Preparing for the Millennium

Go to the Austin Hill Country and meet some folks who are taking Y2K very seriously

This is a story about the coming millennium, and it begins in the Texas Hill Country, somewhere west of Austin. It hasn't rained in weeks, and, though the weather is cool, it is so dry that the hard, white stubble of the rolling landscape is blinding in the bright sunshine.

The scene, at the end of a gravel road that twists through an untamed field of pale-yellow grass and dead or dying cedar trees, is instantly recognizable: a small, neatly adorned house, children playing in the yard, a light-blue minivan parked nearby. Someone's manifestation of the American Dream, or so it would seem.

Inside, however, two men and a woman are conducting an almost revolutionary act. Peter, a dark-haired, mustachioed man in his early 40s, has just acquired several packets of heirloom seeds for a variety of vegetables and fruits. Heirloom seeds -- nonhybrids -- are becoming increasingly hard to find, according to Peter. He says that's because the commercial seed industry is conspiring to control the world's food supply by buying up small seed companies, reducing the types of seeds available to consumers and replacing them with technologically enhanced hybrids.

This makes the availability of heirlooms a special occasion. So it is with particular care that Peter reaches into each small plastic bag and doles out a few seeds to his friends, Charles and his wife, Laurel, who will plant them in a small orchard next to the house.

"I get half of whatever you get off the trees," says Peter, as he's leaving.
Peter has been making similar bargains with Charles and Laurel for several years. Lately, however, everything, even something as simple as sharing seeds, has taken on added significance, if not a certain urgency, thanks to Y2K, otherwise known as the Millennium Bug, the potential failure of computer-controlled devices that are not programmed to read dates beyond December 31, 1999.

Because computers control just about everything, from missile launchers to traffic lights, prison gates to ATM machines, the calamities that could, conceivably, accompany the birth of the next century are fairly extensive: accidental nuclear attack, widespread power outages, telecommunication breakdowns, transportation gridlock, financial collapse, political upheaval, anarchy.

Some so-called experts in Y2K say a technological meltdown of even modest proportions will have a domino effect that could disrupt the lives of millions of people, who may be left scurrying to meet basic needs such as food and water.

The exchange of heirloom seeds is just one example of how Peter, Charles and Laurel are preparing for Y2K, even though they started doing it before most people knew much about the problem, let alone called it by name. They are among a small but growing number of people around the country who have been steadily reducing their reliance on all the things that make mainstream society, well, mainstream, from hybrid seeds to fossil fuels.

Certainly the urge to be self-sufficient, as well as a willingness to renounce what most everyone else takes for granted, is not unheard of. But in the Hill Country, where both raw, remote land and a strident social idealism are abundant, there is a kind of millennial manifest destiny taking place, complete with a pioneering spirit straight out of the 19th century.

Indeed, Charles and Laurel -- who, like almost everyone in this story, prefer to remain as anonymous as possible -- arrived in the Hill Country in the early 1990s "looking like Sooners," says Charles, an easygoing, powerfully built man with glasses and a red beard. "We were pulling a U-Haul that had chickens and a goat hanging out the back."

Since then Charles and Laurel have strived to live as if there were no supermarkets, utility companies or local governments to provide food, power and water, and shelter. They aren't unlike many families -- Charles has his own small business; Laurel takes care of their three children, the oldest of whom attends public school.

That said, their house, which they built themselves, is made out of straw bales, an agricultural waste so useless farmers can only burn it. They keep chickens and practice herbal medicine. They collect rainwater for drinking. They stopped eating processed food years ago and are determined to, someday soon, eat only that which they have organically grown and raised themselves.

"The idea is that at some point you turn the corner toward complete sustainability, meaning everything is working the way it's supposed to work," Charles says. "But I haven't seen it yet. I wish more people were doing it just because we all end up motivating each other."

To be sure, this kind of life is no vacation. It's hard, continuous work, and the rewards, including a rather unique freedom that most people can only imagine, may not appeal to everyone.

Since she was child, Lynn wanted a place in the country. Not long after she turned 30, she bought ten acres of land in a remote area outside Dripping Springs, a tiny outpost about 25 miles west of Austin. She pitched a tent and, while running her own health-food store, built a straw-bale house. It took three years of weekends and evenings. After countless hours of manual labor, and with a lifetime of more work to come, Lynn's ideal has evolved into a kind of primitive utopianism.

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