I am swimming in the bay across from our house, out to the reef which is covered in water at high tide. It is evening, around 8, and I pull myself up onto the rocks for a rest before swimming back to shore. If I’m lucky, I might see Orca whales in the Georgia Strait, though it’s more likely that a curious seal will pop up to look at me. It’s too early for true sunset, but the sky is heading towards dusk and I shiver a bit against the evening air. When I clamber back down off the reef rocks and submerge myself again I wonder how long I can stay in. I don’t want to worry my husband Brian, back at the house, who waits for my return from these solo swims, but at the same time I know that soon enough the days will get cooler, and this activity will come to an end for another year.
In just a couple of weeks, it will be Labour Day–the official start of everything–but right now it’s mid-August, a month I find anxious and somewhat oppressive in its insistence on endings. Our moss lawn is brown, the leaves on the maples are curling at the edges, and though the dahlias and kale are bright in the face of what’s coming, the rest of the garden needs to be turned over and mulched before the rains start. If I kept an annual calendar of my moods, this last bit of summer would be a low point. A middle age in the year with all its youth and fertility having passed; it’s no wonder I experience it as a kind of crisis.
I suspect this has always been an uneasy month for those of us in the Northern hemisphere, and that the riot of summer holidays are a cover for how we’re really feeling. Surely our ancestors recognized the shortening days as omens of another starvation winter on the horizon. No matter how much food they put by, there would always be the months of early springtime when the baskets were bare, with only mealy apples or the last of the hard sausage available from the year before. Although the traditional agrarian cycle has at least four leisure months, in which little work can be done, there is evidence that much of 18th century peasant Europe spent that time in a literal hibernation with households taking to bed for much of the winter. Conserving the need for fuel and food was an essential part of making it through lean times.
This is where my thoughts have been in the last week as I’ve talked to our island growers to get the best prices on canning quantities of tomatoes and pickling cucumbers, and arranged with the farm up the road to purchase a side of pork. Not that we grapple with food scarcity, but the abundance of harvest demands my attention. At home, when I have a few free minutes, I check the buckets of dry goods in our pantry and note whether any of the legumes, flour, oats, barley, or sugar need stocking up. I go through the canning shelves looking for food older than three years and pull anything that exceeds that time frame. I look in the freezer and determine what needs to get eaten before we fill it again during butchering and hunting season. I throw out very little food in these annual patrols, but what I do get rid of makes room for this season’s stock.
Friends joke that if the apocalypse comes to pass, they will come to our house to be fed. They toss off the label “preppers” in reference to the fact that I channel my late August anxiety into an industriousness around food supply and storage. “Prepping” is an outgrowth of survivalist culture, and refers to people obsessed with preparing for collapse (whether that be social, economic, technology-based, or environmental). A few years ago, the show Doomsday Preppers popularized this sub-culture in the United States by inviting participants to detail their escape, survival, and off-grid living plans, and then brought in experts to evaluate the likelihood of their success. I watched one episode out of curiosity and then never sought it out again. It was neither informative nor kind in how it treated its subjects and felt like an exercise in ridiculing people’s trauma and fear more than anything else. Internet culture on the subject is not much better, with anonymous Instagram and chatroom accounts promoting survivalist memes full of guns and fantasized bunker plans, and lots of talk about when it’s okay to shoot other people (answer: whenever anyone feels threatened). Prepper culture is really focused on survival of the individual or a select group of family or religious compatriots. It is also overwhelmingly white, and though not necessarily racist (except in the militia circles), I am pretty sure that no one plans to invite “others” into their bunkers when the time comes.
Though I don’t feel a kinship with this subculture, I have to acknowledge that what I do and my motivations for doing it bear some resemblance. After all, we live in triggering times. Climate change, precarious employment, housing scarcity and social instability form the basis for a collective apprehension, and although I am privileged in many ways, I am not immune from these worries.
I developed an interest in food preservation and security fifteen years ago, amid speculation about peak oil and its ramifications. Around that time I taught myself to can food and sew, and have continued with Brian to develop these and other skills further. We hunt, grow, can, and store food to carry us through everyday life and possible lean times. I have continued to sew, learned to weave and knit, and make most of my own clothes and many of our household textiles. We have taught ourselves to build small structures, to repair and mend what we own, and are working towards an off-grid backup plan that will fuel our well during power outages and create underground cold storage space to revert to when the fridge stops working. This is the activity of anticipating a different future, one that could be upon us without much warning. It is, in essence, preparing ourselves. I don’t fool myself into thinking our supplies and skills would carry us through an extended crisis, though I do feel a sense of security every time I look at my full larder. At the very least we won’t go hungry in the immediate aftermath of job loss, an earthquake, or a greater emergency that cuts off ferries and power to our island.
And yet, I don’t believe our greatest asset in times of crisis is our canning cupboard. While that might help feed ourselves and others, the only viable strategy for survival is the development of an interdependent community in which we learn the work of supporting each other through difficult times. That includes teaching and encouraging the use of ancestral skills, devising strategies for neighbourhood emergency response, and opening up conversations around our dinner table about what kind of future we envision for the place we live. There is a lot of secrecy and paranoia built into the very base of the prepper mentality: a belief that if your neighbours knew you had food they would shoot you for it. There are few chatroom discussions devoted to community building and resource sharing, there is little sense of the need to build towards collective survival. What prepper culture misses entirely is that no matter how much food we have stockpiled, none of us are surviving for long without others. And if we want to do more than just get by, we need to invest the time in finding our people and knowing our communities, not turning inwards and away.
We have been at home on this island for only three years, and in that short time we have globally borne witness to the worst fire seasons on record, an exponential increase in melting sea ice, and the unfolding of the sixth great extinction in every part of the world. When we turn our attention to our political leaders, we find ourselves hopeless in the face of fascism and corporatism; governments that seem to relish burning off the last resources available. As I walk up the darkening path home returning from my swim, I note the dying balsam firs and cedars along our road, and know that the future will be very different from the present. There is no place to run to and hide, the changes are upon us now. It’s not just the turn of the season approaching on this late summer evening, but the fact that like so many before me, I do not know where the turning of the world will take us next. What is right in front of me is the entrance to our yard, beyond which I can see a couple of friends on the deck with Brian. I go through the gate and join the conversation, talking about my plans to fill the pantry, my swim in the ocean, and our thoughts for the next big dinner at Birdsong. This is the culture to which I belong, of resilience, of friendship, and of shaking off the anxiety of this world together.
When the weather is good, I do the pressure canning outside to eliminate the steam and heat in our kitchen. This photo is from last year's session of tomato and curry sauces.
August Recipe: Salsa verde
It will be fall soon enough, and the tomatoes will stop ripening on the vine. Here's a way to use those green tomatoes! Though salsa verde is traditionally made with tomatillos, I have made this recipe many times and found it equal in every way. Makes 8 pints.
5 lbs green tomatoes, diced according to salsa preference
4 cups diced yellow onion
3 jalapenos, seeds removed, diced
2 cups diced red bell pepper
6 garlic cloves, minced
1 cup lime juice
1⁄2 cup vinegar
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon cumin
1 tablespoon dried oregano leaves
2 teaspoons pepper
1⁄4 teaspoon cayenne (optional, to taste)
Combine everything in a large pot, and mix well. Bring mixture to a boil and then reduce heat. Simmer for 30-40 minutes, stirring occasionally. Cook until salsa is reduced to consistency that you prefer.
Prepare boiling water canner and fill jars with hot salsa, leaving 1/2 inch of headspace. Process pints and smaller jars in boiling water for 15 minutes.
In the studio
I find it hard to start or finish things at this time of year and I feel stymied by that. This week I had an unexpected day off work and it allowed me to wind a warp for some new tea towels, thus breaking through to a new project. This photograph shows what it looks like before I get to dressing the loom. I will wind 444 threads on this pegged board before creating the warp chain. Then the fun of threading reed and heddles will begin.
We are only a few people away from the draw I've promised over the last two issues of the newsletter. Remember? Once I reach 150 subscribers I will be drawing for a tea towel and a jar of rhubarb ketchup - mailed to wherever you are in the world. Share this newsletter to encourage others to sign up for a chance to win!
Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist This collection of essays by Paul Kingsnorth was on my summer reading list. I will confess that I did not get through them all, but the title essay in particular is worth a read if you want a reminder of why the modern day environmental movement (and Green parties) are not an answer for the planet. Kingsnorth does not flinch as he examines the current state of climate change and the crisis we are facing.
The Eight Principles of Uncivilization One of Kingsnorth's outlets is the Dark Mountain Project. In 2009, they wrote a manifesto, at the bottom of which you can find these principles outlined. I don't believe these are all the principles we need going forward, but they comprise a good start.
Avoiding Collapse: An agenda for sustainable degrowth and relocalizing the economy This paper by William Rees was published in 2014 by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives who described is as "radical by today's context". Five years later, does it still seem so? Rees lays out the case for an organized transition while we still have time, arguing that "An orderly contraction is the only viable means to a just sustainability and this, in turn, implies nothing less than a deliberate rewrite of contemporary society’s grand cultural narrative...... core myths of perpetual progress and material growth.... focus[ing] instead on degrowth toward a sustainable steady state with greater equity." Worth a read if you haven't come across it before.
I am in gratitude of all of you who follow and share my writing, and also of the land on which I live. I haven't done this here before, but want to acknowledge that I am very privileged to live and work in the beautiful, unceded Coast Salish homelands of the Snuneymuxw Nation. I will continue to do my best to honour this place and all its beings in my writing and other works I undertake. Gassho.