A fairly popular contemporary view of the apocalypse envisions it as a sudden and complete shutdown of electrical power. Think of S. M. Stirling’s series of science fiction books, which kicked off in 2008 with Dies the Fire, or the television series Revolution, which ran on NBC from 2012-14. The latter’s opening voiceover sets the tone:
We lived in an electric world. We relied on it for everything. And then the power went out. Everything stopped working. We weren’t prepared. Fear and confusion led to panic. The lucky ones made it out of the cities. The government collapsed . . . . We still don’t know why the power went out. But we’re hopeful someone will come and light the way.
Both of these fictional accounts have jetliners losing power and raining down across America—a horrific scenario, especially when you consider that there may be five thousand commercial aircraft in our airspace at a given time.
Some scientists believe that an electrical apocalypse could really occur, in the event of an electromagnetic pulse attack, described in one 2008 white paper as “a high-intensity burst of electromagnetic energy caused by the rapid acceleration of charged particles.” Yet it is not an EMP, but instead a mysterious solar flare, that causes an apocalyptic power outage in a new novel by David Williams, When the English Fall.
The novel centers on a group of Amish farmers in Pennsylvania, after a strange solar storm has wiped out power around the country. It’s a good and unique setting for a drama like this, at a time when people (especially urbanites) are smitten with the Amish and similar communities. When one looks at the popular genre of “bonnet-ripper” Amish romances, or the “tiny house” fad, it’s easy to detect a certain nostalgia for a minimalist life. If there’s one thing Williams makes clear, it’s that when the end of the world comes, it’s helpful to have friends who farm.
The novel is written in the form of a journal, the writer being an Amish man with a wife, daughter, and son. The daughter is special, in a mystical sort of way, and appears to sense things before they happen. Williams writes beautifully, in an understated way that reflects the farmer’s voice. In addition to farming, he is a woodworker who sells furniture to the non-Amish (the “English”) through a middleman he has come to befriend and who eventually brings his troubled family to the farm after the world collapses.
“I assume that brothers will be there to help with the harvest, just as I know I will be there for them,” the farmer writes. “It is how God made us, every one, to be a strength to one another. Our community is, to us, what all the English had built was to him. But now, for him, all of that is gone.”
In a poignant essay about his book, Williams makes an interesting point about what “apocalypse” really means: an unveiling.
That is what draws us English to apocalyptic literature. We sense, somehow, that most of the madness of our modern lives is unnecessary, our stresses and rushing about all faintly superfluous. So we tell ourselves stories of what it would be like if we had to get back to basics, if we had to rebuild after something immense rocked our complex, delicate world.
Coming to mind as I ponder this are several things.
One is a take-away from Senator Ben Sasse’s book The Vanishing American Adult, wherein (among other things) Sasse laments the loss of a hard-work ethic, founded on a chore schedule, and its impact on a generation of younger Americans. He encourages parents to get back to basics when it comes to pushing their kids into harder summer jobs, especially outdoor jobs. Similarly, former Dirty Jobs host Mike Rowe has made a name for himself promoting the value of honest labor, and many people are calling on schools to bring back shop class. In our fixation with STEM in this digital age, we’ve lost track of the practical arts, and the younger generation would rather code a video game while bingeing Mountain Dew than do something practical and constructive, like grow food or make furniture.
In her best-selling 2014 novel California, Edan Lepucki briefly describes the fictional Plank College, a free two-year liberal arts program that centers around a Great Books curriculum while teaching its all-male students how to farm. Skills learned at Plank College help some of the protagonists survive the end of the world as we know it. The college is a short-lived experiment, probably because it is free.
Stepping back into reality, we find the outdoor program at Wyoming Catholic College, a liberal arts college that takes its Catholic mission seriously. All incoming freshmen take part in a three-week wilderness orientation experience in the Rockies. There’s a winter program that teaches students to endure in snow and cold, and other outdoor opportunities that involve climbing mountains or rafting rivers.
These skills are helpful in building character and rediscovering the “vanishing” American adult the junior senator from Nebraska writes about. But Wyoming Catholic also stresses something deeper: Personally experiencing the glories of creation, away from the noise of modern civilization, brings us back to the glory of the Creator, who humbled himself to spend years as a wood-working carpenter before redeeming humanity.
The poor souls in the television show Revolution may be hopeful that “someone will come and light the way.” They forgot, and Wyoming Catholic College remembers: He already came, about two thousand years ago. One senses the Amish see that as well.
K. E. Colombini is a former journalist who works in corporate communications.