After the Revolution
The simplest things. Matches. Newspaper. Magnifying glasses for when the matches run out, and flint and steel. Guns, bullets. Knives, axes, handsaws. Bandanas, for breathing the smoke in July, August, early September, in the northern hemisphere, December, January, February in the southern. Salt: seven cents a pound, yet how you will miss it when it is gone.
Wire, rope, plastic tarps. Bike tires. Extra bike parts, pumps, patch kits.
The simplest things. Some fools avoid thinking about this at all, while others are thinking about it but making the wrong choices. Stocking up on cheap gas and generators, extra batteries, spark plugs, and cases of oil as we once purchased cases of Coke at the supermarket: stocking up on the folly of hydrocarbons as if all the gas in the world is the answer. It isn’t. I’m not talking about the revolution, but afterward. There aren’t enough red plastic gas cans to get you and yours through the next century, nor even the next decade, and besides, the gasoline eventually spoils and separates, even with stabilizing fuel additives. You might be able to stretch out your hoard a full year, even a second year, by making hard choices of deprivation, but so what, and then what? And in the meantime, during that hoarding, you’re still a hostage to the gas, groveling and worshipping: a miser, praying, when once you were so rich.
In the previous century we sent our young people abroad, sacrificing them in one war after another. After a while, however, even the most heartless in our nation will have gotten tired of the killing, and will either have been overthrown or simply become ghosts, draining back down into the soil from which they arose, and those of us who remain will be walking around in a new world, a world so close in its approach now that sometimes, when I am watching a tree and see dried leaves flutter and fall in slow spirals to the ground, I think that it, that one breeze, is finally the approach of the thing that has been coming for a long time: that it is finally here, and I am ready.
Plastic jugs, steel drums and barrels, duct tape. You can use crushed yarrow leaves when your insect repellent runs out, but mosquito netting would be welcomed and, if treated carefully, could last a generation or two before eventually fraying and tattering, crumbling and dissolving into one of the most awful things of this new world: uselessness.
WD-40 for help in scavenging rust-locked nuts and bolts fifty years from now. Pipe wrenches for breaking open the oil-pan drains to swab out the last few drops of oil or diesel from field-junked tractors and dozers, the machines half-sunken and loess-piled in the fields, deader than dinosaurs, the bones of which lie in wait only a thousand or so feet below in those same prairies, and whose dna scientists have scraped from mummified hides before cataloging in vials and beakers and test tubes, merely awaiting now the whim of either some one-ruler or one-renegade to be resurrected, leaping back to life with full rapture in but the blink of an eyedropper, and subsequently reinhabiting the prairies in a way no tractor likely ever will again.
Screwdrivers, nails—bags and bags of nails—so cheap now, before the transition back to dowels, and tongue and groove. Crosscut saws, which are still able to be found leaning against the walls of old homesteads: in the north, firewood will be king, and while there will be plenty of dead trees from the waves of insects sprung into the warmer world, the ability to efficiently cut the deadwood to a length that will fit your woodstoves will be one of the basic make-or-break propositions. After the revolution, you can never have too much firewood.
Extra stovepipe. Extra canning jars. Hundreds of canning jars—and take good care of them, so that you can bequeath them to your children and your children’s children. At first it will be hard to realize you can’t just run down to the hardware store for any little thing, but I think also that the transition, the understanding, will come surprisingly quickly. We have always been an adaptable species, if not gifted with foresight.
Obviously, first-aid kits galore. Aspirin—again, the simplest, cheapest things, but no longer available, are likely to be most missed. Band-Aids, gauze bandages, tape, twine, ibuprofen. Needles and thread: again, the stuff of garage sales, all but free for the taking, back in the old world, yet potentially as powerful as kryptonite in the new world, after we have all become once again appropriately meek.
After the aspirin is gone you can chew willow bark, and after the cold and cough medicine is gone you can make a tea from the summer-gathered seed heads of yarrow. But there’s no need to descend all the way down the steps to the full-out primitive until absolutely necessary. A little transition time will be golden.
Fishhooks, not even a penny apiece these days, but possibly lifesaving after the revolution. Sure, you can whittle some dumb-ass hook that might catch a little fish, but how much more empowered you will be on your journey if you’ve thought ahead even a little bit, enough to where you’re able to carry with you that short distance ahead some of the cleanest and most elegant and powerful inventions from the old times. Technology’s greatest hits.
Rods and reels. No need to begin cane-poling it until you absolutely have to.
Shovels, mauls for splitting firewood into kindling. How we would miss this world if it was all to go away! And it will.
Oil, drums of diesel, barrels of gasoline. Downhole submersible pumps, heavy rubberized hose, pipe clamps. A couple thousand gallons of propane, in those big submarine tanks you can rent from the gas company for fifty bucks a year. After the revolution, the gas company, like every other company, will be out of business, and they’re not going to bother coming back to reclaim a now-useless chunk of steel with their logo painted on it.
Oil filters, spare radiators, batteries, flashlights—both the disposable dollar lights and the windup kind that don’t need batteries. Spare bulbs. Old-school kerosene lanterns, candles, wicks, and oil, oil, oil against the dark. Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself. How we always will return to it, as if it is hydrocarbons and not seawater that courses through our cells and shimmers in our blood.
And when you’ve finally used up your cache—the last of the last of the last—you might still not have fully reformed or revolutionized yourself. You could wander up into Canada and drill for the vast sheets of shallow tar sands that are found there. You could start digging with a shovel, scooping up gobs of the oil-soaked sand like combs of honey, could warm it and press it and wring it drip by drip into the barrels in the back of your horse- or man-drawn carreta, and then begin your slow sojourn back to wherever you came from, back to your people.
And even after the rest of the scraggly, wandering world had gnawed a great crater there, hundreds of miles wide and hundreds of feet deep, you could drill deeper, using as pipe stem the fire-hardened dowels of oak or hickory, as fevered General William Pope did in the Texas high plains in the 1800s, waterless and yet consumed by the belief, the faith, that he was walking above a great lake of pure water never before tapped, buried just beneath his feet, a lake that existed beneath the desert floor. Believing it so fervently that he commandeered his men’s rifles and sawed the barrels off to use in his handmade drilling apparatus, in which the pipe was hoisted by rope to a great height then dropped, sledging the hole below a few inches deeper at a time.
When the rifles were gone, he disassembled his men’s tents and used the tent poles, having no firsthand knowledge of the great Ogallala Reservoir that lay only a little deeper down, but believing it was there, knowing it was there, if only because he needed it to be. The Ogallala is gone now, but it lasted a long time—a little over a hundred years.
Walk into a hardware store tomorrow and inhale deeply: take a long last look at your past. Such richness, and how we take it for granted. Such power, and all we have to do is reach out to grasp it. Fuses of every size and amperage, spanner and torque and box wrenches, come-alongs, chains and tow straps, washboards, tin pails, electrician’s tape, bungee cords, sockets of every possible size.
Is this the real world or but a long and fevered dream of wealth in which, finally, we are stirring, just prior to awakening, and leaving?
Frivolity. It will be of interest to some to be able to make spirits: to be able to ferment grapes, berries, mash. You can make beer and wine out of almost anything. After the revolution there will not be much time for sitting around every evening sipping on a mug of brew, but it will be important in the new world to have a few treats. Basic beekeeping equipment will serve the survivors well, assuming we haven’t killed off all the bees. Honey is good, honey is nice.
A music box that plays by the windup release of spindle and sprocket. A violin with horsehair strings. Such things have lasted a thousand years and more. What creatures will we become in the new world, what species, come the eclipse of the next thousand?
Whetstones, planers, vise-grips. Gambrels and hoists, for the butchering of livestock. Nothing must be wasted. It is not a far step from this economic dissolution, and this ragged purview, to advance next into the realm of science fiction, envisioning an outrageous and unjust disparity between the haves and the have-nots: a powerful elite, the remnants of an old government, who still have access to significant resources and communications.
In such a new world—such a new world coming—it is not impossible to imagine chaos and the collapse of logic. It is not impossible to imagine the powerful elite cloning mammoths and mastodons, as the republic continues to crumble, and setting these new-old creatures loose into the burning streets. It is not impossible to imagine the same people cloning dead presidents, depending upon which party is in power, a thousand clones in the likeness of one dead leader or another, their little gods and idols, to whom they still cling and about whom they still tell stories, those new look-alikes stumbling the windswept streets, dazed and disoriented, their once-upon-a-time coincidental power no longer a fit in this world. Purgatory.
It would be hard to butcher a mastodon, but it can be done. And the ice is going away, anyway. Once again, I suspect, the mastodons would vanish; once again, we will isolate and kill off the last of them.
In any event, there is no profit in trying to plan for mastodon chaos, or to conjure that which does not already exist. There is plenty right now that is sliding beyond the edge of our ability to control without having to fabricate new difficulties. Such is the nature of any revolution. And as with many of the world’s revolutions, one doesn’t realize it as such until almost after the fact, or sometimes entirely after the fact: the warming-frog scenario.
I know such talk in the old times would brand me as a far-right wingnut, and even now, your inclination is to draw away. I did not vote like you did, we did not have the same interests, my friends were not your friends, and vice versa. But even then, back before the revolution, we shared some values—to push on, to survive, and to find glory in the world, even if our definitions of glory were at times so wildly different—and you need to listen to me now, here in the beginning of the revolution. I am your guide. I am going to get you through this.
How precious are our things—so many things! What an unending flow of blessings are even the most trivial pieces of junk in our lives! This great fabric of trash that surrounds us, protects us—crushes us yet protects us. How much more can we stand, yet what could we do without? Is it not the same as asking how much love do we need versus how much we could survive without? Are we not talking about the same thing?
A hundred years of pens? Fuck no. Instead, buy pencils by the bushel. When pencils run out, use charcoal. When charcoal is gone, use the blood of the fish and fowl we kill to stay alive.
You don’t have to go all hog-wild on this right away. We’ve still got a few years left in which to work. But neither are you going to be able to do it all at the last minute.
Forget gold, and the fools who are hoarding coins and stockpiling bullion, burying it in their backyards and gardens. Invest instead in bullets, and keep your powder dry. Horses, halters, and other tack. Leather, properly cared for, will last a good century. When the horses are gone you can build corrals and drive the elk into the corrals and feed them precious hay through the winter, hay you have cut by hand with a sharp-honed flashing scythe in the late summer, before drying it and tossing it into a cart with a pitchfork to haul to the barn. When the elk’s calves are born the next June you can domesticate them, as the Laplanders do with their semi-wild reindeer, but that will be a hard way to go, and in the meantime it’s better to take care of the horses you’ve got with you, the blessed beneficiary of thousands of years of your ancestors’ line-breeding. Andalusians, Morgans, Belgians, Fjords, Percherons. We used to have reindeer in the northern tier of states in this country, too, woodland caribou, but we killed them all off only about a hundred years ago.
You don’t have to learn it all but whatever you can pick up now, in the soft times, will make the transition a little easier.
I shouldn’t use a word like “easier.” Let’s say, instead, “a little less difficult.”
At some not-so-distant point in this process, the listmaker might query him- or herself, might assert that if one can no longer inhabit the gilded streets of heaven, then one should not bother living at all. The fire, however, the malleable spark, is essentially inextinguishable, and the pushing on proceeds. You’ll have to ask yourself that question about whether any of it is worth it, but always the one answer will remain the same: you were not brought here to this point, the improbable condition of life, animate and soulful amongst so much else that is not, only to lie down and quit . . .
It will not be a world with which you are familiar, after the revolution, but you will push on anyway, floundering and stumbling as we have always done, and always will, until there is no place left for us to do so.
Books. The human tendency is to gather and hoard things, the nuts and bolts and seeds of the world—to surround ourselves with the world’s materials, like the underwater caddis fly larvae and dragonfly nymphs that creep about in their mud cysts flecked with glittering flakes of mica—but the single most valuable resource to carry through the revolution and into the space on the other side of the revolution will be knowledge. Not so much the information and data that exists everywhere now, and which weighs us down nearly as much as our things, but the going-away processes of thinking, of figuring out things, of knowing how things work, and of knowing how the world proceeds, so that we may continue to travel along with it. Knowing that the first quarter moon sets around midnight, and that you can easily gather a liter of water per day by digging a sand pit and placing a plastic tarp or sheet over the pit with a small hole cut in the bottom of the cone, and a container beneath that funnel: the night’s condensation rolling down that tarp on either side, and dripping, plink by plink, into the waiting vessel.
A rudimentary understanding of electricity and a few thousand feet of copper wire will serve you in good stead, as will the basics of gardening and animal husbandry. If you have the books on hand and the time to read them, you might make out okay, or if you have enough of the secret spark still within you—the fire, I think, of having been chosen—then you might be able to figure it out all over again, raw and new in the burning world. Oyster shells with slits in them for sunglasses, hemp-strand woven rope.
But really, there’s no need yet to diverge onto that daunting path; there are still some among us, though in isolated and fast-dwindling and ever-aging number, who know such things, and who can instruct us with the warmth of another’s heart, rather than the cold black-and-white silence of olden text.
Books and bullets, then. Horseshoes, blacksmith’s nails, an anvil, a hammer, a forge, and bellows. Three or four generators.
And what of the era of entertainment—the vcr, the dvd in the evenings? After electricity goes away you could probably design a hand-cranked dynamo for your old television—the cathode ray tubes might last sixty or seventy years—but soon enough the little plastic gears in the vcr will wear out, the zinc dusting on the battery plates will disassemble and fall from solution, the cathode tubes will seize up; one day for entertainment there will be nothing but music, stories, and books—books again, after the revolution—and, if you are so inclined, and have prepared properly, you can read a book a day, a book a night, for the rest of your life, once you’ve made certain you’ve finished your chores.
In the forests around here the oldest aspen trees, 150 years old, display the pictograph scars of where bear cubs climbed them, a fantastic hieroglyph of vibrant, if not joyous, passing-by—though who can say it was not joyous? Such a grove is its own library, as real as the books on the shelves that must be safeguarded.
What is the difference between joy and survival, and for how long now have we been stranded here in the in-between?
Two cows are standing out in a field, talking. One asks the other, “So do you ever worry about this Mad Cow Disease?” and the other says, “Not me. I’m a helicopter.”
You’re not going to like this part. Traps. That metal registry for the hereafter of animals. Saves a bullet. One day when we are out of bullets, you’ll need traps. You don’t have to use them now.
A good stout stick, a club, for when you approach that day’s gift.
It’s not going to be nice. We had nice, we had pretty, we had grace, we had love—it was squandered. We didn’t squander it all at once but, instead, every day, little by little, in unbearably incremental fashion, never noticing any of it.
Always, the simplest things—steel wool, Brillo Pads—and the things we take utterly for granted, like clothes, which, though free for the asking now, eventually wear out.
Just because the earth is about to catch on fire doesn’t mean it won’t one day get cold again, and quickly, when it does. Some say that’s what killed off the mammoths. I have trouble imagining weather cold enough to kill a woolly mammoth, much less weather that cold vanquishing them yet somehow allowing our pale puny selves to survive—unless we huddled nonstop by an eternal campfire for two or three hundred years, or however long it took for the world to get warm again, which is a lot of huddling, and might account for the neuroses, malaise, disconnection, and detachment that plagues us now, and for which the best antidote, always, is a long walk into the wilderness . . .
I have digressed. Nuts and bolts, wire, wire clippers. In the first forty or so years after the revolution you will be called upon to fix broken things, but then, in all the years after that, you will be called upon to build new ones.
Go ahead and pump the septic tank out now.
Sourdough starter. Yeast is cheap and a little goes a long way, but still, eventually, you’ll one day run out.
Olive oil. You’d love to take olive oil with you, deep into the future, but—unless you’re in a climate where you can grow olive trees—this is another thing you may have to leave behind, in your new life of hardship, your new life of deprivation. One can only hope the spiritual rewards will be as compensatory as advertised.
Where do you draw the line? What about egg cartons? They last a long time, but still, how many—if used every day—constitute a hundred years’ worth?
Plastic bags. Those little fluttery throw-away things. You see them in Mexico, clinging to every roadside thornbush like Christmas ornaments, like cherry blossoms on an otherwise leafless tree, windwhipped yet enduring. They’re handy, part of the life we live; you’ll need or want a lot of them.
My God, I eat so much.
Rain barrels, iron troughs for catchment from the roof, troughs for watering the livestock in summer when the creek or pond is dry, and buckets for toting the water from well to animals. You can learn to make oaken buckets, but in the meantime, it’s hard to beat plastic. Plastic jugs and Ziploc baggies: how we are going to miss them when they’re gone.
The little things. Chapstick. Rice. Don’t forget pots in which to boil your water and snow. If you have to you can drop fire-heated rocks into a hollowed-out stump to raise the temperature to boiling. You might not have known that, but probably would have figured it out eventually. I am thinking now of the caged chimpanzee who, presented with a tube, a fixed and upright cylinder, at the bottom of which was a peanut he wished to reach, but was unable to fit his paw into the cylinder, and possessing not even a stick for a tool, nonetheless achieved his desire by taking mouthfuls of water from his drinking fountain and spitting them into the cylinder until the peanut floated to the top.
In high school, I was the best at dodgeball. Over the course of the gym class, a hundred students would winnow to but a dozen—violent ball-slams knocking the others out one by one—and I dodged every throw until four or five of us remained, on one side or the other, which was fun, and thrilling. As even that small number began to melt away, it was still thrilling, but when I realized I was chosen to survive, it was also sobering. I felt special, chosen, for having been gifted with the skills to avoid those who were trying to erase me, and I was keenly aware, with all those spectators—the vanquished, sitting in the bleachers, watching—of a ringing stillness in the gym. I would call it extreme solitude, not loneliness, but I would also be less than honest to disavow that I was not unaware, then as now, of the sometimes knife edge between those two lands. I was aware, even then, that there was both desperation and stubbornness in my survival. And in the surviving, with so many spectators watching me do that which they had been unable to do, it almost felt as if, in that tense stillness, there was love coming from the stands—that they loved me, for my outlasting the opposition. Back then, being so young, I did not mind becoming the one and the only, but that was a long time ago. I have survived much, and I would never want to be in that position again, much less endeavor with such exercise to be the last. In all the years since, I have gotten deeply accustomed to the little habits of loving and being loved. When it’s time to go, I like to think I’ll go with gratitude. It’s just not time to go yet is all.
Bushel baskets. Again, intergenerational in their durability, and unable, really, to be improved upon across the ages. Perfect for cold storage of apples, potatoes, carrots. You’ll need to build a root cellar, and while there’s free and easy sawdust to be had, you might as well get plenty of it, bag after burlap bag of it, to pack around the lake ice you’ll have cut into forty-below blocks of memory, encased in sawdust—ice that carries its chill all the way forward to June, early July, down there in the root cellar.
We’ve done this before, our species has, as have even our own countrymen, it’s the eye of the needle through which we once passed, we can go back through it yet again in the opposite direction, and whether as if in a vanishing or a being born-again, we shall only see.
Spare tires, old junked axles, for your self-made wagons. The refuse of today is the silver and gold of tomorrow; the silver and gold of today is the refuse of tomorrow.
Reloading equipment. I’ve been putting it off, listing this out near the end, because of the company it places me in: Gingrich patriots, Ron Paul/phone-tree people, and far worse. Simply and stubbornly, I want to know as little as possible of anything they know. I want to utter as few of the words they do as is possible, whether the word is drams, grams, or hex locks. But after the revolution, I will be more like them and, who knows, they will be more like me, and I, in turn, may be more like you. It won’t hurt a thing in the world for you to keep a couple of ten-pound sacks of gunpowder and some pellets and extra wads of various gauge, a box or three of primers and spare casings, in your closet. It’ll beat hell out of hunting sparrows with a blow dart or trying to snare rabbits with strips of leather gotten by carving up deer hide. I’m not counseling or promising prosperity here, but there is an achievable difference between surviving, and surviving with dignity.
But first, back to fundamentals. You can make it through this if you are prepared, and your mind is ready. You may not prosper at first, but you can survive. The most basic thing you need, and will always need, is usually water, unless you’re lost and cold, at which point you need immediate shelter. Sixty percent of your body heat is lost through your head; always carry a stocking cap. Sixty-five percent of hypothermia cases occur, unbelievably, when the temperature is between 30 and 50 degrees. The traveler overextends him- or herself, there is a light rain falling, there is a wind, and the body’s core temperature drops ever lower. As long as you’re shivering, you’re okay, but once you stop shivering, you’re screwed.
Know your adversary. Before you start shivering, build a debris hut. Take shelter. Beneath the boughs of cedar or spruce is best. Scratch and scoop a small bed in the duff, make it the size and shape of your body, but no larger. Build a short tripod where your head will rest, then lay a long branch as a ridgeline, the exact length of your body. You don’t want any excess space, your simple body heat will be your gold and your god. Next lay branches in perpendicular lattice from the ground to the ridgeline, and then weave twigs and leaves between that latticing. Dirt, pine needles, whatever you can find. It will take about an hour. Crawl inside, nestle into as small a ball as possible, let your own heated heart and the exhalation of the soil, trapped now in your little hut, slowly warm you, while outside, the storm rages.
The truth is you could spend a lifetime learning stuff like this and still not be ready.
In the new world, after the revolution, depression and malaise will be nonexistent, a biochemical indulgence for which a still elegant, still tightly fitted nature will have no room. There will not be room in the world for it. Malaise will be a vague artifact, whispered asides about the old days, and then, a few generations later, nothing, forgotten forever. It’s certainly nothing you could paint on a cave wall.
Wheelbarrows, grease gun. Welding torch and acetylene tanks, brief fire from the gods. Back to this notion of oil: could you ferment organic matter to capture small amounts of methane, then pressure it up with a bicycle pump? Maybe even enough to run a methane-powered scooter? I don’t know. Store up plenty of copper tubing, just in case, for your daily allotment: a hiccup of gas, a burp. Not enough to travel to Europe on, no more sightseeing trips to Paris or the Pyramids, but still, maybe enough to light a single lantern for a single evening.
Solar panels to power the downhole pump. Go ahead and drill your well now, deep, so it will be a long time before it runs dry, and drill it wide: less likely to sand up and easier to clean out when it does.
Coffee is going to be problematic. I love the north country, but can imagine going south in search of more coffee someday, after the last tin is empty. (I’ve rationed a pound a week, a hundred and fifty cans of nasty Folger’s, and a hundred jars of dehydrated little crystals, one spoon of glittering dark flakes per day, good for another five years.) I’ll be seventy-five years old by then, and, if the tropics have not crept far enough north, I can envision setting out on a yearlong trek down to Central or South America, or whatever is required. For coffee, no trek would be too arduous.
Eyeglasses. There won’t be any more optometrists. Binoculars.
Gloves and boots: a century’s worth of boots, and throw nothing away. Do not let those racks at Goodwill come back to haunt you, the days when perfectly good boots could be had for three dollars, and heavy coats, parkas, for five. Wooden cross-country skis for ten, snowshoes and backpacks for less than that; and yet day after day we pass by these places, our arms filled with packages from the mall. Forty-below sleeping bags. A good worker will go through a pair of light gloves in two days. Get the durable kind.
I spend a fair amount of time pondering that biblical verse, the edict, that the meek shall inherit the earth. I have no idea what it means but suspect often that we shall all one day find out. Does it mean the downtrodden and oppressed shall usurp the sinful affluence—our riches gotten with slave labor, liquidating the resources gotten by the genocide of Native Americans little more than a century ago—and that the Ghost Dance prophecy from that time, visions of buffalo returning to wander the Great Plains, along with the grizzly and wolf, and the recovery, the restoration, of the native peoples and their lands—again, a reverse-traveling, back through the eye of the needle, or a circle-traveling—will come to pass?
Or does the foretelling of the inheritance of the meek refer to a time even further back, returning all the way to the first quiet stirrings of life—to the microbes and single-celled organisms that warmed the soil for a billion years before our arrival only half a second ago?
Antibacterial soap. I forgot about the microbes. You can, of course, make your own soap out of ash and lye, but in the meantime, soap is cheap, add it to your storehouse.
Maps! My god, I have forgotten maps. How quickly we would miss Google Earth, and our finite, quantifiable, mercatorial values of altitude, distance, and elevation. Without the maps we would quickly return to sketches in the dust, charcoal- or blood-smudges on the tanned hides of animals. Abstractions, rather than mathematical specificities.
In theory, gps will still be functioning, as long as you can keep your batteries charged (and there are plenty of little portable solar chargers already on the market). The world’s satellites will keep drifting, floating eternally, long after the revolution has ended and the living has begun again.
But even so, there is no substitute for the joy gotten by spreading out a parchment map, a holy document, with the little x’s and o’s showing where the elk were on what day, where the snow lingers longest, where the fastest route is, where the blue grouse can be found, where there’s an unmarked spring, where the berries grow thickest, where the bears den, where the wild goats live, where the tasty violets and glacier lilies blossom first. There’s nothing like it in this world and no need to reinvent the wheel with crude scratchings and gestures on the back of napkins and paper towels. The whole world has already been mapped. The world is your oyster—after the revolution, all you have to do is step out into it.
If we knew the doomsday hour and date, perhaps it would make the preparations easier. And I still think that is probably how the revolution will come. Far more dangerous and disconcerting, I think—far more horrible—would be the little diminishment, the gradual disintegration of strength and affluence. How strange to realize I am counting on it all coming at once. Child of the ’50s and ’60s: one too many fire drills. The phalanx of us marching out into the bright sunlight, staring back at our school, expecting it—desiring it—to crumble into brick-dust powder and elephant-gray mortar, vaporized in our next eye-blink.
Some of the younger and more gung-ho teachers acting the part, hurrying us along, projecting strident terror. Two or three of the children, who later in life would be called losers, actually crying, stumbling along with untied shoelaces.
It’s amazing, the things we’ll forget, the casual everyday little things we’ll want to go back for but can’t, no more than the travelers departing those biblical cities of salt could return for whatever pleasure or habit was still attached to their memory. Watches, for instance. Up to this point, we have totally omitted watches from the list. You might think that in the new world they would be as useless as cell phones—better to buy a case of walkie-talkies and about twenty years’ worth of super alkaline 9-volt batteries, to milk out another last gasp of technology before descending back down into the age of stone—but for all the romanticism with which you might regard watchlessness, a world without timepieces would not be the dreamscape one might imagine. Certainly, we are hostage to the tyranny of clocks now, and have been for a long time—but there will be occasion in the future where a shared, if calmer or at least less frenetic, method for parsing the seconds and the days will come in handy. The ability to synchronize, even if roughly, each other’s desires. Meet me here at this time. I will be gone this amount of time. Put this loaf of unleavened bread in the woodstove for this amount of time.
Whatever would we do, without our clocks, our timers? I have an old mechanical windup egg timer that was my grandmother’s. I have an old museum-quality, Louis-the-Fourteenth-looking clock that belonged to her parents. But there’s no need to get all antiquey, all old-ways. For one hundred dollars you can buy a sack of fifty plastic watches from China and dole them out like party favors, one per year per head of household.
This brings us to the uncomfortable question of who will be leader of each tribal unit, and how will that be determined? The leadership qualities of the past will be nothing like those required by the future, and it’s my guess that those possessing a high degree of what, for lack of a better word, would be called magic or, more crassly, luck and intuition, will be given higher standing, relied upon, as we grope our way into completely unmapped territory. Those who have demonstrated strength, integrity, creativity, fortitude, those about whom certain stories are told and repeated, are likely to fairly quickly assume the unenviable position of leader of our little clans, our little family units—and, from among those small groupings of clans, larger leaders, call them chieftains, or whatever, will be chosen.
There will be spiritual consultants—I don’t think we’ll call them priests, for the structure of formal churches will fall quickly away, only the old stories will carry forward, nor will the spiritual counselors be called shamans. Instead they will exist as they always have, on the perimeter, like a barometer, able to detect troubling times ahead, and, once in the midst of troubling times, able to counsel or testify to the green times ahead, some distance—months, decades, centuries, millennia—on the other side of the trouble.
And of these tribal leaders, informal and authorized not by word or promise but by deed and example, and bearers of a responsibility for which no one would ask, how will the decision be made, the choice be made, when their magic has run dry and when their mistakes become noticeable and unacceptably disproportionate to their successes? By what means—graceful or awkward, slow or abrupt—will one who was once great and powerful be replaced by one who is now clearly more so?
I know that hoarding is an unsustainable answer. I know that knowledge, mental fortitude, and creativity are the long-term solutions to this next period. Storytelling. We came so close, is the beautiful and haunting thing. We were right at the edge of Godliness. We had the world, and every piece of life that ever lived, mapped and stored in vials in underground bunkers somewhere near Bethesda. In almost any basic laboratory, we could peer into the universe of a Petri dish and pull out one genome and insert another, could fill our shopping cart however we wanted. We could create or recreate any physical thing of the world, the living or the unliving, could do anything and everything but go back in time. And when the revolution came, we were working on that.
All the world’s intelligence packed into tiny glinting chips of beach sand, a universe in each grain of sand, grains that were once the haunts of eagles and the tops of snowy mountains that rivaled or exceeded the Himalayas. We had come to the place where we could modify the tiniest genetic strand, and in an instant—in that next instant—could banish cancer, could banish shyness, could determine who got how many freckles, could increase intelligence and physical strength, had come to the point where, technologically, we knew how to make fuel from the wind, from the sun, from the daily going-away and resurrection of the tides. We had vaccines and artificial organ transplants. We can take a single gene from an ocean-bottom fish that glows in the dark and insert it into our own species in such a way as to make any part of us glow, whenever we wish. We can summon Neanderthals from beneath the ice. We can create whatever we can imagine—whatever we can dream or desire or fear.
So back now we stumble to junk piles, searching for copper tubing for the methane dumps to power some ancient clattering contraption. Crude hydropower will spin thick turbines in places fortunate enough to still have wild rivers. But the key word here is crude. The glittering palace is being disassembled even as we speak, the marble hallways are being broken with sledgehammers to use as ballast for the ship that is embarking on the long crossing that will carry us back from whence we came.
It will be hard not to believe there is, or was, a larger hand, directing us away from certain temptations at the very last instant, and asking us to start all over, to try life again. It will be hard not to believe that it is a patient and loving hand that, against all odds, continues to find us interesting, and to somehow believe in us, as we in turn believe in that force, that guiding hand.
How could love not be involved in such a starting over, or such a survival—such a myth, such a dream?