Thursday, May 23, 2024

The Collapse CXXXXVIII: Epicurus And Themista

 20 July 20XX+1

My Dear Lucilius:

The following would likely not have happened except that Cato The Elder brought over one of our hosts, Themista. “This is the one to talk to” he said gruffly, pointing at me as I looked up from making notes. “He wrote down my story. He’ll probably write down yours. Seems foolish to me given everything goin’ on, but there’s no harm I suppose”. And with that he left, leaving the two of us awkwardly alone.

As with Cato, I had to explain why I had chosen the names I had chosen. Themista chuckled after she understood. “Epicurus (or what was his real name) would love this” she said with an accented smile. “He has always loved gardens.”


Our history? Ah, we are refugees – or were, once upon a time. You are of an age to remember the Iron Curtain, no? We as well. In fact, we remember it too strongly as we grew up under it.

You, too, remember the Wall falling? Hah! Few do anymore, or if they do it is a small historical note at the bottom of the page. But if you lived through it – you remember too, I see – you knew what a huge change it was in the world. The ability to go abroad without restrictions, to live life without observation – it was the ability to escape.

And escape we did, from there to here. We were married by then, and Epicurus had completed his graduate work….Hmm? Oh yes, he is a Ph.D. His degree was in agriculture, specializing in ancient grains. And mine? A Ph.D as well, but in the use of ancient grains by ancient peoples. My dissertation was on the use of the Crimean Peninsula by the Ancient Greeks for grain supply. His was on ancient grains and their dispersal throughout Europe.

You are chuckling. A match made in Heaven, you no doubt think. Us too.

How did we end up here? As odd as you might find it, paleo-agriculture and paleo agricultural techniques are not as...popular? Is that the right word? one might think – and this was over forty years ago, when such things mattered a bit more. This is a grain growing region that had an adjunct position that could become a tenured one. And so we came.

Living here was not difficult, at least for us. Yes, the weather is cold – but the weather was cold (and more) where we grew up. And while this is not quite the America we had thought existed – this is no New York City or Chicago – it was so much better than the Eastern Europe of our youth. We made a life here, raised children. Summers were spent either teaching or doing field work abroad or at home (your own peoples, they did things differently in growing but equally as fascinating). Epicurus also spent time with farmers all around here. He loves grains and farming and will talk to anyone about it, how to increase outputs and decrease inputs by using different sorts of grains, some we no longer use.

And then everything changed.

We are college professors. We are used to discussions of declining revenues and what department gets defunded. But we are also children of a place where bad news was visible to all but not discussed by the government until it became too obvious to hide. And this, this second situation, was what we faced.

The university, one morning in September, just stopped holding class – canceled, they said, for “the duration of the emergency”. This was Eastern European governmental speak for “things are going badly.”

And at that moment, I became more proud of my husband than ever.

In the immediate aftermath of that, the University was a swarm of people trying to leave – students, teaching staff, administrators. But there was one group that could not leave: the students that were from overseas or from other places in the US. A few had places to go here, but many did not. My husband reached out to some of his that were in that situation, and found out that there were more in the same situation.

No problem, he said. We will all stick it out here.

In passing out the door, he mentioned “Themista, I am going to the University. We will need to take everything we need there.” And he was gone.

By the time I had gotten back to the University, he had already started rounding up students – from them, I learned he was literally going one dorm knocking on every door; then as he found students, he sent them off to start knocking on other doors in other dorms. “Come on”, he would tell them, “we are going to make it together”.

This is my husband. Ever the optimist, ever believing everyone can be saved.

We needed a base of operations. The plant labs we worked and taught would have been ideal – also, as he pointed out, likely one of the first places people would come. We choose the school library instead – located in the center of the University (thus less likely to be sought out), multiple floors between us and any potential invaders, and the third and fourth floor were already split into smaller areas. And water available on the first floor, at least as long as the power was on.

By the time he was done, he had recruited almost 100 students from all over the world who were stuck there. He also recruited at least three faculty members, older ones like ourselves that had no family close and for whom the university had become their family. Between us, we started sending the students out that September to gather things: food from the dining halls, medical supplies from the health center, anything else we thought might be useful. Epicurus was relentless and brimming with confidence in this: “Tell them you are on official university business and give them my phone number” he would tell them, confident that somehow that alone would be enough to convince them.

He should not have worried so much, though.  Given what was the madness at the time, almost no-one noticed.

At the same time, we tried to make the best use of the plant labs and its greenhouses that we could. How long would the power be on? We didn’t know, but we started working as if we could get some kind of planting done for the Spring.

By early October, we had retreated to the library.

It was tough – I, an Eastern European having lived under Communism, am saying this. It was cold. We improvised heating for water. We walled off smaller rooms with sheets and blankets we had taken from the student housing.

Some did not make it - they just gave up.

Gangs? We hardly saw any – but that is just as likely that we were buried in the center of campus in Winter. In a library clearly marked as such. We were not, I think, the main focus of anyone’s searching.

What did we do besides surviving?  Idle hands are the devil's workshop, as they say.  Beyond organizing and cleaning up and continuing to scrounger throughout the university (and try to cover our tracks), we read and lectured.

I know – this surprises you. But we were in a library filled with knowledge, with students and instructors that had spent their live to this point lecturing and learning. And so we lectured – on every subject; everyone had to take a turn. Russian literature, quantum physics, trees of Africa – every person had to give at least one speech.

By late Winter/early Spring, we were working on plans for growing more food. The power eventually failed so some of the greenhouses failed – but some of the smaller primitive units survived. Epicurus went looking for spots where we could start planting the ancient grains, hardy and able to survive without modern agriculture. He also tried to think of places where grain might have already been planted, far enough away to be safe but close enough to be accessible.

Which brought us here.

Now? Compared to what? Before everything fell apart? Everything is much more difficult. But compared to when Epicurus and I grew up? It is bad, but not all that bad. Cold, heat, shortages – we have dealt with all of these before.

But being with young people is infectious.  They have been so adaptable to the circumstances.  They are willing to try. They are willing to learn.  And thankfully, we have a slowly growing population - young people will in fact be young people!

No, I am not “depressed” about things. This is a very American concept, that somehow one’s circumstance determine one’s state. There is so much that we still have to be thankful for, at least in our group – ourselves, that we have a place to shelter, that we have food and the ability and knowledge to grow it, and we that we have a place where the learnings of Mankind are available to us freely.

We have far more than peasants or workers of our homeland ever had.  How can we not be grateful?


It saddens me, Lucilius, that Epicurus and Themista and their group are so far away. A dose of hope is what a great many people could use at the moment.

Your Obedient Servant, Seneca


  1. Nylon126:34 AM

    A fine post TB, a fitting ending sentence......" A dose of hope"........

    1. Thanks Nylon12.

      The more I have thought about such things recently, and the more I read people like Sarah Hoyt, the more I realize that this is precisely what we need right now. And modern civilization is not in the position to provide it. It is up to us.

  2. Anonymous6:35 AM

    That was well written sir. This hits home, as a small university is less than 5 blocks away from where myself and family live. I had never given a thought to the foreign exchange students situation until you mentioned it. WHAT DO YOU DO UNDER THOSE CIRCUMSTANCES ?

    1. Thank you very much.

      Like most things that have happened in this story, the idea just sort of appeared as I was thinking about the characters - but as they presented themselves, it made sense: they, as immigrants and foreigners, would very much remember those who similar in that sense. And I have certainly met some great-hearted teachers and professors in my day.

  3. What a great addition to the story. I much appreciate your ability to "multi task" while your whole world "transitions". Thanks for your blogging.

    1. Thank you TM!

      Honestly, this is therapeutic for me and has become a part of my daily morning routine. It helps me give me structure and a method for managing the chaos by giving me something I regularly do every day.

  4. Stories within a story. Very clever TB! An excellent way to develop the story with background and interesting tidbits from different points of view.

    As an aside, I recently finished listening to the journals of Robert F. Scott's last expedition to Antarctica. They were a group of scientists, who spent their winter evenings listening to lectures by members of the group while they waited out the winter.

    1. Thanks Leigh! Originally I think I came up with the idea as an attempt to not have my audience get tired of Seneca. It worked out so well that I just started using it - it allows me to bring in others characters without the "commitment" (as it were) of having to maintain whole additional story lines.

      Upon reviewing your comment this morning, I realized that I may have actually had the seed for this planted years ago through the book War Day by James Kunetika and Whitley Streiber. It has been many years since I read it (although I probably should re-read it again), but was based on the premise of a man taking a tour (maybe a press junket?) across a post-nuclear War United States. The authors used this same kind of short vignette idea for the various places.

      Your last comment does not surprise me. One of the things about those that love adventure and learning is to learn from others - and on an expedition like that, how much fascinating knowledge there must have been!


Comments are welcome (and necessary, for good conversation). If you could take the time to be kind and not practice profanity, it would be appreciated. Thanks for posting!