TV listings seem to be buried lately in shows about Doomsday Preppers. It was bad enough when the shows first started to appear, but variations on them are now showing up everywhere, and some seem to be running endless repeats.
I was curious so I tuned in a couple of times to see what was going on in this alien world. I’m not familiar with this movement – unfortunately it does seem to be a movement – and the writer in me is ever curious about the oddities of human nature.
The first show seemed reasonable enough. The family had turned their backyard and swimming pool into a self-sustaining, family-sustaining food supply. Really quite fascinating. When evaluated by experts, however, the experts offered one very succinct piece of advice: let your neighbors know what you’re doing, and invite them to participate. The people most likely to survive a catastrophe are those with strong community ties.
Okay, that’s sensible. The next shows I tuned into and turned off were not sensible: people building bunkers, collecting weapons and ammunition along with food so they could defend themselves against neighbors and others who would steal their food. It was so ugly I didn’t get through either of those two episodes, but turned them off with the strong feeling that was a world I would not want to survive in.
Nor do I think people will be reduced to barbarism by a catastrophe, whether it’s a plague, a war, or the end of the world. Katrina should have taught us that lesson, once the overhyped and overimagined lies about the breakdown had been corrected.
But there’s an even older story about the Black Plague and a small town in England called Eyam.
Back in the seventeenth century, the plague was killing thousands in London. Eyam, about 120 miles north of the city escaped for a long time but then the disease arrived. It came by way of a bolt of cloth that contained fleas, and the tailor was the first one to sicken. Soon the plague was running rampant through the town.
The ordinary impulse would have been for the healthy to flee to escape the contagion. I cannot imagine the courage it took for the villagers of Eyam to choose to quarantine themselves knowing that it most likely meant they would die. But quarantine themselves they did. They agreed that none would leave the village, no matter how terrifying it became, and that no one would be allowed to come to the village, not even to bring them food and other necessities. They would not allow the plague to spread to surrounding farms and villages.
Neighbors came to their aid by leaving food on a hilltop far from the village. When the villagers went to collect the food, they left money soaked in vinegar so that the payment would not spread the infection. A local Earl made huge donations to them as well.
By the time the plague burned itself out fourteen months later, at least 260 residents of Eyam had died. But no one in the surrounding parishes had been infected.
That is what people do in these circumstances. They come together, even at risk of their own lives, to protect and help as many others as they can.
So go away, Doomsday Preppers. If disaster strikes, I’ll reach out to my neighbors and hope that 350 years from now our descendants will celebrate our courage as we stood together … as the people of Eyam still do today on Plague Day.