Thursday, July 18, 2013
Nova Scotia: Foretaste of the Apocalypse
My girlfriend K-- and I have been living in a beat-up mobile home, 800 square feet, since Sept. 28, 2011, in northern Nova Scotia, about one kilometer from the Bay of Fundy. I've largely lost track of dates, so I won't try hard to calculate them. Staying alive takes priority over determining dates or times. Basically it's been just a non-stop struggle, fighting the occasional intense cold, or long days and nights of rain, with wind that knocks the car about on the road.
I'd been looking for a cheap place in the Canadian countryside even before I left the Middle East. My Internet searches had led me to believe that house prices in Nova Scotia were much cheaper than those in Ontario, where I'd been living three years ago. But now I doubt it. It might simply be the case that the main real-estate Web site lists more "fixer-uppers" in Nova Scotia than in Ontario.
It was during our first night here that an intense cold came down upon us, and we spent the hours of darkness just huddling under the inadequate bedding, praying for dawn to arrive. And since then we've also had the edge of a big storm, days of powerful wind and rain. Even escape is not easy, since the nearest real town, Windsor (pop. 4,000), is a 40-minute drive. I'm just glad I spent $20,000 on a brand-new Toyota Yaris, soon after coming back to Canada, because it's our lifeboat, our only means of returning to civilization, either temporarily or permanently.
It became a sort of poker game, but one played by a gambling addict, not a professional card-player: every time a flaw came up, I kept telling myself that if I just stayed in the game long enough, I'd recoup my losses. So I paid out a good deal of money for house inspectors and a lawyer, while the bad news rolled in. The house was very much "sub-standard," i.e. illegal. The septic system was just an old oil drum buried in the ground, with a single pipe running from it underground for a few meters. The well was neither a proper drilled one nor a proper dug one, but little more than a hole in the ground. Everything in the house was malfunctioning, from leaky windows to the world's oldest wood-stove. But I'd been determined to find an affordable house with a good acreage of trees for a later supply of firewood, and there had been so little available, so I'd put up with prevarication from the seller and his real-estate agent, simply to get some sort of purchase finished before winter made any further searches impossible.
Well, today should also be sunny and fairly warm, so we shall see if we can make some more progress. Essentially, we need to create an urban house in a rural setting, because life without "modern conveniences" now strikes me, at age 62, as impossible. Those who come after us, in the post-oil world, will die, not of famine as I had expected, but of hypothermia, because even the apparently simple act of lighting a fire, and maintaining it, requires more than striking a match, and very few city-dwellers have even that utterly basic skill. In every way, in fact, our descendants will just not be able to cope, not unless they have the sense to approach the looming hard times as if they were planning a mission to a distant galaxy. But I really doubt that the world's multi-billion population will do anything until their TV screens turn black. And perhaps they won't even die of hypothermia. Perhaps they'll just stop struggling: it now seems to me that after a long time without proper shelter, the human body finally comes to a halt.
I now suspect that it's impossible to buy a house in Nova Scotia for less than $100,000 without facing years of struggle with repairs, the same as in Ontario. Even if the sellers of these houses don't have money, they insist on keeping the prices high enough that they can recover their own original costs -- "until the market picks up again."
I lived in rural Ontario for seven years, but this place is far more "rural" than that. This is like a dark planet on the edge of the furthest galaxy. I must admit that my impression of Nova Scotia in general is not a good one. For the first three months in this province, I heard too many stories about poverty, unemployment, crime, alcoholism, drug abuse. Students I talked to in Halifax were looking for apartments for the winter, and one of their main concerns was avoiding areas that are "not nice": no matter how little money they had to spend, they didn't want to live in the sort of slums that seem to permeate Halifax and other towns and cities in Nova Scotia.
This village here doesn't seem much different, at least to judge from my first impressions. The neighbors seem to be mostly small-time criminals. Marijuana growing seems to be a major industry, deer seem to be hunted mostly without licenses, firewood is stolen from government land, vehicles often have no insurance, and so on. Not major crimes, but a thorough ambiance of "irregularity." It's hard to find people who will do repair work of any sort, but they certainly expect to be paid cash, so that they don't have to report their earnings.
Most people who live around here are "Neanderthals," if that's the right term. What I mean is that they know a thousand tricks for getting a house ready for winter, or for putting several derelict vehicles together to make one vehicle that will make it down the road, or for killing a deer illegally and getting it into a freezer, but they can barely read or write the English language, and I am always uncertain as to whether I should try imitating their jargon or get equally odd looks by speaking normal English.
But peaceful Neanderthals aren't a problem. What I don't like are the more aggressive ones. On our first Saturday night here, we heard the bass notes of the music being played by our neighbor across the road, about 200 meters away; I don't know his name. What's the point of moving to the most remote part of the world if one is still living in fear of loudspeakers that provide great amusement for their owners but mean sleepless nights for other people? That neighbor's house is not directly opposite us, thank God, but his noise certainly bothers the people just beside us, a husband and wife and their daughter-in-law, and I wonder exactly how high he could turn those speakers if he was in the mood. I spoke to him once about buying firewood, but he has never stopped by to say hello, never offered any help or even advice. And he roars past us several times a day on his ATV, even though it is illegal to use them on a public road. Or is he actually trying to get rid of us, so that we don't discover his "grow op," his marijuana field? Quite possibly.
The fact that I've never seen a police car in this part of Nova Scotia may explain why the grimmer forms of humanity seem so comfortable building their homes in these swamps. But I was never brought up to this way of life, and this is certainly not what I ever meant by "moving to the country." I can't live among people whose houses are ringed by the trash of civilization, whose gardens are filled by rust and rot that is far beyond any hope of normal re-use. Nor do I want to live among people for whom garbage is the objective correlative of their view of the world.
We still don't have a new wood stove, but we'll be needing something more than the old thing that's now here, unless I'm prepared to get out of bed every two or three hours each night to refill this old thing with wood. We cleaned it well, and today I painted it, so it certainly looks good even if it won't be working so well; if we don't end up using it, perhaps we can sell it as an antique. We've known for some time what stove we want to buy, but we don't have the skill to install it, and the person recommended by the hardware store still hasn't even returned my call, so I'll have to try someone else. In any case, not returning a call is very unprofessional behavior.
For the last two or three days, we've had a slow but steady leak coming out of the walls somewhere near the kitchen, at the rate of maybe three or four cups of water a day. We've spread rags all over to soak up the water, but it's a time-consuming job. Tomorrow the plumber and his helper are coming over to replace all the pipes, since it seems to me that the entire plumbing system is falling apart -- even when there are no obvious leaks, there are gurgles and banging sounds everywhere, presumably from trapped air, as if everything was collapsing. I'm wondering what was going on when the previous owner was living here. The same thing? What did he do about it?
The main beach is at Cheverie, and it is enormous. We almost never see other people on the beach, although sometimes a van or a few motorcycles might be parked at the side of the road. The immense shift from high tide to low is difficult to comprehend. I don't know how far the water recedes each time, but it seems several hundred meters. Until we get rubber boots, though, we won't know what it's like to walk to the edge of that low-tide zone. When the tide is out, this portion of the Bay of Fundy looks like a bathtub from which the plug has been pulled. There seems to be no water, only mud, between this shore and the cape in the distance. And the beach itself is very wild: there are gulls, crows, and sandpipers, but the two of us are usually the only humans. The upper beach is composed of pebbles and rock fragments, largely shale, but there are cliffs to the east and west of the beach, with spruce trees leaning down to the sea as the soil and rocks around their roots are eroded. At various places there are outcrops of gypsum, which looks like gigantic mounds of slightly melting vanilla ice cream, and seaward there are slanted planes of dark rock like giant rows of teeth.
Another disaster occurred yesterday. There had been heavy rain again for a day or two, and when K-- looked out the window at the far end of the house, by which I mean the end opposite to the living room, she saw a good deal of water flowing over the front lawn. It was coming from the direction of the road and running past that end of the house, and in places it seemed ankle-deep. Since that end of the house has the electric pump, in a wooden box, at its base, I was worried that the pump would fail if the water covered it. I went outside to have a look, and by that time it was dark. There was a log near the well, which the previous owner had apparently been using to divert water away from that well, but I decided to take a chance and move the log so that it would instead divert water away from the pump. It looked as if I was succeeding: the water was considerably deeper as it flowed on the far side of that log.
In general, we both feel that the present version of "country living" is not what we had in mind. Personally, I don't want to go on living among people who have such low self-esteem that they keep rusted-out cars in their front yards. (The vehicles are easily spotted by the fact that the flat tires leave the vehicles sunk low among the grass and weeds.) My dear ex-wife also called and pointed out to me that whatever I do to improve this property, its resale value will always be limited by the fact that it's situated in a community of low-lifes, and there is always the real-estate adage that "location is everything." And in general, I now realize that I long for a more intellectual world, I want to be able to read, to study, to be in close touch with the global community, even if it is in its last days, and even if the middle class is being broken up and redistributed among the ranks of the unemployed.
Just before bedtime, I went to the shed to get a box of twigs and I noticed that our firewood has developed a white coating like mold, but thicker than mold, more like a massive growth of bracket fungus. That wood pile was $750 and many hours of labor. I shouldn't have been closing the door at night, since that seems to have been trapping moisture in the shed. Not only is the wood somewhat green still, but the almost incessant rain has added its own moisture. I hope that by keeping the shed door open I can halt the growth of this fungus. I don't want to spend the entire winter loading fungus into a wood stove.
K-- decided to leave yesterday, the Day of the Dead, All Souls' Day, Hallowe'en, so I drove her to Halifax, and she'll be taking a plane back to Germany soon. Without getting into a major discussion of the issues, I should at least mention that I wondered if I would be heading to an airport myself one of these days.
So far it's been one crisis after another: flood, fire, frost, and wind. When we first came here we were treated to Nova Scotia's combination of low temperature and strong winds. Then we had burst pipes at two places in the house. Then there's been the perpetual problem of fire hazard from this old stove, which makes the wall behind it too hot to touch. Even a dangerous stove, however, is better than one without wood to go in it, which was the case for a while. Then our front lawn turned into a river, threatening to engulf the pump for the well. Two nights ago we had one more storm. These storms seem to occur at least once a week, but during the latest one the wind blew fiercely almost nonstop for 24 hours, and several times the house was actually shaking, so that we were afraid it would fall off the concrete blocks on which it is clumsily perched.
If there's no way of selling this place in the near future at a reasonable profit (or a not-unreasonable loss), then I'll be left with the question of whether I can at least make this place good enough for me to stay in for the next few years. The cost of a usable but perhaps substandard well might not be so high. The septic system is another matter; perhaps I could find a cheap but "irregular" way of improving it at least to the extent that I didn't have to live perpetually with the worry that it might completely fail at any time, as is now the case, since the present septic "tank" is nothing but an old oil drum buried in the ground.
I think it's safe to say that "Nature" has been nonexistent since the invention of the gasoline engine. My Neanderthal neighbor across the road seems to travel around on his ATV about 18 hours a day. He often spends hours tuning the engine, and then he tests the vehicle by driving around his yard, or up and down the road. My nerves have finally broken, and I've started using ear plugs when I'm outdoors. In fact it is ear plugs, not engines, that would get my vote as the greatest invention in world history.
Two nights ago the rain turned into a genuine storm, with winds getting stronger and stronger, and the rain turned into great sheets of water -- not unlike the other storms over the previous few weeks.
I noticed that water later was running more swiftly across the front lawn and towards the well pump. I went outside and found some long boards that I'd salvaged from the junk I'd been dismantling, and I used these boards and some large rocks to make a dam that ran parallel to the log that still lay in front of the pump. Making that new barrier was a good idea, because the waves got higher and higher, and I suspect that otherwise the log would have been insufficient to protect the pump. I got little sleep, however, as the storm grew louder during the night. At about 3:00 a.m. the rain slowed to something more like a drizzle.
Yesterday morning was not so bad, but then at about 1 p.m. the wind began to strengthen, and for hour after hour it went on. During the night I felt as if I was trying to sleep beside a railroad track, with endless freight trains rushing past me. The wind howled and moaned, the house shuddered, and again I got almost no sleep. I woke up wondering if today would be a good day to commit suicide. I looked out the window and noticed that the wind had blown several rocks, each perhaps 20 kg in weight, off the top of a piece old plywood covering a pile of firewood K-- and I had built there, and that a corner of that pile had fallen to the ground.
I was lying in bed all night, listening to the wind, and sometimes whispering, "Oh, stop, please just stop!" The only cheering event was that today was Saturday, when K-- was supposed be calling me again from Germany, and we could talk for a long time, since she was on a special rate of about one cent per minute. She called at 9:30 a.m. She and I agreed that this was the time for me to get out. I should talk to a real-estate agent about selling the property for whatever it would bring, and then move back to the motel in Halifax for a few months of rest. She also suggested that I consider Germany as a place to live, where perhaps one could enjoy the countryside without endangering one's life.
The following isn't really describing a "return to," but more like the start of a "return from," thank God. It might also be called the Book of Revelation, or the Wisdom of Hindsight. My plan is to leave here at the end of the month, go to Halifax for two or three months, and try to recover, mentally and physically.
The problem with Neanderthals is not that they are poor. The problem is that they steal things. They are nasty. They are always breaking rules, and if there is nothing to be gained from it they will do it just to keep in practice. If they are paid to do a job, they will take the money but they will not do the job. If they are punished, it is only proof that they are being persecuted.
Neanderthals hate outsiders, they feel resentful toward anyone who hasn't spent years collecting welfare checks. They are obsessed with their rights, with what they think of as entitlement, although they don't necessarily use such words. They have a tribal mentality, a gypsy mentality: they are loyal toward members of their own band, mainly because to bring down a mammoth, or to ward off a saber-toothed tiger, requires teamwork, but an act of hostility toward an outsider isn't considered unethical.
Any pale-faced office worker who has bought a shiny new gun, and has read all the government regulations, and then thinks he will shoot a deer and bring it home, does not understand that hunting is generally the prerogative of Homo neanderthalensis, not of H. sapiens. Walking around in the hunting territory of a Neanderthal band is very dangerous, and wearing "hunter orange" will not save anyone from a stray bullet in his car or his boat.
It's possible that the future will be theirs. City people often think that lighting a fire, or catching a fish, is a simple task, but that's not true. It's only simple in perfect weather when one's life doesn't depend on it. It's the swamp-dwellers who have those skills. However, I'm not absolutely sure that they'll outlast H. sapiens, because their way of life is being badly shaken: this is the world of electronics and globalization, and the economy has become so complex that these people are now almost unable to leave their dirt roads and turn onto the highways. Maybe their ATVs are simple enough for them to repair without paying money, but such a vehicle would get pulled over pretty quickly if it was heading to the city. If Neanderthals choose not to leave the swamps, they're fine; the problem is that they might soon be quite unable to leave. The question is whether that world of globalization and automation will collapse before the Neanderthals have died off. That's hard to say: they still seem to find enough presentable young women to drive a car to the city when something really must be picked up.
Last night I think I realized at what moment my mind snapped, at what point I lost control of my ability to reason, as I was buying this house here. I had not paid rent of any sort since about 1994, partly because I owned two houses (one after the other, I mean) and partly because in the Middle East I paid neither rent nor taxes. When I came back to Canada, I started paying rent right from the first day, and it seemed terrible to be giving so much money every month to a landlord. Partly for that reason, I was desperate to find a house. Then on September 8, there was a big meeting here, and the "septic system" was opened up and revealed as nothing more than a 45-gallon oil drum buried in the ground, apparently with a single pipe leading out a few meters toward the end of the yard. The real-estate agent looked quite nonchalant about the whole thing. The inspector, however, told me it would take a good deal of money to install a proper septic system. I went back to the motel and thought about the situation for a few days. My three-year dream about a return to Canada, about a peaceful life in the land of butterflies and wildflowers, was going awry. It looked as if I was going to be spending several thousand more dollars on rent, accomplishing nothing until at least the following spring, although there was no guarantee that I would be any more successful then than before. I think at that point I just shut off my over-worked brain, and I left reality behind. Basically, everything was so awful that I just went into shock, as if I was in a terrible auto accident.
The really good news, although this may sound ridiculous, is that a short time in a terrible house is better than a long time in a not-so-terrible house. If I'd met a really kind-hearted realtor back in July and bought a fairly pleasant property for $50,000, I would probably have spent several years there not entirely sure of what I was doing. I might have had no problems with plumbing and electricity, I might have had a nice garden and a well-filled woodshed. I might have found a minimum-wage job at Wal-Mart or its local equivalent. I might have befriended a squirrel and thereby not died of loneliness. But lying in this bed, scratching my flea-bites, listening to storms that one would expect only on the surface of Jupiter, and getting up every two hours to load fungus-encrusted wood into the stove has given me the opportunity to think about what I really should be doing with the rest of my life.
When I got back to the house, there were snow flurries, the first real ones. I may be stuck in a race between getting out of here and getting hit by winter. I hope not. If there's big trouble, so that I no longer have electricity or running water, I suppose I can just jump in the car, head to Halifax, and explain to the people at the motel that my dates have to be changed slightly. They say they remember me from before (whatever that means!), and I think they'll be pretty easygoing. My guess is that business isn't exactly booming for them, although that's always the Big Secret for anyone in Nova Scotia, so they may be happy enough to have me as a customer.
The second grand conclusion (again, tentatively) is that if wilderness living isn't quite the way it's portrayed in Hollywood, then there will be even bigger problems than I imagined for everyone when the oil runs out, and when there is no more electricity. Perhaps a bulldozer driver in the Yukon would know one or two tricks that would put him ahead of an accountant in Toronto, but there wouldn't be a great deal of difference between the two. I think to a large extent these two months here have been a preview of that future. And what comes across clearly is that the problems and the dangers are enormous. If I live in fear of a failure of electricity or running water, what will it be like for people who quite certainly will have neither? If I find it hard to fall asleep in an 800-square-foot mobile home with two inches of insulation, how will anyone sleep in a birch-bark wigwam?
I imagine there are answers to all these problems. Roughly speaking, preparing for the post-oil world will have to be undertaken with the same seriousness as preparing for the colonization of Mars. In other words, the task must be looked upon as far more serious, far more trouble-prone, than almost anyone has imagined. All the silly talk about "transition towns," which seems to be prevalent especially in England, is nothing less than suicidal. Again to judge from the situation here, in the future there won't even be the token presence of police cars to ensure that there will be any sort of human cooperation. Those who are not killed by the winter will be killed by the gang that lives down the road.
I could sit with my calculator for hours, going over the figures, and it still comes out the same way: without some major new intellectual input (by which I do not mean "alternative energy" nonsense), it cannot be done. To survive in the future would require a band of highly dedicated, highly professional young people working together, and they would have to be well educated about the scientific and engineering challenges that they would be facing. But what are the chances that groups of that sort could be assembled?
Everything is too expensive, away from the city. You would think living off in the bush would be cheap, but it doesn't work like that. You actually end up spending huge piles of money on house repairs and all sorts of other things. Maybe people who've lived there for generations manage to keep things running with a handful of rusty tools, but I can't say their lives are easy or comfortable for doing that.
Long ago, even though there was no gasoline, no power tools, no electricity, perhaps in a sense there was more of a chance to leave the city, at least in North America, simply because there was so much wilderness, and so few laws, and money wasn't necessary. But now it's not like that, not like the old days, when you could just grab an ax and a gun, cross the wide Missouri, and keep on going.
The day I left to go back to Halifax, the sunshine was beautiful, but the night had been cold -- crispy, crunchy cold, with white frost on the grass, murderous cold. I then thought of all the nonsense that is fed to tourists about "Nature at Its Finest." Yes, maybe in the middle of summer, when an urban couple might spend two weeks driving along the coast with the kids. But "Nature" is not at its "finest" when the dark and cold months arrive, when a storm is shaking the house, and you're waiting for the roof to go flying down the road like the ace of spades.
On the day I left, I guess some of the neighbors had decided to adopt me. They were actually very friendly, and they tried to scrape up their pennies to buy the things I didn't want to bring with me. They said they were sorry I was leaving. We were actually joking around with each other at last, instead of treating each other as members of different species. I felt sorry that I couldn't stay with them and live their way of life. But some of the comments seemed to indicate that their life was hard. (I looked at the young neighbor-woman sitting near my feet, smoking a cigarette. She wouldn't look at me as her father-in-law joked about what a good worker she was.) They couldn't leave. I could. If I failed to become part of their way of life, they had also failed to become part of mine. The difference is that I could drive away in a brand-new car. They, with their ATVs, could not get very far down the highway. I wondered if there would ever be some way to bridge that gap.
Author of Tumbling Tide: Population, Petroleum, and Systemic Collapse (London, Ontario: Insomniac Press, 2014)