Dec 18, 2015

Retrotopia: A Gift to Be Simple

via The Archdruid Report

Author's Note: This is the eleventh installment of an exploration of some of the possible futures discussed on this blog, using the toolkit of narrative fiction. Our narrator ventures out of Toledo into a tier one rural county and sees one of the alternative cultures taking shape in the Lakeland Republic. 
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We changed trains in Defiance. The station wasn’t much more than a raised platform running along each side of the tracks, with a shelter of cast iron and glass overhead to keep off any rain that might happen along. The day was shaping up clear and cool; the town looked like old county seats I’d seen in parts of upstate New York that hadn’t been flattened during the endgame of the Second Civil War, a patchwork of clapboard and brick with the county courthouse rising above the nearby roofs. I could see only two obvious differences—first, that the only vehicles on the streets were pulled by horses, and second, that all the houses looked lived in and all the businesses I could see seemed to be open.
The train west to Hicksville came after we’d waited about fifteen minutes. Colonel Pappas and I weren’t the only people waiting for it, either. Something close to a hundred people got off the train from Toledo with us, some in olive drab Lakeland Army uniforms, some in civilian clothing, all of them with luggage and most with long flat cases that I guessed held guns. Once Pappas rolled up the ramp onto one of the cars and I followed him, I found that the train was already more than half full, and it was the same mix, some soldiers, some civilians, plenty of firepower.
I sat down next to Pappas, who gestured expansively at the train. “Not what you’d usually see going to Hicksville,” he said. “Every other time of the year this is a twice a day milk run that hits every farm town between Bowling Green and Warsaw. This weekend it’s six or eight runs this size every day.”
The train jolted into motion, and I watched Defiance slide past. After maybe a mile, we were rolling through farmland dotted with houses and barns. Some of the houses had wind turbines rising up above them and solar water heaters on the roofs, while others didn’t; tall antennas I guessed were meant for radio rose above most of them, but not all. The dirt roads looked well tended and the bridges were in good repair. I shook my head, trying to make sense of it.
“Checking out tier one?” Pappas asked me.
I glanced at him. “Pretty much. I wasn’t expecting to see the wind and solar gear.”
“You’re thinking it’s tier one, how come they have tech that wasn’t around in 1830, right?” When I nodded, he laughed. “Outsiders always get hung up on that. Tier level just says what infrastructure gets paid for by county taxes. You can get whatever tech you want if it’s your own money.”
“What about a veepad?”
“Sure, as long as you don’t expect somebody else to pay for a metanet to make it work.”
I nodded again, conceding the point. “I get the sense that a lot of people here wouldn’t buy modern technology even if they could.”
“True enough. Some of that’s religious—we’ve got a lot of Amish and Mennonites here, and there’re also some newer sects along the same lines, Keelyites, New Shakers, that sort of thing. Some of it’s political—most of the people in the full-on Resto parties are just as much into low-tech in their own lives as they are in their politics. They learned that lesson from the environmentalists before the war—you know about those?”
It was my turn to laugh. “Yeah. I had some of them in my family when I was a kid. ‘I want to save the Earth, but not enough to stop driving my SUV.’”
“Bingo—and you know how much good that did. The Restos aren’t into that sort of hypocrisy, so a lot of them end up in low-tier counties and stick to simple tech.”
“What do you think of that?”
“Me? I’m a city kid. I like nightlife, public transit—” He slapped one of the tires of his wheelchair.  “—smooth sidewalks. Tier one’s fun to visit but I’d rather live tier four or five.”
The train rattled through farmland for an hour or so, stopping once at a little place named Sherwood, before we reached Hicksville. The station there was even more rudimentary than the one at Defiance, just a raised platform and a long single-story building with a peaked roof alongside the track, but Pappas had no trouble maneuvering his wheelchair on the platform once we got off the train. “We’ll wait here,” he told me. “Once the crowd clears someone’ll meet us.”
He was right, of course. After a couple of minutes, as the train rolled westwards out of the station and the crowd started to thin, a young man in army uniform with corporal’s stripes on his sleeves wove his way toward us and saluted Pappas. “Colonel, sir,” he said, “good to see you.” To me:  “You’re Mr. Carr, right? Pleased to meet you. The jeep’s this way.”
He wasn’t kidding. Sitting on the street next to the station, incongruous amid a press of horsedrawn carts and wagons, was what looked like a jeep straight out of a World War Two history vid. Pappas saw the expression on my face, and laughed. “The army’s got a lot of those,” he told me. “Good, cheap, sturdy, and it handles unpaved roads just fine.”
“What fuel does it use?” I asked.
“Oh, it’s diesel. Everything we use runs on vegetable oil if it doesn’t eat corned beef or hay.”
Pappas hauled himself into the jeep’s front passenger seat while I tried to parse that. The corporal helped him get his wheelchair folded and stowed, then waved me to a seat in back and went to the driver’s seat. I got in next to the wheelchair, found a place for my suitcase, and got a firm grip on the grab bar as the engine roared to life.
Six blocks later we were on the edge of Hicksville. “Tomorrow’s action is twelve miles north of town,” Pappas told me. “We’ll be staying right near there—all the farmhouses around here rent out rooms to visitors. Melanie told me you want to see how people live in tier one; you’ll get an eyeful.”
It took us half an hour to get to the farm Pappas had in mind, driving on what pretty clearly wasn’t the main road—now and then I could see dust rising off to the east, and a couple of times spotted what had to be a line of wagons and carts carrying people and luggage toward whatever was going to happen the next day. I speculated about why I wasn’t part of that line—Pappas’ rank, maybe? Or a courtesy toward a guest from outside who wasn’t used to horsedrawn travel? That latter irked me a bit, even though I was grateful for the quick trip.
Finally the jeep swerved off the road, rattled along a rough driveway maybe a half mile long, and clattered to a stop in front of a sprawling clapboard-sided building three stories tall. Two others and a huge barn stood nearby, and fields, pastures, and gardens spread out in all directions around them.
“Welcome to Harmony Gathering,” Pappas said, turning half around in his seat. “I mentioned the New Shakers earlier, remember? You’re about to meet some of ‘em.”
By the time he finished speaking the front door of the building swung open and a big gray-bearded man in overalls and a plain blue short-sleeved shirt came out. “Good day, Tom,” he called out. “And—Mr. Carr, I believe.”
I got out of the jeep. “Peter Carr,” I said, shaking his hand.
“I’m Brother Orren. Be welcome to our Gathering.” He turned to the corporal. “Joe, do you need help with any of that?”
“Nah, I’ve got it.” The corporal came around, got the wheelchair unfolded, and Pappas slid into it. I got my suitcase; the gray-bearded man turned back to the door and nodded once, and a boy of ten or so dressed the same way he was came out at a trot, took the suitcase from me, gave me a big smile, and vanished back into the building with it.
“Things hopping yet, Orren?” Pappas asked him.
“Oh, very much so. You have plenty of company.” He motioned toward the door. “Shall we?”
Inside the walls were bare and white, the furniture plain and sturdy, the air thick with the smell of baking bread. “Tom tells me that you’re from the Atlantic Republic,” the bearded man said to me. “I don’t believe our church has put down roots there yet. If you have questions—why, ask me, or anyone.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I’ll take you up on that once I figure out what to ask.”
He beamed. “I’ll welcome that. Of course you’ll want to get the dust off first, and lunch will be ready shortly.” He turned and called out:  “Sister Susannah? Could you show our guests to their rooms?”
An old woman with improbably green eyes, dressed in a plain blue dress, came into the room from a corridor I hadn’t noticed. “Of course. Come with me, please.”
“Don’t worry about me, Sue,” Pappas said. “I know the way.”
That got a quiet laugh and a nod. Pappas rolled away down a different corridor, and the old woman led me up a nearby stair and down a long hall lined with doors. “This is yours,” she said, opening one. “Give me just a moment.”  She smiled, went on further down the hall.
The room was a simple cubicle with a bed on one side, a dresser and desk on the other, and a window on the far end. The bare white walls and the plain sturdy furniture were scrupulously clean, and the bed had a thick colorful quilt on it. My suitcase had been set down neatly beside the dresser.
A moment later the old woman was back with two pitchers and a bowl. “Here you are,” she said, setting them on the desk. “If you need anything else, please ring the bell and someone will be up to help you right away.” She smiled again and left, closing the door behind her.
The pitchers turned out to contain hot and cold water. Towels and a washcloth hung on a rack near the door, and a little shelf next to it had a bar of soap on it that didn’t look as though it had ever seen the inside of a factory. Two bags hanging from the back of the door had hand-embroidered labels on them, towels and linen and guest clothing; over to one side was an oddly shaped chair that turned out on inspection to be some sort of portable toilet, with a big porcelain pot underneath that sealed with a tightly fitting lid when it wasn’t in use. Tier one, I thought, and decided to make the best of it.
The funny thing was that the primitive accommodations weren’t actually that much more awkward or difficult to use than the facilities you’d find in a good hotel in Philadelphia. I wasn’t sure what I would be in for if I decided to take a bath, but I managed to get cleaned up and presentable in short order, and went out into the hall feeling distinctly ready for the lunch the old man had mentioned. I wondered for a moment if I should ring the bell, but that didn’t turn out to be necessary; as soon as I stepped out into the hall, the same boy who’d taken my suitcase up to the room came down the hall and  gave me directions. As I left, he was hauling away the water pitchers.
Lunch—sandwiches on homebaked whole-grain bread and big bowls of hearty chicken soup—was served in a big plain room in back, where big wooden tables and benches  ran in long rows, and the benches were full of men in Lakeland Republic uniforms; the only people who wore New Shaker blue were a couple of young men who brought out the food.  “The people who live here eat in their own dining hall,” Pappas told me when I asked him about that. “You’re welcome to join them, if you don’t mind eating in perfect silence while somebody reads out loud from the Bible.”
“I’ll pass,” I said.
He laughed. “Me too.  Sundays at Holy Trinity is enough religion for me, but I guess it works for them. They start a new Gathering somewhere every few years, they’re growing that fast.”
I racked my brains for the little I knew about the original Shakers. “Do they swear off sex?”
“No, that was the old Shakers. The New Shakers marry, or some of them do—Orren and Sue are a couple, for example. The brothers and sisters don’t own anything, not even a toothbrush, and live together like the old Shakers did.”
“And the other sect you mentioned?”
“The Keelyites? They’re like the Amish, they own their own homes and farms, but they’ve got their own beliefs and their prophet Eleanor Keely put a third testament into their Bibles. They’ll tell you that when God said we have to live by the sweat of our brows, He meant that anything that’s not powered by human muscles is sinful.”
“We’ve got Third Order Amish back home who say that,” I told him.
Pappas considered that. “I don’t think we have them here yet,” he said. “Now that the border’s opened, who knows? I bet they talk theology with the Keelyites. God knows what they’ll come up with.”
About the time I’d polished off lunch, Brother Orren came in and asked if I’d be interested in a tour of the Gathering—I gathered he’d been briefed by somebody—and I spent the afternoon trotting around the place with a soft-spoken guy in his early twenties named Micah, who had brown skin and a mane of frizzy red-brown hair. “My parents got killed in an air raid during the war of ‘49,” he told me as we walked toward the barn, “and the Gathering took me in. Any child who comes to us finds a home.”
“Did you ever consider leaving?” I asked.
“I left when I was nineteen,” he told me. “Spent three years out in the world, two of them in the army. It was a learning experience. But I came back once I realized that this was where I belong.”
“Do you miss anything from outside the Gathering?”
“Oh, now and again. Still, there’s a song we inherited from the old Shakers; the first line is ‘Tis a gift to be simple’—and that’s true, at least for me. It’s a gift, and as we say, a grace, and I’m happier here than I ever was out there in the world.”
I thought about that as we walked through the barn, the greenhouses, and the rest of the Gathering. In its own way, it was impressive—a community of around two hundred people that met all its own needs from its own fields and workshops, and produced enough of a surplus to make it an asset to the local economy—but something about it troubled me, and I sat up late that night, by the glow of the one candle each room was allotted, trying to figure out what it was.

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