Archive for August 24th, 2008

The Grand Tour: A Post-Peak Travelogue

Sharon August 24th, 2008

If you read various oil blogs, you can’t turn around this summer without kicking over someone’s observations on what places are like in the era of high energy prices and teetering recession, usually beginning with a list of exactly how many RVs they’ve seen on the road.  And who am I to buck the trend?  I admit, it feels a little lame, given that once my grand tours covered multiple European nations or large chunks of say,  Indonesia, rather than some of the central parts of New York State, but hey, a gal with four kids has to take what she can get. 

Ok - RV count…0.  This is perhaps not as remarkable as you’d think since other than a stretch between Monticello and Binghamton, we stayed off the Interstates entirely, but we didn’t see a one, except those stationary and for sale.  Also not seen - cars hauling motor boats and jet skis.  Frankly, these were absences I could live with, but it did seem to be part of a trend.  So were the for-sale signs everywhere, especially on obvious second homes.  People are trying to unload economic burdens - and it may be too late to get rid of them, given the sheer number.

Perhaps the most startling moment actually occurred before we left - riding with my Mother on our way back from the local farmstand we took a slightly different route, only to discover that a long stretch of pot-holed back road near us was having its asphalt ripped up and replaced by…gravel.  That is, my local town has now officially joined rural areas around the country in giving up paved roads in areas where it is simply too expensive to maintain them.  Gravel is much less expensive.  I’d heard reports of this from other people, and in fact, we’ve seen it on our own road, where potholed areas were dug up and replaced by gravel - but this is the first time I’ve seen someone getting rid of all the paving entirely.  We saw several other examples of this, and heard about more as we travelled around, talking to people.

I once read a report from South Africa that pointed out that pot-holes can be seen as a measure of the level of crisis, and if this is the case, our trip through rural areas of New York state shows a region experiencing a great deal of economic turmoil (duh!) - the roads were, well, bad.  Eric got to see this in great detail - the most direct way to my guest lecture at the Catskill Permaculture course was a beautiful rural route through the back of a couple of neighboring counties, and let’s just say that by the time that we were ready to go, Eric (ok, me too) was really, really ready.  So when I told him to go get the bags and put them in the car, Eric got all the bags he could find - including my mother’s suitcase, containing her clothes and needed medication.  We didn’t discover this until nearly 10pm that evening, so Eric got to see the road conditions - and the lovely views several times, as he rose at 6 am on our first day to drive back home, return the suitcase, and then come join me.  It added an element of comedy to the whole thing.

Amazingly, and despite the fact that we researched the area when we were planning on moving to New York, I had never been to the Borscht-belt parts of the Catskills before.  I suppose I’ve long since missed their heyday, but still, there’s a firmly 1950s feel to the whole thing, right down to advertising pornography with the word “exotic” - when was the last time you saw a sign that had that word on it?  The road where the Ashram that the permaculture class took place on had a Chasidic summer colony, a now-defunct Pentacostal summer camp and an Ashram on it.  ‘Tis an interesting area, and I wish I’d seen more of it.  The places we did visit outside the Ashram mentioned that it was a slow year for visitors, but to my untrained eye, things were pretty active, potholes mostly under control on the main road, and touristi abounded (not, of course, excluding us).

We had a great time at permaculture summer camp, got to hang out with assorted students, guest lecturers and the remarkable Larry Santoyo and Toby Hemenway, and then hit the road again, this time bound for the Fingerlakes. Before we departed we attempted to get a sense of local food systems, but everyone we asked looked at us rather blankly.   There are obviously farms in the Catskills, but we struggled to find local agriculture, and we’d have thought that an area that full of tourists looking to rusticate would be flowing with agritourism - pick your owns, and such.  But everyone we asked about this looked as us rather blankly.  But the trouble may have been the areas we were in, or our own failures.  I’d love to hear about the vibrant local food culture of an area that obviously draws a lot of New Yorkers.

Now there are several ways to approach this kind of travelogue - we stayed, except for the aforementioned diversion up route 17 - off the highways, driving through countryside and suburb, and trying, as much as one can from a car and occasional stops to wander about, to get a sense of how places are faring or will fare in the coming years.   You can go Kunstlerian, and be mired in the bleakness of it all, or optimistic, seeing with sensitized eyes just how much land there is untouched, just how much potential. 

Generally speaking, I tend towards the optimistic approach, except when I’m near Binghamton.  I probably have some readers there, and I regret deeply any offense I cause when I admit, the only word I’ve ever been able to come up with the for the visual perception of how Binghamton looks, no matter how you approach it, is “Stalinist” - and not in a good way.  I’m sure that if a competition for most “Soviet-industrial looking city in the US” were held, Binghamton wouldn’t be more than a runner-up, but just the sight of Binghamton in the landscape makes me start channelling Kunstler, and his assertion that we must start making better places or we’re all doomed. I’ve no doubt that Binghamton has its redeeming qualities, but we couldn’t bear to be there long enough to discover them - and I’ve never been able to spot them during previous visits.  The one time I was ever in Binghamton for a farmer’s market, for example, several years ago, it was a sad little thing, dwarfed by the farmer’s market in (much smaller and similar in some ways) Cortland.

It is, however, completely unfair to compare comparatively affluent, green, eco-village filled,  two-University Ithaca with poor, one-State University, Industrial Binghamton.  The fact that one would prefer the former to the latter is one of those obvious things - the game was rigged to begin with.  Still, it was fascinating to see (I’ve been to Ithaca and Binghamton both a bunch of time before, but mostly in connection with my old academic career, not my new one) the degree to which the magic of Cornell’s far reaching and creative agricultural program has created an agricultural area that has a truly unified feel.   That is, it isn’t hard to imagine that Ithaca and the surrounding regions will be unified in large part under the aegis of Cornell Cooperative extension.  Talking to local farmers and residents, we got the impression that this is one area set to pull together.

We did a little ag-tourism ourselves, checking out local cheesemakers, eating some truly great goat cheese and quite nice Kefir cheese, making an obligatory stop at a couple of wineries (Far be it for me to discourage local agricultural projects, but the thought of a future where fingerlakes wines are the only ones available to me is not heartening - most of it was dreadful stuff by my standards, and even Eric, who likes sweet white wines and has a childhood nostalgia for Manischewitz found it uninspiring.)  But what we were impressed by was the sheer quantity of roadside stands, suburban gardens and local farm producers.  Of course, it was driven by a tourist economy - but it isn’t clear to me whether at least in the short term the tourist economy for the Fingerlakes or the Catskills is likely to disappear or expand.  Certainly in a gradual, growing crisis, for a while, those who stay home entirely will be replaced by those who would have drunk wine in France, but now need something cheaper.  And the influx of foreign visitors was truly remarkable - and commented upon everywhere we went.  The rest of the world may be on the verge of economic crisis, but those affluent enough are certainly taking advantage of the falling dollar.

We spent one night eating Cuban food (best I’ve had in a long time) at a local farmer’s market and attending a local draft-horse pull.  I love draft horses, and I love to watch  horse pulls.  It is, in most places, an man’s sport, complete with places on the side for the wives to watch the men - most of them older men - at their work.  I can’t quite parse why I love this sport - there’s the beauty of the animals, of course, and the courage and enthusiasm with which they take on such an enormous burden, and the symmetry with which these men work their animals.  There’s the risks they take - one family at the horse pull I watched was made up of an 81 year old father, his 50 something son, and a grandson who looked to be in his late teens or early 20s.  At the moment the horses are hitched to the weight there’s a great deal of risk for the man driving, in this case the elderly grandfather - if the horses pull away at the last moment, preventing the hitch, they can easily drag the driver. 

It all happens in a second - the hitch is made or not made, one person connects the points, and the man holding back the force of two 2000+ lb draft horses transfers over the reins to the driver. Towards the end, the horses missed the hitch, and watching grandson and father leap together in absolute unison to reclaim the reins to prevent the grandfather from being pulled from his perch - and succeed in a tiny fraction of a second - was both a remarkable feat of athleticism and grace and strangely moving.  Some poet once asked where all the strong men, the giants of his childhood, the men with biceps of iron and raw courage have gone - well, they (and perhaps the strong women of courage as well, although I never see any) are out at the draft horse pulls, testing the strength of human and horse, simply to be able to say they can.  Talking to a few of them afterwards, nearly all told the same story - men in their forties and fifties and up, most of them don’t farm primarly with the horses themselves, but their fathers and grandfathers did, and they grew up around the horses, and loved them, and were unwilling to fully give up the symbiosis between human and horse.

The horse pull was part of an agricultural fair - and we had only recently attended our own agricultural fair.  But this is one place where the local agricultural tradition seems far more straitened than in my region - while the local County fairs in our region - Cobleskill and Altamont - struggle with the competition of the midway and with declining participation in some of the traditional agricultural areas, the Trumansburg Fair was a true shell of its agricultural self - a half dozen cows, one goat, a few crocheted articles and a few dozen baked goods and jams and jellies.  Almost half the domestic art building was taken up with an exhibit on the fair past - because there was almost no present. 

In one sense, the idea of the agricultural fair is archaic - just like the horse pull, the remnent of something older.  After all, who needs to bring their pickles, their lamb, their ear of corn to the fair to get a small prize?  What’s the point?

Well, the point is that agriculture doesn’t happen in isolation.  It is easy to think it does - easy to live in a kind of isolation when you are caught up with your land and garden and place.  It is easy to work every day on the farm, and to never stop long enough to be part of the context you really live in, to never take a break and celebrate.

And perhaps in a world where we disdain the homey virtues of canning and growing and tending, where vacation time is written into your contract and where the biggest pumpkin is just one more big thing in a world of big things, they don’t matter.  But the agricultural fairs may come to matter again, and maybe not so far away.  You see, in a world where most of the work gets done and has to be done again the next day or week or year - you wash the dishes, the next meal comes and you need to wash them again, you fill the pantry or grow the garden and the next year it all gets done over again - those moments when you can look at what you’ve done and see an achievment matter.  In a world where harvest is a time for celebration, the fruits of that harvest are worth celebrating.  It may be a small thing in some senses to get a red ribbon for your jam, or to take a prize heifer to the fair - but it is also a very large thing, the moment in which the ordinary work of feeding yourself and your community gets placed in context, in which your neighbors compare their pickles to yours, and perhaps turn and ask for the recipe, the seed stock, the stud - the time at which you get both rewarded for what you do and a chance to strengthen the whole of the communal enterprize of agriculture.  

After our brief shift back to the 19th century, we then were back in Ithaca for garden tours and to check out local trial orchards. A surprisingly large number of our fellow tourists were involved with food themselves, and a surprisingly large number were on working vacations hunting up local food supplies for New York City or Philadelphia or Montreal, responding to a rapidly growing demand that they can’t keep up with (unfortunately mostly among consumers with lots of disposable income, but still).  Several times during conversations about local food systems, I mentioned a producer near me, only to learn that the buyer had never of them, and hadn’t been looking up in our region.  At the farmer’s market in Trumansberg, the New York State Cheesemaker’s guild rep had out a map of all participating cheesemakers in the region - and I discovered two within a reasonable range of me that I’d never known about.  Not one of the farms or local extension services seemed to have this map available - it became obvious that my area needs to do a better job of agricultural marketing.  And since we have the river to enable shipping even in a low energy world, building up stronger market ties (and there are many, just many more to be made) especially to New York

We took the old route 20 home - this was once the way to cross New York State before the advent of the highways.  The building of Route 88 pretty much killed Route 20′s business economy - we live at one end of 20, and have seen the final fall of old businesses that depended on motorists driving this route.  It is a gorgeous trip, though, across the state, and meanders through a mix of farmland and some fascinating small towns.  Only one of them, the oddly placed  (and as far as I can tell, completely inexplicable (in the sense that I honestly can’t figure out why people would go there - its main feature seems to be a smallish number of expensive shops) Cazenovia, showed much in the way of signs of life.  Though we passed hundreds of farms, almost none took any advantage at all of the passing cars to sell anything directly off the farm. 

What we did find at every stop was a lot of discussion of the coming winter, the town plowing budget, and the price of gas.  We saw going-out-of-business sales everywhere, especially in small rural towns.  At the coffee shops and diners we stopped at, older people just sighed and looked worried - and younger people talked about leaving.  Everyone worried about the jobs, often in small economies and places where jobs are hard to find to begin with.  There were struggles between town and county over whose responsibility something increasingly expensive was.  One town just outside the fingerlakes mentioned that they thought that the town sherriff’s office would be closed al together.  All along the way we tried to talk to people about their place, about their future, and all along the way, we found people worried, sometimes angry, but mostly resigned to a change.

Lots of people mentioned all the gardens they were seeing, and that they were growing more themselves.  It has been a wet year here in upstate New York, and the tomatoes and other heat lovers are late, and sometimes diseased.  Everyone complained about the tomatoes - but complaining about your garden is a time-honored tradition.  But this year, two different people, both old timers and first-time gardeners expressed to me, without any prompting on my part, their worry that a bad garden year could leave them without enough to eat.  Everyone mentioned the oversubscription of the church food pantries.  Everyone said they didn’t know what they’d do next - but mostly with a resignation that there would be a next.

Overall, I came back from my trip hopeful - New York is rich in green space and arable land that we are not using, in wisdom and history and talent we don’t take advantage of. We have ties enough to old ways and new ways, and resources that could rise up to fill gaps.  I talked to person after person who mentioned that their Mom used to grow all her own food, or that Dad farmed with oxen and still knows how to train them.  Travelling through the countryside and small cities, it felt as though the rural parts of my state are not so very far removed from the life we’ll be leading, and that there’s courage and endurance not far beneath the surface of things - that we aren’t the soft and selfish people that we are often portrayed as.  Or maybe we are - in part because it is so easy to be that person.  But I worry for everyone I talked to, in city and countryside as well - with a few exceptions, there’s not much being done to help people transition, and I fear those few resources will be overwhelmed.

We used two tanks of gas on this trip - enough to probably mean I won’t quite make my 90% reduction goals this year either.  I don’t justify it, exactly, but I suspect it may be Eric and my last road trip together, at least for a long time.  And I’m glad I got to see a little more of the way things are moving, before I stop moving.