The weather forecast said partly cloudy yesterday, and partly cloudy today. It was right, too. It just neglected to mention the white-out blizzard in between those two events.
I was in town with D&L, buying fuel. Looked to the west and saw ugly storm clouds coming fast. It’s a strange fact that when the sky looks fair and friendly in the west, it’s not coming here. When it looks really threatening, it is. I began going over things that needed doing in my head, and suddenly became very anxious to get home. Chickens put to bed, boys out of Gitmo, sure. But there was a whole trailer-load of fiberglass insulation that J wanted rid of, and I needed to get it under cover if it wasn’t to be ruined. Fooled by the lying shitepoke of a weatherman, it hadn’t seemed urgent before.
So I ran around getting things done. Got rained on a little bit, then the rain seemed to go away. I got everybody squared away and sat down in the Secret Lair, thinking maybe the whole panic was for nothing. Then the sky closed in, and the wind started to roar.
And the rain beat on the walls. The temperature dropped fifteen or twenty degrees in an hour. Then the horizontal snow blotted out all the world more than ten feet from my window. The chickens’ wire beat against the wall of the cabin. It was a lovely big storm, the sort that snug little cabins and comfortable fires are meant to keep away. The sort that, when you built it all yourself and are constantly aware of all its flaws, raise other kinds of thoughts indeed.
I was reminded of it last summer, during Monsoon. An appalling thunderstorm broke directly overhead. Again with the howling wind and the beating rain, this time with a backbeat of great electrical discharges any one of which could have reduced us all to charcoal, and not a thing to be done about it but to huddle indoors and hope one of those great lightning bolts striking the ridgeline doesn’t come here.
I’ve noticed more than once, over the past six years or so, a tendency toward atavism in my outlook on such things. I’m a reasonably well-educated modern man, and I know where the weather comes from. I’m aware of the random nature of such things. But hiding in my small shelter during a storm that – I vividly imagine – might sweep away me and all my puny works, I find myself understanding if not sharing what I’m told were the beliefs of more primitive people: That the weather isn’t random at all, but really might be out to get me personally this time. Intellectually I know that’s complete nonsense. Emotionally, it’s not a very hard sell at times like that.
I’ve lived in places where the weather is harder to bear, far less friendly than it is here. But in those times I was snug in a built-to-code house with grid power and gas heat and acres of fine insulation. I feared nothing from nature because there seemed nothing to fear: The worst winter storm was just a nuisance, except under peculiar circumstances that invariably meant you’d done something really immediately stupid. Nobody feared the weather, or wild beasts. Only rarely, like when you get hit by the eye wall of a hurricane, did it ever soak in that this stuff can kill you.
That’s the way I spent most of my life. “Nature” occasionally grew more interesting or inconvenient than I liked, but I almost never recognized it as a threat. And curiously, perversely, I never really felt in charge of anything.
All sorts of wonderful things were at my disposal. Housing that was proof against any conceivable weather. Unlimited electricity, heat, and running water. Cheeseburgers. Victoria’s Secret catalogs. But I didn’t produce any of those things. I wouldn’t have begun to know how. I ate meat, but knew nothing about raising livestock. I ate vegetables, but didn’t know how to garden.
It struck me quite often that there was something dangerously infantilizing about that. I was completely at the mercy of the people who worked the power plant, or the water treatment plant, or the guys who drove the trucks that stocked the grocery store. I remember mentioning it to people I knew at work, once in a while. They tended to sidle away from me a bit nervously when I talked like that, as if not only had such thoughts never occurred to them, but it wasn’t quite right that they had occurred to me.
I’ve learned since then. In the past six years I’ve gotten a lot deeper into the nuts and bolts of very basic living than I ever really intended, though not nearly as deep as one could go – I still haven’t learned to garden. And here’s a bit of a paradox for you: I’m now physically vulnerable to being harmed by things that in suburbia wouldn’t have been more than a bother, but I’m also more in charge of my own life than I have ever been at any previous time.
The first rule of living on the edge is this: You’re in charge. You’re responsible. If something goes wrong, nobody’s going to come and fix it for you. There’s no point grumbling and waiting for the guy with the wrench, because the guy with the wrench is you.
That brings things to a very basic and vital level. I used to be consumed with worry over things like who was undermining me at the office, or how badly a customer was going to screw me on draft revisions, or how to deal with the next-door neighbor who played his piano at 3 AM and drove my wife crazy. Seriously, I used to brood over things like that. Now I wonder if the chickens will lay enough eggs tomorrow. I worry about the state of my stovepipe. Will the water freeze? Will coyotes take my kitten? Will I have enough firewood?
There are two major differences between the old worries and the new ones. First, the new set of worries are worth worrying about. Those are things that can actually do harm to me and mine. Second, they’re all things I can do something about. I can get more chickens, or kill or separate the one that’s upsetting the others. I can clean the damn stovepipe more often, insulate the pipes more heavily, go out and cut more firewood. Zoe’s pretty much on her own – though she’s napping happily right next to me as I write this.
Those old quotidian worries used to make me very unhappy, because I was always dependent on other people for their solution and I felt helpless against them. Now I’ve got worries about things that can actually hurt me, but they don’t make my unhappy because I can get off my ass and do something about them any time I need to. And if sometimes I find myself huddling in my hand-made cabin and hoping it stays up in a storm, twenty minutes later I’ll be congratulating myself because in fact it stayed up just fine – or in case of actual disaster I’ve got a plan and you’ll find me carrying it out instead of helplessly praying for rescue.
It’s not the sort of life for everybody. But for me, at least, it has its advantages.