Lessons from the Not-So-Distant-Past

Sharon February 26th, 2007

My friend Amy loaned me a pile of old _Organic Gardening and Farming_ magazines from the 1970s, and I’ve been meandering through them. If you’ve only ever known the inane magazine that goes by (sort of) the same name in the last decade or two, offering up dim articles like “Get Excited About Pansies” or “Parsnips:Great Tasting Phallic Vegetables,” you are missing something. The old _Organic Gardening and Farming_ Magazine was quite serious about growing food and helping people learn what they needed to know.

One of the things that caught my eye was the December 1976 issue, about an entire town that gardens on a large scale. The town was (and presumably is) named Ursina, somewhere in southwest PA, and was an ordinary, depressed little town suffering from stagflation, oil shocks and assorted miseries of the 1970s (I have no idea what Ursina is like now). The majority of the town’s population was over 60 or under 18, and there were only 80 employable adults out of 284 people. The town had once boomed (the title of the article is “Ursina Had an Opera House”) and now suffered from economic hard times, lack of jobs, an aging population and chronic poverty - rather like a lot of places in the US right now. And probably even more like a lot of places in the years to come, as the Baby Boomers age, and find that they haven’t saved very much and that the safety nets they’ve counted on are at risk of evaporation.

The majority of the town’s members got some kind of government money - many of the employable adults were seasonal construction workers, consistently laid off in the winter and collecting unemployment, the seniors mostly got pensions or social security, and a few people received welfare. But overwhelmingly, they were poor people - people who mostly had worked as miners or on railroads, in construction or whatever, and now didn’t have a lot left. The postmaster notes that most people got a check on the first of the month - and that the end of the month was often a difficult time for people.

I think that last will describe a lot of people in the coming decade. The oldest baby boomers are 61 this year. The savings rate nationally is at -1% - that is, we’re so indebted that we have cancelled out everything we have saved as a nation. The average boomer has much less than they need saved for retirement, and a many of them are counting on their houses - often houses that are still mortgaged - to fund their retirements, just at the cusp of a bubble burst (the slight decline in house prices we’ve seen so far does not constitute a burst - the serious stuff is still to come, as the decline in starts and Toll Bros. profits and such seem to indicate). Many boomers *bought* houses in the last 5 years, moving up to fancier digs, and this will not result in wealth they can easily transfer to their retirements.

As the population ages, there will be more and more people collecting money - social security, pensions (the ones that are left), medicare, etc.. and fewer and fewer people making money for a good while. Any major strain on the economy - say, having to adapt your infrastructure massively to deal with energy depletion or climate change, a few unwise wars (note the buildup on Iran - how much is that one gonna cost?), a currency crisis (China dropped our bond rating again) or a few major disasters (that couldn’t happen… climate change couldn’t cause…oh wait), and there are going to be a lot of older folks in this nation who are going to be struggling economically. Even those who have saved may well be affected - if China and Japan cease propping up our currency, or the stock market crashes, many private savings, 401Ks and pension funds will collapse, worth little or nothing. Consider the victims of Enron, for example.

Now in the 1970s, the government support systems were able to keep paying out for a good long time. But the 70s were fueled by the largest single generation in history coming solidly into their most productive years. That is not the case now - I’m part of the baby bust, born right around the demographic trough before the boomers started having kids in earnest and as the depression generation was winding down. During the depression, for example, the government refused to offer national relief, and the states struggled to maintain a tax base large enough to support the tremendous need. Tax delinquency rates were 30% in much of the country in the early 1930s because of simple inability to pay, and massive foreclosures. And the 1930s did not have the demographic that we have today.

While we have a federal system in place, there is already concern that social security and medicare will be overwhelmed - this year’s budget applies the vast majority of our national resources to foreign wars with no hope of success and destructive consequences. Our debt means we have mortgaged our ability to borrow our way out of a new crisis. Several economists report that there is no way that federal unemployment could continue to pay out if the same percentages of the population were unemployed today, as in the depression - we would bankrupt the system.

Which brings us back to the town of Ursina in 1976. The town had no grocery store, and prices were high because of nearby tourist pressure. One of the few local businesses was an auction house that would sell off anything, even “broken screen doors” to enable people to get by. But the community had a large number of gardens - five families together, for example, combined to grow two huge gardens on combined lots. 80% of the population gardened, 60% of them canned food for winter.

Over 50 or 60 years, according to the story, Ursina moved from being an almost totally independent local economy, with three cider mills, a thriving maple sugar business, an opera house, theater company, mill, tannery and 200 student schoolhouse. By 1976, virtually every penny spent in the town came from outside - from government sources, tourist jobs in other towns, mines and railroads. The only local product that remained were the gardens.

Now I don’t know a thing about Ursina, PA, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that today it is an outlying suburb of somewhere or other, with good schools and a community full of people who get in their cars and drive to a job elsewhere. I’d be willing to bet that most of the money that is used in Ursina comes from far away and goes back there on a regular basis - that is, people drive to their jobs, and then they spend their money in supermarkets and big box stores that take the money and move it elsewhere.

If Ursina is anything like the rest of the US, its demographics involve an aging population, only this time one that hasn’t grown up gardening and farming. The older folks interviewed by _Organic Gardening and Farming_ overwhelmingly had spent their youths in the garden or on the farm. They weren’t picking up hoe and spade for the first time in their lives at 60 or 70 or 80, they were continuing to do what they’d done since childhood, and what was in some senses second nature to them.

These were people who had spent most of their lives in one place - their families were from there, they knew their neighbors, so they could join together and expect adult children to help with the heavy work, or to work with the people who lived near them. This is also probably unlike the present-day population of Ursina, or at least your town.

The people of Ursina did what they had to do to make ends meet in hard times - they planted gardens, canned food, did a little deer hunting, sold off their extra possessions. In short, they did all the things that we are most likely going to need to do - they look rather like us in a decade. The only difference is that this is second nature to them.

It is hard to emphasize how important that last part is - I have no idea what it is like to be 60 or 70, but I have no doubt whatsoever that a 70 year old who had worked in a garden every year for his whole life is in for less stress, pain and suffering than a 70 year old planting his very first garden. Many baby boomers are retiring, not from years as active, blue collar workers, but from years of sitting for 8 hours a day in front of desks - this is going to be a difficult physical transition.

What is needed, first of all, is for every one of us, no matter what age, to begin to pick up, if not the hoe, the hand trowel. Even the physically limited can garden sitting down, in pots, at raised beds. The next thing is to begin to recreate the communities that small towns of 800 could have an opera house, a place for art and music and performance, and a local economy where economic security came and stayed, rather than just visited. The people of Ursina, most of the older of whom are now long gone, I assume, represented people created to operate in local economies. When those local economies fell apart, led by suburban dreams and cheap energy, the ones who stayed may have been left behind, but they had a measure of security that we will have to duplicate without their resources and skills.

The things we have to remake are legion - local economies, physical knowledge, a myriad of skills and community connections. Otherwise, when the next depression comes (and it will), we will find that the elders of our community (and the rest of us too) fare far worse than the people of Ursina.


4 Responses to “Lessons from the Not-So-Distant-Past”

  1. Anonymouson 27 Feb 2007 at 1:28 pm

    The thing that cracks me up- but not in a “ha ha” way really- is all the urban/suburban sorts on the web who blather on about how if things get tough why they’ll just plant a garden and haul water from the stream, chop wood, etc- but they don’t know didley about doing any of this. That and their physical activity is based on jogging or skiing- if they’re even active- many are not even that far along.

    I have an elderly retired-farmer neighbor- he’s about 89-he still cuts his own wood, shovels snow, etc- he’s just been active working outdoors his whole life- it makes a difference.

    It’s kind of interesting- don’t know if you’ve read any of Stirling’s books in this one series of 3 he’s written- “Dies the Fire”, “The Protector” and “Meeting at Corvalis”- but essentially it looks at what happens when some sort of event(unclear what)- creates a change so that engines no longer work(or guns)- fascinating series. But in any event, one of the things that was noted was that very few older people survived “the change”- the younger ones basically adapted quickly- but the people who had been middle aged or older at the time didn’t make it for the most part- the physical labor was too hard and the head set change too difficult and they gave up and died. Interesting as I think it is probably right on-

    also- have realized how few older people are around who actually know how to do old-time skills- the “FoxFire” series elders for instance- I know neither my mother nor my grandmother knew how to grow anything, can or preserve- nada- I had to learn it all from scratch- book in front of me- milking goats, making cheese, growing produce- I farm now- canning(no one died!), using herbs- but it sure would have been easier to learn all this at my mama’s knee…..but all she knows is how to load grocery items in her cart….

  2. Anonymouson 27 Feb 2007 at 3:14 pm

    Ah, yes, the Alien Space Bats event. I enjoy the books, but as Stirling himself points out (via his characters) they are lucky, lucky, lucky, and all that has to happen is for their luck not to hold once, and they are in the soup. (I also find these books the most self-indulgent of his writing, but that’s not really an issue here.) I find the explorationof founder effect very interesting.

    To reply to the meat of the post, I think there are two skill sets we need, one is immediate — how the grow those veggies, what veggies to grow, how patch those jeans etc. and then, a generation or two down the road, how to forge a new spade, how to grow, rhet, spin, weave, etc. flax to make new trousers.


  3. Janaon 28 Feb 2007 at 4:31 pm

    Are you familiar with this site?


    I really agree with the whole Victory Garden idea and am looking for a way to launch a campaign in my hometown.

  4. norlight0on 02 Mar 2007 at 1:02 am

    It is important not to sell ourselves short on what we capable of accomplishing. There were many people in the 70’s who developed a lot of the rural life skills. While many “moved on” in their lives, gardening, cutting wood, carpentry are all like riding a bicycle. You never forget these things. For those of us who stayed in a rural setting all of these things still are a part of our lives and we have learned to work smarter. Having said that, I would much rather be facing peak oil in my twenties or thirties. As it is, I am “looking middle age in the rear view mirror”.
    The victory garden idea is wonderful, and I think it could still be made to work in this day and age. By 1943 half the food in the country was being grown in victory and community gardens. Gardening is still very big with numerous gardening organizations pushing it for the last 3 or 4 decades.

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