Saturday, December 16, 2017

On the Possibility of Speaking a Foreign Language in One’s Native Tongue, Part I: Why Our Reskilling Conversations Matter

Like many of you, I attended the local version of “Hogwarts.” Spelling, ciphers, rituals and rites, we did it all. Thing is, when everybody does it, such magic seems ordinary. Where the local equivalent of Lord Voldemort enters the plotline is when people leaving such institutions turn their backs on the generative power of a liberal education to shape and navigate their worlds, becoming instead passive consumers of other people’s worldviews. Our creative power doesn’t just vanish when, whether by negligence or design, we cede it to some external authority. No my friends, when we hand over our magic it tends to be used against us. Cruelly, this holds true even if we are unaware that we have done so, but then, nobody ever said being a wizard was all fun and wand duels.

More than ever, education today bears the signature of the Dark Lord and his handiwork. With each turn of the testing vise and each click of the regulatory ratchet, classroom teachers are being reduced to progressively more frantic, fragmented, harried, anxious, and sick people. When children are presented with people reduced to such a state as caregivers, authority figures and bearers of knowledge, on a basic organismic level, they tend to do two things: 1. recoil in instinctive horror and shut down, and/or 2. embrace this as an image of maturity worthy of emulation, seeing it as normal and inevitable. Either way, the Dark Lord’s got ’em. Good job, Minions of the Dark Lord! 

Nonetheless, the fact remains: in language is power. And, just as during the ages when scribes lived in temples and words were spoken over potions, writing and speaking are still magical acts. Yet the way it’s been taught for generations turns a good many people off to it. As a schoolteacher I once made a living helping students heal their relationship with what we now call “language arts” – listening, speaking, reading, and particularly writing. I succeeded, to the extent that I did, largely because I did not teach as I had been taught. As a student, I had seen magic in language, but I didn’t see much magic in my teachers, at least not the kind I wanted to emulate. And even though my primary education happened when Hogwarts was still a long ways from its birth through JK Rowling’s literary imagination, when it comes to teaching reading and writing, those who aren’t participating in the magic can’t do it right.

Eventually, having sat on both sides of the teacher’s desk for quite a few years, I came to suspect that this was the actual agenda: to drain the magic from these inherently magical acts, and to render them not merely difficult – for they do require rigor and application, as any skill worth pursuing typically will – but simultaneously difficult and without value: something never to do again unless one absolutely has to.

Because after all, it simply wouldn’t do to have people really tapping into the power there that is, unless we hire them as advertising and public relations professionals who tell others what they should want, or as journalists and political speechwriters who tell others what’s important, what’s worth talking about, and how to conceptualize the events of the day.

And why would I be writing about magic and language in a blog focused on building personal resilience through community?  Shouldn’t we be focused instead on how to amend soils to produce rich crops of potatoes, for example, or how to make a tincture that can stanch blood from a wound if conventional medicine is unavailable or unaffordable?

Yes, and no. My sense is, the problems are deeper than these solutions. However – and this is key – implementing these kinds of solutions does tend to address the deeper level problems, because sharing this knowledge shifts the culture. If we want to take on our cultural Voldemort, here’s the magic formula, condensed into its essential and functionally related components. We’ll use growing potatoes as an example: 1. Talking about growing your own potatoes shifts the prevailing conversation. 2. This shift in the conversation can either be driven by or drive an underlying shift of values that is, what’s important to people. As values change, so does language, and with language, perception, and with perception, the capacity and motivation to act. 3. As values shift, language shifts with it, serving as an extragenetic code that helps to both anchor and spread those values.

This is why our reskilling conversations are important. Stakes like these are not small potatoes. Let’s take this apart piece by piece.

1. Talking about growing your own potatoes (for example) shifts the prevailing conversation.

What’s worth talking about? Baseball? The president’s latest gaffe? The newest iPhone? This year’s fall fashions for 20-somethings? Venezuela? Global warming? The best California white zinfandels?  A person might follow any or all of these interest areas, but the basic rule is, people talk about what matters to them. So far, so good. However, the corollary to this is that because we are social creatures, hearing people talk about things tends to subtly convey that something is worth talking about. The media take advantage of this second dynamic all the time, focusing on this or that idiotic thing, keeping the cultural narratives within predetermined limits. Whether we’re age two or fifty-two, the effect on us is basically: “It seems like everybody’s talking about it! It must be important!” We then endeavor to participate. We buy into those narratives in large part because by doing so we gain a sense of belonging. We don’t want to feel left out.

As long as we parrot the manufactured debates and controversies back and forth among ourselves – and what side of these controversies we’re on matters a lot less in the end than we’d like to think – the dark wizards will have their way with us. Certain thoughts will become unthinkable. As soon as we start our own conversations, however, we regain a measure of control in our language, values, culture, and minds.

Notice also that, as we do this in any area of interest or inquiry, a special vocabulary starts to develop, and with it, a subculture. If the problem is the culture, it seems sensible that the solution might begin with a subculture, a cultural trial balloon.

2. This shift in the conversation can either be driven by or drive an underlying shift of values that is, what’s important to people.

Again, the process works both ways: yes, we talk about what matters to us, but what others are talking about can reach a threshold where not joining in the conversation carries the risk of being perceived as an outsider who does not share underlying values. There are social consequences to this. As a mild example, take the Superbowl, a social phenomenon that generates a lot of discussion, all of which carries the connotation of its own importance. Not to participate in “water cooler conversations” about the Superbowl means, basically, a separation from those who do participate. However, by the same conversational token, those who take the time to generate conversations that reflect a different underlying value structure can, theoretically, shift the broader culture.

Fundamentally, language does not exist without social context and underlying values. The famous linguistic quip about the number of words for ‘snow’ in Inuit languages reflects how context-driven language is, but it really implies something deeper than that: we name aspects of reality because of what we value. Skiiers likewise have words for variations in the quality of snow – expressions like “death cookies” and “frozen granular” – because snow also matters to them. Language is, always, about what we value. It’s a bit of a simplification but provisionally useful nonetheless to say that those who dominate the narratives shape the culture by controlling the values.

Interestingly, however, one of the consequences of this process is that just as having a name for something tends to steer awareness toward it and make it visible and important, conversely, leaving a thing nameless or not talking about it can steer awareness away from it. I have nephews who can name the make, model and year of pretty much any car that happens to drive by. They grew up in a family where cars were “a thing” something to relate to and, more importantly, something to relate with other family members through. I did not grow up in such a family. In consequence, the subtleties on which they base their ability to distinguish the various automobiles are invisible to me. I can distinguish a truck from a car from an SUV. To my nephews, the subtleties they tune into aren’t even subtle: They see completely different things.

So it’s not just a binary function of seeing versus not seeing something. Once established, cultural context shapes our interactions with the thing we name. One can see why those who want to “control the narratives” would not willingly concede that power, which in effect is the power to make some things invisible, make other things appear and grow before us, and shape how people respond to them. Hence the ingenious stratagem of hiding the possibility of generating narratives in plain sight and making schoolchildren decide it’s all a big bore – at the same time as they are conditioned to accept what they are given. Despite the fact that the world of the unnamed vastly exceeds the extent of the named world, most people choose to inhabit a consciousness bounded by the naming of things. This fact implies something truly astonishing for those willing to contemplate it, and it also implies an alternative. I will be exploring this further in Part II of this blog post.

3. As values shift, language shifts with it, serving as an extra-genetic code that helps to both anchor and spread those values.

So let’s look at where we’ve arrived in this journey: Language, which gathers its power to signify from cultural contexts and values, also shapes both what we can see and how we see the things. In influencing the range of consciousness, it also changes our interactions with the world. This in turn generates feedback cycles both within societies and between a given society and its local and global contexts. We treat the earth and one another as we see the earth and one another. In practical terms, this shapes the world. These feedback vortices, like hurricanes, are more or less stable for a period of time, depending on a host of factors, primary among them being the adaptability of language and culture in response to changing feedbacks and conditions.

That all sounds very academic, but for the purposes of this blog what it means is that in sharing how to grow potatoes, for example, it absolutely matters that in doing so, one is introducing the potato plant itself into this conversation. Suddenly in this context a potato becomes less an article of commerce and more of a product of mysterious processes of life in which I participate and invite others to join. The conversation, and any activity around it, represents a shift in a prevailing cultural narrative: Potatoes do not come from bags in grocery stores or French fry cartons. And by the way, do you know what’s going on underground in the depths of the soil? Well, I don’t know exactly, either, but one thing I do know: it matters. As that value shifts, so too does consciousness, and ultimately what’s possible in very practical terms an effect that goes well beyond potatoes.

My hope is that people will bring this kind of awareness to their reskilling conversations, whatever they may be. It’s not just about the potato that comes up out of the ground or the calendula flower and what it can do; it’s the fullness of the shift, it’s a statement about what matters and how this shift can help to antidote a toxic culture.

In Part II, we will be exploring how deep this can go. Thus far, while it’s true people might not understand why you’d talk about potatoes, or what you’re really saying, it will probably still sound to them like you’re speaking English or Spanish or whatever, not incanting in some magic tongue to conjure up a new world. We’ll see what we can do about that next time. Bring your wands.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Completing the Cycle of Generosity this Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving, Everyone!

I’ve been thinking lately about generosity and the sweetness it brings to life. Those who are generous – with their time, knowledge, and resources are tapping into something essential for life to truly flourish.

How can we find a generous mindset? How can we live generosity as a value? What’s the feeling inside generous impulses and actions that makes it possible for people to find ways to be generous, regardless of their individual circumstances? And how can we celebrate generosity when it shows up?

This U.S. Thanksgiving Day, I want encourage Green Hand Reskilling supporters and participants to find creative ways to thank the people who have generously shared during the course of the year and made our lives richer through their sharing.

Stanley: Thanks again...they're doing great!
Did someone give you seeds this year? Show you how easy it is to make your own kimchi?  Maybe help you brainstorm a solution to a gardening problem?  Share a recipe that turned into a family favorite?  Weld a broken garden tool? Help you break through your hesitation in starting your first faux finish paint job somewhere in your home?

My suggestion here is to let those people know the impact they’ve had. Of course, you probably thanked them at the time, and your thanks at the time completed the cycle of giving. Thanking them again, though, completes a bigger cycle: the cycle of generosity.  Completing the cycle of generosity is as easy as being generous with your thanks. Doing so really gets to the heart of the Green Hand concept, and it’s a potent place to stand as a change agent for a more livable and resilient culture.

Photos are fun and easy to share these days: 

“Look what those sunflower seeds turned into!” 
“Here are Joey and Linda in the costumes I made after you walked me through how the sewing machine works. Thanks again!” 
“The aloe vera is alive and doing well!”
“Here’s me wearing the first scarf I knitted. Thank you for your help getting me started!”

…or you can let people know in any way that works for you.

Thanks. Giving.  It’s a profound concept, a reminder to all of us to relate to the gifts of life with thanks and gratitude. Because in the end, it’s all a gift. 

And by the way, thank you for completing the cycle of generosity.

See? it never ends!

Saturday, May 6, 2017


One morning during the holiday season last year, I saw an item in a gift catalog called “The World’s Smartest Food Scale.” Able to weigh up to four different food items at once, a close-up color photo showed several luscious-looking raspberries on one weighing area, some pineapple chunks (for color contrast, presumably) on another, and so on. The description went on to detail how, after weighing the food items, the scale will then transmit the data wirelessly to a computer or mobile device, which can then access an online database and provide nutritional analysis. My first thought was: Seriously? If people were eating more raspberries and pineapple than pizza or McEngineered food, they probably wouldn’t need to weigh them.

After reading the catalog description, I happened to look out the window, where I saw some sparrows hopping around and occasionally pecking.

This led me to wonder: Apparently, the sparrows are able to find their ways and feed themselves through a challenging Michigan winter, selecting bits of food that will keep them alive and pretty healthy from whatever is available. Can we? I know I’ve opened a big can of worms in the way I formulated this question, but it can’t be helped— and I’m sure quite a few bird species will probably approve.

As I pondered this question, I recalled a television documentary I’d seen on PBS in the early 90s called The Last Navigator. I later learned the show was a follow-up to a book of the same title by Steve Thomas, and I took the time recently to read it. Its subject was traditional oceangoing navigation as practiced by the seafaring peoples of Micronesia.  The author, who had a longtime interest in sailing, had arranged an apprenticeship with Mau Piailug, a traditional master navigator from the Micronesian island of Satawal.

The islanders in the region migrated across the vast Pacific without compass, charts, or other instrumentation. With unwavering focus Piailug was able to guide an outrigger canoe and crew to reach destinations across hundreds or even thousands of miles of open ocean using only celestial bearings and a body of traditional seafaring wisdom. Doing so requires complete immersion in the dynamic complexities of ocean swell systems, animal cues, changing currents and weather conditions. To miss one’s target on an ocean voyage in these scantily provisioned vessels is to risk death. Nonetheless, the inhabitants of these far-flung scraps of land regularly journeyed back and forth to hunt, fish, trade, and refresh their local gene pools.

Given that within living memory the earth has been home to people who were capable of traversing the Pacific in small watercraft by their wits alone, could it really be that we now need an internet-linked device to navigate our dinner plates? I think I hear the sparrows laughing. But I feel it’s worth considering, because navigation – whether to the next island or the next bite to eat – is a central biological process.

To avoid becoming someone else’s lunch is also part of the equation. I was recently amazed as I watched an online video showing staph bacteria attempting to evade a prowling white blood cell. Odd to think that’s going on inside us all the time. Further, the process of navigation can be seen to scale up to higher-order biological systems such as individual deer, ducks and people, and then further to herds, flocks, and groups of the same species. Even ecosystems, nations and cultures can be said to navigate. As individuals, we have a hardwired “rooting reflex” that helps us with our very first navigational task: finding the nipple. It’s critical, and it’s important to note that the first task of an individual is to seek connection.

Consider the sequence of nautical navigation that has furnished such a ready metaphor in this article for the many kinds of navigation we engage in. We begin with ancient seafaring skills like those of Mau Piailug, who journeyed through ocean waves well beyond sight of land completely unaided by instrumentation. We see explorers up through the 19th century relying on stars and landmarks, then compasses, charts and observation logs. Finally we come to modern GPS-guided ships with full instrumentation, including satellite communications and information systems. 

But what happens to the voyage as layer upon layer of instrumentation are added?  What happens to the awareness of the voyager? Finally, what becomes of the ocean? What exactly is this stuff we’re floating on – you can interpret this as broadly as you like – and does the ocean really even matter anymore if we barely have to look at it and it's merely something to churn through? Do we even bother to taste our food after we weigh it with the World’s Smartest Scale? What becomes of life when we withdraw from immediate connection by stages and degrees? 

A few years ago I read a book by Jean Liedloff called The Continuum Concept: In Search of Happiness Lost that might shed some light on these questions.  Liedloff spent two and a half years living with the Yequana and other indigenous people of the upper Orinoco River basin in Venezuela. In one passage (p. 19) she describes her astonishment upon seeing groups of very slightly built Tauripan people joking and laughing while carrying 75lb packs for miles through equatorial jungle heat – a physical task that would buckle grumbling Europeans twice their size.  How did they do it?  Her answer was by no means simple – I recommend reading the book – but what it came down to is that, like the Micronesian navigators, these people were in continuous communication with their environment.  Because they were not in a state of internal or external disconnection with their surroundings, the jungle supported them just as surely as the sea supported Piailug as he guided his outrigger canoe through the night toward distant horizons. It’s complete connection, a continuum.

I see some profound implications in Liedloff’s observations, and have seen parallels in other stories I’ve read.  For example, my wife Mary and I were married at Camp Ohiyesa in Holly, Michigan, where, it turns out, the noted Oglala Lakota medicine man Black Elk spent time during the early 20th century.  Seeking to know more, I read the famous account of his life and views, Black Elk Speaks, and somewhere along the way (maybe from the Ohiyesa camp director at the time) I picked up a story about how Black Elk, by then an elder, was observed standing by the lake without a shirt one freezing cold morning. Concerned for his safety and health, a member of the camp staff hurried over and suggested he get a coat on so not to catch cold.  Black Elk replied that on the contrary, this was his way of staying healthy, but acknowledging that these “old ways” were not understood.

In considering that scenario, again we see contrary cultural postures, with the indigenous perspective focused on living through environmental connection and integration while the Western view encourages limiting that exposure. As I recounted the Black Elk story to Mary, she replied by quoting some passages from a book she had in her hands at that moment called Books & Islands in Ojibwe Country by Louise Erdrich. The author includes a brief account of the life of John Tanner, a settler who was kidnapped by the Shawnee in 1789 at the age of nine and later sold into the Ojibwe tribe to be raised as the son of a woman whose own son had died. From that point forward, Tanner grew up socialized completely as an Ojibwe. The account cited a description of an astonishing feat of endurance in which Tanner and a companion took turns riding and running beside a horse to cover a distance of 70 miles in a single day, which recalled some of Liedloff’s descriptions of people in the remote Venezuelan jungles. But the part of Erdrich’s narrative that motivated Mary’s sharing was another passage: “Visiting his family in Kentucky after having lived all his life in the north woods, John Tanner fell ill. He grew claustrophobic when nursed inside of a house, and had to sleep outside in his brother’s yard to regain his strength.” (p. 46)

Though it may seem counterintuitive in our culture, it’s possible to seek one’s well being through exposure to the world and to find security through deeper connection with it. It’s very different than having one’s experience mediated by a screen as most of my readers are presumably doing at this moment. Along the same lines, when comparing traditional Micronesian navigators with modern sailing captains and pilots, I am struck by the contrast between Piailug, with his hand on the rudder in continuous engagement with his rigorous and unpredictable environment, versus the relative isolation we see among modern navigators as they retreat to the techno-wombs in the cabins of their ships. 

I speak as a refugee from a culture that either despite or because of its technological wizardry appears to have fundamentally lost its bearings. Among my people these days, it is not uncommon to seek satellite navigational support to find one’s way to a Friday night party, and judging by the catalog item that inspired this writing, apparently some of us think that just to be on the safe side it’s a good idea to employ a wireless Internet hookup to negotiate the hazardous and uncertain terrain of their daily meals. And it’s not that I don’t appreciate technology, from the gas-fired furnace in my home currently pushing the chill back a step to the electronic medium through which I now communicate with you. However, with these examples and many others, there’s a price to be paid in the way technology reconfigures our connections and our distances, and not all the costs involved in these tradeoffs are easy to quantify. One thing that does seem clear is that on a fundamental level, as we put increasing amounts of technology between us and our environment, we are also, in effect, backing away from it.

As we do so, I find myself wondering what we might be backing ourselves into.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

How Many Standing Rocks Do You See?

I’ve recently been reading a book called The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram, an author identified as one of Utne Reader’s “hundred visionaries who are changing the world.”  I admit I’ve felt a little self-conscious while reading it in auto repair waiting rooms and other public places because the title is suggestive of pulp romance or erotic fiction.  How sensuality ended up being conflated with sexuality in this culture is clearer once you read the book, but that’s not what it’s about. It’s revealing, however, that sex is one of the places in life where the loss of felt connection that Abram does explore is revealed as dysfunctional and ultimately self-defeating. The habit of objectification that reduces breathing trees to so much lumber and a living landscape to an engineering problem doesn’t play out very well when applied to the intimate partners who show up in our beds as mother nature’s representatives, asking for connection.

Abram doesn’t write about this at all, but I’m starting here because it’s personal. We’ve all felt objectified at times, and it registers as anything from rudeness to dehumanizing violation. Most people understand, on some level, that treating others as objects is inappropriate. Often missing from our understanding is that it’s a pervasive feature of Western consciousness, one that efficiently produces destructive results across a broad range of human activities. 

These destructive results are all around us and dominate the news. Abram starts with questions about the origins of the ecological crisis in particular and Western culture’s apparent disregard for the needs of non-human nature. The answer he brings us to is surprisingly simple: we do not experience, as most indigenous peoples do, an immediate and felt connection with the mood of our local river, nor feel in ourselves the place in the general order of things of the redwing blackbird perched on a swaying reed.  Instead of this felt connection, which helped keep the world’s indigenous peoples in fair balance with their environments for thousands of years, there is objectification, separation, distance, and disregard. Western culture, argues Abram, treats rivers and redwing blackbirds as “things,” and often enough the culture treats its own members as “things,” too, which allows for astonishingly callous disregard. If we were feeling ourselves dancing with the living features of our world, we wouldn’t treat our dance partners that way. But we don’t feel it. We’re not dancing. So what are we doing?

Says Abram:

“To define nature as an inert or passive object is to deny its ability to actively engage us and to provoke our senses; we thus block our perceptual reciprocity with that being. By linguistically defining the surrounding world as a determinate set of objects, we cut our conscious, speaking selves off from the spontaneous life of our sensing bodies.” (page 56)

There’s a lot in those two sentences. Consider the many ways this basic dynamic has been playing out between the Standing Rock Sioux and the companies involved in constructing an oil pipeline at Standing Rock, North Dakota. I’ve spoken with a couple people who have been there, and I’ve followed media accounts that included personal interviews, reporting, and video documentation of what’s happening. Events are often reported as a clash between members of a tribe seeking to prevent a pipeline from endangering its water, and business interests and their law enforcement and private security proxies. The images of uniformed, helmeted, armed and armored police arrayed against a colorful collection of eclectically dressed people carrying feathers and sage have captured attention around the world.

Underneath that confrontation, often framed in terms of legal rights and political objectives, is a basic difference in consciousness. On the one hand we have the bankers and businesspeople operating in faraway towers and their on-the-ground machine operators and police forces. These people have demonstrated no felt connection with the land and see it and the local rivers as merely impediments to getting oil to world markets to realize “profits” in terms of dollars. On the other hand, we have a people who directly feel this land, for whom its tearing open by machines is experienced as a violation not only of the land and their ancestral connection to it, but of their own bodies. Those digging machines are tearing the people up, and once constructed the pipeline will endanger the river that flows through their veins. 

Further, I see a pattern of evidence suggesting that one of the project’s objectives is the destruction of the indigenous sensibilities and felt connection with the land that have informed the opposition. In this, it’s much like the witch burnings and inquisitions of Europe, when hierarchical structures within those cultures began attacking anything that remained of their own indigenous roots (as Abrams goes on to note on page 199), even, as I recently learned elsewhere, publicly burning the harps and murdering the harpers of Ireland. Likewise, it looks to me like Standing Rock has devolved into an attempt on the part of big business to exterminate a particular kind of consciousness, demoralize it, demonstrate its weakness, and win recruits to a less feeling way of existing in the service of these business entities and the governmental agencies they have co-opted.  

The developing story at Standing Rock was suppressed for a very long time. From what I can see, it spread via nonmainstream news and social media, and opposition gathered momentum. Why? Is it an important story?  Evidently quite a few people thought so. But the images, reports and information concerning events at Standing Rock did not spread because of events in Standing Rock alone. The information disseminated because of events happening in individual people’s bodies. Feeling shock, revulsion, anger, grief, and even horror, millions passed the story along using whatever harps we could find in this post-bardic culture. The story passed from feeling/sensing/intelligent body to feeling/sensing/intelligent body. I think it’s amazing how it grew, given the competition for people’s attention bandwidth by Candy Crush, instant Gene Wilder memes, the antic 2016 US general election, and the ongoing deluge of cute animal videos.

In me and I expect many others, the stories triggered a sick sense of eerie dread, a clamoring for justice, a desire to offer material support, and grief for what the people at the Standing Rock encampment have been enduring at the hands of militarized police forces. However, I felt something, and by connecting with these feelings within myself, I connected with these people. From there, seemingly chance encounters led to one-on-one conversations with people who had spent time in the camp, thus breaking through the mental habits of compartmentalizing and objectifying so typical of Western consciousness. First, I opened up to it emotionally. Next thing I knew, without doing anything more than opening to that connection, I was looking into living eyes and hearing living voices in which I could see and feel the events reflected.

And please, I am not comparing my “armchair protesting” with the on-the-ground struggles, hardships, injuries and indignities suffered by the Water Protectors in North Dakota. Emphatically: No. I am suggesting that for the water protectors to ultimately prevail, and not just in North Dakota but globally, we must move into the same kind of felt sense of connection that is motivating and empowering them in their actions. We have to start recovering this kind of awareness, beginning wherever we are. We cannot count on the Water Protectors to feel the devastation for us; we have to bravely feel it for ourselves. And, with utmost respect for the wisdom traditions of the earth’s remaining indigenous peoples, that wisdom won’t make any sense, or be of any use to us, unless we get in touch with our own indigenous wisdom, the kind that arises from the inside.

Making this connection may not be easy for many of us. This is no accident. We are socialized in countless ways out of our indigenous wisdom and the felt connection with ourselves, our surroundings and our fellow beings that informs it. We are conditioned instead to accept received ideas, often and especially in ways that run counter to that felt sense. For example, consider that in the United States, generations of mothers whose every instinct told them to pick up their crying infants were advised by authoritative doctors that “crying is good for a developing baby’s lungs” or that newborns wailing in terror at what they can only assume is abandonment will “teach the baby to self-soothe,” despite the fact that separation from caregivers has proven universally fatal for helpless young mammals since the age of the dinosaurs. Or consider young children who are told to sit still for seven hours a day when every cell in their bodies is telling them to move around a lot and explore the outdoors to develop their growing, sensing bodies in accord with the last million years of human evolution. By following such social programs – and perhaps worse, emulating the models of other people who have preceded us as initiates in these dark arts – eventually we lose connection with our own feeling bodies, and after that happens, it’s but a short step toward running a bulldozer of sullen self-righteousness through ancient burial grounds, or committing any number of crimes against the earth and its inhabitants.

How do we know if we are moving in the direction of our indigenous wisdom? Here’s a handy chart below. If we’re moving in the direction of our indigenous wisdom, we’re probably going to be moving toward the column on the right. The dominant cultural mindset is outlined on the left.

Experience mediated by text, screens, tech            Immediate experience
Symbolizing                                                            Feeling
Abstract thoughts                                                    Perception as conversation
Programming                                                           Spontaneous response
Objectifying                                                             Connecting
Machines, engineered systems & processes            Organic systems
Logical, calculating, detached                                 Holistic reasoning
Unrooted, metastasizing                                          Connected to place
Head-centered experience                                       Whole body experience
Clock-driven                                                            Biological/planetary rhythms
So here’s a question: Looking at these two columns, which kind of consciousness fills your working days? From what I can see, for most people, our education and employment tend to move us toward the column on the left. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that many of us would seek to find balance in recreational activities that move us toward the column on the right. This is fairly hopeful. It’s a good sign when people still know somehow that walking along the beach can be a helpful antidote to 50 weeks spent under fluorescent lights staring at a computer screen in an office cubicle. This is what I mean by indigenous wisdom, and given the forces arrayed against it, it has proven remarkably resilient.

However, there are some caveats in this, and we are in no position for hasty self-congratulations. We’ve been colonized, you see, by a kind of alien intelligence, and it doesn’t give up easily. We might go to the beach, but the alien intelligence will nudge us into thinking we have to consume more than sunshine and salt breezes to get our money’s worth of “fun” while we’re there. We might gingerly feel our ways toward some semblance of embodied consciousness in a yoga studio, but if we’re like most Americans, as we get down on all fours for the first time in ages we very likely will wonder if our hips are too big, if we look sexy in spandex or if we have all our needed equipment. The first thoughts amount to self-objectification; the second reflects the commercial colonization of yogic practice.

I live surrounded on three sides by one of Michigan’s lovely state recreation areas –hundreds of acres studded with lakes, stands of pine, and second-growth oak/hickory forest with trees now reaching maturity in some places. Compared with when I moved here twelve years ago, when I walk the trails today it feels more like a racetrack for bicycles. Although it’s praiseworthy that people are getting outdoors and away from their screens for a while, again I see a very evident infatuation with fashionable biking attire and fancy new high-tech bicycles and gear. Being a man I know how guys tend to be proud of whatever they’ve got going between their legs. In this case (no surprise) it’s a machine, and, as if everyone needs to be reminded that these cyclists are not street cobblers in Calcutta but instead drove here with their bikes atop their cars, their bikes and biking gear have to be super fancy looking. It’s not enough to simply walk in the woods, to amble along or wander off the trail and find a nice place to sit for a while. Instead, it’s more like: “Commuting v.3.0, The Fitness Version.” The sandy, forested hills are not felt as unique entities to get to know, dialog with and explore, but seem instead a mere backdrop for further ego-driven conquering. I step off the footpaths and let them pass at a clip.

Forgive me if this seems harsh. The point is, even within the minimal gestures most people in our culture make toward feeling some kind of connection with the body, the natural world, or with something that isn’t packaged, sold, or pushed at us through a screen, the fragmented bands of indigenous consciousness are colonized and subjected to settlement and exploitation by commercial interests as soon as new territory opens, and this says nothing about the vast swaths of inner landscape already ceded. No wonder so many people seem to be feeling backed up onto a reservation that is being steadily encroached upon and compromised.

I believe this is why the Standing Rock confrontation has gathered so much attention, and why so many of us have felt so deeply what’s really at stake there. Every one of us is a Standing Rock: a piece of the earth where this perennial confrontation is occurring, a place where indigenous wisdom is engaged in an ongoing skirmish with the abstract mandates and fortified self-deceptions of a culture out of touch with the planet. The ongoing conquest and confrontation is happening inside every one of us, and I suspect that becoming aware of this might ultimately decide the outcome of the larger battle.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Naked Gardening

It’s February, so why am I thinking about naked gardening? Maybe you’ve heard of World Naked Gardening Day, an annual May 1 event whose existence I know about only because it makes the rounds on social media every year, much to the titillation of many who are out for a pleasant spring scroll down their Facebook newsfeeds. The idea of standing naked in the garden, well, let’s just say it’s got mythic dimensions, and while I honor those who buck their cultural programming and get out there to actually do it, my entry today is geared more toward understanding the many people who have yards surrounding their homes, but who as yet have no actual garden in which to even try naked gardening, were they so inclined when the weather warms up. 

Because, let’s be honest: standing naked on a chemically treated lawn in front of geometrically pruned foundation plantings wouldn’t be quite the same. For one thing, there’s little to do out there: no reason to bend to the soil, nothing to pick, plant, taste or smell as it offers itself out of the wet spring earth, and come summertime, no sunflowers or cosmos to sway to their different tempos in the warm breezes and strategically reveal and conceal the gardeners' bodies. Instead, there’s nothing. So let’s back it up a notch and get the gardens in place first. It’ll be more fun for everybody.

However, as I consider this more basic issue, I see that the problems involved in establishing a garden are much the same as those we would likely encounter in encouraging gardening in the nude: cultural resistance, a sense of being exposed and alone in one’s passions and life path, and quite possibly in many locations, legal ramifications. But ay yi yi! The bleak uniformity of suburban landscaping! Consider what we're really talking about here. Among people in the world, these are the privileged, and among their precious privileges is something truly remarkable: access to a piece of land. And yet out of this we see crafted a strange kind of sterile, anonymous nowhereland. What’s that about, really? Seems to me it’s about conformity, and about the perceived safety of not standing out. It’s also about class identification, as my friend Lois Robbins was kind enough to enlighten a group of us who had assembled on Earth Day some years ago. In my mind, conformity and class identification are connected: “People like us – we normal people – don’t do that.” Right. We don’t have time. We’re on Facebook or playing candy crush or watching professional sports on TV.

But given the possibility of a discontinuity in the food supply, say, or even just more of the same given that food quality has measurably declined as the decades have rolled by, it might be time to reconsider such social preoccupations. Herd thinking and herd behavior do not represent humanity at its finest, nor do they typically tend to be adaptive. Most people don’t even consider the stampede of suburban outgrowth as a herd phenomenon, but there it is, pretty much the same from coast to coast. 

Fortunately, the long tradition of American self-sufficiency has not been completely exterminated, and in fact every spring we see tons of garden centers filled with plants, including many vegetable starts and seeds. By most accounts, gardening remains the most popular hobby in the United States. Nonetheless, when I walked out to my garden a few minutes ago and stood in the snow that had fallen on the duff of leaves amidst the still-standing but stripped-bare kale stalks, I counted ten homes with windows visible from where I stood.  Of these, only two that I know of have any food growing on the property at any time of year. These do not represent substantial plantings: in one yard I’ve sometimes seen a few tomatoes, and in the other, of all things, four large container-grown fig trees, the love of an Armenian immigrant who lives across the road. The reason I can report this with some confidence is because gardening is not a private activity. What we do out there is visible, as is our overall success or failure. Regardless of what we’re wearing, we’re basically exposed for all to see out there. It’s no wonder to me that people who are unsupported by history, knowledge or community have a hard time taking first steps toward growing some of their own food.  

Noticing this, my hope is that those who “always wanted to start a garden” might gain some insight into some of the reasons why they not have done so yet, and find a way to start. I was lucky to have grown up next door to the Wu family, Chinese immigrant parents with two US-born boys about my age who treated the yard behind their ranch house as a place for productivity instead of merely a placeholder for underused lawn furniture. I vividly recall Mrs. Wu showing me how to gently pull the trumpets from her red salvia flowers to taste the nectar, and Mr. Wu showing me how to build a compost pile and check the corn for worms. Next thing you know, at age six I had gathered sunflower seeds from the bird feeder to plant in my sandbox and was watching them rocket upwards to a height of 7 feet. Amazingly, I also had family support in converting that sandbox into a vegetable garden. (It was a bottomless sandbox, and the zucchinis did especially well.) Later, as a seventh grader equipped with a plan and a shovel, I got a affirmative reply when I asked if I could dig up a section of sod out back and build an herb garden. 

In revisiting the chief purpose of this blog – the sharing of gardening and other knowledge to build  healthier and more shock resistant communities – I feel less than successful. Part of it is, I may have underestimated the zone of social resistance and the nakedness of every gardener before the court of neighborhood opinion and their own inner critics.

For this reason, if as the days grow longer this spring you find yourself feeling that this is finally the year when you’ll try growing something edible, I salute you.  If you’re planning on starting a garden but haven’t done so yet, one shortcut is to start by cultivating relationships, people who will be on your side when you go ahead and be the neighborhood weirdo with hops vines flowering on your porch. Someday maybe you can invite your neighbors in to sample your home brew – who knows what converts you’ll win? Or you can be the person who gives a neighbor girl her very first sun-ripened strawberry; it’s a moment that can change a life. Or just be the one who confidently walks out some quiet August evening some years from now and returns to your kitchen with a fresh bunch of kale to feed your family. You won’t be naked, but you will be noticed, and that’s ok you never know when you might get a visit from a neighbor kid with a lot of questions and an unused sandbox in the back yard.

Friday, March 18, 2016

The Seed Within Planting the Seed

I started this blog in 2011 as a vehicle to promote a simple, time-tested idea: By sharing basic skills we can build more resilient communities. A deeper look at the concept reveals that it’s not just the skills being shared that strengthen the community, it’s the relationships being built. At an even deeper level, we see that the values that skill sharing promotes outlast individual relationships and inform new relationships as they come into being: Skill sharing encourages the recognition that our own security and happiness is enhanced by the security and happiness of our neighbors, and our neighbors’ neighbors.

Taken sentence by sentence, that’s plenty to think about. I’m fond of observing that when one plants a seed in the garden with a child, one plants two seeds at once: There’s the seed that goes into the ground, and there are the seeds of connection, relationship, possibility, and wonder that grow in the child. Oops, that’s more than two!

Yet it’s the same with sharing skills and learning experiences with people of any age. By sharing such learning experiences, we build knowledge, relationships, trust, and enduring pro-social values.

However, such natural connections are for the most part broken or breaking in American life, especially in relationship to skills connected to food, clothing, shelter, and health care. Taking the place of these basic social functions, we find monetized relationships and high-energy tools. This is why it’s possible to live in a typical American neighborhood and have no idea who our neighbors are. We drive energy-intensive cars to our highly productive jobs, and then some of our surplus productivity (our “earnings”) is electronically tube-fed back into our households to pay for the privilege. As a byproduct of this arrangement, we also see a shift in values that decouples our sense of well-being from that of our neighbors. The attitude that starts to take hold is: To heck with them. I have my own car, my own TV. I worked hard for these things. Get your own.

All of this would be bad enough, but on a practical level, if at some point the money system breaks down or the tools and devices can’t be powered up, what do we really have left? We don’t know how to provide for our basic needs, most of us don’t have local relationships in place to help us solve that problem, and judging by how things are going, many people do not even possess the kinds of values that would help navigate toward real solutions.

Thus we can identify several levels for social intervention: materials, skills, relationships, and the values that support the transfer of skills and the development of relationships. Granted, it seems a tall order. We do not have the resources to address these problems one at a time. Fortunately, it isn’t necessary, because (and this is an amazing thought!) it is not possible to do one thing at a time. The world simply doesn’t work like that. Instead, as we saw in the example of planting a seed with a child, everything we do propagates consequences in multiple directions.

Permaculture has a design concept called “stacking functions” that makes use of this. In a land use design project, the concept of stacking functions means that any element of the design, be it a tree, chicken coop or a compost heap, can perform multiple services simultaneously. So, when I kept chickens, I planted a mulberry tree to the south of the coop, and placed a compost heap nearby under another tree. The chicken manure fed the trees, and the trees fed, cooled, and protected the chickens from airborne predators. Together the trees kept the compost shaded and moist while the chickens turned the compost, feeding it with their droppings while the compost fed them with bugs and worms. And that’s just the beginning. Ultimately, the system produced eggs, for example, as well as nutrient-rich compost for my garden.

Permaculture imitates natural systems in its design processes. In the case of stacking functions, the underlying reality is that no action generates a single, linear outcome. Since everything does many things at once, it should be possible, assuming we're willing to more comprehensively account for them, to start aligning these consequences in desirable ways.

The relevant point here is that functions are always “stacked,” though perhaps not necessarily in ways that lead to positive outcomes. When I get in my car, for example, I’m not just moving myself from place to place, I’m also creating a zone of lethal hazard around myself, putting social distance between myself and pedestrians, arrogating enormous physical space and material resources for myself and my vehicle, promoting the proliferation of ugly, auto-related infrastructure like parking lots and traffic courts, supporting the demand for petroleum and the despotic regimes funded by it, and of course befouling the air and ultimately helping to kill off the oceans and wreck the climate. And that’s just for starters.

But hey, I’m just driving to pick my kids up from school. 

Yet in this example, perhaps the worst effect of all is the mass hypnosis that makes this seem both normal and desirable, stunting the imaginations of all who buy into it. And this is true everywhere we look: chemical agriculture, US foreign policy, law, medicine, education, you name it. All of these are proliferating negative consequences in multiple directions while our attention is focused only on the narrow outcomes connected to their ostensible purposes. The conditioning is: Look at the grain pouring into the grain elevator, don’t look at the algae bloom from agricultural runoff that renders Lake Erie’s water unfit for human consumption. See the burger in a bag, but ignore the person handing it to us who is barely scraping by, ignore the vanishing South American rainforest felled for commodity crop soybean production, and ignore the species extinctions and loss of cultures and language among the indigenous people of the region.

I’ve been saying for years [for example, see here] that the positive side of the fragmented thinking evident in our current systems is that it results in a proliferation of points of effective action. The food system is a great example, given that we see breaks in critical relationships all the way from soil to table. Every apparent break is a place where participation can forge a new connection, whether it’s growing our own food, building relationships with our growers, or preparing food from scratch instead of buying into the cult of commercially prepared foods.

That still holds true, but now I see how much more we’re really doing when we do these things. Since as we have seen, “stacking functions” isn’t just a great design idea, it’s the rule, then replacing a broken connection with a healthy one will have manifold impact. So for example, replacing fast food with home cooked meals has profound ramifications: We’ve filled our homes with delicious smells, we’ve taught our children what real food tastes like, how to value it, and maybe how to cook it; we’ve nourished ourselves deep into our cells, we’ve made our love tangible through our connection with the earth’s bounty, we’ve changed how we spend, we’ve demonstrated that our families are worth caring forand that’s just for starters.

If a part of that home cooked meal comes from a home garden, we have added to our outdoor time with healthy exercise, improved the soil and its capacity to hold carbon and retain moisture, improved our diets with low-cost vegetables, eliminated (if we’re smart) the use of cosmetic lawn chemicals on the soil that feeds us, cut some of the carbon footprint in our energy-intensive food system, kept yard waste onsite as a soil amendment, and taught our children where food comes from. Even something as simple as recycling has huge knock-on effects: when newspaper and cardboard is recycled, it’s not just the oxygen-breathing trees we save, but also the carbon that is normally emitted in paper manufacture from virgin materials, plus the recycling jobs created locally, watersheds protected wherever forests remain standing … and much else.

Is it enough? Have we tilted the scales toward sustainability? No—not by a long shot. Does this concern me? Yes.

However, I’m still feeling hopeful. True, our culture’s fragmented thinking has created quite a mess as it has been projected onto a world built on the laws of interconnection and wholeness. But what gives me hope is not just that we can make a little difference here and there by changing how we think and what we do. What’s really hopeful is that we’re doing a lot more than we think we are – we’re always planting many seeds at once, and of course every seed has the potential of many seeds within it. These can include changes on all levels, extending even to the values and cultural norms that drive us. Thus, my hope is not based on the complacent attitude that we’re already “doing all we can,” so everything is bound to be okay. Rather, I’m excited by the fact that knowing how powerful our actions are can embolden us to kick it up a notch. Let’s do it!

Friday, December 25, 2015

The Gifts We Are: What to Bring to Personal Epiphanies

At Christmastime each year here in the United States we will often see nativity scenes, especially in people’s front lawns and in churchyards. They range from simple scenes depicting only Jesus, Mary and Joseph to elaborate dioramas including a full cast of characters. In these larger versions, in addition to the shepherds, angels and animals, we may also see three other figures, often in decidedly more colorful dress, who are intended to represent those called The Three Wise Men, the Magi, or the Three Kings from the East. We are told in the Bible that the Magi navigated by means of a star, got a piece of intelligence from King Herod along the way, and arrived at the scene bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Although I’m not much of a churchgoer, I have long been fascinated by the element in the story of the Magi traveling at some risk and expense to see a manifestation of divine light and love, and I’ve wondered about the gifts they deemed appropriate for the occasion.

In some traditions, the arrival of the Magi is celebrated as Epiphany, which comes from a Greek word meaning ‘appearance.’ And the first thing I notice is that we all have our own epiphanies: times when things are illuminated for us and appear in a new light, sometimes even showing up where there had been no light at all. Such moments glow like an inner crèche, and by virtue of the newness and possibility inherent in them, they often seem to gather their own assembly of witnesses, both within us and beyond.

So move a little closer in, angels, shepherds, and magi: this little epiphany is mine. I see in the gifts of the Magi a good indicator, poetically speaking, of the gifts to bear with us as we approach any epiphany, place of emergence, or illuminated way of being in the world.

Let’s start with myrrh and frankincense. In origin, these are the dried sap of trees. Sap is the mobile, fluid element that flows up from the roots clasping the Earth and down from the leaves outstretched to gather light from the nearest star. Moving between these polarities, tree sap draws qualities from both as it runs in its daily circuit between the two. Interrupt this movement by wounding the trees’ bark and the resinous sap emerges. In their primary use, myrrh and frankincense are vaporized in fire—their fragrances are said to raise the vibration and sanctify a space, hence their use in ceremony.

The sap of trees is literally their lifeblood, the active, connecting element that bridges every apparent polarity and in doing so supports the life of the tree in all its dimensions. The ability of a tree to hold the land is funded by its capacity to reach for the sun and air, and the ability of a tree to reach for the sun and air is funded by its ability to hold the land. The sap is the transporter of these energies and resources. Likewise, the unity of the trunk is supported by the multiplicity of roots and branches. The flexibility and the exposure of the leaves is supported by the more rigid and protected quality of the wood, and again vice versa. The dried sap of these trees thus embodies the essence of this active process of living, growing and yes, even being wounded in a world of chance and change.

Likewise, we humans do much the same thing in our growth as we actively span and unify many dimensions and qualities of our existence. Consider: our capacity for thought is affected by whether or not we ate breakfast and what it was, and the development of our high arts and skills grows from our passion and animal ferocity. Our craziest dreams, subtlest reasoning, and most finely attuned feelings are needed by turns to find balance in our awareness amidst the tumult of our experience. We balance within and without, left and right brain, action and contemplation, work and play, sleeping and waking, the changing seasons, and all of the the contingencies and conditions of our lives. And, as we dynamically unify and draw energy from our often rough-and-tumble living and weathering of various kinds of storms, we create a flow with unique qualities within us, just as trees do. We gain character.

To complete the metaphor here, the distilled essence of our lives in the world—what we learn, how we grow, how it shapes us and even how it hurts us—is central to the gifts we bear on the way to our personal epiphanies. Recognizing the value of living amidst all these opposing forces, ups and downs, bumps, bruises, paradoxes and contradictions, is key to carrying our troubles as gifts. Remember that the myrrh tree oozes that sweetness from its wounds, standing out in the sun on the Horn of Africa.

The counterpoint to all the dynamism we see in the production of myrrh and frankincense, of course, is gold. If myrrh and frankincense embody the essence of a present-tense life astraddle numerous polarities, a temporal world of contingency and risk, gold could be said to represent the state in which there never was a polarity to unify: the eternal, the unchanging, the untarnishable spirit. Gold is chemically inert, unaffected, and unchanging. This is why it can sit at the bottom of the sea in the wreckage of a Spanish galleon for 500 years and still have value. As the most malleable metal, pure gold can be hammered into endless changes in outward form, yet inwardly it remains the same.

So consider the contrast here: Gold is a metal forged in the heart of a dying star billions of years ago; myrrh and frankincense, on the other hand, are the dried sap that oozes from cuts in the bark of trees living on the surface of planet earth today. In most uses, gold is endlessly recyclable. Myrrh and frankincense go up in smoke and vanish.

Each of these gifts embodies its own kind of preciousness and energetic signature. We all have a place within us that is golden, unchanging and eternal. Everyone also has that distilled essence of character arrived at by bearing our gold into a world filled with dynamic and ever-changing polarities. Taken together, appreciated and honored each in their own ways, these gifts make for an ideal combination to bring to any epiphany or point of illumination in our lives. In fact, to bear these gifts in full recognition of their value tends to draw us onward toward these epiphanies.

Yet there seems to be a tendency to separate them. It’s strange to consider it, but do we really think the Magi would have been better advised to leave the myrrh and frankincense at home and just bring some extra gold? Would this have improved the gift?  I don’t think so. And neither do we value ourselves rightly if we only consider the quality of soul within us, leaving out our connection to life’s flow and the character we have gained by it, or on the other hand to only offer what we’ve gained by living and not that pure and untarnishable element we brought with us into life.

The Bible story tells us that Joseph was told in a dream to flee into Egypt. Hearing this, the reasoning mind might suggest that maybe the family could have used that extra gold! But that’s not how these stories work. For 2000 years we’ve read about myrrh, frankincense, and gold. The translators found words for these things in other languages and apparently saw nothing in these words to threaten the power structures that employed them. So the inner message stood unchanged.

I’ve often felt that this part of the Bible story was underappreciated, because it says so much about how to approach an illuminated way of being. We absolutely must bring our inner gold with us, our assurance of something eternal, that steady and sure place deep within us that knows our value and our everlasting place in the order of things. By means of this silent, weighty ballast, we right ourselves time and again as the winds of change blow. The security that this kind of gold offers also strengthens our ability to offer it up to these golden moments in the certainty that we will ultimately be enriched instead of diminished by the encounter. However, an equally precious and worthy offering is our unique harvest of living in the world, and the beauty we have wrought from this encounter: our lessons, our scars, our character, our history, and the essential tone, feel and fragrance that belong to our unique lives.

Fundamentally, in any epiphany, we can only offer what we are, and, we are all of this: We are the eternal enriched by the temporal, and we are perfection itself somehow perfecting itself .

In a way, then, since this is what we are, we bring this gift to every life encounter. Further, since we are part of the cosmos becoming aware of itself, our appreciation for all of the gifts we bring catalyzes their reception even when the “recipient” to which we are offering ourselves is a relationship, a place, a moment -- in short, to any personal epiphany or illuminated encounter in the world. If we are to follow the example of the Magi as we navigate toward these epiphanies, we must value our offering: loving ourselves as golden eternal souls who never lost connection with the divine, and in full appreciation for all our quirky eccentricities, our foibles and talents, errors and inspirations, and in both our misbegotten motivations and our nobility in word and deed. Loving ourselves in this comprehensive way primes the universe to receive us in kind, or perhaps it would be better to say that doing so aligns us with the cosmos and its unfolding and magnificent YES! And we can carry these gifts into any illuminated moment, be it a crowded bus, a thought or feeling that comes at the end of a long day, a walk down a forest path leading to a waterfall, or an encounter in a barn in an obscure little Middle Eastern town.

To every moment we make an offering. Aware that we are in an encounter with the divine, we can come as the Magi did: in adoration, and bearing gifts. We then behold and thus participate in the miracle.