Part 2

I should tell you more about our greenhouse.

In the summer of 2000, we extended our back deck across the entire back of the house. For materials, we harvested six tall wooden utility polls that were in the alley behind our house. We cut each of them in half and thus had 8 sturdy pillars the height we needed plus 6 crossbeams. We had a big family debate about this, in the spring of 2000, and decided that since there was no news about any return of electricity or phone service, we would just homestead them. We also harvested quite a bit of the various cables strung on the lines. I should note that none of us are construction workers or engineers or architects, so we over-engineered everything, relying on brute force and not worrying too much about elegance of appearance. Not knowing how to calculate how much load a wall could or should bear, we relied on common sense and trial and error. We only collapsed the floor once (and so we then went and got another telephone pole for that spot).

Our house is an old house on a hill, with the front being one level, and the back being two. The deck, which is the second story from the rear of the house, was on the same level as the front of the house. To expand the size of the greenhouse, we pulled the walls off the back room that opened onto the deck, leaving the frame, and the roof, leaving its frame. We used windows from ruined houses, fixing some of them so they could open, in various corners of the structure. We also harvested planks and lumber from such houses for the floors. The total surface area of the greenhouse is 729 square feet. We have a combination of trays, buckets, and columns as growing areas.

On the ground floor below the back bedroom, now converted to a greenhouse, there was a room in the basement with a door that opened to the outside. We converted this room to our waste processing and energy generating center, and expanded it by turning the space below the deck into another room (we used COB construction for the walls for that, basically mud and stones with a little bit of scavenged cement mixed int). This area contains three methane digesters that we built in the summer plus our compost operations.

Our only household toilet is in the greenhouse (the back bedroom had it's own toilet and sink). The toilet is dry, and empties into a bucket in the room below. On a scheduled household rotation, the bucket is emptied into the digester currently accepting raw material. When it's filled, it's capped and starts accumulating gas while we start dumping into another one of the digesters. Everybody in the household agrees that an investment ought to be made with a plumber to rig up something more satisfactory (nobody likes dumping the bucket), so we are going to fix up an "offer" and go talk to one of the plumbing contractors who comes to the Truman Market. The digesters and compost help heat the greenhouse above. We use either a little methane or alcohol fuel stove for whatever additional heat is needed. If we had parts, we'd put in a small wood stove, but those parts haven't materialized yet, although we've certainly been looking.

As for other trash, well, we don't have any. Paper is way too precious to throw away (I'm writing my diary on the backs of pages of information I printed in the old days with my computer printer), and the same is true for tin cans, lids, plastic containers, bottles, all the other usual American trash. Everything is used and re-used until it can't be used anymore and then we still save it because you never know what you will need in the future and what possible use it might have. Even the illegal trash dump in the wooded area behind our house has turned useful, as we have found all kinds of handy stuff in there (especially tires, cans, and bottles, all of which have many uses in this new world.)

You might be asking, how do we get all of this done? We now have 8 adults and 3 kids in our household, and everybody works, every day, at something. It's not that we don't have time off -- we do -- but some things (like dumping the toilet bucket) have to happen several times every day and attention has to be paid to details. Otherwise, we lose an entire digester of methane, or a batch of sprouts, or a gallon of alcohol, and we can't afford losses like this. Bread has to be baked every day. Food has to be cooked every day.

But you're right, there's no way that one or two people could keep an operation like this running. Around here, nobody lives alone anymore, and very few people live as just couples -- and even those people are hooked together in community arrangements with their neighbors, or they wouldn't be able to survive. This is one reason there is so much raw material available for harvesting. In the first place, a lot of people left the cities, especially the suburbs. In the second place, all this living alone and as single couples by themselves has passed from the scene. So there is lots of surplus housing. In the third place, nobody lives in those big apartment buildings anymore, and a lot of the commercial apartment space is empty. The owners of some of those buildings are involved with scavenging their old buildings, in some cases, I suppose they're laying the groundwork for their next fortune by scavenging the remains of the old, although what one means by "fortune" these days usually relates more to "security" than to becoming a zillionaire.

Our energy operation is varied and interdependent. We distill alcohol fuel (we traded our mechanic some food and labor in the late spring to convert our old pickup carbueretor to run on alcohol). We make and compress methane gas. We walk, fetch, and carry a lot. Basically, we only use the truck if we have to haul something or if there is a dire emergency that requires carrying wounded, sick, or injured people to medical care. Anything else, we walk.

All of our organic waste goes one of four places: methane digester, compost heap, alcohol mash, or the animals (pigs, cats, chickens). By the end of February, farmers were bringing animals to town, live and on the hoof, cattle, sheep, even pigs, and they were all brought the old way, driving them across the land (or in this case, down the interstates, generally). I tell you, we were right glad to see those cowboys on horses driving their pigs down the street, -- it's funny how the old cowboy shows never showed them driving pigs to market, but my great-grandfather used to do it all the time. I'm glad they remembered. We heard on the shortwave that farmers elsewhere had frozen to death bringing grain, soybeans, and oats to cities.

Little Ashleigh was the one who spotted them coming, she went running down the street to tell us, and we all moved very fast to see this amazing site. I asked a cowboy where he thought he was going with his pigs, and he said, well, if you want some, we'll sell them right here and now. They drove the pigs into the parking lot of the abandoned Thriftway, and made a pen by pushing abandoned cars around and started dickering with the crowd.

So we went back and ransacked the house, coming up with $5 in assorted silver change, 4 old silver dollars, and some miscellaneous fairly cheap gold and silver jewelry, and the cowboy said, "You can have a breeding pair plus one". Best deal I ever made. So each of the occupied houses on Oakley street got at least a pig to slaughter and eat, and there were 6 breeding pairs acquired.

We had our pig to eat, but none of us had ever slaughtered a pig; the most I had ever done was a chicken, and that had been about 25 years ago. We were hungry, and the idea of fresh meat was rather appealing after two months of canned and dried foods, I could already taste the pork roast, but a live pig is a wiggly and inconvenient thing and this one weighed a couple of hundred pounds anyway, and we never got around to buying a shotgun or any kind of gun.

Just as we're thinking, "Well, my grandfather used to hang them up by their hind legs and then slit their throats", a guy came down the street, shouting, "Pigs slaughtered, Thriftway parking lot, share of the meat". The former butcher of the Thriftway had heard what was going on and was setting up in the parking lot. He'd butcher the hog for 10% of the meat, plus the hooves, hide, and innards. He also hired some of the guys in our household to help, and they brought home ground meat for sausage as their pay. We had to bring our own containers for the meat, as he was low on butcher paper. It was still cold, so refrigeration was immediate, but we also got busy making sausage and we built a smoke house in a day using plans and instructions in one of the books I found in the library for the hams.

We got six chickens and a rooster a week or so later, and believe me, we treated those chickens like they were gold, certainly, their eggs were more useful than gold, at the time anyway. I chased everybody out of one bedroom and gave it to the chickens until we got a secure coop built. We had to chastise the cats severely, to keep them under as much control as you get with a cat.

We hear things are about the same all over. We manage to listen to our shortwave (EWTN remains on the air!) for the news every day, but that's only a half hour at most.

How we're making it is simple. We work together with our neighbors. The old way of living in isolation, one or two or three people just doesn't work anymore. Everybody is gathering into small communities, in both cities and the rural areas. Our area, Blue Valley, is about 2 miles wide and centers on the intersection of Truman and Hardesty, where there is a supermarket and big parking lot/commercial area, plus the St. Paul School of Theology, whose large open spaces are now gardens and little shops/markets. There is a second center at Hardesty and Independence, centered on the old now-defunct Price Chopper supermarket/strip mall lot and the area's public library (one of the most important buildings these days).

But right here on Oakley Street, you can buy all sorts of things, we even have two cafes, each of which has music on various evenings. Up on Truman, there is a veritable mall. It's obvious that no city planner has been near what's going on up there. The roads are being encroached upon (there is so little traffice, Truman which is formerly six lanes, has become two plus some walking trails amid the new "urban spaces" people are building. Sure, there's plenty of existing construction, but already by the end of the summer of 2000 people were deciding that it was easier to tear down some of the old buildings and rebuild more sensible structures. The really old ones (1920s or so) weren't the problems, it was the new stuff, especially anything built since the 1960s. Windows don't open, everything dependent upon centralized heating and air conditioning, cold in the winter and stifling in the summer humidity. They depended upon the use of brute force to make them habitable, but we don't have that kind of power anymore. They are great sources of raw materials though. Now we have to work with our environment -- what a concept! If we had thought of this years ago, we wouldn't have had so many troubles in the winter of 1999-2000! Fortunately, there are plenty of raw materials around. When we needed something to seal parts of our greenhouse, we dug up some asphalt from the edge of a street and melted it.

What are we using for money you ask? Well, personally, being a Catholic, I prefer Catholic Bucks, but we also use Blue Valley Bucks, or silver, labor, barter, whatever it takes to get the deal done. It is not anywhere near as simple as money used to be, but somehow it seems more personal, and being someone who has always liked to shop, it is a lot more fun. At the markets, there are lot of people who basically make a living by making deals -- putting buyers together with sellers and taking a small percentage on the initial deal. "Whatta you got?" is becoming as common as "how are you" on Market Day.

Plus, we don't need money as much as we used to. I have no clues as to what happened to my landlord. He has never showed up. If he does, I'll offer him a ham, I bet he takes it He lived a long ways away, in another state. So our need to pay rent kind of disappeared. Not everybody was so lucky, but some people who were evicted by greedy landlords ended up better off, because they got a jump start on building sensible dwellings and urban spaces. Most of them simply homesteaded vacant land; various churches who owned properties made them available, and the yards of government buildings were generally considered fair game for desperate people. Here in Kansas City, most such people dug in -- literally -- building earth sheltered homes using scavenged materials, dirt, and human labor. I've had dinner in some real nice places that people built like this.

We use (as mentioned above) a variety of money, the monopoly of the United States dollar is gone. There is no one money that everybody accepts. Some people will take the old US dollars, but they sure won't buy what they used to. Catholic Bucks, on the other hand, backed by the full faith and credit of the Catholic Diocese of KC-St. Joseph, and in accordance with the emergency legislation of the city council can be used to pay local taxes, buy water, medical care, and as a result, are a valuable medium of exchange for other things (no the local taxes did not go away, although nobody pays much attention to the federal taxes anymore, since there isn't much federal government these days). The same is true of Blue Valley Bucks, authorized by the Blue Valley Community Association. Both of these programs were authorized as an emergency measure in early March 2000, to help jump start some economic activity.

Which is to say, local government hasn't gone away, but it is sure changed. My most important government is my neighborhood association, which are like the old cities and towns. These are grouped into some regional associations, which are like the old states, and then the city council is like the old federal government. It's most important jobs are regulating the issuance of money, and providing police and courts.

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You're probably wondering what happened in January 2000. Things got tough immediately. Kansas City had no power and no natural gas and very little leadership in the beginning. Here on Oakley Street, there are 36 addresses housing 140 people before January 2000. About half left in December 1999 or January 2000. At first there were a dozen houses with heat (kerosene, wood, or propane), but by the end of January, we were down to three houses with heat (two with wood, one with propane and wood). So initially, we went door to door and organized people taking in other people. January wasn't too bad, everybody had food (with all the scary news of late 1999, virtually everybody had stashed some staple foods). But February was another story altogether. By then we were back up to over 150 residents divided among 10 houses, as people from some neighboring streets drifted in, families came home.

Nobody resisted the thought of taking in their neighbors. This neighborhood wasn't particularly close, before all this happened there were a lot of feuds, fights, disagreements; I was the only resident of the street who attended the neighborhood association meetings, etc. In other words, a typical American neighborhood. But now there was no TV, very little radio (many people were losing battery power even in the first week of February), no gas or other transportation, no jobs, no money, no government benefits, and people were very, very scared. I spent most of January going door to door and talking -- actually, preaching -- to people. Especially as time wore on with no good news, things got shaky. And so people wanted company, and managed to put up with quite a bit of discomfort, especially as February wore on and things got progressively worse.

The biggest problem was that people initially resisted doing much to improve the situation because they kept expecting the power and the tv and the radio and everything to come back on and get back to normal. But by mid February, that attitude was pretty much gone, and people were scared enough that they were willing to listen to sensible talk about what needed to be done. In January, about the only thing that managed to happen was that we dug latrines to take care of the human waste (the digesters were a summer project), and we quit producing trash.

When the first house ran out of kerosene, we moved those people in with the other 9 houses. I had been wracking my brain trying to think of what to do about heat, and the fact is, we never found a magic bullet. We managed to fit two additional houses with wood heat, one using an extra barrel stove kit that I had bought for this kind of eventuality, one using an old previously blocked fire place and chimney. Thus, by the second week of February, we were 145 people in five houses, strictly a lifeboat arrangement, and very troublesome, but people put up with it, because the alternative was death by freezing. My preaching theme during this time was spring is coming, things will get better, but we have to make them better. No cavalry is coming to the rescue, we must rescue ourselves.

Food was already a problem. By that same second week of February, the only food on the street was what we in our household had stored, which was 3240 meals (3 meals/day, six people, six months). In the first six weeks of 2000, we had consumed 800 meals, so we had 2400 left, or one meal a day for 150 people for 16 days. In addition to this planned food storage, I also had 500 pounds of grain, 500 pounds of rice, and 750 pounds of beans that I had bought in the summer. The grain and beans I bought directly from farmers, the rice I bought at grocery stores cheaply. This would provide 1 cup of flour, 1 cup of beans, and a half cup of rice per day for 150 people for a little more than 2 weeks. So anyway you look at it, we were really hurting.

By the end of February, it seemed to me there would be no more food, at least in terms of what we had laying around ready to eat. I think it was the second week of February that everything seemed the most hopeless and I came very near to giving into despair. I would grab one of my housemates and we would go outside and talk, and wonder, "should we just cut and run." I was sick of people everywhere, no privacy, you invite 33 people to move into your house and restrict yourselves to the three rooms that you can heat, and not have much water to bathe in, and see how comfortable this is. (We were using melted snow for water.)

But there were fish in the river, and we even managed to catch some of them, and within two miles of our neighborhood there were huge terminal grain elevators. The third week of February, a police car with a loud speaker came through the neighborhood saying that wheat and soybeans would be distributed the following day at all public school buildings in the area. I was very glad I had printed out all that stuff from the Preparedness Nuggets about what to do with soybeans.

Return to February 16, 2001 index

Continue to Part 3