My father was born in 1922 on Denman Island, a small island, roughly 12 miles long, on the coast of British Columbia, located about 124 miles north of Victoria, BC. His family lived there on a small subsistence farm without electricity, indoor plumbing, a car, a truck or a tractor. To get work done required their own muscle or the help of their horses or neighbors. Water came from a hand pumped well, heat from trees they took down on their land. They produced much of what they ate in a large vegetable garden and orchard storing it in the root cellar below their house, and the occasional deer and fish they could make time to catch. They had chickens for their eggs and meat and kept pigs to sell as well as for meat. They kept bees for honey. A herd of dairy cows, Guernsey’s, because of their high butter fat milk, was their primary source of income, separating out the cream each day, storing it in large cans that they would lower down into their well to keep cool so that it wouldn’t spoil. Once a week they and other farms hauled it by wagon to the general store. There it would be picked up by a truck that came over on the ferry which would carry it to the plant in Courtney for processing into butter and other products. What skim milk they didn’t use they fed to the livestock. They would slaughter extra calves for their own consumption. It was a relatively common life, not that many years ago, that to today’s highly urbanized, consumer population, might seem light years ago. I’ve often wondered at the ‘adjustments’ my parents had to make to make sense of this world today. I’m beginning to understand now that I am well into my 60’s and retired myself.
Many of their scattered neighbors lived similarly. Their economy was very local and they would trade with, barter and help out their neighbors when they could. Money was always in short supply, a condition exacerbated by the stock market collapse in ’29, and was used to purchase that which they couldn’t provide themselves, including, in their case, sugar, flour, fabric, necessary tools and when needed, shoes and clothes. There were few treats in my grandfather’s household. They had no health insurance, no retirement plans (my grandfather was eligible for a pension through the government, he died in the early ’70’s.) and didn’t go on vacations. Outside of a radio they provided their own entertainment. It wouldn’t be until the early ’50’s that television was invented and made available to the general public. They relied on their community for the occasional softball game or more rare dance. Even books were a relative rarity and his family wasn’t particularly inclined to be readers.
He attended a one room school house, all grades together. Discipline was a big deal and they were expected to pay attention and be respectful. There weren’t electives and they were ‘drilled’ on the material covered. Rote learning, memorization, gained through repitition, was a common approach. Years later my father could still recite many of the poems that he learned there.
Dad was in the seventh or eight grade when he got a job booming logs at night. As soon as he was paid he went to Courtney, just north on Vancouver Island, and had all of his upper teeth pulled because they had been causing him so much pain. Some months latter he earned enough money to have his dentures made.
One day he saw a notice on the store bulletin board offering a logging contract on Hornby Island, just across the sound to the east, and told his father and Gordon, his older brother. His father, who had logged in the Islands before taking up farming and beginning a family, toured the sale, placed a bid and won. They enlisted a neighbor who provide a steam donkey engine. Dad dropped out of school in the eighth grade to work the farm while Gordon and grandpa went logging. Grandpa didn’t force him to quit school he decided on his own and figured he knew enough to farm, log or fish, the only occupations that he was aware of. His teacher tried to keep him in school even offering to tutor him evenings.
At 17 he started logging with his brother. They would fall trees on steep slopes where they would skid into the ocean, boom them into rafts, for a tug to haul them to the mill and be paid cash. My uncle started and grew his own operation. The business grew and they acquired a steam donkey engine and hired a small crew which increased their ability to take timber further from the water. The crew lived on rafts in cabins served only by a supply/mail boat that came once a week (My uncle actually continued his business in this same manner, with more modern equipment, up into the ’50’s). It was an isolated, hard life of falling, bumping, bucking, blasting, yarding and booming, day after day. It was dangerous. On the suggestion of a stranger he met in Vancouver, he began a correspondence course studying radio (electronics) at night while he was still logging. At the end of 1941 he made his way to LA where he began the classroom portion of the program at National School. He finished in June of ’42.
The war was on, WWII, and the military had taken over the school. He couldn’t find work because no one would hire anyone of draftable age. He was still a Canadian citizen and was exempt from fighting there because he worked in agriculture and logging, necessary industry. He tried to enlist in the US, but was told to wait until he was drafted…so he waited. By some quirk of the times, he went to Mexico, for 24 hours that October, crossed back and became a US citizen, finding a job setting pins in an LA bowling alley until he was drafted early in ’43. After basic they sent him for training in operating and maintaining teletype machines, cutting edge technology the military was adopting, improving communications. Before he finished he caught the mumps so while the rest of his class was sent to North Africa and Italy, he was held back. The story was that all the guys in his unit died. (This was not an uncommon occurence. Often times soldiers from a given area were kept together for morale reasons. Such was the case of many of the first enlistees from my mother’s area around Salinas, most of whom died in the infamous Bataan Death March in the early Phillipines campaign. Shortly after this the military began mixing soldiers from various regions into units.)
He was sent to the Aleutian Islands in Alaska after the Japanese were pushed off Attu and Kiska. The US had set up their watch-posts….They didn’t need another teletype operator so they trained him as a radar operator and he spent part of the war watching for Japanese planes, trying to stay warm and not getting lost in stormy white out conditions on his trips to the outhouse. From Amchitka we launched bombing runs on the Japanese held Kuril Islands. For a short time he was on Shemya.
After the war he went to night school and earned his GED and became a technician for Pacific Gas and Electric. My parents had married and later moved into the house outside Salinas, CA, my father built with the help of a friend after work, on weekends and vacation. Salinas, was where my mother was born and raised. We had a small orchard, berry vines and garden that sat adjacent to a large sugar beet farm.
In ’61 he took a new job, transfering to Pacific Gas Transmission in Redmond, OR, a subsidiary of PG&E, where he maintained the companies microwave towers and communications equipment along with the control systems and instruments at the company’s compressor/pump and metering stations where supply lines branched off to serve local companies and customers with natural gas. He finished his career there the company sending him off for technical training periodically to keep up with the rapid pace of change. He took early retirement, after 30 years, tired of the long days spent driving to work sites scattered the length of Oregon, north and south along the line, he was in two serious accidents in later years. The pace of technological change was a factor as well, the rapidly evolving control systems had developed well beyond the age of ‘tubes and diodes’ he began with, moving through the later solid state technology of transistors and printed circuit boards into the silicon technology of more modern computers.
My father had attained his American Dream. He was able to provide for his six children and my mom. There was always food on the table, heat during our cold winters and money for practical clothes. His job provided us with health insurance, something more of a rarity these days from private employers. We didn’t have dental, but his pay assured that he could afford our needed care and by the late 60’s he was earning 7 weeks of vacation a year. They offered employees stock and my parents were secure in their retirement. We would go tent camping and my dad bought a small boat with which we would go water skiing on many summer weekends. Every August we would trek north for a couple of weeks on the island, exploring, visiting with my cousins usually staying at Lone Pine. (As a adults most of us have periodically returned on vacation.) Later on he built a larger boat in our garage that we would sometimes trail to the ocean to go salmon fishing and later yet, bought a larger boat, with twin inboards he was able to buy, in part from his share of the sale of the old Green Ridge property he grew up on. We had a stereo, an imperative for my musically inclined mother (she played piano, violin and recorder, was a member of a community orchestra and sang in a choir. Musical instruments were bought for those of us interested in learning. We had a 50’s vintage b/w TV until the early ’70’s when my dad built a 25”, color, Heath Kit, television. He built our stereo from a kit as well). We were encouraged to do well in school and supported somewhat if we chose to do sports. Neither of my parents went to college, but they understood that education was important. Neither of them were athletes, but my father was always physically active. It was important to him that we should be competent and capable. We all developed a strong work ethic and while we didn’t believe that life should be served to us on a platter we had the idea that all people possessed value and were deserving of fair treatment, that we should watch out for those who couldn’t take care of themselves.
My parents were both active in their church participating in leadership roles. My father began and fostered the Boy Scout program for many years. When we had moved past scouting age he became an active Coast Guard Auxillary member. My mother served as a Den Mother and sang in the church choir, taught sunday school classes and helped organize rummage sales while maintaining a household and regularly practicing her art, becoming a proficient and creative watercolor artist. The church had a large pipe organ that my father ‘adopted’ in terms of maintenance. When there were problems he might drive to Portland for a part or assistance to keep it faithfully operating. When the church moved to a new location, he dismantled it, carefully cataloging its parts and stored it in the garage while they waited for the new church to be completed. Then he reassembled and tuned it, a story he was quite proud of, adding how when the techs from the organ compay came to make final adjustments, there was little for them to do. Commitment to community service was central to both my parents, throughout their lives, and still is to my father.
After retirement my parents moved to Denman Island to help my uncle with the farm, both Lone Pine, his, and the old family farm, Green Ridge. What was to be a few years, bridging the time before my cousin could retire from his post as an RCMP, turned into 17 years, of raising cattle, haying, repairing old equipment, maintaining out buildings and barns as well as working the oysters on my uncle’s ocean frontage. (Today, a different cousin, a retired highway engineer, runs the family farm, while Green Ridge has been sold off.)
After his second ‘retirement’ my parents moved back to Redmond into a retirement community where my father quickly put his old construction management skills to good use, monitoring contracts and insuring that the work was done to spec (the developer had skated! leaving buyers in a tenuous position). He became the community handyman helping neighbors with problematic irrigation systems, appliances and other tasks around their properties.
During all of his retirement years my parents would from time to time go on long road trips visiting different parts of the country, outside of Canada, they never became world travelers.
Eventually he began to slow down and more responsibility fell on him to care for my mother who had had a minor stroke and began to suffer from dementia. He cared for her for about 8 years, until it began to take too large a toll on his own health and he found himself in the hospital. He survived my mother’s passing. My oldest brother and his wife travelled to Europe with him, at 92, touring several countries with one of his grand-daughters who planned his trip for him (She was living in Stuttgart, Germany, at the time). He’s now 95 years old. One of my brothers got dad’s house into salable condition which now assures his stay in the assisted living facility where he has a mountain view from his second floor rooms. He prides himself in his ability to still use the stairs and continues to be an avid reader.
My father’s life has arguably spanned America’s most successful years, the period when the idea of the American Dream became most attainable and its position as a global leader, in terms of economic and military power, were at its zenith, when we stood as a beacon of democracy and freedom around the world…this is no longer the case. I cannot speak for my father, but I know that his American ideal has been slipping…dramatically.
My father’s ‘needs’ have always been relatively modest. As I said before he believed in ‘fair play’. One of my brother’s-in-law once said to me that he admired him, refering to him as a ‘true gentleman’, fair and a man of his word. He never seemed to buy into that part of the American Dream that awards someone excessively. My parents understood that excessive wealth, that beyond a modest financial security, brought with it a much greater obligation of doing for others. They also understood that regardless of our economic station, we owed our communities and the practice of community service was essential, indeed, it was this relationship that cemented our communities and gave them much of their value. The currency of a community, their value and meaning come from the members themselves. When members no longer contribute directly to it through their lives, when they come to depend entirely upon government programs and the market, community crumbles along with the relationships that once defined them.
Neither of my parents were entrepreneurs or business owners. My siblings grew up uncomfortable with the idea of chasing wealth as well, most of us working for public institutions that provided a service…and we have done all right. We were taught frugality and the importance of living within your means, to suspect credit, using it modestly.
The American Dream has morphed well beyond the ideas of simplicity and security, obliterating the concepts of ‘enough’, fair play, sharing and community. Today the idea of ‘enough’ seems largely to have been forgotten. The idea of personal sacrifice for the greater good is foisted upon others. The idea of fair play has been stood on its head and many people now work the rules they can in their own favor. Sharing has become a naive concept, one we perhaps teach our children with our fingers crossed behind our back, so that it includes limits and qualifiers. Community has been reduced to one’s own family, cronies and, maybe, a few like minded others that can be trusted. Value goes unrecognized or is attributed only to what can be directly and easily converted into cash or advantage. The winners, the strong, are celebrated. The losers, the vulnerable, the ‘unuseful’, are dismissed, looked upon with revulsion and blamed for their own failures while the wealthy wrap themselves in the belief that they are self-made men, that they got where they are on their own, that they are deserving of what they have, while the rest, have failed and are thus deserving of that failure. The ‘successful’ wealthy believe in scarcity and their right to take for themselves, to shape the rules of ‘play’ in such a way that favors them and that the power to do this only reinforces their right to do it, for they believe that the ‘strong’ survive. They refuse to see the role of society, the wider community, the citizenry, in their success, because to do so is an admission of their value and would require a restructuring of how this game of life is being played. They believe in a ‘winners and losers’ game, which can ultimately leave only one winner and they believe that they will be that person and the sacrifice of the majority is an acceptable outcome because, in such a winner take all game, ‘winning’ is what really matters. Costs not felt by the winners are of no consequence. Losers are simply to be managed until they are completely out of play.
Very few of today’s wealthy, began their lives in true hardship. Suffered privation. There probably are a few who have and began their quest for wealth in an effort to secure for themselves and their families what they did not have as children, but now the pursuit of wealth seems to have become simply that, a race to the top, for more, each successive generation beginning somewhere higher along the path…or, for the rest of us, being ‘trapped’ by our circumstances to the middle and lower ranks of society. Wealth, power and privilege give those with it an undeniable advantage, one they fight to maintain constantly. Children are enculturated in this at home. We learn the ‘rules’ of life which include our approach to money, wealth and community. The circumstances of our children’s lives can be very different than those we might have faced…but we equip them with the same rules….We live in a world that has set aside many of the values that have held community and society together. We pay them lip service while we drive ourselves ahead, with little to no public discussion of what we are doing and why or what our goals may be for the ever developing future. Civil discourse, civil society, and the concept of ‘abundance’, of ‘enough’, have been allowed to atrophy while the pursuit of more, drives us pell-mell toward an ill defined future. I know that this disturbs my father, it always has, and I worry for my own son, the coming generations and the world itself, because without this mostly absent valuing of others, the future appears very bleak for us all. A never ceasing drive for more cannot fill the void many feel in their unending search for purpose and meaning. The ‘hole’ can only be filled when we define it, when we first decide what is enough.
In 1920, just before my father’s birth, the US population was 106,021,537; the world population was 1.86 billion. In 2010 the US was up to 309.3 million; the world 6.868 billion. The estimated population in 2050, for the US is expected to be 438 million : the world 9.306 billion. The US population has roughly tripled over my father’s lifetime. The world’s population has increased 3.7 times. How can this appetite for more continue?
Over this same time span our consumption of resources per person increased dramaticaly. When comparing the lives of those like my father growing up on a subsistence farm in Canada of the ’20’s and ’30’s with the consumption of a modern urban dweller today the differences are stark and indisputable. The volume of manufactured goods, the energy consumed to manufacture, grow and use them, has skyrocketed. This translates into a ‘burden’ on the Earth that is totally without precedent. The pressure, the costs, that this extracts from the Earth are ignored or denied. It places us in conflict with the Earth and each other as more of us compete for limited and fixed resources. Less disruptive alternatives are ‘blocked’ because of the conversion costs this would put on manufactures and suppliers. Time and again they look only at their profits over the short term. Industry and political leaders repeatedly block, deny and delay even changes that would reduce our negative impact without reducing our consumption of goods, that would utilize less polluting energy and technologies, because of short term costs to them. Open public discussion of this issue doesn’t happen, nor does one that might question the consumption of products whose suspension would make no discernable difference to our ‘quality of life’. There is not discussion of the issue of unlimited economic growth in a ‘closed system’ or the associated issue of a human population that ‘must’ be ‘free’ to grow, indefinitely, in a world of limited resources.
In economic terms we have been consuming natural resources, capital, at an unsupportable rate…we have been thus, incurring a debt, for a relative few to live ‘well’, ostentatiously and irresponsibly now, something too many still aspire to, despite or maybe because of their own insecure circumstance. This ‘debt’ remains, growing daily and will have to be ‘paid’ at some point. Today it is by an increasing number of the young and poor. The ‘slack’ that once existed in the world of my father and earlier generations is gone. Human populations continue to grow along with the expectations of those people. No one wants to ‘pay’ the cost of this so it has been charged to the poor and put on all of our debit sheets. Economic decision makers have been defering these costs, sacrificing the futures of those to come and those with no say in the decision making. They have been extremely selfish in addition to short sighted. Resources are coming into shorter supply. Pollutants are placing us into narrower margins for existence, as cost-benefit analyses attempt to justify our present course. Natural systems, upon which we all ultimately, rely, intact functioning landscapes, continue to be developed for our ‘use’.
We live in a time when politics refuses to look at the whole, the old politics of compromise, a world of unbelieveable possibility, unlimited, a world there for the taking. We are pushing up against the limits of the Earth. We are living within its margins, closer to the edge, comfortable for the moment or not, with little space to pioneer, where available discoveries are more connected to our perceptions, thinking and technologies than they are to new lands. To get out of this requires new leadership, an alternative tool kit and new thinking. To remain on our current path promises more of the same, more conflict, struggles for power, compromises that will result in loss and poor health. The present world has failed to solve our human problems with the promise of more…more money, more power, more convenience. We have lost our sense of place and community and whether we can aford a luxury yacht or only a weekly trip to Walmart, we are running out of answers. We must begin to look elsewhere. You cannot find what is not here.
I am not advocating a return to the life of the subsistence farmer, it is not an option anyway for many millions, but moving to a simpler life in terms of materials, a connected life in terms of its relationship with one’s community and the life inherent and central to the Earth intself, a life of inspired thought and energy, of experience and being, anchored to place, a world of abundance, creativity, respect and joy. It is the opposite of this that we have traded for and its about time that we realize this and take back that which we want and need.