By Heather Walker

I crave an apocalypse. Not the sort where the earth implodes, or even the kind that wipes out half the population and creates a Lord of the Flies society. I want an apocalypse where we no longer have electricity, fossil fuels or chequing accounts. (Okay, maybe I’m not pro-apocalypse: maybe I’m just a Luddite.) For years I’ve felt that our decadent, hedonistic North American society is a single Jenga block away from collapse. Call it “peak oil” or “climate change” or “I can’t afford to stay home with my new baby because child care is cheaper than me not working”— call it whatever you want. We’ve built a tower so high that we can’t remember how or why we started. I want to see what happens when the pieces fall and we have to rebuild.

My desire to return to a simpler time is probably a reaction to how complicated life has become in the past ten years, not just for me as I aged into full-time work and a mortgage, but also for our society. We live in the Information Age, yet have no idea how our world works. Where does pepper come from? How does a radio work? Such information is only a Google search or YouTube video away, but instead of asking the “why” of things we waste our time with Netflix and Facebook. We’re confident that this information will always be available, if we need it. But in a post-apocalyptic world (with no electricity, much less the Internet), it will be too late to ask Google how to light a fire without matches.

This feeling of becoming disconnected from the practical world, of realizing I no longer understood how things worked, first hit me at age nineteen — coincidentally, when I got my first email address. In 1999, with Y2K looming, I inventoried my skills and realized I would have nothing to offer, should my desire for a simpler society come true and the Industrial-Technological Age be knocked to its pale, bony knees. Thanks to my university education I could write essays and parse a poem. My skills would not feed, shelter or heal anyone in the New World. I would have nothing to offer as society struggled to rebuild.

That summer I took action, in the form of a quilting class. And when I wrapped myself in the warm blanket I’d made, I tasted empowerment. I no longer depended on the industrial system — I could make my own blankets, thank you very much. I knew how to use a sewing machine, and sew by hand if necessary. And once I understood the logic of how a quilt is made, of how a sewing machine runs, I could control the process. I could improvise, be creative and improve on the status quo. When I saw quilts that others had made, I was no longer detached: I saw the quilt’s components, admired skilled stitching and felt a connection to the quilt maker. Those few sewing classes made me hungry to learn more skills.

Years later, when my husband Brock proposed that we abandon our urban condo and start a ten-acre vegetable farm, my apocalypse fantasies became more practical. Maybe society wouldn’t collapse, maybe we’d still have a mortgage and hydro bills, but we would be growing our own food and building our own home. Living on a farm would test my mettle for the practical, grounded life I longed for. And it has.

My love of learning practical skills is necessary to my adopted role as a “farm wife.” When you have 600 tomato plants in your backyard, it makes sense to learn how to make and can salsa. For one summer I worked alongside Brock on our farm and learned skills that will get me into any post-apocalypse commune. Show me a handful of seeds, and I can tell you what they’ll grow: I know the seed that looks like a mummified tooth will become Swiss chard, while the thin rice grain will leaf out into lettuce. I can distinguish cabbage from cauliflower when they’re still only seedlings (no small feat). I know exactly when a broccoli crown is ready for harvest, judging by the tightness of the head, and even how to cut it so the stalk will continue to produce more side shoots.

After five years on our farm I can make pickled beets, sauerkraut, jam, sprouts, garlic scape jelly, kombucha and cheese. I know which seeds can be saved for planting, and how to save them.

Despite gaining all these useful abilities, in 2011 I realized there were still hundreds of skills I could learn. Through the farm I’d met many amazing local women who, with young families and/or businesses to run, were just as busy as I was, but whom I wanted to get to know better. It would be inefficient to cultivate friendships with so many busy people separately, so I invited these women to join me in learning a new practical skill as a group once a month for a year. I limited my invitation list to the artists— writers, photographers, jewelry makers and other craftspeople— so the monthly gatherings would also provide regular inspiration for our art, and we could document the experience through blog posts, audio documentaries, paintings, et cetera. At our first meeting I served sprouted wheat bread, cheese and kombucha that I’d made. We named ourselves the Renaissance Women.

A year and a half later, I can sew clothing from a pattern and have made pottery dishes. I can make bread from a sourdough starter, yogurt and soap. I know there’s a patch of heal-all growing as a weed in my front yard, and how to peel and eat a thistle. Last week I learned to use a fly rod and spin reel to catch fish. Compared to where I was at age nineteen, I would be an incredible asset to any post-apocalyptic community.

And sure, maybe the system won’t collapse. Maybe our society will continue to evolve (or not) and we’ll meander along, our smartphones getting smarter as we become more disconnected from the foundations of this world we’ve created, more dependent on the luxuries and conveniences our parents and grandparents invented so we could live a life of leisure.

All I know is that, as I learn more practical skills, I feel more grounded in this increasingly complex, overwhelming, abstract world. “Apocalypse” comes from a Greek word meaning “uncover” or “reveal,” and I like knowing what lies beneath.

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Up on the Farm

Heather McLeod

Heather McLeod's fiction has appeared in The New Quarterly and The Winnipeg Review. She has a passion for learning practical skills, and shares her adventures on a blog here.