This is Not About the Apocalypse

On January 1, 2007, Amy (who would ultimately become my wife) and I took the only day we had off together in the foreseeable future to check out bare land in Southern Maine. We had been on the hunt for months – looking for an affordable piece of land to put down roots, to get something more permanent than our transient stream of apartments that had comprised our life together since late 2005. What we found was a piece of property in the quaint town of Alfred, off a dirt road off another dirt road where snow hung heavy on fat hemlock branches. Our neighbor-to-be, Jim (who was selling the land), gave us a quick tour – as best he could in the foot-deep snow – then took us inside his house and sat us by a roaring fire to show us the lot map and help us understand the property. He didn’t need to bother. We were sold.

Flash forward six years, and again snow hangs heavy on the branches and sunlight glistens through the dense hemlock forest. What has changed is that a scrappy, poorly managed woodlot has sprouted an octagonal, cedar shake clad home and a host of outbuildings. An overeager rooster greets you as you approach the property – cock-a-doodle-doooooooo! – and is joined by the squawk of thirty hens and the bleating of five goats. The garden is buried, the snow-crusted driveway dwindled to a narrow lane, and though the sounds of the outside world hang just at the edge (low rumble of airplane, groan of cars driving by on the main road 1/2 mile off, occasional blurts of chainsaw motors or snowmobiles) from here you can stare at the stars and soak up a fair dose of peace and quiet.

This is our ‘world made by hand’ – an off-grid home built by two people with no carpentry experience, just a dream.  We have learned that having the nerve to take your dreams and wrestle them into reality is better than any particular skill.

Inside, little Nyana (8 months old and born right here) crawls and plays, stuffs clothespins into her mouth and yanks down boxes of tea. Henry – a 5-yr Rhodesian Ridgeback mutt added to the family this winter solstice – curls up next to the woodstove like a contented cat. The bare floors we slept on our first winter have been covered in bamboo, the plastic fold-out tables replaced with pine furniture, and a hand-crank radio we bought in the days we lived in tents now has a second life as a fun child’s toy. This bare woodlot has become a home.

***

Concurrent with the development of our homestead has been my growth as an audio producer. In 2007, the same year I learned how to use a circular saw, I also learned how to record audio dramas on location. Roger Gregg, the Irish playwright who became my mentor, shouted at me via email as I cursed my inability to find a studio: “Feck the studio! Take your productions out of doors!”

And without much idea what I was doing, I did. Early spring 2007 it was clear to me that FinalRune had outgrown our humble beginnings in WMPG’s cramped and funky on-air recording studio. Per Gregg’s advice, I bought a RODE NT-4 microphone, then followed some directions online for a DIY shockmount. Our next production was Dark Passenger, recorded entirely on location at a summer house in Old Orchard Beach. The house’s squeaky doors, creaking steps and distant ocean crashes all became part of the haunting story that still freaks out listeners today.

I say all this because even in those early days I knew The Cleansed was the direction FinalRune was eventually headed. The unfinished manuscript, the earliest draft dating from 1999, sitting in a box of mementos I carried around through our vagabond days, taunted me. There was a point, somewhere midway through my second draft, when I realized that the story was too big for my current skills. I just wasn’t ready to tell the story with the justice that it deserved. Feeling small in the face of this epic task, I put the manuscripts away and let them sit. A decade passed.

As we cut our teeth on FinalRune shorts in 2007-2009, I learned how to successfully record in the field – from writing better scripts (less narrator, more actions) to directing (have a plan, speak with actors in language they understand) to scouting locations (people will let you record practically anywhere if you ask nicely). Along the way we earned a 2008 Gold Ogle Award, produced our first live show, and attracted the attention of the Wall Street Journal. At home, we built out first chicken coop, figured out how to wire solar panels, put the floor down in our house and started to work on the siding. Meanwhile, with no internet, I continued to produce Radio Drama Revival on a weekly basis, recording wherever I could find a quiet space (outdoors, in a car, or in a closet) posting podcasts late at night from the parking lot of the library. None of it seemed particularly odd at the time.

In 2010, soaring on the high that was the Wall Street Journal cover story, I felt like the time had finally come to walk through the next door, for me, creatively: the creation of The Cleansed. My good friend and colleague Bill Dufris connected me with Bobby Russell of WKIT in Bangor, who offered us a Halloween slot for a new radio play, and with a deadline and a time length (TRT under 50 minutes) I finally had the bootheel in the rear that I needed to restart The Cleansed.

***

What we didn’t realize in 2007, was that we were embarking on a new lifestyle, not just a building project. We truly did not anticipate owning chickens, goats, and turkeys, gardening, and my total career change to the solar industry in those days. We just were sick of living in a cramped apartment that hemmorhaged energy, and found that building new seemed the best way to get our dream house, since anything we could afford in our price range was a total dump (granted this was in the days where the bank would’ve gladly given us a house twice what we could afford, and drowned us in a debt burden that would have limited our freedom for decades, but that’s a topic for another day).

This lifestyle choice – a path which we only dimly glimpsed in 2007 and have been following since then more by the sounding of our hearts than a 10-year plan – has lead to countless misunderstandings among friends, family and colleagues that range alternately from the vexing to the absurd. Recently, I was asked: Are you guys prepping for the apocalypse?

***

So let’s examine the facts: we produce all of our own meat, eggs, and dairy, and some of our veggies. We are members in two CSAs, which provide the lion’s share of our produce. Staple foods (wheat berries, beans, rice, etc.) we source either from a local bulk food store, and finally what leftover odds and ends and hard goods we need we’ll buy from the grocery store. There are great local hardware stores we support as much as we can, though we also commit the sin of visiting big box home improvement retailers more often than we should. Does this mean we’re ready to face the apocalypse?

It will be a sore day here when we arrive at the feed store and the shelves are bare. We have a small cache of seeds but every spring we happily await our Fedco seed order, which, while a Maine-based company, relies on a complex system of fossil-fuel powered inputs to make it from their test beds in Waterville to our mailbox in Alfred. Believe me, we will not relish the apocalypse.

Still, I cannot say honestly that our lifestyle has not affected in a profound way the development of The Cleansed, its themes, its context, its characters.  My goal is to use the clean context of fiction to examine what we have difficulty examining in while caught up in our current culture. I have attempted to reject the world in the most brash way possible – by positing its demise – and from a clean slate attempt to look at what is left and glean some meaning from it.

***

There is currently apocalypse fervor in America. We have recently survived the turning of the Mayan Calendar and, with a general ho-hum, the great fantasies of the earth’s termination vaporized and the world spun around another cycle instead. Zombies run rampant in our pop culture and up there with ‘fiscal cliff’ topping overabused words of 2012 should be the word ‘apocalypse’ itself. When Honey Boo Boo, firestorms, and hipsters merit the term ‘apocalypse’ then there’s a fair case that the word has become meaningless.

Some contend that apocalypse obsession is the sign of a too-comfortable species that has lost its connection to its wild form of self, and so apocalypse fantasies are a way of fantasizing about a more authentic life on the other side of disaster. Others contend that it is a symptom of a species indeed feeling the chimes of a coming crisis, which, no doubt, Americans better be feeling right now. Something has got to give, and you truly are mad if you do not believe that some sort of reckoning is coming. But does whatever happens to correct the course we’re on merit the word ‘apocalypse?’ Will it be an apocalypse? And if it is – whatever it is – is there even a point to prepping? Do you truly want to live in a world where you’re shooting your neighbors to protect your own food supply?

These latter questions are of great interest to me but they are not what The Cleansed is about.  The Cleansed is not about the apocalypse  There are scenes from  “The Breaking” in our prologue episode, and there is a group of prepper characters (The Dwellers) but these things are part of a bigger world, not the world.

Frankly, the apocalypse bores me. It is a place of chaos and violence. It is fury and destruction and annihilation, with small moments of human kindness mixed in with absolute desperation. In radio, even more easily than in film, you can cause meteors to rain down and wipe out New York (as everyone knows Orson Welles did quite nicely in 1933). With that great creative power, you can continue down the path of the sensationalized glorified eye-popping visually stunning empty calorie effects of contemporary Hollywood, or you can try to do something a little bit different. Which brings us to what The Cleansed is really about.

***

It is a sun-soaked day in January. We’ll be snowshoeing later and the conditions are perfect. We are counting our blessings for a foot-plus of snow dumped on us over the weekend. We are praying for cold weather. It is Maine and we have had two years without real winters. Everywhere, the environment speaks to us.  “Listen, for a reckoning is coming.”  The canaries are dying.  So, we are worried.

We have a daughter who embraces the world with big eyes. We have found a way of life that allows us freedom from the grind, that gives us a place to think and rest and love. I am finding my voice, exploring my ideas, chasing the dream.  We have found a great community of friends and like-minds that make living in this time and place a spectacular thing.  So, we are hopeful.

Living this way has given me the context for the way I describe the peoples of The Cleansed.  I have learned about solar panels, windmills and biodiesel.  I have learned about raising poultry, livestock, and farming small-scale and not quite as small-scale.  I have met people who have survival plans and bug-out bags and believe with a greater certainty than I do that we will live through trying times.  We might just.  But just because I have learned enough to describe the world of The Cleansed, does not mean that I am ushering in its coming.

I do believe that we live in a poisoned culture.  I believe that most people feel this in the thickness of their skin, and fight over trivialities – “Who is to blame for the poisoning?!” – rather than the solution.  And I oscillate between great optimism and great despair.  I believe that there are plenty of people who do not believe that they are the cause. And I believe that plenty more believe that they may be the cause but are so overwhelmed with how great these problems are, that they instead succumb and return blissfully to a state of ignorance.  I have friends who, once they understood the full weight of what we are up against, have decided to opt out of living.  Others have the courage to get up, and face.  Some still are out there trying to save the world.  Some are trying to be good neighbors, and to save one small little part of the whole experience.

But this is not what The Cleansed is about, at least… not directly.  The Cleansed is a story.  So, in closing, let’s try to back off for a moment and remember what story does.

Story was not created by humans so that they could sit inert and blow their minds away amidst special effects and thundering sound effects (though I love impressive sound design as much as anyone!). Story was created so that we could better understand ourselves. Story was created so that we could understand the universe. Story was created so that there is a vessel for constraining a vast and complex world into a lens that we can use to look at it… By using a journey with beginning, middle, and end, we can take this vast thing and look at it.  We undergo an adventure.  And through this adventure I can finally say what I’m trying to do with The Cleansed.

The Cleansed is a post-apocalyptic adventure, yes. But it is not about the apocalypse. It is about Luke, Maria, and Marc – three youths who grow up in the context of a world greatly reduced in size, a world insular and hard. It is about what happens to them when they respond to a call for adventure.

It is about John Prophet, who will stop at nothing to achieve his goals, leaving us to ask – is what he is trying to gain worth so high a cost? It is about Lucian, Amos, and Zeke – three characters caught in the shadows of larger-than-life characters who believe that a divine reckoning is coming.

Oh, a reckoning is coming to the world of The Cleansed. But is it the work of actual angels and demons, or that of humans who have embraced the angels and demons of their nature?  Is the reckoning avoidable, or inevitable?  And can we as individuals, small as we are, but empowered with choice, do anything to change the course of events much bigger than ourselves?

The Cleansed does not answer these questions but explores them, and, with a bit of luck, leaves us asking those same questions of our world today.

Fred Greenhalgh is FinalRune’s writer/producer/director.  The entirety of The Cleansed: Season 1 is available now internationally through Audible, Amazon.com, Downpour.com and other sources thanks to a distribution agreement with Blackstone Audiobooks.