The Ramparts People
I remember clearly the day when I was twelve, hunting morel mushrooms with my father, when I informed him excitedly that I had decided to take my dog and my rifle and go deep into the wilderness to live. I would build a cabin on a mountainside by a clear running stream, and live out my days happily on broiled trout, fried mushrooms, and hickory nut pie. I would achieve advanced degrees in the art of living, bestowed on me by Nature, and I would know many things not even Einstein or my stupid schoolteacher dreamed of.
I thought that he would approve, since he was forever retreating to the solitude of woods and river bank and farm field himself But he almost frowned, suggesting gently in a voice that sounded as if he were saying what he thought he was supposed to say, not what he really felt, that I needed to be thinking about making my way in the world and contributing something to it.
Unfortunately I tried to follow his advice and it took me until I was forty-two to realize that I knew what was better for me when I was twelve. And having hunted everywhere for the peculiar kind of freedom I had tried to articulate that day, I came back to my boyhood homethe place of my beginnings-and found it. What I learned in the process was to follow my own mind because worldly wisdom invariably springs from notions that are largely erroneous. The only really good advice that holds up in all situations is: Always make friends with the cook.
For a while, I thought Americans had lost the desire for independence-the kind of independence that defines success in terms of how much food, clothing, shelter, and contentment I could produce for myself rather than how much I could buy; the kind of freedom that examines the meaning of life, not the meaning of cholesterol; the kind of freedom that allows me to say what I think in public without fear that my words will be "bad for business," the fear that keeps my rich acquaintances in town in silent bondage, trading their freedom of speech for dollars. (Not a one of them will publicly say what they privately believe: that President Clinton is as mad as ex-President Bush for dropping "well-intentioned" bombs on defenseless countries, and so the polls all appear to approve an act of outright terrorism.)
Then I started hearing about other people who were even more independent than I dared to dream: people deliberately removing themselves from the protection of the great god, Grid, because only beyond the blessings of the holy public utility could they find affordable land of their own: and also people, excluded from even that kind of frontier, who were turning ghettos into edenic gardens. I became acquainted with a university music professor who farmed with horses and in retirement manufactured modern horsedrawn machinery; a scientist who discovered that composted sewage sludge protects vegetable plants from disease; a man who homesteaded with his family in an isolated rural area to start a million-dollar business creating beautiful and usefial items out of waste wood even while a rare disease slowly incapacitated his muscular coordination; a Vietnamese immigrant who figured out how to use duckweed (green pond scum) to purify wastewater and then made a nutritious protein supplement out of the scum; a rock star who bought a thousand-acre farm and turned it back into a wilderness that produces more food than the farm did; a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who quit his career to become an organic market gardener; a famous cartoonist who built a sewage system for his huge office complex that uses the shit and urine from his fifry workers to grow exotic plants, fish, and mussels, and then discharges pure water back into the environment; a contractor who uses scrap tires, earth, and beer cans to build houses that run entirely on the sun.
The voice of the turtle can be heard again, ringing through the land, as the old Wyandots and Mohegans who once roamed my farm would say-a new surge of creative energy that moves the earth in a direction of self-redemption and sustainability that not the richest PAC nor the oldest institutionalized claptrap can stop.
We are pioneers, seeking a new kind of religious and economic freedom. We flee the evils that centralized power always generates. Our God does not reside in the inner sanctums of cathedrals, but walks with us, hoeing in the fields. Sometimes I see Him checking the bluebird houses for murderous starlings and house sparrows and give Him hell for inventing the nest-robbing bandits. He smiles and reminds me that stupid scientists brought the starling and house sparrow to America, not Him.
We are circumspect about our economic institutions. We do not bank on paper money within marble walls, but invest in sun and soil and sweat and the tools that make sweat more productive.
I think of us as the Ramparts People. In all ages we have camped on the edges of the earth, the buffer between our more conventional and timid brethren and those nether regions where, as the medieval maps instructed, "there be dragons and wild beestes." It is our destiny to draw the dragon's fire while the mainstream culture hides behind its disintegrating deficit and damns us for shattering its complacency. So be it.
The hickory nut pie is excellent.