Life in Hypertext
Of Ducks, Trucks and Bucks
When I dropped out of the rat race I was after something
more than the endless pursuit of money, the constant echo of bucks,
bucks, bucks. I was lured by another dream, the grail of rural self-sufficiency.
Not that I was ever granted the whole utopian vision, mind you--just
glimmerings of a life lived closer to nature. There was always, of course,
the problem of making that living, of financing the dream.
I don't need to take up space here describing the urban/suburban
treadmill or the environmental, social and psychological messes created
by modern civilization. Just read the daily news. By the age of twenty-one
I knew enough to start looking for something better.
I jumped cold-turkey from the hothouse of academia into
the granitic soil of New Hampshire, one of North America's most economically
depressed areas. Land was cheap because the former generations of farmers
had given up and moved on. A fellow ex-student had sunk his borrowed
fortune into a large chunk of wooded hillside for a cooperative homesteading
venture and was seeking willing bodies to help flesh out his vision.
I came full of theories about gypsy economics, constructive anarchism
and apocalyptic survival. But I had no money, no useful trade.
I took a job on the district highway crew, manning the
street sweeper unit which the old boys dragged over the undulating roads
of the county, and which spewed road grime over me, head to toe, for
$2.17 per. I drove to work in a yellow lemon of a Karman-Ghia that I
bought from a fourteen-year-old boy for $140. It was my first car. It
worked fine until I decided to treat it to a quart of high-quality detergent
oil. The detergent action dissolved whatever carbonaceous glop was holding
the pistons together and the car promptly died. It was a sign. As were
the eleven days and nights of rain that dismal spring, that I counted
off like Noah watching the end of the world.
On day twelve I left my drenched dreams behind and took
off for California with thirty dollars in my pocket and another gleam
in my eye: the riches to be made in the sunny, booming West. I figured
that with a big bank account, I could better cushion the rocky landing
on my next sojourn back to the earth. But the California cities, I found,
were not made of gold.
After two years of odd jobs as an unskilled urban laborer--housepainter,
clerk, gas jockey, parking valet--I dreamed up a new way to get back
to nature. On the inside track, so to speak. I would go back to my books
and find nature in literature. The bonus would be a paying job, a career
as a teacher. And I might even find a nice pastoral place to settle
down. According to this latest conception, nature was mostly a state
of mind, an aesthetic quality of life; and so "self-sufficiency"
was confined to the status of financial equilibrium.
Drawn by the compelling beauty of the rugged Northwest,
I came to British Columbia for more university study. The setting proved
apt for delving into the rich natural resources of Canadian Literature--an
entity which, until registration, I didn't know existed. Upon graduating
two years later, I discovered that a Master's degree in English is worth
exactly as much as the paper spelling it out. But I finally landed a
job in the midst of a nature more vast and remote, yet also more human,
than I had yet imagined.
I was hired by the school board of Northern
Quebec to teach junior high students in an Inuit village. I ended
up learning more than I taught. In that wild, white world the people
had no ducks, few trucks, and fewer bucks. What they did have was an
attitude, a history, a culture based on living with nature, in nature,
of nature. I would not, however, describe them as "primitive."
Their own nature was warm, friendly, infinitely patient and optimistic--and
above all, adaptable. Their history is full of change, of using what
practical things come to hand--from whalebone, to steel knives, to flour
and tea, to rifles and snowmobiles, to aircraft and development corporations.
With every innovation comes a compromise with a former, "more natural"
way of life. The Inuit are no longer self-sufficient, in material terms.
Yet in bearing, in outlook, in grounding in the matter of survival in
an always challenging environment, they are supremely self-reliant.
I learned that when I saw the hunters using knives to operate on skidoos
in open-air surgery at forty below in the middle of nowhere.
I left the North with a new appreciation of what it means
to live on the land, with renewed resolve to try it myself, and with
the capital required to begin. I bought a share of a land co-op in the
interior mountains of B.C. and started carving a homestead out of the
My skills in the basics of rural living were still negligible.
Tapping neighbors for help and advice, I cleared a driveway and laid
a waterline; cleared space for a garden, orchard and house; built a
woodshed and temporary chicken coop number one. Then came housebuilding--a
project which would take seven years.
For the first three years I paid little attention to schemes
for making money. When my savings account finally ran dry, I had to
start hustling. There were a few useful trades I'd learned by experience,
and some others to learn from scratch. I hired myself out as a carpenter,
stonemason, firefighter, treeplanter.
In the meantime I was joined by two other people at home--Sarah,
and a baby daughter. Now money earned meant time spent away from family
as well as from the lagging house construction. I began to look closer
at ways to work at home: both to generate income and to produce what
I would otherwise buy.
Short of pure self-sufficiency, I've found instead a place
in a fabric of interdependence. It seems neither possible nor desirable
to produce every food, every tool here--either on the homestead, or
in the nearby community. Barter, home business, homestead production,
paying jobs all play a part. It is efficient to grow all one's vegetables,
plus extra garlic, and then to sell the garlic and buy grain, which
is not so easy to grow here. Another example: Sarah has designed box
labels in exchange for the products they advertise--apples and a kitchen
stool. And after gaining experience building rock walls for our own
house, we were both hired to build a planter for a local artist who'd
received a bed-full of lilies in trade for a painting.
Sometimes the tradeoffs are inefficient, sometimes unexpected.
Take the case of the ducks. We ordered ducklings from a distant supplier
to raise for eggs, manure, and slug-control. Instead of being shipped
direct as arranged, they had to be rescued from town, two hours away.
I drove, let's see, truck number four (we've gone through six), and
on that trip the transmission disintegrated, losing its last gear at
the foot of the driveway. The ducks lived on to trample the garden,
before succumbing to hawks. Then there's the story of the donkey we
bought to save on truck use. Several months later we watched in complete
surprise as she gave birth. The next year we recovered mama's original
cost by selling the young jenny--or rather, trading her, for two ducks,
some truck repairs, and a bit of cash.
Living on the land doesn't usually pay well, but then
it's more than an occupation. It's a relationship with the natural world.
It takes a commitment to a lowered level of consumption which can only
help in reducing the total human impact on the fragile planet. The learning
process goes on, gradual and endless. If the homestead books don't yet
balance, I'll keep on tinkering with the equation, seeking the right
combination of ducks, trucks and bucks, keeping the larger balance at
---originally published in NeWest
Review, summer 1989, and reprinted in Inside Essays 2 (ed.
Doug Hilker, HBJ, 1992)
Stories - in rough
The Baby Boom
The Boys in the Park
Trumped in Peckerdom
Of Ducks, Trucks and Bucks
Stephen King through Rose-colored
The Meaning of Life
- a novel of the baby boom
and Introductions . . . without end
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