Thursday, February 2, 2012


When we pick the last fruits of the season from the peach tree near the shower water wetland, it's time to make jam. We eat the little oranges raw, cook with and juice limes, sun dry palm dates and figs and tomatoes on the car dashboard. Cold winter morning peach jam has the smell of the white blossoms that always bud a few weeks before the last freeze, a gift for the bees in spring. The little water well at the tree's trunk is filled with hundreds of peach pits the texture of brain folds. The ground thinks peaches into being, but no peach trees from the pits--I guess the flowers aren't self-fertilizing and there's no other trees nearby. 

Ephemerata Gadren's little orchard is a slow boat to food security. The peach, orange, and lime trees have taken ten years to reach maturity (while the avacado has yet to fruit and the apple tree died one summer). Two female and one male date palms live in a polygamous circle near the olive tree in a sunny, dry part of the yard. Now that they're established, even the freezing dips of winter can't kill these generous life forms. We weather the droughts with our surplus shower water. The pecan towers over us all with dappled shade. In a good year we can make three or four pecan pies, entranced by shelling for hours. We share with friends and neighbors, and squirrel away some nuts, dried fruit, and jam for winter. Sometimes we trade these luxury items, homebrew kombucha, or eggs for a chiropractic adjustment. The trees, edible weeds, and other seasonal foods we cultivate in the City of Living Garbage double as fun foodie pleasures and deadly serious preparations for food shortages or catastrophe scenarios that have yet to hit at a national scale. 

Right around Y2K and its menace of complete computer failure leading to economic collapse, people calling themselves Preppers started getting ready for something. Practicing "survivalism lite,"* Preppers are part of a shadow movement, a public vaguely stitched together from online forums, talk radio shows, and events like Self Reliance Expos. The affective fact of a future catastrophe--be it a local disaster or complete economic collapse--animates their preoccupation with getting ready for tomorrow's survival mode. Checklists help organize ways to prepare, and stockpiling seeds and guns (for both hunting and defense) is a good place to start. Every day you need to scrimp and save and equip your bunker a little more so it is a managable process. Try not to let disaster preparedness become an obsessive way of life. 

Preppers are ready to bug out (with provisions stashed in some secret forest hideout) or bug in (the home fortified and stocked with props for the next earthquake or Snowpocalypse). According to Prepper blogs there are millions of self-identified Preppers in the US, and perhaps millions more who secretively store up the means for nuclear family surival. They share a social aesthetic or collective emotional expression that has lost faith in forms of group agency like "government" or FEMA to instead hole up in self-preservation of the individual or family (or perhaps a community of "prepper networks"). This retreat is fortified by anxieties over real and imagined vulnerability, sadness and frustration with what feels like a never ending recession, or mysanthropic fear of the rioting, murderous masses who will surely manifest when catastrophe hits. This fringe way of life is mainstreamed with its own National Geographic show, lavish disaster response kits available for sale, and encouragement from FEMA and the American Red Cross for citizens to get ready for emergencies. 

Some suburban Preppers prepare for modest 48 hour shut-downs, while others are getting ready for massive changes that will leave the world as we know it undone. The God's Gardeners are a millenarian religious sect that preaches and prophesies the Waterless Flood, a pandemic that will wash away urban populations.** The Gardeners are non-violent vegetarians who make do with their Edencliff Rooftop Garden, tending its vegetables, beehives, mushroom beds (in the celler), and humanure toilets called violet biolets. Everything is driven by fanatical self-reliance, from herbal remedies to treat disease, to "maggot therapy" that clears necrotic flesh from bad wounds (107). The Gardeners hoard stores of food like dried soybeans, honey, and prepackaged protein bars. Although "they [have] the idea that turning into compost would be just fine"(59), they struggle hard to preserve their repetitive, austere lifestyles.

Like Margaret Atwood's novel The Year of the Flood, some Prepper blogs narrate fraught life after the catastrophe. When the Waterless Flood finally comes, it leaves just a few survivalists and a freed menagerie of bioengineered animals like liobams (spliced to "fulfil the lion/lamb friendship prophecy" [94]), or pigs with human brains (made for medical testing) to scrounge among ruins. Human monsters roam outside compounds, taking what they want with guerrilla maneuvers. The website serializes a nightmare encounter with "Mutant Zombie Bikers," a.k.a. "looter, brigand, scavenger, opportunist or even neighbor," who violently invade bug in bunkers to steal food and women. Narrated as a kind of macabre choose your own adventure story in which you are the central character, you must not only stock up on your provisions, but defend them against ex-military, ex-cons, and ex-civilized humans. In some Prepper fantasies these potential monsters are "very low socio-economic demographics" who are just waiting for something--an earthquake or austerity cuts to social programs--to tip them into frenzy. Zombie movies are just rehersals for the coming urban masses crazed by catastrophe, thirst, hunger--you better be prepared!***

The Preppers are all about planning, practicing disaster response for tomorrow's catastrophe, and not so much about improvising, gleaning, and scavenging to survive (or just enjoy) today. I wonder about the teen sons and daughters of Preppers learning how to shoot and clean rifles--do they take their parents seriously, or too seriously? Gardener children have cruel nicknames for their teachers, make fun of the hell on earth they foresee. On "Young Bioneer scavenging [days]" they glean soap from hotel trash cans, wine from bar and strip club garbage to make vinegar. Some of these "recycled materials crafts" are sold "to tourists and gawkers at the Gardeners' Tree of Life Natural Materials Exchange, along with the bags of worms and the organic turnips and zucchinis and the other vegetables the Gardeners hadn't used up themselves" (68). Sometimes the kids hide the wine to drink. 

The sweetness of peaches and date palms and figs! They are luxurious gifts from the yard when this kind of produce in organic markets is twenty bucks a pound. Ephemerata Gardens is partly a prepper landscape patch, the always imperfect means for future survival, but also (sharing in the God's Gardeners' ecological ethos) a form of awe or joy in emergence and improvisation. Stuck in the pit of an austere survival mode, the garden's colors and tastes and unfurling life forms provide a frivolous circus of sensory excess. 


*Jessica Bennett, "Survivalism Lite: Rise of the Preppers," Newsweek December 2009.
**Margaret Atwood, The Year of the Flood, New York: Doubleday, 2009. 
***Thanks to Shaka McGlotten for his writing on the zombie figure in Bruce LaBruce's films. Zombies embody "fears of capitalist exploitation" and the deadening effects of consumption, but also homosexuality as a metaphorical contagion ("Zombie Porn: Necropolitics, Sex, and Queer Socialities," unpublished manuscript). LaBruce's movies play with this ambivalence by jumping between identification with zombies and the erotics of their gleefull, brutal slaughter. 

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