My first post is a short story called “The Permie”. The idea for the story came to me as I was thinking about what the next few decades will be like and what might be required to make the best of that time. My daughter, Jessica, helped a great deal with this post. Hope it provides some food for thought. Please comment on any aspect of the story.
I’ve been told by some old time techies that the internet these days is a lot like something called Compuserve, back in the 1980s. They tell me that Compuserve was one of the first online services. It was around 10 years before America Online was putting diskettes in cereal boxes. You had to dial in, it made a lot of strange squeak and squawk sounds and you paid by the time connected. So you prepared everything before connecting, went online, quickly got everything done and got offline. Twenty years ago you could stay online all day. There were free videos, music and lots of advertisements. You could store data on the “cloud”. I now know that the “cloud” was really a lot of electronic gear that was consuming a lot of energy. I hear you can still get that old internet experience from back in its heyday, but that internet experience is too expensive for anyone I know, for most of us the internet is mostly text and a few thumbnail pictures. Having to pay for bandwidth you use has forced people to really cut back. Checking the local news site, The Plus, (next to a small picture) I see the following:
Joseph R. Johnson – September 3, 1955 to September 11, 2038. Leaves behind daughter Ellie, her husband Robert and grandson Jack. Son Eddy, his wife Terry and granddaughter Lisa. He had a long successful career as an engineer, holding several patents and authoring many technical articles. But he was most proud of being one of the founding permies of our local permaculture group. He requested his body be composted.
It was not unexpected, Joe was a neighbor and friend for many years now. He had been active and healthy up to a few months ago but recently went downhill quickly, so it was not a shock to see. But he’d been my neighbor for so long, it seemed like he would always be there. He was the last remaining guy from the baby boom generation around here. Most of the boomers have been gone for many years now, often contributing to their own demise.
Though Joe was born in 1955 which was the middle of the baby boom, Joe was different from most baby boomers I’d met, maybe that is part of why he lived as long as he did. Looking out the window, I see Ellie, Joe’s daughter, walking down the driveway and I head out the door toward Joe’s house to offer my condolences. I start to think back to when I first met Joe. I was in my 20’s when my husband and I moved into the neighborhood. I realize that was more than 35 years ago, how time flies.
I remember Ellie as a cute quiet little blond girl who was going to kindergarten when I first moved here. Her brother Eddy was a gabby toddler at the time, and their Mom, Millie could also be quite gabby. Joe, like Ellie, was pretty quiet. He and Millie would say hi when we came buy, but once we got chatting (mostly Millie and I), Joe would get a faraway look in his eyes and drift off to do something else. Millie and I both liked gardening and would talk a fair bit about our gardens. Joe was never interested in gardening, Millie said that he didn’t see any sense in growing tomatoes like everyone else does. He said by the time you add in all the costs and time, that while they tasted good, when your tomatoes were ready so were everyone else’s. In good years people would end up just giving them away.
As I start up Joe’s driveway I see Ellie, she and Eddie must both be around 40 now, but I can still see that cute little blond girl in her. Her hair is light brown now, which must be her natural color since no one dyes their hair anymore. She looks up at me and says “I guess we’ll have a special pawpaw day next month”. My mind starts to drift and think about all the pawpaw days we’ve had.
There were only about a dozen permies and a handful of friends and neighbors at the first pawpaw day. It was a warm sunny Saturday in early October. It didn’t have a name quite yet, it was just an informal gathering. Joe had setup a small canopy in the only piece of lawn that was left in his front yard. He spoke to the people gathered under the canopy before they broke into groups and toured through the yard. He mentioned that when he started planting about seven years ago, he was just learning about permaculture. Permaculture was a method for working with nature to provide for human needs. One of the important practices of permaculture was that every element should perform multiple functions. A lawn really has only one function, which is for recreation, unless you want to count that it gives you a reason to own a lawn mower. He talked about a rainy spring a few years back, for weeks it rained 6 days every week, the one sunny day you had to spend mowing the lawn. He was tired of being a slave to a lawn, so he started to create food forests and fedges. The food forests would have multiple layers like the forest edge and he tried to pick plants that would complement each other. The fedge or food hedge serve the same purpose as a conventional hedge while also providing nuts and berries. He admitted he had never been interested in gardening so he made many mistakes, but if you give nature a chance, Mother Nature finds a way and enough of the plants prospered to make it all worthwhile. He said that of all the plants, the pawpaw, was both the most frustrating and most rewarding. He had never tasted a fresh pawpaw and even though they are the largest native North American fruit, few people ever had. They grew very slowly and many times he wondered if any would make it. But some of them did and after learning how hand pollinate them with a small paintbrush, two years ago he had his first pawpaw. (I’d been wondering why he was painting the trees.) It was special moment and he hoped that in the coming years he would have a big enough crop so that he could share that moment with others. Today was the day. He encourage everyone to try a pawpaw and anything else that was in season, like the hazel nuts, hardy kiwi or autumn olive. He encouraged us to walk around, ask questions and hoped it would inspire us.
People broke into informal tour groups. Millie and a friend went through quickly and then sat at a picnic table together eating donuts and drinking Mountain Dew. I went around with the neighbors for a very quick tour. John Stevens was unimpressed commenting “the permie should have spent his plant money on a nice Harley”. John and his son died just a few years later, joy riding on his Harley, he was the first man of the baby boom generation that we lost. John was very proud of his Corvette and Harley, he had a bumper sticker that said “He who dies with the most toys wins!”, so he didn’t react well to gas rationing and the crack downs on “joy” riding. My husband added, “Well at least a decent TV” to John’s comment and they left with most of the other neighbors. I was still curious and decided to tag along with the group of permies as they toured the yard.
In contrast to the neighbors, they moved slowly and were excited about everything that they saw. A young women, about five foot seven with dark hair, was identifying most of the plants, including their Latin names. She was getting teased by Joe and a few of the other permies. “Ev – you don’t sound sure, you can admit you don’t know.”
Ev responded with a big smile “Paybacks a bitch Joe”. The friendly kidding kept on between Ev and the rest of the permies while I eaves dropped on two guys who were talking in the back of the group. The younger guy, said that Evelyn invited people from work but he was surprised none of them showed up. The older guy replied that the people who work in government institutions resist change, they just want things to stay the same, and he wasn’t surprised at all. Permaculture changes things, so it will only be embraced by outsiders. The younger guy nodded but then motioned toward Evelyn. The older fellow replied that Ev’s just out of UCONN, she’s only been at the state DEP for short time, she still thinks like an outsider.
Ev got their attention back and her payback when they came to the Elderberries. “Joe will you try some homemade elderberry wine if I bring it to next year’s pawpaw day?”
“Huh, Ev, what do you mean next year, where next year?”
“Right here, Joe, this is perfect, you have a parking lot at the school across the street, I can lead a nature walk along the brook, you have a good variety of species, and this will be our big annual permaculture event.”
“Wait a second, Ev…”
But Ev interrupted him “Joe on your permaculture global page you said that your yard was a demonstration site.”
“Ah, Ev you were looking at my site, that’s how you knew all the plants,” Joe responded with a big grin.
“Don’t try to sidetrack the conversation, Joe, we were talking about next year’s pawpaw day.”
In the end, Joe replied, “I guess you get your payback, you win, and I’ll even try the wine”. Joe looked at Ev, with the proud father look, that I’d seen only him show for Ellie and Eddie. That’s when pawpaw day became an annual event.
Just after that we got to the pawpaws which were small trees maybe 8 to 10 feet tall. They had long drooping leaves that looked somewhat tropical and what looked like potatoes hanging off the branches. We all grabbed one of the potato like fruits and went to a bench. Someone warned not to eat the seeds. They would collect them or you could keep them and try to plant them. The inside of the potato like fruit was sort of creamy and tested somewhat banana like. I also tried and liked the hardy kiwis and autumn olive berries.
I’d never known Joe to drink, but next year he welcomed me to the Second Annual Pawpaw Day with a glass of elderberry wine in his hand and a big smile. I saw Ellie across the yard standing next to a tall slender fellow. So I went to say hello, but Evelyn got to her first. “Ellie will you help me with the nature walk along the brook, your Dad says that you know it well, it was part of your college essay?” Ellie looked toward the tall fellow and said “Sure, Robert you can help too”. Ellie and Evelyn introduced Robert and Donnie. When Ellie saw me, she said hello and introduced everyone to me. Turned out that Robert went to the same special environmental college as Ellie and they were both Environmental Biologists. Donnie, a very polite young man, was there on Evelyn’s invite and said he just wanted to find out what this permaculture stuff was about. I don’t remember much else about that day, except that there were more permies and fewer neighbors than the previous year.
A Special Pawpaw Day
The first special pawpaw day was the result of tragedy, Millie had tripped over one of her shoes, stumbled down the basement stairs, re-injuring a hip she had surgery on previously. She went for another operation to repair the hip and though she had been through many surgeries without a problem before, this time she had a bad reaction to the anesthesia and never came to. Since Millie had been very involved with the schools and coached soccer for many years, many people around town knew her. There were hundreds of people at the wake and Joe announced to the crowd that they were all invited to a special pawpaw day in her memory that October.
That pawpaw day had a huge crowd, the parking lot at the school was filled and cars were parked up and down the street. A big tent was set up over the only piece of lawn Joe had left. In the tent many people made speeches, sharing their memories of Millie. But the speech that made a lasting impression was Ellie’s. Eddie spoke very well but I expected that, as he’d won some speaking competitions and he always been more of a talker than Ellie. But I found Ellie could give a powerful speech. She talked about how her Mom had always loved animals, how she helped with the barn at school, loved to visit zoos and most of all was thrilled to see animals in the wild. She remembered her Mom’s excitement at seeing a mother bear with cubs once when on a hike. She added that so many animals are threatened by loss of habitat. That animal habitat requires trees. She asked everyone to plant a tree in her Mom’s memory. That they had set aside many seedlings and could start many more if necessary. A lot of people took home seedlings or seeds to start themselves.
I remember on a drive through town a few years later seeing many small trees that I’d only seen ever seen before in Joe’s yard. A few years after that Joe told me that Millie had a lot of social capital, he was glad they could use it to help something good come out of something bad. When I mentioned that I was surprised at how well Ellie spoke, he smiled, and said that Ellie doesn’t just talk for the sake of talking, she is quietly determined and he’d learned to never underestimate her.
The Big Blackout
Back in October 2011 we had a big freak snowstorm that knocked out power for several days. The generators hummed and things got back to normal pretty quickly once power came back. The snowstorm of October 2027 was about the same amount of snow but the effect it had on the power grid was much worse. It hit in early October about five days before pawpaw day. It took power down for 6 weeks across most of the northeast U.S. Once the storm stopped it was sunny and pleasant outside, so I ventured out each day. At first the generators were humming but after a few days that stopped as people ran out of gas. There was nowhere to get gas and no jobs to go to. The permies cleared off the school parking lot across from Joe’s yard and people began to come out of their homes and congregate at the school. Evelyn’s friend Donnie had been a radioman in the service and was a ham radio operator. Eddie was handy with a lot of different things. Eddie and Donnie teamed together to set up an AM radio broadcast station in the school which they powered by a bicycle generator. People needed to peddle the stationary bicycle to power the radio station. They said it was technically illegal but the signal would only travel a few miles and it would allow us to broadcast news. You could also use the bicycle to recharge AA batteries, so people would take turns peddling the bicycle to get their batteries charged. Some of the youngsters would volunteer to peddle for the older people. Donnie would pass along any news he had heard on the shortwave bands. One piece of news was rumors of small riots in small city of Torton which was only a few miles from here. He also interviewed the local state trooper, who said he’d heard the same rumors but the police systems were down too, so he couldn’t confirm anything.
With concern about the riots spreading, people decide to set up a watch. The third day at the school, people were buzzing talking about what happened the previous night. The group on watch had met up with a family that had walked from the center of Torton to get away from the riots. By chance the women had worked on the production floor in the same company as Joe. He vouched that she was smart and a hard worker and that he was sure she not be a burden to the neighborhood. The family, Maria, Jose and two teen age boys, Ricky and Mario stayed at Joe’s that night. The next day some people arranged for the family to stay with Mrs. Langley, an elderly women who lived by herself in a big house. She was too proud to ever accept help from the neighbors but this worked out well. She felt that she was helping Maria and Jose by giving them a place to stay so she was able to accept their helping hand in return. In few days Mrs. Langley and Maria were walking and talking together like longtime friends and the boys were helping peddle the bicycle. Jose, who had worked at a restaurant, was helping with the community meals that were being prepared on a rocket stove that one of the permies had brought to the school. A few days into this I got to talk to Maria, who seemed only a few years younger than me, she clearly had a Spanish accent but spoke English very well. She and Jose were both born in South America. As we talked I notice Bill Barker scowling at us from a distance. He looked a bit drunk. The next day we learned that Bill’s frozen body was found in the snow just outside his house, he basically drank himself to death. Since my husband’s heart attack a few years before, Joe and Bill had been the only living baby boomers left in the area, now it was only Joe. Bill’s death brought a somber mood for few days but then spirits picked up.
People were sharing whatever they had, much of the time it was like a big block party that went on for several weeks. Neighbors who never spoke much were getting to know each other. I heard Joe talking with the Bauer’s who had the only house on the street with a front porch. He told them that one of the last times his Dad came to visit before he passed away, that he had seen their house and commented that all houses should be built with a front porch, that he thought we had lost something important when people started having back decks rather than a front porch. Maybe Joe’s Dad was right, was this blackout helping us make a move back to the day of the front porch, even if just symbolically?
With schools closed and no jobs to go to, you would have thought that kids would stop learning and nobody would be doing anything productive. But it was the opposite, everyone shared what they knew. Evelyn, Donnie and Eddie took the kids on nature walks and they learned to identify many trees and plants. A young couple, Beth and Ryan taught karate class to anyone who wanted to learn. People went to the Buddhist temple which was a short walk away and learned about meditation and Buddhist philosophy. Some permies held a workshop where everyone built solar batch water heaters that could be used for hot showers, some people still use them now to save energy. Eddie had math problem solving contests for the kids and showed them how the bicycle generator and radio worked. One of the kids noticed that the snow had melted off of all the roofs except for Joe’s house. Eddie explained that his dad had added a lot of insulation so that less heat was escaping through the roof and so the snow stayed longer. On these sunny days the house stayed warm through the night just from the trapped heat of the sun. He complemented the kids for being observant and said that it has been that way for years but no one ever noticed. With all the activity, the kids were happy to take it easy for a while and read, older kids read to the young ones and helped them learn to read. Then the older kids would talk together about the books they were reading.
During the blackout, I got to have a real conversation with Joe, for the first time since I’d moved here more than twenty years before. Something more than a quick greeting in passing. I asked about Ellie and found that Ellie and Robert lived just over the state border and they were fine. Ellie, Robert, Eddie, Donnie and Evelyn had all become close friends so Donnie had set them up with shortwave radios. They’ve talked every day.
The permies had been so helpful and I wanted to understand more about them. I thought I’d seen pistols on some of the permies that went on watch so I started the conversation by blurting out “Do some of the permies carry guns?”
It didn’t come out right, but fortunately Joe took it in stride. “The permaculture prime directive calls for taking responsibility for ourselves and our children, which includes protecting people, so yes, some do carry pistols but they try not to advertise it. A lot of us started out as preppers and really still are. We could see that things were changing and wanted to be prepared to deal with the changes. Many of the permies are in law enforcement or were in the military. I think they had an advantage over most people in seeing change coming.”
“But why do they consider themselves permies and not preppers?” I responded.
“Because permaculture is something so positive, we all want to be identified as a permaculturist or permie for short. Having a gun and ability to shoot a bad guy, who is trying to harm someone is really very practical, but not something anyone wants to do. It is the same with many other prepper activities, they are important to do, as you’ve seen during this blackout but having extra batteries doesn’t have the same positive attraction of building a better world for now and future generations. That is what permaculture does.”
He then went on to tell a story about one of the other permies. “I won’t mention his name but I’ll tell about a conversation I had with one of the guys about a year ago. After the meeting ended we were talking a bit and I commented that he seemed full of positive energy, there was a sparkle in his eye’s that was missing when he had first started coming to the permie meetings. He told me how he had served in the military during the Middle East wars and was surrounded by death and destruction. He had lost several friends during the wars and when he came home he felt numb, like a lifeless shell of a human. He got a job with a landscaper and mindlessly mowed lawns, at least it kept him moving and busy. He had an old army friend kill himself and he said he frequently thought of joining him but managed to keep going on, one day at a time. About that time he started coming to an occasional permie meeting. One day he suggested to one of landscaping clients that they put a raspberry fedge along one edge of their yard, he’d heard at one of the meetings that raspberries do well here. He came to their house on an off day to plant some raspberries that he’d gotten from another permie. He liked that client. They had a young boy and girl, who liked to talk to him as if he was fully human, sometimes the thought that he couldn’t let them down kept him alive. The next year he came to mow the lawn one day and he heard the boy and girl giggling, they both had red hands and raspberry juice running down their cheeks and huge smiles on their faces. They shared some raspberries with him. They were the best thing he’d ever tasted, he felt his face break into a huge smile and had tears of joy mixing with the juice on his cheeks. He knew at that moment he would never have suicidal thoughts again, he’d found his way forward helping nature create abundant life. It was the opposite of the death and destruction he’d seen and in his heart it was canceling it out.”
Joe explained that he had tears on his cheeks when he heard the story. That he saw developing permaculture based systems was a practical way to invest for the future, provide healthy food, and improve the environment and so on. But that for some people, who’ve seen the worst of what man has done to the world, it is so much more than that, it is soul saving. Working with nature is so much more powerful than he’d ever realized.
I went home that night thinking of that soldier’s story and the impact that all the permies were having on the neighborhood. The next day I made sure to talk with Joe. I asked about joining the permies and having my yard converted to permaculture. Joe said to just come to the meeting the following day, which anyone could join. For my yard he said he would do a design for free and I could buy the trees from Evelyn and Donnie and the smaller plants from Eddie and his girlfriend Terry. Or I could pay for the design from Evelyn or Eddie who were both better designers than he was. I had thought Evelyn worked for the state DEP, Joe said that since the state gutted the DEP, she and Donnie have both developed a really good nursery for trees and shrubs. She was enjoying that better than working for the state, she never felt like she fit into the mindset. Eddie and his girlfriend Terry grow herbs so they work together on many designs with Evelyn and Donnie.
When I came to the meeting the next day, I was surprised to see Joe sitting in the back and I grabbed a seat near him. Evelyn was running the meeting with Eddie assisting. I said to Joe that I thought he was running the group, he smiled and said that Evelyn and Eddie are the future and that the future is in good hands. Evelyn welcomed all the new people, she was happy to see so many new faces. She added that there were no requirements to join but that you should believe in the permaculture prime directive and three ethics. The prime directive is that we must take responsibility for our lives and for the lives of our children. She said that this seems reasonable to most everyone. She went on to explain that permaculture is about more than planting things, it is actually a design system for working with nature for making a healthier planet for us and people in the future. Eddie then talked about the three permaculture ethics that should guide your decisions. The first ethic is care of the earth. The second ethic is care of people. The third ethic is a cause for some confusion, it is return of surplus. He said that some people used to take that to mean that you had to give things away but now most people understand it to mean that you don’t let anything go to waste. He said that by following those ethics we can help the earth to provide for people on into the future. I was impressed with how Evelyn and Eddie handled the meeting and left feeling good about joining.
After another week or so, power started to come back on across the northeast, things returned to normal, but normal was now different. People realized that they could not count on the power company but they could count on the people around them. Evelyn and Eddie were busy doing permaculture designs for other people around town. So I took Joe up on his offer. It seemed everyone was adding more insulation to their homes. Neighbors talked more to each other and talked about different things, less complaining and more about the positive things that were happening. Looking back, I realize that the blackout was a blessing.
Another Special Pawpaw Day
It was a couple of years after the big storm that there was another special pawpaw day. I was driving to the Amazon hub in Torton, the small city to our east, that morning to pick up some packages for myself and two of the neighbors. I checked with Joe if I could pick up anything for him. He wasn’t expecting anything and asked if I would be at the pawpaw day festivities, it was to be a very special day. He wouldn’t elaborate, so I headed off to Amazon wondering was going to happen at pawpaw day later that afternoon.
The Amazon hub is only open on Friday and Saturday, so it was busy as usual, people picking up orders, looking through the catalogs and placing orders. You can look for things directly online but the descriptions in the catalogs are much more detailed. I usually use the catalogs in the library and place the orders online. The building used to belong to Walmart but they closed their smaller stores a few years ago. It used be filled with isles of merchandise. But now most of the building is off limits. It acts as a warehouse for the packages that come in with the Thursday rail deliveries. You can get deliveries directly to your house, if you can afford it, but most of us take turns picking up orders for the neighbors and ourselves. On the way back, I remembered my Mom telling me that when she was a girl it was a big deal going into town to pick up orders from the Sear’s and Montgomery Ward’s catalogs. She said getting the Sear’s Christmas catalog in the mail was like an annual holiday. It seemed strange and foreign to me back then, those companies went out of business years ago, but can I relate to what she was talking about now.
The special event at that pawpaw day was Evelyn and Donnie’s wedding. We gathered under the canopy, first Evelyn and then Donnie spoke to the crowd. I learned then that Donnie was the former soldier that Joe had told me about. Evelyn told us how she first met Donnie at her sister’s house when Donnie was doing the landscaping there. She thought he was very handsome and could see that he had a good heart by the way he acted around her niece and nephew who both adored him. It took him a long time to let her see that good heart, but he was worth waiting out. Donnie told how he felt half human when he left the armed forces, that seeing Mary and Scott, his soon to be niece and nephew, helped to keep him going. Then then told about meeting Evelyn and the raspberry plants that he got back at the second pawpaw day. He was teary eyed as he thanked Evelyn for believing in him more than he had believed in himself.
As was the custom now days they exchanged vows in a spot that had special meaning to them, a place in front of the pawpaw grove that was near a raspberry patch. When I first heard about the new custom, I felt sorry for young people missing out by not having a big wedding and a reception in a hall like I had. But remembering how stressed I felt and now looking at how at peace and comfortable Evelyn and Donnie looked, standing in front of the flowing green pawpaw leaves, I realized that I was the one who missed out. Ellie and Robert acted as bridesmaid and best man. I learned that later they switched roles when Ellie and Robert exchanged vows in a forest near their old college, where they first spoke while doing some field work for one of their classes.
The rest of the day was a celebration, people eating pawpaws, berries, nuts and drinking elderberry wine. I can’t remember any happier occasions. I had been one of those people who got up at 4:00 AM years ago to watch the British royal wedding. That day I realized that there are much more important and interesting people right here and maybe I should stop wasting time with the gossip columns.
Eddie and Terry come out of the house with their daughter Lisa and my mind snaps back to the present. Lisa was looking at her tummy and saying “Grandpa lives inside me now.”
Eddie said with a little smile that she is still trying to work that out. Dad had spent much of the last few days talking with the grand kids and letting them know that he would be gone soon but it was OK because they would have his memory inside them. Jack came out of the house holding Robert’s hand saying that grandpa loved him. Then Ellie accepts my condolences and offers them back to me saying that I was losing a friend too. Evelyn and Donnie come down the driveway and we all exchange hugs. Ellie says that her dad lived the live that he chose for himself and felt that just like going to sleep at the end of a really good day it was time for him to go to sleep at the end of a really good life. He was happy to the end. It was then time for me to leave the family to themselves.
“Well, see you at pawpaw day”, I say, as I turn around and start back up the path. Confused by their mood, upset, but seemingly comforted by the idea that Joe died happy. Dying happy, just doesn’t make sense, to me, I only felt sad at losing a friend.
I pass a couple of pawpaws, noticing they are loaded with fruit, think to myself that there will plenty for the pawpaw day next month. The pawpaws are at the edge of a small patch of food forest dominated by several chestnut trees that Joe planted more than twenty years ago. Millie had told me that Ellie cried when they cut down the old maple that had been there, Joe tried to reassure her that in time it would be even better. Only in the last few years has the canopy filled in and there are now abundant chestnuts. Ellie would no doubt agree that it is better.
As I reach the street, I pause, and just listen. I hear birds, more than I ever noticed before. Were there always this many, or were their sounds drowned out by other louder sounds? Maybe for the first time I realize what I don’t hear, noise that was so common place when we first moved in. I’d never noticed how much different it sounds now, wonder if he had.
Crossing the street, I turn and look back at his yard. It is a lush green except for bright colored berries in various shades of blue and red and orange and flowers of all colors. It looks so peaceful but yet is full of life.
Looking down the street I see most of the other yards look like his did, years ago. Bushes and small trees surrounded by comfrey and clover instead of grass lawns. Planted in ground that is not flat but has texture.
I walk slowly back to my yard, soaking it all in. Reaching my yard, I can feel the corner of my lips raise. Turning into my yard, as I walk past a chestnut tree, I realize that I am smiling.