Farming the apocalypse

When my life came crashing down I took shelter on my farm, surviving with 11th-century tools like the sickle and scythe

by 3900 3,900 words
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Farmfield II by Doug Landreth. Photo by Doug Landreth/Corbis

Farmfield II by Doug Landreth. Photo by Doug Landreth/Corbis

Keith Ferrell writes fiction, non-fiction, and computer games. The former editor-in-chief of OMNI magazine, his latest book is History Decoded (2013), co-written with Brad Meltzer. He lives on a farm in Virginia.

When there is a likelihood of even small amounts of snow, sleet or ice, I move my car to the top of the hill that shelters my farm. If I need to run errands during such times, I just walk up the hill to it. The car is old, our drive is steep and close to a quarter-mile long. Depending upon how deep the snow, and how often my attention is caught by something else, the walk can take a few minutes or half an hour. Upon returning, I park in the same place, and walk back down, carrying the day’s mail and my small purchases through the woods. Emerging from the forest at the base of the hill and seeing my farm covered in snow, I think of it as cut free from time – and myself cut free as well.

My car can take me to neighbours, to stores, to town. Across the meadow, my house, a (mostly) converted barn, contains telephone and internet connecting me to friends, relatives, colleagues, a universe of information and distraction, the modern world. Right between them lies the sliver of land I use to try my hand at agriculture, as it was practised 1,000 years ago.

The transition from hunter-gatherer to farmer has always fascinated me. The ability to plant, cultivate and harvest crops stands alongside the emergence of self-awareness, control of fire, the wheel, and the development of mathematics and written language as one of humanity’s transformational events. We became something different once we began to farm.

I have found something like that taking place in me. For a variety of reasons – partly financial, partly intellectual – I have approached my land with tools that, for the most part, would have been available in 1014: scythes, sickles and mattocks recognisable from paintings and tapestries of 11th-century farms. How long would I last if thrust back by time machine or a collapse of the sort popular in apocalypse porn?

Calling my 35 acres a farm is misleading, though not so misleading as calling myself a farmer, something I never do. My neighbours are real farmers: they make their living through agriculture. Their fields and pastures are large and orderly, cultivated and fertilised, tended by workers and machines. My fields, tended only by me, are disorderly, improvised, often overgrown. Yet without saying so aloud, I have, over the past couple of years, come to think of myself more and more constantly as a farmer; as a sort of farmer anyway. An 11th-century (or so) sort of farmer, actually, although I am well aware of how little I would have in common with the real thing, and how poorly my skills would prepare me to live in that time.

I arrived in the 11th century through circumstances in my life and career. Purchased in the mid-1990s as a weekend and summer home, a getaway, part of the farm’s attraction was the old barn, already half-converted into living quarters. The downstairs had electricity, running water from a good well, a water heater, a tub and a toilet, a septic system. There was a range in the kitchen. The place had a phone line, which meant that we had dial-up internet (virtually the only option at the time). The nearest town, Rocky Mount, with just over 4,000 people, was 15 miles away. On clear nights with the lights turned low, the stars came out nearly as brilliantly as they would have a thousand years before.

The first couple of years of ownership had a peaceful pace – peaceful, that is, once I arrived here at the end of a work week or the beginning of a vacation. At the time, I was still editor-in-chief of OMNI magazine, often travelling throughout the country and around the world. My wife was teaching high school. The farm was our weekend refuge, a place for rejuvenation, for gardening and exploring. I left most of the fields in meadow, hiring a neighbour for a few hundred dollars to bring in a tractor and mow them a couple of times a year. I enjoyed watching an experienced farmer drive a tractor dragging a brush hog – a cutter for taking down thickets of briars and small trees. Most people with a weekend farm would have had the sense to buy a small tractor or at least a riding mower. Not me. It would have made sense to buy a four-wheel drive vehicle, too, not to mention a generator for times of power outages, but I never did.

When a major snowstorm struck during the first winter we owned the place, we stayed back home in Greensboro, North Carolina, 90 miles away. I wished I’d been at the farm. I wanted to know what it would be like to be snowed in and cut off, perhaps without power. I discussed such things with friends. We had all read some post-apocalypse fiction – Stephen King’s The Stand (1978), Robert Heinlein’s Farnham’s Freehold (1964), Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Wild Shore (1984) and, above all, George R Stewart’s Earth Abides (1949). After I purchased the farm, my friends and I agreed that when the ‘crash’ came, my place was where they would head.

This was a matter of mirth and curiosity but not much more at the time. The 35 acres and the barn-cum-cabin were a reward for the years I’d spent in offices or travelling for magazine-related business. I had no interest in an off-hours life as a gentleman farmer. I just wanted a peaceful place to go.

That it would become far more should have been clear to me the first night I spent there, in chilly October, electricity and phone not yet turned on, no running water, no heat. There was a wind outside, and I read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story ‘Young Goodman Brown’ by oil lamp at probably the same level of illumination available to Hawthorne himself when he wrote it in 1835.

Once I finished reading, I took a walk to the edge of the woods. Though Hawthorne’s character, drawn by dark forces, had actually entered, I wasn’t ready yet. I came back inside and slept well. The next morning, I found myself thinking that I could live here and, if need be, live here just like this. Later in the day, I returned to the city and, once the work week began, found myself in offices, on airplanes, travelling around the country and the world for OMNI, talking and writing about the future. But now I thought more and more frequently: I could live there, on my farm.

Not that I planned anything of the sort.

Planning is one of the skills that grew along with agriculture. Organisation, community, co‑ordination, the ability to anticipate, were all essential to farms in the 11th century. If you are going to have a crop next year, you had better store and save some of this year’s seeds. Not to mention storing food itself against the non-productive and often harsh months that punctuate the farm year. You must store the knowledge of how to plant those seeds and harvest their products, passing down that knowledge from one generation to the next.

That endeavour – growing food and feeding family, tribe, village, community, nation, world – occupied humanity for most of recorded history. Improvements in agriculture and husbandry, the domestication of animals, came slowly over hundreds and thousands of years.

When people travelled, they brought back tools that helped their farming improve: new cultivars and new methods and implements. Gathering mastery of metalworking made tools more effective and efficient. A metal-tipped spade, shovel or hoe isn’t just an advance in toolmaking; it enables fewer people to produce more food, releasing others to work at new vocations. That’s how the farm freed ever more individuals to lives as merchants, millers, weavers, smiths.

Until I held a scythe by the snathe, as one might a baseball or cricket bat, I didn’t appreciate just how innovative grips were

By the 11th century, most of the non-mechanised tools at my disposal had been used for centuries – yet the spade and sickle, the shovel and hoe, would remain foundational for centuries to come, into modern times. My father, now 90, once spoke of reaping wheat by hand, of ploughing behind a mule, of watching my grandfather drag logs behind a horse, then working those logs into railroad ties by hand. My dad left the farm, but my neighbours recall when their own ancestors worked fields by hand and with farm animals, although their farms now are mechanised and have been for decades.

One memorable day, a neighbour showed me how to sweep the long, curved blade of my wood-handled scythe to slice tall grass or stalks of grain cleanly at ground level. Done properly, scything is not a chopping or hacking action. It is fluid and rhythmic, performed with muscles at the waist more than the arms. Who knew?

The scythe I used had evolved since ancient times. By the Middle Ages, its sharpened blade would have been fashioned by a blacksmith, with his own long years of experience and skill. The addition of lateral grips to the scythe’s snathe (the long, wooden, often curved handle to which the blade is attached) improved the farmer’s ability to control the implement, and made its use more efficient. Until one attempts to use a scythe by holding on to the snathe, as one might a baseball or cricket bat, it’s difficult to appreciate just how innovative the grips were.

My attraction to scythes and other ancient artefacts was curiosity, even indulgence – a city boy playing with old farm tools – until our full-time move to the farm in 1997, a year after OMNI ceased its print edition and I became a freelance writer again.

The permanent move was prompted by an illness. As a result of that illness, my wife was unable to continue teaching, and the vagaries of a freelance income couldn’t be counted on to support two homes. So the farm became our home. We had hoped to build a small, real house, and make the barn-cum-cabin my office and library. The small house never got built.

I planned an ambitious but not oversized garden 100 yards from the old cabin, and hired a neighbour to till it. Twice a year, I had neighbours bring in tractors and brush hogs to keep the meadows clear. I filled my garden with tomatoes, beans, peas, onions, squash, cucumbers, corn, herbs. I set up a small desk in a glade overlooking the broad creek that ran next to the garden. With pencil and paper, I wrote large parts of two books there, scratching my way through hundreds of pages as the seasons passed, then returning to the 20th century to type them into the computer in my office. When fall arrived, I hired a neighbour to mow and brush-hog the fields and meadows clear once more.

Supporting all of this was fine so long as the freelance economy was good, and the approach of the millennium brought boom times for freelancing. But freelance writing is, in many ways, the very definition of a hunter-gatherer profession, and my freelance markets collapsed as the internet rose up.

But by far the most devastating factor was the mental illness, at first difficult to treat and ultimately intractable, that overwhelmed my wife. Her darkness deepened until she retreated almost totally not only from the world at large, but also the world at hand – the farm we had once shared. Where once she explored our fields and forests as avidly as I, she soon ceased going outdoors at all unless it was for a visit, generally fruitless, to a doctor or therapist. I found myself becoming a caregiver.

Yet even as I cared for my wife, for lack of funds I was increasingly unable to care for the farm. Weeds grew. Brambles began to spread. The forest encroached upon what I now saw had been an artificially maintained illusion of order.

Unmown, my lawns and meadows became seas of tall grass and impenetrable thickets of briars and blackberry canes. In some areas, the grass reached shoulder height; the briars grew even taller. The pleasant walk to the big garden and the glade beside the creek became an obstacle course blocked by brush and thorns. I lost one meadow, several acres, to scrub pines, and a good portion of another. Whether kept clear with tractors and mowers, or scythes and brush axes, cleared land is artifice, and artifice takes work.

Unable to maintain mine with costly, large-scale mowing, I found myself in retreat against the incursion of vines and canes and trees, but it was a retreat that taught larger lessons than I had ever learnt from the years of bounty. When I could afford to have the land cleared every spring and fall, I could walk anywhere I wished, and do so in shorts and tennis shoes during warm weather. Walking much of my property now requires stout boots as well as heavy pants and a long-sleeved shirt, and even then I accumulate scratches and cuts from the briars. The difference between grapefruit-sized stones turned up and thrown aside in an instant by a tractor, and a stone dug and worked out by hand was one my mind already knew – and that my body soon learnt.

Could a 21st century man survive as an 11th century field worker? We lived here, and I was on my own

I learnt other things as well: to appreciate the wild grasses and flowers consuming fields that had once been mown; to work my way through blackberry brambles with a brush axe, in the thickest spots, and on hands and knees with heavy clippers and loppers. Working at ground level, I learnt to hear the quiet: the gentle sounds that the curved blade of a sickle (the baby cousin of the scythe) made slicing through canes, the rustle and scurry of rabbits and mice through the underbrush; the buzz and whirr of bees; the angry calls of birds displeased at my intrusion on their world – and once, the unmistakable chatter of a rattlesnake.

Working so close to the earth, I found the early farmers fuelling my thoughts. In a fundamental way, I was like them. Lacking the money and wherewithal to have my fields clear in mere hours, I asked myself: what could I do with what I had?

The parameters of an experiment began to take shape. I would see how a 21st-century man – one who bought his farm with income from writing, editing and speaking about the future – survived as an 11th-century field worker. After all, we lived here, whether I could afford to keep the fields cleared or not. I was on my own.

The 11th century farmers I conjured would have had children, relatives, perhaps a draft animal for ploughing and hauling. But with my wife self-confined to the house, our son married and only infrequently here, I was my sole source of labour, so I picked my spots to make my stands, to preserve in certain areas at least something of the sense of a farm, of what a farm is, what it provides. I did my best to keep the areas nearest the house – the yard and even a stretch that could honestly be called a lawn – neat and mowed. I put in a vegetable garden closer to the house than the big garden had been.

And I kept that 11th-century idea in my head, a vision and a game. If I cranked my lawnmower, or on occasion a neighbour’s borrowed tiller, I did so while roughly calculating what the equivalent of an hour of mowing would be in true horse – or ox – power. I thought of what that would have meant to my imaginary predecessors who I saw, vaguely, as living on the edge of some great forest in England or on the continent, cut off from cities and towns. My imaginary predecessors moved to Ireland, from where I learnt about loy ploughing, an ancient approach to hand-tilling hilly and rocky soil inaccessible to horse teams. The loy is closest to the tool we now know as the spade, and the spade was a tool I owned. I would take my spade and dig in, working out rocks and roots, cutting a furrow as straight as I could manage (not very), moving sod and soil to either side of the trench. A few hours’ work, and I could plant a few seed potatoes.

My most constantly used tool was the mattock, which offers a pointed pick on one side of its head and a hoe-like blade on the other. Also a favourite 1,000 years ago, the mattock’s two heads, one for digging and one for cutting, give it a versatility that I find unmatched. The spade was once called the ‘poor man’s plough’ and I thought of my mattock, which I used to break ground, chop roots, pry up rocks, turn and prepared beds, the same way. Restricted to one tool, I would choose the mattock.

Daily Weekly

Only gradually did I realise that I had far more in common with a post-apocalypse survivor – and chronic illness, not to mention financial challenges, are apocalyptic in their way – than with an 11th-century farmer. Those farmers, after all, knew what they were doing; their whole lives would have been spent doing it. They were far more prepared for a post-apocalypse life on the land than me or almost anyone I knew.

A central truth about living closely on the land is that the land itself will show you what you have accomplished and what you have done wrong. Mine mostly showed me my mistakes. Opportunistic pines, finding purchase and uncut when small, soon became trees. Blackberries, spreading beneath the ground, erupted, their briars making familiar pathways impassable. The first emergence of an invader is the time to catch it – something I failed to do. This year’s seedling pines are next year’s forest covering a portion of a favourite meadow.

But even in the spots where I put in the time to keep things clear, especially my garden, my struggles were obvious. Ralph Waldo Emerson writes in a journal entry from May 1843 of the honesty a row of peas imposes upon the planter: ‘My garden is an honest place. Every tree and every vine are incapable of concealment, and tell after two or three months exactly what sort of treatment they have had. The sower may mistake and sow his peas crookedly: the peas make no mistake, but come up and show his line.’

The deer and rabbits and groundhogs didn’t care how straight my rows were as they dined upon them

My own rows – perfect in the days of having the ground tilled by tractor – now rarely rose straight, their twists and turns mocking me and imposing irony and honesty upon my thoughts. Was my declaration to ‘do what I could with what I had’ just denial? My circumstances all but demanded that I let the farm go, and with it the freelancing, to move back to Greensboro or another city where I could find a job. But I kept on.

During the worst of my economic problems, I came close to losing it all, and wondered if that might not be the best thing for myself, my wife, and the land. Someone else, I knew, could come in with money and equipment and open it up in a season. This wasn’t, after all, a species-wide apocalypse, but a personal one – I could pack up, leave, start over elsewhere. But I continued to believe that both my career and my farm could be turned around – and that if I really had to, I could survive on what I grew.

My peas tasted no less sweet for the disarray of their rows. Potatoes dug from soil roughly worked with spade, shovel and mattock were firm and well-shaped, tasty and nourishing. I never used synthetic fertilisers. Whatever I produced was nurtured, instead, with compost, manure (during the years we had a horse), chopped leaves and hay cut with a scythe. I ate plenty of blackberries from the canes that sprouted across once-mown fields, and appreciated the animals – hawks, fox, even bear – whose population increased along with the spread of habitat. The deer and rabbits and groundhogs didn’t care how straight my rows were as they dined upon them – and in any true apocalypse, they could feed us, too.

But time exerted its effects. Planting a large crop of anything by hand took so much time that plans for other large plantings went unfulfilled. This season or phase of the moon for planting this crop; this temperature means it’s too late or too early to plant that one. Eleventh-century farming was a pre-sunup to post-sundown endeavour, or nearly. Yet even my reduced livelihood required that far more hours be spent at my desk (and not the one by the creek) than in my fields. For everything I accomplished outside, far more tasks and chores – not to mention plans – languished undone.

Still I held on. When my son came to visit last November, I dug potatoes to share with him and with other members of my family. I was still here.

During those seasons when my approach works well, having a visitor remark on how attractive my land is, how nicely it is kept, provides a pleasure as deep as receiving a compliment for a piece of writing. But I know the truth – these past few dark years, this place I love so much resembled a backwoods hollow straight out of Deliverance.

Yet things are looking up. The year 2014 promises to be a good one at my desk, giving me the lift I need to work my farm. In light of the lessons of the last few years, I am ready to reconsider my strategy and renew the fight to reclaim more from the briars and the canes and the pines.

Our modern era’s dependence upon technology and, especially, chemical and motorised technology, has divorced most of us from soil and seeds and fundamental skills. The schism would challenge survivors in any post-apocalypse world. Without modern agricultural technology, and the production and distribution systems that are built upon it, hunger would arrive quickly in most cities and towns, with starvation close at heel. A cinematic global apocalypse would see most of the survivors dead by starvation within months if not weeks. Those who made it through – farmers and gardeners, undoubtedly some preppers, maybe (or maybe not) me, would find themselves in subsistence and endurance mode for years. Planning and long-practised rhythms were at the core of the 11th-century farmer’s life; improvisation, much of it desperate, would be the heart of the post-apocalyptic farmer’s existence.

I find I’ve become better at both. Oddly – or maybe not – as life improves, I find myself looking at powered equipment less longingly.

But I do have my eye on a custom-crafted, straight-snathed European scythe.

Comments

  • Cadigan

    What a wonderful essay! Thanks for this, dear friend!

  • guest

    North Carolina? If that is the case why is this not written in American English? What a crock.

  • George Blair

    You don't happen to need an ex-military guy and his dog do ya?

  • Jim Oberg

    Greetings from a fellow Omni vet, also on a piece of rural land [25 acres in Galveston county]. We appreciate the lessons, feel for the hardships, warm to share the insights, and the access to the stars. http://www.jamesoberg.com

  • williamruffian

    It would, perhaps, be more fulfilling for you if you wore a crown of thorns while scything away..

  • Steve Jarrett

    Keith, I knew you in passing many years ago when you were a bookseller working at News N Novels in Greensboro, NC. This was long before your OMNI gig. You wouldn't remember me -- just one of the many regular customers at that store. That was when Pyramid was releasing a series of Harlan Ellison paperbacks; I haunted the store, constantly waiting for the next release in the series, and you dutifully kept me supplied with my Ellison fix. I was thrilled to learn some time later that you had taken the reins at OMNI, and I was a regular OMNI reader during your tenure there. I'm pleased to have had the opportunity, through this essay, to catch up on what you have been up to these last few years. You have made an extraordinary life choice; may it bring you contentment. Be well, amigo.

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