the Twenty-First Century

Anthony Atkinson: Inequality: What Can Be Done?

Kyle Harper: The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire

James C. Scott: Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States

Nancy MacLean: Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America.

Jason Stanley: How Propaganda Works.

Sebastian Junger: Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging

Jason Brennan: Against Democracy

Volker Ullrich: Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939

Jack Rakove: Revolutionaries: A New History of the Invention of America

This is by no means a complete list. There are others that I still urgently need to read, including books by George Monbiot and Jonathan Haidt.

Stoll is a professor of history at Fordham University.

As for Ramp Hollow, I used the word “angrifying” in an email to a friend. I subsequently came across a review that used the word “enraging.” This book is a history of how the self-sufficient subsistence farmers of Appalachia were dispossessed of their land by the timber and coal industries and forced to work in coal camps and mill towns for starvation wages. Their forests and swidden fields, which they depended upon for their living, which were a kind of commons, were enclosed and decimated to feed the industrial revolution.

Stoll has much to say about dispossession and enclosure in general, starting in England in the 17th Century when Parliament dispossessed the rural English of their common lands, gave the land to the lords, enclosed the land, and forced the people to become peasants who worked the land for others. Earlier in American history, the native Americans had been dispossessed by the colonists. After the Civil War, every possible effort was made to keep emancipated blacks dispossessed, landless, and forced to work like slaves for others. All this was seen as economic and social progress. The poverty and misery this so-called progress caused was hardly noticed.

All around us today, we see the consequences. The poor people who now spend much of their sorry wages buying health-destroying foods at Dollar Generals are descendants of people who once lived off the land with no need of wages. The old subsistence farmers liked money when they could get it, but they could live without money. They traded with each other for what they could not make or grow themselves. Their descendants are dependent on money and sorry wages. They buy their sorry food from corporations.

We have forgotten how forests provided a living. The abundance produced by forests goes far beyond hunting or gathering nuts. One burned a little piece of forest and planted one’s crops amid the stumps. Pigs could live in the woods without being fed. Chickens did fine with a little bit of woods, a little bit of clearing, and a little stream from which to drink. With some pasture, you could keep a cow. Capitalism, on the other hand, saw the forests only as a source of timber to be clear-cut and shipped out by train. Beneath the West Virginia forests lay coal. Capitalism could not tolerate people living without money. Dispossession was a win-win for capitalism. The timber could be sold, and the people who were forced off the land were now a source of cheap labor and taxes, dependent on money for a living rather than on their environment.

Stoll’s book is an unapologetic indictment of capitalism. He ends the book with a stunning proposal — he calls it a thought experiment, but it would be doable if we had the political will — for reversing the centuries-old process of dispossession and the poverty and inequality it has caused. He calls it “The Commons Communities Act.” I’m all for it.

This book is enraging because it tells the story of cruelties and injustices that history did not record:

Those who hung on in the hills had their misfortunes thrown back at them. The basis of their autonomy gutted or sold, they pecked and scrimped. The words of the engineer who condemned them in 1904 echo here: “forlorn and miserable … never having known anything better than the wretched surroundings of their everyday life.” Though they often insisted that they could make a living on remnants of the old commons, they had become poor. They had become the horrifying hillbillies that lowlanders had always thought them to be.

The story is an old one: The intentional creation of poverty by the rich, in order to exploit the labor of the poor. Today’s rich have become so sophisticated at this exploitation that their propaganda has turned its dispossessed victims into active agitators for their own greater exploitation. The very idea of taxing the rich for the relief of the poor is rejected with a religious fervor. How long can this go on?

An abbey literary update

Ken’s third book, This Land Is Our Land, has been in the final editing stages here at the abbey and is due at the publisher, Penguin Random House, next week. The book is scheduled for release in March 2018.

When the idea for this book was hatched last April, Ken was here at the abbey, traveling through on book tour for his second book. He had just published a piece in the New York Times, This Is Our Country. Let’s Walk It. After that piece was published, it was apparent that Ken had become the honorary owner of a “right to roam” movement in the United States and that a book on the subject was needed. Ken had no trouble at all selling his agent and his publisher on the idea, and in no time he had a contract to write the book.

A year ago, I would have assumed that this book would be a fairly bland and somewhat academic — but necessary — reference book for a new movement in need of a manifesto. But having read the manuscript twice during the past two weeks, I was reminded how Ken’s books always exceed my high expectations. It’s not just his superb research and the charm of his writing that make This Land Is Our Land such a good book. It’s also the way he surprises me, when I finally see the manuscript, with how deeply he delves and how high he flies, even though I was in on discussions about the book from the beginning. Though this book’s topic is seemingly narrow, Ken also has produced an incisive snapshot of contemporary American culture through the lens of our attitudes toward the land. And he has laid out a lion-hearted vision of a future America that is less insular and more benevolent.

If you’re not certain what a “right to roam” is, I’d suggest the New York Times link above. It’s not as radical a right as you might think. The people of England, Wales, Scotland, and Sweden have generous roaming rights, and even countries such as Lithuania and Latvia are far ahead of the United States with the right to roam.

This Land Is Our Land will be the fifth book to be born here at the abbey during the last four years. Ken’s other two books are Walden on Wheels (2013), and Trespassing Across America (2016). There also are my novels Fugue in Ursa Major (2014) and Oratorio in Ursa Major (2016). Symphony in Ursa Major is in progress and should be out next year.

Trespassing Across America now in paperback

Ken’s second book, Trespassing Across America, was published last year in hardback. The paperback version was released yesterday. It’s available at Amazon and at most bookstores.

One of the abbey’s bookshelves is reserved for the abbey’s own output. It will grow next year with the publication of Ken’s third book, This Land Is Our Land, which is about the right to roam (or the absence of the right to roam) in America. I also plan to release next year the third novel in the Ursa Major series, Symphony in Ursa Major.

Ken’s box of complimentary paperback books from his publisher


Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, by Sebastian Junger, Twelve/Hachette, 2016, 170 pages.

“As modern society reduced the role of community,” writes Sebastian Junger, “it simultaneously elevated the role of authority. The two are uneasy companions, and as one goes up, the other tends to go down.” Anthropologists have found, Junger writes, that in tribal societies there is little tolerance for major wealth disparities or for arbitrary authority. If some male tries to dominate, boss, and denigrate others, then a group of males will get together and take him down, killing him if necessary.

There is a huge irony in this, given the recent American election. Please note that Junger, in this book, does not talk much about contemporary politics, and of course the book was written before the election. But one of the worst social problems in the United States today, along with racism and disinformation, is economic inequality. The electorate’s response to this, totally in denial (thanks to disinformation and racism) about the black president who put the economy back together after white authoritarian males ransacked the economy eight years ago, was to vote for a domineering, bossy, white (OK, orange) billionaire with the emotional maturity of a nine-year-old who constantly denigrates others. What in the world is wrong with a society that would do that? The answer, I would say, is authoritarianism operating inside its bubble of delusion.

What would a tribe be, if we still had them? Your tribe, says Junger, are the people with whom you would share food and depend on for survival if all hell broke loose.

Authoritarian personalities, for some reason, read everything differently from people like me. It takes a village, I would say. No, say the authoritarians, what it takes are walls, lots of guns, scapegoats, a vindictive god who hates the same people we hate, and a big boss who speaks his mind and talks good shit that we can understand.

Junger points out (for example) that about 3 percent of people on unemployment assistance cheat the system, which costs the U.S. about $2 billion a year. Fraud in welfare and other entitlements, he says, adds about $1.5 billion to the annual losses. “Such abuse would be immediately punished in tribal society,” Junger writes.

However, Medicare and Medicaid fraud — fraud committed by hospitals, insurance companies, care providers, etc. — costs at least $100 billion a year, but nobody really knows the full cost. Fraud in the insurance industry, he says, is calculated at $100 to $300 billion a year. Fraud by defense contractors is estimated at about $100 billion a year. Total costs for the 2008 recession (brought to us by white authoritarian males) have been estimated to be as high as $14 trillion.

And yet we have a political culture that remains focused on petty fraud by the poor rather than the outrageous larceny of the rich and powerful. Then the victims of this larceny, who understand that they’re being had but can’t figure out by whom, elect a billionaire for president, who immediately begins to install the princes of larceny in his government while vowing to make life harder still for the poor.

If the two basic ingredients of dynamite are nitrogen and some kind of oil or fat, then the basic ingredients of fascism are authoritarianism and propaganda, lit by the fuse of racism, scapegoating and a religion for white Americans invented in hell.

This is not a proper review of Junger’s Tribe, because I have focused on a single element of this book that just happens to speak directly to our current political situation and that stokes my anger. But this short book belongs on everyone’s required reading list for 2016.

Update: From the Washington Post today, here’s a story that underscores Junger’s point and that illustrates the appalling vileness of Republicans: Fox News wonders whether we should cancel food stamps because 0.09% of spending is fraudulent

Dreaming of a local economy

Recently, while rummaging in an old cedar chest that was being moved to the attic for storage, I came across my photographs from a trip to India in December 1994. The photo above particularly catches my eye. I took the photo in the Main Bazaar of Delhi’s Paharganj district (which is just across from the train station and a short tuk-tuk ride from Connaught Place). It’s interesting to look at what the photo says about India’s economy (which I suspect hasn’t changed all that much since 1994).

Notice how skinny the horse is. Animals don’t have very good lives in India. Look at the horse’s harness. It’s well used, but it appears to be of good quality. Look at the wagon. It has big wheels and rides high. It must have been built for bad roads, roads that probably are very muddy in monsoon season. It could be firewood on the wagon, but it also could be roots that are used for some purpose — maybe seasoning, or medicine. I tend to doubt that it’s firewood because it’s all so small. There is no shortage of big trees for firewood, even around Delhi. Notice that the man’s feet are bare. My guess would be that the man driving the cart has driven the cart into Delhi from some nearby rural area, for the purpose of selling these roots. Notice the bags hanging on the wagon. I have no idea what’s in them. Though the man is poor, he owns a horse and wagon. For a person of his caste, that’s probably a big deal.

Now look at the man carrying the stainless steel cylinder. What do you suppose is in the container? I’d guess milk, or maybe oil, but of course I don’t really know. The man is wearing a white apron. I’d guess that he is a vendor in the marketplace, that he sells food, and that the cylinder contains one of the ingredients that he uses to make whatever food he cooks and sells in the bazaar. [Update: See comments. A reader has identified the container as a tiffin.]

Notice the table in the far right of the photo with the bags of merchandise stacked on it. If you buy food in the marketplace, you see what those things are for. They’re little plates, and they’re made from leaves that are somehow pressed into bowl shape, using some sort of low-tech manufacturing process. My guess would be that it’s done with steam and some sort of press.

You can buy all the necessities of life in New Delhi’s Main Bazaar. It has been 25 years since I was in Delhi. At the time, there was no sign of any corporate presence in the bazaar. It was all local enterprise. It’s a beautiful economy, actually. It’s a subsistence economy, but you can buy everything you need to live. For the sellers, it’s a livelihood. It’s all local. I don’t remember even seeing any trucks in the market. It was mostly human and animal traffic.

All markets in all places surely pass through this level of development. When, do you suppose, did we leave that behind here in the United States? Clearly, in 18th Century America, our markets operated at that level. Here, for example, is an article on market days in colonial Williamsburg. My guess is that, even in the 19th Century, we Americans were moving more toward a store-based, merchant-based economy, with fewer people meeting for market days to trade directly with each other. And, of course, by the time automobiles came into the picture, it was all over.

When I was a child in the 1950s, the rural countryside was dotted with country stores. They largely sold commercial brands, brought to the store by distributors’ trucks. Many of these old storefronts, mostly abandoned now, are still standing, though a few have managed to stay in business.

There has been a major new change in the last 15 or so years, though, brought to us by corporations and globalization. First it was Walmart that started bringing cheap Chinese imports to rural Americans. But now the dollar stores are cutting into Walmart’s business. The dollar stores (for example, Dollar General) are now all over the rural countryside the way the old country stores used to be. The dollar stores, ugly as sin, sell everyday items that cut down on trips to Walmart. I confess I sometimes go to Dollar General stores, when I need something like cat litter or cleaning supplies. Watching people check out is terrifying to me. Many people, obviously, buy their groceries there. They feed their families on food bought at Dollar General. Everything is processed, and there is no fresh food at all. It’s all about carbs and meat and sugar water.

So, who has the advanced economy? My answer would be India, by far! Just think about it. Americans who, relatively speaking, are as poor and low-caste as the man driving the cart in the Delhi bazaar now drive their trucks and beat-up old cars to Dollar Generals, where they exchange the money they got from their degrading corporate jobs for cheap foodstuffs shipped in from the global economy, much of it from China, where it was produced by peasants brought to the city by corporations to work degrading corporate jobs. Corporations do all this, and what enables it is the cheap fossil fuel that makes it economically feasible to ship that stuff halfway around the world. Whereas in the Delhi market, the shipping is limited to the range that a horse and cart can manage.

The poor Americans who work the degrading jobs and who spend half their paychecks at Dollar General (and the other half on cars and gas — Trump voters) seem to never question the insanity of how it all works. They are an incurious and passive lot, as willing to get their religion and politics from dumb-ass country preachers as to get their bread and milk and sugar water at Dollar General. It’s only we liberals who question this corporatization and globalization and who dream of local markets. It’s only we liberals who are horrified at how the Republican Party is doing everything possible to hand everything over for further corporatization, including education. It’s only we liberals to whom the word corporate and corporatized are ugly words. As for the Trump voters, they don’t know what hit them, and they probably never will. They get slave wages for their degrading corporate jobs, and they scrape by, handing their entire income back to corporations for bad food, sugar water, cigarettes, trucks, and gasoline. The country folk could grow their own vegetables, but they don’t. They don’t eat vegetables anymore. They prefer the stuff from Dollar General, which is exactly how the corporations want it.

It’s interesting to analyze my own budget to try to come up with a rough index of how dependent on corporations I am. I’m plenty dependent — we all are. I don’t have a mortgage, or any debt, so the financial corporations don’t get anything out me. In fact, I actually make money off my bank by using a “rewards” card for purchases. I drive a 16-year-old Jeep (though I drive it very little — it’s the abbey’s beast of burden) and a leased Smart car. Because I don’t drive much, and because the car gets about 48 miles to the gallon, the oil companies don’t get much out of me. My total transportation and beast-of-burden cost is significantly less than what Trump voters pay just for their cigarettes. Though property taxes and homeowners insurance are a significant chunk of my budget, most of the money that I pay out to corporations goes for food. Whole Foods gets most of that. Still, most of what we liberals eat comes from smaller farms and smaller companies such as Arrowhead Mills, Hain Celestial, Spectrum, or Eden Organic. I buy only California wines and olive oil. I do not do business with the big agricultural monopolies.

I live in an agricultural county in which, even a hundred years ago, subsistence farming was the rule. The county has not changed all that much (except for the cars and Dollar Generals). The land is sparsely populated, with a sustainable land-to-people ratio. The fields and pastures are still here. Many of the barns are still standing. We could easily provide most of our food, but we don’t. It was in no way necessary for us to turn our basic needs over to global corporations. Why did we do it, while the local fields lie fallow, and the people who could be working the fields are unemployed? Would they really rather fry chicken at Bojangles than grow beans and corn? How I would love to drive a horse and wagon to Danbury once a week to trade with my neighbors! Why don’t we do that anymore? Is there any way to get back to that? I’m a liberal. I dream. If you think about it, my dream is a conservative dream about a past that was better and that we ought to return to. But our politics is as insane as our economy, and so my anti-corporate dream is seen as radical and liberal. Further corporatization is seen as conservative. Go figure.

Local milk!


While in the Winston-Salem Whole Foods on Monday, I was pleased to see milk from a local dairy in the dairy case. It’s grass-fed milk, and the dairy is Wholesome Country Creamery in Hamptonville. Hamptonville is in the Yadkin Valley not far from where I grew up.

Not since I was in San Francisco have I been able to buy milk from a local dairy. That milk came from the Strauss Family Creamery in Marin County.

The Winston-Salem Journal did a story last year on Wholesome Country Creamery, which I did not see at the time. It’s an Amish dairy, and the creamery grows all its own feed. The dairy also uses a lower-temperature pasteurization process.

I’m old enough, and my rural roots are deep enough, that I remember when relatives, including my grandmothers, used to keep cows. That’s important, because I remember what milk should taste like, and I will never forget. My grandmother no longer had a cow after the early 1950s, but a few of the neighbors kept cows up until the early 1960s, and we used to buy milk from them.

It’s pricey, but I could get used to local grass-fed milk.