A Nearly True Story: The Tale of the Hamlet
Sometime in the future of the After Times, a group of neighbors relearn how to grow food in community—and feel joy amid uncertainty.
They could have been anybody. With their broad-brimmed hats, loose-fitting clothes, and face masks, you couldn’t make out the gardeners’ identities from the street. But that they were out working under the scorching sun testified to their commitment. Down on their knees, their hands in the earth, these townsfolk knew where their food came from (and what it took to get it to their plates).
Just 10 years before, though, you wouldn’t have seen this food-growing going on. Every yard was a lawn and there wasn’t a garden (or a gardener) on the block. Like virtually every other urban American, these folks saw their role in the food system as being strictly that of consumer—utterly unconcerned with how their food was produced and delivered.
Then one spring, one household unceremoniously started digging up their grass to put in an edible landscape. As you might expect, this initially raised some eyebrows and induced some nonplussed looks in this Midwestern city. But by the time the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 struck and the economy cratered, what had before seemed peculiar and out of place was now mostly deemed simple common sense. Humans can’t eat grass, and in the city you can’t do right by the animals who do. And so it was that the lawns on this particular block began to be converted to gardens.
There was nothing particularly special about the people on this block. They weren’t some sort of artists’ colony or an intentional community of like-minded adherents. They were neighbors for no other reason than happenstance had thrown them together. Many of them had lived there for years—huddled behind their privacy fences, glued to their devices and flat-screen TVs—without even knowing each other’s names. That somewhere along the line they’d decided to get to know the folks they were living among was a choice they’d each had to make.
And gardening, it turned out, worked to goose this socialization process along. Growing some of their own food got them out in their yards without the accompanying roar of a mower or a trimmer, so they could actually hear one another talk. Planting, weeding, and watering are gentle occupations that invite strangers to lower their guard. And as food is our common denominator, food-growing can’t help but trigger a conversation. You can talk about what’s in the forecast, or how much rain you got, or about plant and seed varieties, or even recipes for what to do with what you’ve grown once it’s harvested.
Meeting the Neighbors
The pandemic and the ensuing recession had also done their part to pull this group of disparate neighbors together for more than just recreational gardening. Sheltering in place during the lockdown, their block—which they had come to call “The Hamlet”—was a haven, their private refuge from the disease. Unable to go anywhere, all they had was each other. Their block had become their world. And for the first time really, it was a place outside their own homes to hold dear.
Fittingly, there were few formal rules or regulations to this cluster of houses or “hamlet” they’d created. With no shops, services, or even a church, this hamlet, like its predecessors in Medieval Europe, was attached to a nearby city and its official government.
As one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city core, located just a mile from downtown, the lots in the block were small, with big trees (and the accompanying shade and roots) that made gardening difficult. And yet, in this standard 2-acre city block, with 14 domiciles and no vacant lots, the neighbors carved out four-fifths of an acre (the equivalent of 80 yards of a football field, sideline to sideline) for horticulture other than lawn.
Over the course of a decade, they’d planted 50 fruit and nut trees, established 100 permanent vegetable beds and berry patches, and put in a dozen pollinator gardens. Twenty different families grew their own radishes and cucumbers, peppers and tomatoes. Crops like peas, strawberries, and bush beans were grown in designated beds, harvested, and then distributed so everyone got a share.
After years of steady expansion, they were now reaching the outer limits of what they could convert to garden space: Only a couple of sizable grassed areas remained; otherwise, apart from the buildings, driveways, sidewalks, and garden paths, the block was completely given over to food production and native species.
The Hamlet over the years had been featured in state and national media and received a number of awards. Understandably proud of what they’d done, the “Hamleteers” (as they called themselves, à la Dumas’ justice-seeking swashbucklers) also worried. The attention wasn’t inspiring other blocks to follow suit. And if the nation’s cities—where 80% of the country’s population lived—weren’t actively engaged in growing some of their own food, how were its residents going to eat in a world beset with climate disruption and pandemics?
Even the Hamleteers with the least awareness of the food crisis coming, and those who feared the mere thought of hunger, stewed about these things. They couldn’t help but.
Still, it would be false to claim that they were ready for 2020. As neighborhoods went, their block was better off than most. But as nobody anywhere had been making the slightest effort to prepare, that wasn’t saying much.
Even in the Hamlet, everybody still went to the store. They had to, to round out their diet with all the things they couldn’t grow themselves. But it was also true that shopping there was an ingrained habit, one too handy to resist. As long as grocery store shelves were bulging, why deprive themselves of all the nonlocal foods they loved and had always been able to enjoy, like bananas and oranges, coffee and chocolate, seafood and olive oil?
Like so many of their fellow Americans, after months of lockdown, sheltering in place, and having to wear masks, they yearned to have their lives get back to “normal.” And if things couldn’t get back to where they’d been, at the very least, they meant to fully enjoy whatever pleasures were still available to them: like eating whatever they wanted.
That is, until the shortages began.
The Great Awakening of the 2020s
Back in 2012, when the state had suffered through drought and heat worse than the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, climate scientists had warned that by mid-century every summer would be equally hot, parched, and miserable. And sure enough, the temperature and precipitation had been getting wonkier with every passing year. These unwelcome conditions had become a regular event, only they’d arrived decades sooner than projected.
The Hamleteers at least had their gardens (even if it seemed like all they ever did was drag hoses around to try to keep up with the watering). They were grateful that water was available for their small-scale irrigation. California was now beset by blistering heat and extended drought as well as year-round wildfires, which meant the days of being able to count on the Central Valley as the nation’s greengrocer—as it had been for generations—were drawing to a close. Progressively, fresh produce began to disappear from the grocery store cooler cases. Prices soared. Hoarding of staples followed.
Nobody liked standing outside in the heat and sun, sweating and battling bugs for hours on end. There was no shortage of grumbling. And yet, as if by common consent, there was an awareness that the Hamleteers’ gardens were now the most valuable parts of their yards. The Hamlet had become the bulk supplier of the fresh vegetables in everyone’s diets (and whatever fruit the Hamleteers could produce). And in the process, all the neighbors had discovered a newfound appreciation for food. Work. Love. Children. Desire. Anger. Even grief. All that constitutes life, our very breath, is predicated on having enough to eat.
The Hamlet ceased to be a neighborhood accoutrement or a lifestyle interest. It now constituted the center of their world, their social network and safety net, and their best shot at having some semblance of a livable future for themselves and their loved ones.
To have enough to go around, average consumption had to be reduced. People had to live more simply and be glad for what they had.
Food gardens in the Hamlet started popping up in places previously dismissed as impractical. From a partially shaded corner in the front yard to a 4-by-4-foot swath between the sidewalk and the street, which they called the hell strip, any spot with the least bit of sun was quickly repurposed into a garden plot—with lettuce, spinach, and radishes when the temperatures were cool, and pole beans and false spinaches like New Zealand and Malabar when it turned hot.
Not having enough to eat puts a person smack up against the material facts of life like nothing else. It clarifies what’s really fundamental. In the face of starvation, philosophical and religious differences, racial and gender prejudices, and social class distinctions are all subordinated. It helped the neighbors build their sense of community. They were going to have to band together and do more than share a few vegetables. They didn’t need to all eat at one table and sleep under one roof or remember everyone’s birthday (though that’s not a bad idea). But they would have to start authentically caring for each other as if they were no less than Musketeers living by the sworn oath of, “All for one and one for all.” To truly have a Hamlet was to see each of their neighbors as necessary.
The After Times
The first year after the pandemic struck was the hardest. It didn’t matter who a person was, on some level, everyone couldn’t help hoping things would get back to the way they’d been: That the virus would naturally wind down or—better yet—the vaccine would soon enable them to go shopping and out to eat again, catch a movie or a concert or a game, and travel, if only to hop in the car and meet a friend.
The Hamleteers became more aware of their privilege, feeling newfound gratitude for the things they had long taken for granted. Still, for those who weren’t essential workers, always having to be home—for work, for school, and over the weekend—took its toll on morale. And it took some time to adjust to this more confined, stationary way of life. Every day was basically the same as any other. People fell into an unremitting routine. The days were a blur, becoming weeks that turned into months, and except for the change of seasons, no one had any real, meaningful sense of time in what felt like a state of limbo.
And it continued. The news just got more and more dispiriting as the years went by.
Despite the roll-out of the long-anticipated COVID-19 vaccine, life never got back to the way it was before the virus’s initial onslaught and ensuing lockdowns. Though the spread of the virus slowed, and the number of COVID-19 cases tapered off, the economy now seemed permanently mired in depression, with every household somehow touched by unemployment and struggling financially.
In any event, there was no vaccine for climate disruption. Halfway through the pivotal decade that would determine our planetary fate, the world wasn’t even coming close to meeting any of the greenhouse gas reduction targets set by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Carbon emissions were still rising, as were global temperatures and (with the melting icecaps) sea levels as well.
Even in the Midwest, cities were already witnessing the influx of people displaced by climate change—those seeking haven from a nature in revolt, with flooding and hurricanes, heat waves and drought, wildfires and smoke. Moving inland—thinking that in the “breadbasket” of the world, home to the continent’s largest freshwater aquifer there’d be food and water—these displaced persons were arriving to find they’d sorely miscalculated. The heartland was itself engulfed in record heat and drought. And for generations, the region had been depleting its groundwater to grow feed for the world export market—field corn and feed soybeans for cattle, not food for humans to eat.
Realistically, though, the city had no alternative. Hungry people are desperate people. City governments across the country were trapped by circumstances, squeezed on both sides. Existing food supplies couldn’t keep up with demand. But failure to feed those who were hungry all but guaranteed a rise in social unrest and descent into public disorder.
There was only one way out.
With resources so scarce, there was no way to make this work unless everybody—particularly those with higher incomes—generally lowered their expectations and agreed to live on less. To have enough to go around, average consumption had to be reduced. People had to live more simply and be glad for what they had.
And they had a lot. Running water and indoor plumbing, electric lights in every room, refrigeration, central heating and air conditioning. And safe air. For the most part, if they wore their masks against the virus, the air in this part of the country was still breathable. If they’d awakened that morning, they had a new day of sun and weather, an opportunity to use their voice to speak to a loved one or converse with a neighbor. To use their hands. Use their minds. Have a good laugh or a good cry. Do something for themselves and for others.
The Hamlet counted itself fortunate to have a diverse array of perspectives and experiences among its members: young and old; able-bodied and challenged; straight and cisgender and LGBTQ; Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Atheist, Pagan; Democrat, Republican, and marginalized political parties; carnivore and vegan; Black, White, Asian, Latinx, and Indigenous, including a medicine woman who’d shared the Haudenosaunee or Iroquois Confederacy’s “Thanksgiving Address,” and each morning ritually delivered these “greetings to the natural world before all else.” For some of the neighbors, it became habitual to join in—a way to center and strengthen themselves to make the most of what they’d been given.
Finding a Way Together
The food shortages required the Hamleteers to become more creative and collaborative. They experimented and cooked together. And once they’d been in each other’s kitchens, it was common to see people knocking on their neighbor’s door to borrow a cup of lentils or a spice in short supply to complete a recipe that they’d later share with one another.
In the before times, eating had become a form of entertainment for many Americans. With the flashy packaging, the almost endless variety, and the chance to go out for meals, eating was more than just a simple pleasure. It was a recreational pastime—fueled by a near-addiction to white sugar, white flour, and saturated fat.
But when the food shortages became chronic and the price of meat and dairy soared to levels most people couldn’t afford, both meat-eaters and vegetarians had to change drastically.
So the six vegans on the block put their heads together and started organizing regular suppers for their fellow Hamleteers with their favorite recipes. These vegan feasts became social outings that drew people together and lifted sullen spirits; provided nutritious, affordable, and tasty meals at a time when larders were looking particularly bleak; and most importantly, introduced the neighbors to vegan cuisine that would enable them to practice plant-based cooking in their own homes.
Necessity was obliging them to be mostly vegan and locavore—to eat lower on the food chain and source their food locally (eating only what was in season). Generally, for their Midwestern climate, that meant no lemons, oranges, or avocados, and strawberries, pears, and cucumbers only when seasonally available. And even then, they might not find what they wanted when they went to the store. Almost every week some new place on the shelves was bare.
Nobody was always happy about having to live so simply. Ingrained habits are hard to break. Once upon a time, Americans as a group had had the plushest lifestyle of any humans in the history of the Earth. But that standard of living was a thing of the past, and it was not coming back.
Securing Food Going Forward
Producing perishables is so labor-intensive and time-sensitive that it’s impossible to bring in a crop without somebody stepping up and making sure things get done when they need to. After a decade and a half, a leadership group among the Hamleteers naturally began to emerge.
Seemingly always about, they were helping people prepare their soil for planting, pruning the fruit trees, maintaining the compost pile and brush bin, mowing the pathways, planting the cover crops, and watering the berry patches and pollinator beds—in addition to caring for their own garden plots. There were no bids for power, just social capital based on sweat equity. For these default leaders, the objective was nothing more than building community.
These leaders understood inclusion, that there was no such thing as “a hamlet of one.” By definition, making a hamlet was a collective effort and it took all of them to make it happen.
With the continuing contraction of the economy (and consequent curtailment in government services), the Hamleteers were more and more being forced to fend for themselves. What had begun simply with a little gardening project 15 years before had now evolved to where, of necessity, they each had to have a working relationship with each other, in order to just get by. It’s always easier to ask a favor of a friend than a stranger.
They had to organize. Wanting to get a better sense of the resources they had at hand, a couple of the best-known Hamleteers volunteered to conduct an assessment of the skills and assets each member possessed and could potentially contribute to the group as a whole. Though many of these folks had lived in the block together for 20 years or more, this simple inventory revealed more about their neighbors (and the place they called home) than they’d ever known before.
One Hamleteer was a registered nurse. Another was a grocery store floral department manager with a degree in horticulture. Another was a machinist with their own welding set—the Hamlet’s version of the local blacksmith. Another had already demonstrated their professional-level carpentry skills in constructing the Hamlet’s hoop houses and garden shed. Another had been one of the very first Hamleteers who loved cooking from scratch with fresh ingredients. Another was a native plant enthusiast, whose whole yard was a pollinator garden. Another was a young community planner who worked for a housing nonprofit and had moved into the Hamlet expressly to be part of it. Another was a retired university professor who purchased and renovated two properties in the block to provide housing for three young Hamleteers and gardening space for a dozen plots. Another kept the chicken flock. Another took great satisfaction in reducing the piles of plant residue into black gold to enrich the garden beds. Another knew how to use plants for healing. Another was the neighborhood association president and constantly championed the Hamlet in city government. Another who couldn’t garden let the Hamlet use their entire fenced-in backyard for a strawberry patch, and new potato and green bean crops.
This was a nice array of skills, but as the Hamleteers looked over the list, they saw there were a chunk of critical needs for which they had no expertise. Some of the holes in their skill set seemed at first glance minor and inconsequential—small things, until, that is, they were needed.
For example, there was no one who could repair (let alone make) shoes. It had become a lost art. Likewise, nobody really knew how to sew anymore, to mend or make clothes. They had no one who was really able to plumb and fix leaks, crawl up on roofs and service solar panels or do any electrical work up to safety standards. And after all this time gardening, none of them had become really proficient at seed saving. Every year, they relied on businesses nearly 500 miles away to supply their heirloom seed stock.
And that’s not including the needles, thread, toothpaste, light bulbs, furnace filters, bike tire inner tubes, and prescription medications for asthma, diabetes, and heart disease upon which they relied. Where did all this stuff come from? There were no local manufacturers producing these items. What happens when they become unavailable?
The inventory they’d done had given them all a good sense of just how tenuous their current lifestyle was. The unending plenitude that so many took for granted, that careless American joyride, was coming to an end.
And if the joyride ended, could they still find joy in living?
A Changing of the Seasons
On a miserably hot July day, they were planting their last green beans of the season—to hopefully get in a harvest before the first fall frost. With the most recent crop having been pretty much eaten alive by the bean beetle and the grasshoppers, and the drought still dragging on like it never intended to stop, they well knew just how precarious this venture was. These Hamleteers had learned that whether things grew or not was largely out of their hands.
The moment they got the last plot planted, watered, and mulched, they’d have to string a chicken wire fence around the bed to keep Mama Bunny and her relatives from mowing down the sprouts before they even had a chance to get big enough to blossom. While it still aggravated them that the rabbits would so methodically kill things off unless prevented, they’d come to terms with the fact. The rabbits, after all, had been here first. It was the humans who were the interlopers.
But even if they kept the bunnies at bay and the crop sufficiently watered, the beans were at constant risk of disease or hail or derecho—or, if not from nature, from vandals and thieves. With everything else that had to be done in the Hamlet, you couldn’t mount a round-the-clock guard over the legumes. So they did what they could, planted and tended and waited and hoped.
The gardeners needed to get a move on if they were to get the crop all in before supper. The weather forecast called for a slight chance of a thunderstorm later that evening. But more than that, there was a baby shower none of the gardeners wanted to miss. One of the Hamlet’s families was having its first child. Everybody had been making gifts for the new baby, and after the potluck, there was to be a ceremony.
To welcome every new child into the Hamlet, a fruit tree was planted in the baby’s honor so that they could both grow up together. Then, standing in a circle and holding hands, one by one, each Hamleteer would solemnly pledge to lend their help to the expectant parents. Because after all, it takes a hamlet to raise a child.
And afterward, if the bugs weren’t too bad and people were up for it, maybe they’d get into a serious discussion about where they go from here. With the birth of a new generation of Hamleteers (and with the additional responsibilities the Hamlet was having to shoulder as the municipal government’s authority progressively waned), it was probably time to start thinking about establishing a more formal structure for how they did things.
Time, perhaps, to develop bylaws and hold an election to choose an official Council of Elders. The future was looking more uncertain with every passing day and, as far as they were able, they needed to prepare. There was a child to raise.
The Hawley Hamlet is a real place, an agrihood located just a mile from downtown Lincoln, Nebraska. Over the past decade, this edible landscaping project has grown from one household, that of author Tim Rinne, to 20 who garden together. “The Tale of the Hamlet” is based on the real-life Hamlet and speculates about where it may be headed. It’s an unfolding story of what can happen in the built urban environment all across America when people start growing some of their own food and get to know their neighbors—something that will become increasingly important as the climate crisis worsens.