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Excerpt From World Made By Hand

by James Howard Kunstler       

In Which Brother Jobe Meets Stephen Bullock, Farmer

 

          In this chapter, Brother Jobe is introduced to Stephen Bullock the largest landholder in the vicinity of Union Grove.  Brother Jobe and his New Faith congregation, seeking to escape the troubles of the Sunbelt, have recently bought the vacant high school and moved in.  The go-between in this scene is the protagonist of World Made by Hand, Robert Earle, a carpenter who has worked for Bullock at various times.  Here Bullock gives Brother Jobe a tour of his extensive holdings. . . .

         . . .As the modern world came apart, and the local economy with it, Bullock took the opportunity to acquire at least eight other properties adjacent to the original family farm. They were not all in agriculture. One was an auction yard for second hand farm equipment and trucks.  Another was a marina for pleasure boats on the river, which now served as Bullock’s landing (and was called Bullock’s Landing by everybody else, if not Bullock himself). Several others were derelict dairy operations with ruined barns, pastures gone to poplar, and houses that let the rain in. Some of the owners had died off.  Others sold out only to end up working for him. It was clear to me from the conversations we had in the days when I was building his tea house – and they were many, often over a glass – that Stephen Bullock had a comprehensive vision of what was going on in our society and what would be necessary to survive in comfort, and I don’t think he ever deviated from that vision for a moment.

*

         For the two hour duration of the tour, Brother Jobe goggled and gaped unselfconsciously while entering notes in a little hand-made book of folded foolscap that he carried.  There were, first, the impressive workshops in the vicinity of the house, several of them new fieldstone buildings: the creamery, the smokehouse, the brewery, the harness shop, the glass shop, the smithy, the laundry. Brother Jobe took a particular interest in the brewery, where Bullock not only made beer, but distilled an annual supply of rye whiskey and applejack, some for trade and some for his own use, and some pure grain for running small engines on the place.  Bullock’s farm was the only place I knew where you might still hear engines running. Not even Wayne Karp managed that. Back in the days when I had been building the tea house, when it was still unclear which way the country would go, Bullock sometimes ran an English sports car around with the engine tricked up for alcohol. Then he broke a front axle over in Hebron going through a pothole the size of a bomb crater, and had to tow the car home behind a hired team of oxen.  It took three days to go the twenty miles. The roads were much worse now.
          Bullock poured us each a generous sample of his whiskey from a cask in the rear, where many barrels were racked, into jade-green pony glasses made there on the premises, too.  Brother Jobe tossed his dram straight back, said it was “fit for all occasions and all weathers,” and Bullock refilled his glass.  I had not been there for a while, but it seemed that everything was coming up at Bullock’s establishment whereas everything in our town was running down.  You could understand the allure of the place.
         We proceeded to the horse breeding barn. Bullock was raising big Hanovers for the cart and saddle, and Percherons for freight loads. Brother Jobe said he favored a mule in the field, that it was the coming thing with all the hotter weather.  Bullock said he hadn’t seen a jackass in Washington County that was worth breeding a mare to.  Brother Jobe said he had just such a one and would lend it over. 
         “Have you tried oxen?” Bullock said. “They’re peachy in the woodlot and behind the plow.”
         “I don’t know the first thing about an ox,” Brother Jobe said. “We’re all about mules where we come from.”
         “I’ll tell you something about an ox,” Bullock said.  “You can eat him when he’s past his prime for work.”
         “That makes sense, I suppose,” Brother Jobe said. “I confess, I never tried to eat a mule either in or out of its prime.”
         Bullock refilled our glasses. He said he admired Brother Jobe’s team of blacks, but the latter said that the sire had been left back in Virginia.
         “We’re miserably short of new blood,” Bullock said.
         “Your welcome to try our stallion. He’s a liver-chestnut, fifteen-and-a-half hands Morgan. Maybe some time we can swap out.”        
         They were in excellent spirits by the time we strolled through the orchard to the beginning of Bullock’s extensive fields.  The corn seemed to go on forever, but we crossed a hedgerow over a stile and came to what Bullock really wanted to show.
         “Why, iddin that sweet sorghum?” Brother Jobe said.  It was not a crop plant that I recognized.
         “You are correct, sir,” Bullock said. “With the maple borers killing our sugar trees, and mites on our bees, we’re a bit hard up for sweetening lately.”
         “Is that a fact?”
         “Well, it’s this heat, you know.”
         “We always had sorghum syrup on Momma’s table.”
         “It’ll be a new thing here, but our people will like it, won’t they Robert?”
         “I suppose they will, Stephen,” I said, not really knowing.
         “It beats heck out of blackstrap molasses, I’ll tell you,” Brother Jobe said. “Milder.”
         “It’s got a flavor all its own,” Bullock said.
         “My point,” Brother Jobe said.
         The two of them seemed to be getting on like boon companions.  It made me a little sick to see it, or maybe it was just the heat and the whiskey.
         We made our way around the extensive property, down grassy lanes between fields of one crop and another.  The corn was knee-high and lush. The buckwheat was in flower.  From his years in Japan, Bullock was fond of soba noodles made from the grain. He was particularly proud of his experiments with spelt, an antique precursor of our common wheats and apparently immune to the rust disease that lurked in our soils. It did not have the gluten content of modern wheat, he said, but it was better than rye. He hoped to expand production to a hundred acres next year, he said. The hillsides above his grain fields were dotted with brown and white cattle, some dairy and some steers for beef.  Coyotes had been killing his calves lately. He’d had to post sharpshooters.  There were ten acres alone in potatoes and as much in kitchen vegetables. He had mostly women and a few children chopping weeds among the crop rows out there, and men on construction and heavy labor jobs around the plantation.  We saw a crew coming in from the woodlots with a load of red pine logs behind a team of massive oxen.
         “There you are,” Bullock said. “Red and white Holsteins. Tractable, steady, strong. And not nearly as dumb as they say.”
         “Maybe we’ll try some,” Brother Jobe said. “Holsteins,” he said to himself, scribbling in his little book.
         Soon we got over to the new sorghum cane crushing mill and refinery that Bullock was building on a high bank beside the Battenkill River.  It stood about a quarter-mile above the place where that stream runs into the Hudson, on a site that had been the Kiernan & Page cardboard box mill early in the last century, of which little remained but foundation stones and some giant pieces of iron machinery so rusted that their exact purpose was no longer identifiable. The men working around the new cane mill greeted Bullock enthusiastically.  I recognized at least two of them from the old days: Jack Hellinger, who used to be the Rite Aid pharmacist in town, and Michael Delsen, who had a little insurance agency with his Dad on Main Street.  It was hard to tell whether the workmen’s enthusiasm on seeing their boss was that of free, happy men or of people who had to put on a face to authority.  Bullock’s relations with the people who lived on the plantation was the subject of much speculation among us who lived back in town. Being a world of its own, there was no way we outsiders knew what his people had to say about how things worked there, except that it pretty obviously wasn’t a democracy.
         Bullock’s new mill certainly was impressive. They were levering a great shallow iron evaporation pan into position over a rectangular stone hearth where the cane juice would be boiled into syrup.  The building was all fieldstone, mortared up nicely.  Bullock had a lime kiln up on the plateau above the river valley where he burned limestone to make the adhesive component of cement: quicklime.  Brother Jobe scribbled away. Altogether, the mill was a big new thing that looked like it was well-thought-out, well-made, and would work.  Nothing in town compared so well. We had built virtually nothing new there in years. It got me thinking about Loren’s idea to start a laundry, and that maybe I should show a little more community spirit and help him get something going.
         We followed the road along the extensive hay fields and oat fields where they raised animal feeds, and came, at last, to the collection of little cottages that Bullock had erected over the years for his people.  It really amounted to a village, but of a kind that had not been seen in America for a very long time.  The cottages were deployed along a picturesque little main street with a few narrow lanes off it. There were about thirty buildings in all.  This main street lacked shops or places of business because the only business there was Bullock’s business. There was a commissary building, where his people could get their household needs.  I didn’t even know if they used money in it, or whether Bullock’s people even got paid. Two new cottages were under construction, meaning I supposed that more people were joining up. This, too, seemed to pique Brother Jobe’s interest.
         “What do you call the place?” he said.
         “Metropolis,” Bullock said.          
         “Ain’t that were Superman lived?” Brother Jobe said.
         Bullock grinned and winked at me, and Brother Jobe grinned, too, back at Bullock.  It was grins all around.
          “We just call it the New Village,” Bullock said.
         “I like that,” Brother Jobe said. “It’s plain and to the point.”
         “Maybe when I’m dead they’ll name it after me. Bullocktown.”
         “They ought to.”
         “Doesn’t really roll off the tongue, though, does it?”
         “There’s worse.  Near us back in Virginia was a little burg name of Chugwater.  And another one called Stinktown.  Well, that was more like a nickname for Stickleyville.”
          One larger structure stood out at the center of things, and that was the meeting hall, offset from a little grassy square at the end of the main street. Bullock’s people all generally took a mid-day meal together there and schooled the few children that they had managed to produce.  It was a plain but dignified clapboard building, with large light-gathering windows, and a cupola on top for additional light.  All the buildings were whitewashed.
         “Is this your church?” Brother Jobe said.
         “Sometimes,” Bullock said.
         “Where do you stand on religion, if I might ask?” Brother Jobe said.
         “I’m not against it.”
         “But you don’t minister to them.”
         “Beyond my competence.”
         “Maybe you’re unnecessarily modest.”
         “Well, I’m not Superman. After all.”
         The streets and lanes of the little village communicated only with the wagon roads between Bullock’s fields and works. We rarely saw his people over in Union Grove, unless they were on a specific errand for him. Otherwise, he had a landing on the Hudson River. The things he needed came up from Albany and beyond. The cottages where his people lived there in the plantation village were of a common vernacular type, also very modest, though some were decorated more than others, with brackets and moldings, according to the tastes of who lived in them. I suppose they were allowed to do as they pleased with them. Some had summer kitchens out back. All had brick chimneys. Nobody was working on the new houses now.  I supposed they did that in their off-hours.
         While we stood out in the grassy square, a stout woman in an apron stepped out of the meeting house and pounded a tubular iron gong that hung from a stock beside the door. She regarded the three of us with a kind of wary respect, as if our presence portended something. Then she bustled back inside, wiping her hands on her apron. An appealing familiar aroma of cornbread baking emanated from the place.  Soon Bullock’s people began streaming in from the fields and forests. All nodded their heads at Bullock in deference.
         “They seem well fed,” Brother Jobe said.
         “They’re not fed,” Bullock said.
         “Excuse me. . . ?”
         “Well, I’m not running a zoo here.  They feed themselves.”

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