Things decay in the campo. They break down, fall apart, succumb to the entropic forces of heat and wet and hard use. Shoe soles crack, fray, come to pieces, holes wear into socks and shirts and packs, mud and road dust creep into everything. Even cuts turn to scars more often out here.
In spite of it, I’m taking better care than I ever have before, better care of everything. The easy (because they’re self-motivating) things, like obsessive flossing and overuse of gauze and antibiotics to keep teeth and limbs from falling out and off. But the smaller and more tedious things too, cleaning where before I would have let lie, repairing and restoring where custom would have me replace.
I have an orange Jansport backpack. Dad brought it home to the house in Michigan more than six years ago expecting (I imagine) to use it himself. I stole it that same night (I think), and my first act of possession was to shear off half of its straps with a pocket knife because I didn’t like the way they looked. I’ve used that pack in the intervening years for school and every trip I’ve made under seven days, and it’s held up. But my laptop’s heavy and seventeen inches large, just a bit wider than the Jansport, and last October the seams around the shoulders finally blew out. I’ve sewn them back together twice now, black and white thread reaching further and further from the original stitching to find purchase.
I tore out the bottom of my hiking pack transporting hardwoods for my amateur-but-really-professional-carpenter father, and the dual color thread stands out even more brightly against its olive drab.
I brought twelve pairs of socks back to Mexico from the US the first time I went home and tore the heels out of all of them in three months of sweaty summer use. Then I darned them.
Now I’m looking for a wooden mushroom and I’ve started pre-patching all my new pairs against the creeping serrano deterioration.
The highway that fronts my office is the only artery of communication through the mountains and half the day we can’t hear anything for all the engine-braking. Every morning we come in to another millimeter of road dust on our desks, and I’ve become intimate with the insides of my laptop, prising it apart and cleaning it and piecing it together again. I brought a keg of Oxi-Clean home from that same first trip, and the TSA opened and upended it in my pack after check-in. I spent two days tweezing the white particles out of my motherboard, blowing the detergent from each individual connection.
Even my apartment’s under a new regime, and here’s where Dad and Trey would be the proudest. We’ve got premature rains now like last year, and every day the tiles of my three rooms sink beneath a veneer that’s equal parts mud from the street and bodies of invading insects. I sweep, I mop, I brush dozens of spiders from inside my sills. I have two pots, two pans, two plates, three cups, two knives, and two spoons.
I think I once had a fork, but it’s gone, and I’m sure my second spoon is really Janessa’s. I keep them all clean, I scrub my fridge and my oven and my stovetop, scour the ever-molding grout in my bathroom.
The crown jewels have to be the boots. Two once-tawny Wolverines that I’ve been wearing almost nonstop for almost two years.
Oil them with neat’s-foot, allow to dry. Smear them with Sno-Seal, hit them with a borrowed blowdrier until the pores in the leather open and absorb the melting wax.
Take the excess with a towel, buff to shine with a boar-hair brush. Admire them: dark, lustrous, waterproof before I put them on and cover them in grime ten steps from the house.
I’ve replaced the laces, worn the soles out, had new ones on, and the heels are almost through again. I’m going to see if the cobbler can use a lighter leather so they’ll be more danceable for the feria.
The funny thing is I don’t know why I’m doing it, maintaining everything. Writing’s the only way I can put my thoughts in a row now that I’ve got no Socratic conversation, and typing out these pieces is as often a process of discovery as of composition. I thought that maybe in the course of this one I’d find out why I’m repairing and reordering, but the thing’s no clearer than when I started.
It could be a kind of service-born discipline, our Peace Corps pantomime become reality, and there are things I like about that idea—a romance and an intrinsic worth to what I’m doing out here. But I don’t think that can be it. Too easy, a bought improvement, cheap zen. What I think it is, what it must be, is simpler. The less I have, the better care I take.
That’s a more appealing worldview than ‘do Peace Corps, become better,’ if you can generalize it, and I think you can. It dovetails with the substance of some of our conversation here. James and I talk about farming, because I’m interested and because he’s becoming an expert. We talk about the virtues of resurrecting ancient bio-intensive methods like the milpa versus the perceived need to double down on GMO to meet the world’s hunger. What we come back to, often, is that macro-farming, with all the benefits of genetic manipulation and artificial fertilization (not to mention commercialization) is the easiest way, and will be, maybe for a long time yet. But it depends on an assumption of having more, more tolerance of the soil for pesticide, more time before disease and insect adaptation, more, and ever more sources of mineral nitrogen to mine and process and dump into the soil and runoff into the water.
It’s a kind of farming that darns no socks, threads no needles, oils no boots, a farming that indulges in ecstatic, heady excess, a farming that, when the parents’ money runs out, will find itself in a tight spot. Soils depleted, mines tapped, forests burned, rivers dead, oceans choked by algal blooms. Our alternative, as all viable alternatives are is neither as exciting nor as easy. It demands making more out of less, demands massive individual commitment to home growth, to labor-intensive and knowledge-heavy techniques. It looks forwards not to decades of bonanza before necessary change but an equal period of slow scrabbling, reorienting the way we eat and live, an abandonment of the American ideal of every crop of every season fresh in a Whole Foods on every day of the year.
It’s a kind of farming that darns no socks, threads no needles, oils no boots, a farming that indulges in ecstatic, heady excess, a farming that, when the parents’ money runs out, will find itself in a tight spot. Soils depleted, mines tapped, forests burned, rivers dead, oceans choked by algal blooms. The alternative, as are all viable alternatives, is neither as exciting nor as easy. It demands making more out of less, demands massive individual commitment to home growth, to labor-intensive and knowledge-heavy techniques. It looks forwards not to decades of bonanza before necessary change but an equal period of slow scrabbling, reorienting the way we eat and live, an abandonment of the American ideal of every crop of every season fresh in a Whole Foods on every day of the year.
It’s a philosophy that we’re realizing applies to every facet of life, from my boots to the world food supply. It’s an indictment too, as much of the piecemeal ‘environmental’ work we’re doing as the very society that we came up in. In the same way that the graphs of classical economics cannot allow monopolies to be efficient, setting our sights in the US on always having more has kept, keeps, and will keep us from taking care of what little we have left.
Our determination to have more, always more, in all the Western and Westernizing world is the root of nearly all what you might call global problems. Our societal refusal to acknowledge and fight climate change, to let other nations have the rights to their own resources or even the ability to sell them on their own terms, they’re couched in decades-thick layers of rhetoric about economic viability and national sovereignty, international posturing, and power-balancing. But what they boils down to, always, is a refusal to make due with less, whether that refusal means avoiding a national energy policy, fomenting a coup d’état or invading a sovereign state. The motivation could be reduced to consumerism or materialism or heady phrases like Marx’s capitalist imperialism, but it’s more and less than that.
It’s an uncompromising faith in the desirability of a Hegelian march towards ever bigger, ever better that defies the laws of thermodynamics and of simple common sense. You can’t have more of everything forever, not when you’re stuck with one earth, one galaxy, eventually one universe. For the first time, maybe ever, we’re running up against the hard limits of what we can extract from our surroundings and still survive. What’s becoming clear, as we careen headlong into crises of oil and water and air and temperature, is that we didn’t learn, refused to learn, that the more we have the less care we take, and some of us now alive might yet live to see a long-taxed planet teach us that lesson.