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.

One summer, while her house was under construction, she spent part of each day walking her land, naked, eating berries off the trees. Last year the state had to threaten Lynn with a $300-a-day fine before she relented and put in a septic tank. She had become accustomed to using a wooden box positioned over a hole in the ground under a tree. The box was moved occasionally but always faced east, so Lynn could watch the sunrise.

Clearly, few people in a modern society would be comfortable living this way. But in the context of Y2K, amid the hype and mild hysteria created by fears, real and imagined, there's a certain practicality to it.

"The big question out here is 'How do you deal with your shit. Do you flush, do you compost or do you bury?'" says Lynn, a handsome, strawberry-blond woman in her late 30s. "People who know how to deal with their own shit, they're not going to have any problems with Y2K."

Under the current social climate, it's tempting to believe that anyone spending more than a few hours actually "preparing" for Y2K has fallen for the old Chicken Little scam. In the debate over what's prudent and what's hysterical overreaction, one person's compost pile is another's bomb shelter.

Fact is, though, no one really knows what will happen when the year 2000 arrives. But according to the chairman of the portentously named Senate Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem, Senator Robert Bennett (Republican-Utah), "We need to state unequivocally that Y2K is, indeed, an event that has potentially massive and unpredictable economic, social and geopolitical ramifications."

With the "event" less than 300 days away, more and more people are beginning to take such warnings seriously. Even the Red Cross (hardly a reactionary bunch) urges everyone to stockpile basic necessities, as they would for an approaching hurricane or blizzard. Card-carrying survivalists have been hoarding food, water and cash for months and, fearing social chaos, are moving away from the city.

Still others, certain that the Jesus train is coming, see Y2K in apocalyptic terms and are stockpiling guns and ammo for the showdown between good and evil. An overlapping movement, dubbed "the new patriotism," is preparing for violent confrontation with the federal government, which, according to these neorevolutionaries, plans to declare martial law and launch a new world order.

Charles and Laurel aren't paranoid or particularly antigovernment, nor do they expect Armageddon. Nothing in their talk or manner betrays a hidden extremism. Nonetheless, they aren't particularly optimistic. Y2K has little to do with it, but they wouldn't exactly be surprised if it all fell apart, one way or another.

"I haven't believed in the American system for years," says Charles. "I've just been sure for a long time that some kind of shit's going to go down."

That has long been the consensus of the environmental movement, whose leaders have been warning about the effect our modern, technology-dominated society has had on earth's natural resources since the industrial revolution. Not surprisingly, many activists are looking at the potential for chaos resulting from a Y2K disruption as an opportunity to instill a different set of values on society, to rebuild it in a new image.

"Something needs to happen," says Peter, a self-described "ecofascist" and Houston businessman who bought five acres in the Hill Country in 1994. "Things just cannot keep going the way they are. I mean, what are all these people who have spent their lives shopping and lunching, who don't know where their food and water come from, going to do when Y2K hits? I think they're all going to commit suicide."

Well, maybe not. But Peter is right about one thing: Few people can honestly say they are immune to the effects of a technological meltdown. While not everyone agrees Y2K will be a devastating experience, no one can deny how few functions in society aren't, in some way, interconnected. To cite one example that has been used frequently, if the computer-controlled rail system malfunctions, then coal can't get to the power plants that provide electricity and grain can't get to the farmers, who won't be able to fatten cattle for the slaughterhouse. In a worse-case scenario, the lights will be out and there will be a shortage of food.

That possibility has forced many people, from environmentalists to business consultants, to reconsider the world in which they live. Some are talking about a "new consciousness" that shifts attention away from a global economy and refocuses it on local communities, which, in the view of some, will become the foundation for a post-Y2K world.

That's the premise behind the "ecovillage," a self-contained settlement similar to a commune that attempts to harness the resources available in a particular region. In Dripping Springs, a nine-acre "ecosettlement" called Ledgestone is being developed around 6,000 square feet of organic gardens that will feed 100 "community supporters," who contribute $50 a month and a few hours of labor to share in the bounty.

Larry McCain, the "master gardener" at Ledgestone, says he also hopes to be selling produce grown at the settlement at a roadside stand by April. The revenue generated will be used to develop alternative housing, such as straw-bale, and to help environmentally friendly small businesses get off the ground.

"Most of the people who will live here, we hope, will have businesses here as well," says McCain, who has been an organic gardener for 17 years and once taught sustainable living techniques at the now-defunct Peaceable Kingdom School for Organics, near Brenham. "To be honest, part of me is looking forward to Y2K. Mother Nature is sick and pissed off. It's the people who can adapt and harmonize who'll be all right."

Not that McCain is blind to the needs of those who will react to Y2K with, as he puts it, "fear and paranoia."

"From my perspective, one of the most important things to have, if things do go bad, is heirloom seeds and the knowledge to grow them."

McCain is not the only one who sees a business opportunity ahead.
Keith Miller never considered himself much of an environmentalist. He'd spent too many years in the heavy-construction business. Then, in the fall of 1992, he got a call from Peter, an acquaintance who was building a house in the Hill Country.

"He said, 'Can you help me cut out a hip roof?' " Miller recalls. "I said, 'Sure.' Then I come to find out he's building a straw-bale house. And he actually needed quite a bit more than a roof."

At the time, no one in Texas was building houses out of straw bales. But in Arizona and New Mexico, "greenbuilders" were paying farmers a few dollars each for their bales and stacking them inside a wood frame. They cut holes for windows then coated the walls, inside and out, with stucco or adobe and attached a simple metal roof. The result is an inexpensive home, sturdy and, with 18-inch-thick walls, well insulated.

As a builder, Miller was immediately sold on straw bales' advantages and, before he even finished Peter's house, he started his own straw-bale homebuilding business, Bowerbird Construction. Miller estimates his company has built about 30 straw-bale houses, mostly in the Hill Country, and has consulted on that many more.

Miller calls this early success "an accident." But it's clear he believes some unseen force guided him into the alternative housing business at just the right time. The population in and around Austin is expected to grow 20 percent annually over the next five years. According the Austin Greenbuilders Association, 20 percent of new homes constructed during that period will employ "green" materials such as straw-bale and cob, a thick mud reinforced with loose straw.

But the prospects for financial gain are only a small part of what appeals to Keith Miller about straw-bale houses. His "epiphany," as he calls it, occurred one weekend in September 1992, when about 40 men and women gathered to learn about straw-bale construction by working on Peter's house. Many of them had never even used a hammer before, Miller says. But, in the spirit of a barn raising, they put in two long, hard days in the late-summer heat. They ate organic meals prepared by Laurel, who set up a kitchen nearby. They slept in tents or under the stars.

When it was over, Miller knew he'd never build another conventional house again. "I was amazed at how it felt," he recalls. "Whenever I went out to do some work, I'd be by myself, but it felt like someone else was there. It was the house itself; it had a special feeling.

"The spiritual aspects are what made me start a company and keep me at it. It used to be all the weirdos were part of this culture, but it's not like that anymore."

Indeed, despite their unusual lifestyle, Charles and Laurel are not unlike a lot of entrepreneurs. Charles owns a company that installs rainwater catchment systems. Laurel harvests her own herbs and roots to make tinctures and other herbal remedies. Though she will travel as far away as the Panhandle to collect echinacea root, a popular herb used to bolster the immune system, she's beginning to pay more attention to her immediate surroundings.

"There are so many roots and plants and herbs right outside my door that I think have a lot of different uses," says Laurel, whose unique entrepreneurship has produced something called a chicken tiller.

It works like this: A handful of chickens are kept in a separate coop and fed table scraps (organic, of course). With their constant scratching and pecking of the earth, the chickens "turn" their droppings into the soil. After a time, the soil --which, in the Hill Country is rocky and difficult to cultivate --is teeming with microbes and ready for planting. The portable coop is then moved to another location, and the process begins anew.

Meanwhile, the food grows and is harvested and eaten. The table scraps are "recycled" to the chickens, which eventually are eating the same food as Charles, Laurel and their children, grown in a garden the chickens themselves have fertilized.

A prototype of the contraption is already at work in Charles and Laurel's front yard, and she hopes to be manufacturing them for sale soon.

"I've already got five orders," she says, "and I think I might try selling them on the Internet. We've gotten to the point where we'd feel naked without some chickens around."

This kind of vision doesn't come to a person overnight. Charles and Laurel are veterans of so-called sustainable living, dating back to the late 1980s when they lived in a large domed tent in a commune --today they're known as "intentional communities" --outside Amarillo.

"I was working for UPS at the time," Charles recalls, "but I was tired of not doing anything. One day I was just watching people drive by mindlessly on the interstate, and I thought, 'I can't do this anymore.' "

After nine months, they left the Panhandle and migrated with their goat and chickens to the Hill Country. By then, the tent had been outfitted with a full kitchen, and Charles and Laurel were sleeping in a queen-size bed. But even those relative creature comforts became untenable when Laurel became pregnant. They found some land about a quarter-mile off a back road outside Dripping Springs and began to create a life that is impervious to technological glitches, an existence that lives and breathes, rather than wheezes and grinds.

Today, to an outsider ignorant of the labor it takes to sustain it, their spread appears almost idyllic. Just about everything they need is right outside the front door of their straw-bale house: fruit, vegetables, an herb garden, chickens and eggs. Beside the house is a large tank that spouts a series of plastic pipes that collect and distribute the rainwater that rolls off their corrugated metal roof.

Though things seem to be functioning smoothly, Charles and Laurel, who were raised in a conventional suburban setting, are naturally aware of how their lifestyle affects their children.

"Children don't really fit in very well with this type of scheme," Charles says. "From that perspective, it's a weird lifestyle. There's not the cohesion of a neighborhood. I think kids have a better time in tract housing, where they can run around with all the other kids. That's how I grew up."

Lynn is a product of the same upbringing, and then some. In her 20s she was a political fund-raiser who traveled around the country rubbing elbows with the kind of powerful men and women who perpetuate the very system she has since rejected. In 1993 she quit and bought a parcel of rugged land surrounded by oak and cedar trees and split by a crystal-clear spring-fed creek.

She and Peter opened a health-food store in Dripping Springs, right around the time she started building a straw-bale house. At first she lived in a tent, then she graduated to a van and finally to the relative luxury of a camper. Because she put in, by her estimate, 70 hours a week at the store, it took her three years before she could move into her home. There's still plenty left to do. There is no trim around the windows, and the floor, little more than a series of plywood planks, is unfinished.

"I stopped making lists of things to do a long time ago," she says. "I realized that I'll just never be finished. It's a lifelong project."

Part of the problem lately has been money. Last August her business failed, and she was forced into bankruptcy. She's able to fend for herself most of the time, though she does receive some financial help, as well as an air-conditioned place to escape the summer heat, from her fiance, a local real estate developer.

But Lynn is determined to keep her life as simple and independent as she can. She has no plans to give up her land and home, even after she's married, which might put some strain on the relationship since there's simply not enough room for her husband, let alone his two teenage sons.

Her resolve is strengthened by occasional trips to Houston, where her sister lives in a master-planned community. Everything about this type of suburban existence -- from the "unconscious competition to have the nicest lawn" to the claustrophobia of living ten feet away from your neighbor -- is an affront to her.

That explains Lynn's aversion to the kind of communal living that's being planned for Ledgestone. She supports the concept of teaching people how to grow their own food, collect and filter rainwater and build a house without tearing down a forest. But, as anyone knows who has tried to accomplish anything through a committee, there's often too much talk and not enough action.

"I was part of a group that tried to make a community," she says. "But now I'm 180 degrees from that. Consensus, in my mind, means nothing gets done. People need to take care of themselves before they can take care of others.

"Where and how I live is no one's business, and the more self-sufficient I am, the less it's their business," she says. "The only way I can change things is to be an example, so I've simply taken greater responsibility for myself."

Speaking to a congressional subcommittee last October, John Koskinen, chairman of The President's Council on Year 2000 Compliance, framed the Y2K issue this way: "Can people wake up on January 1, 2000, and function pretty much the way they always have?"

The answer depends on who's speaking, and there is no shortage of voices offering a plethora of scenarios.

The Gartner Group, considered the country's top Y2K consultant, predicts that, even in those countries that are busily preparing for trouble, 15 percent of the infrastructure "grid" --transportation, communication systems and utilities -- will fail. Less-prepared countries can expect a 66 percent failure, the consultants say.

The Brookings Institute, a conservative think tank, warns that Russia's nuclear early-warning system, as well as its fleet of nuclear-powered submarines, is vulnerable to a Y2K computer glitch. That creates "the possibility of multiple Chernobyls," says Brookings analyst Bruce Blair.

Most Y2K experts predict that Americans will turn to their local governments if things go haywire. That would be a mistake, at least according to the government. Both the United States General Accounting Office and the Federal Emergency Management Agency say that state, county and city agencies will be least prepared when 2000 arrives. The GAO says 25 percent of local governments will not be ready in time.

"There's still a great deal of work that needs to be done," FEMA officials conclude.

Then again, that's the unofficial motto of the Hill Country pioneers. Burdened by the demands of his apartment-renovation business in Houston, Peter has yet to prepare his garden and is in danger of missing the spring planting season. He plans to start stockpiling food and other necessities as early as this summer. Lynn and Charles are worried about whether their rainwater catchment systems have enough capacity to see them through, should something happen on January 1, 2000.

"I should have twice as much as I do now," says Lynn, who blames last summer's drought conditions, as well the recent dry spell, for her dilemma.

But prepared or not, they're all staying close to home as the millennium approaches. Peter plans to build a huge bonfire on New Year's Eve. Anyone's welcome to join him, he says, as long as he can carry his own load.

"They're going to have to bring food, water and Krugerrands," he says. "And they better be prepared to work."

All others might want to approach with caution. The big issue being discussed among this small group of friends and ecocompatriots is whether or not they should arm themselves. Peter, who expects many people to be desperate for food and water, is all for it. Charles is flat-out opposed to the idea, figuring anybody that desperate will himself be armed and dangerous. He also expects the federal government will call out the National Guard to restore order if things get out of hand.

Lynn isn't so sure she wants a gun, although she is concerned that thousands of hungry people will be "mushrooming from the city" in a panic.

"What's going to happen if all the supermarkets close because there's no food?" she says. "It could be months before anyone wanders this far out, but I think there are going to be be some pretty desperate people, stealing any car they can find with gas in it to look for something to eat."

Of course, how dangerous a place the world becomes in the early days and weeks of 2000 depends on how big a problem Y2K turns out to be. Beyond that, the only question left to answer is: What's next?

In a few small, self-contained homesteads in the Hill Country, life will probably go on much as it has for the past several years. More than likely, the migration of environmental activists, as well as those tired of the grind of modern life, will continue.

Should enough people develop this "new consciousness," this urge to disconnect from the mainstream and simplify, Charles and Laurel, Peter and Lynn could actually become the mainstream.

But don't bet on it, says Charles.
"Unless we have drastic changes, global, continental shifts in thinking, Y2K is going to be just a temporary setback," he says. "In our very typical mode we'll be looking for what's the easiest way, and eventually we'll just fall right back into the same routine thing, just like always. And we'll probably build it up bigger than ever."

E-mail Brian Wallstin at brian_wallstin@houstonpress.com.

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