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 Christmas time 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.’ So my point here is to draw from the story what inspiration I can from it, because we all have our own epiphanies: times when things become illuminated for us, appearing in a new light or even appearing 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, point 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 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 all of our life 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 only 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 what we might bring to any epiphany. 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, what it comes down to is that 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 any personal epiphany or illuminated encounter in the world. We must value our offering of ourselves. Further, we must love ourselves as golden eternal souls who never lost connection with the divine, and we must love ourselves in 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! These are the gifts that we can carry 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 at a manger in a barn in an obscure little 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.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

The Necessity of Joy in Permaculture

Some years ago I had a weekend workshop experience with an Andean shaman from Ecuador.  After lunch on Saturday, the shaman instructed us, speaking through a translator, to sit absolutely motionless – he emphasized several times the importance of not moving a muscle – and then started singing to us in his native language.  He’d sing for a while and then stop and let out a drawn-out sibilant sound like a combination of a hiss and a silencing Shhhh…  Then he would begin singing or chanting again.

This process repeated multiple times. After a couple cycles, I noticed that as he sang I could feel myself being compressed somehow, as if being hugged from all sides. Then, when he made the sound like whooshing wind that followed, I felt release.  And with each release, I felt myself expand beyond my previous boundaries. 

I do not recall how many of these cycles we went through, but when the shaman felt complete with that process, he gave us our next instructions: Walk outdoors and find a piece of vegetation that you find attractive and bring it back in with you.  I smiled as I stood up.  I smiled as I watch the other participants walking a little unsteadily toward the doors.  I smiled as the floor beneath me felt a little spongy under my feet. I smiled as I emerged into the October sunshine and looked around, wondering where to go.

I found a piece of Asian bittersweet to bring back in. True, it’s a noxious invasive plant. But when I looked at it, I liked it.

About fifteen minutes later, after everyone was seated back inside the nature center headquarters, the shaman asked a very interesting question: “Look at the piece of the plant you brought in,” he said. “What gives it the form that you see? “

I looked down at the twig in my hands, bare but for tiny orange fruits dotting its terminations, and the answer to the shaman’s question was obvious. I didn’t have to think about it. It was literally staring me in the face:  The plant took this form because it enjoys being in this form. The form of the plant is an outward expression of its JOY!

As I’ve reflected back on this experience over the years, mostly what I’ve focused on is the amazing shamanic prowess that allowed our teacher to bring a group of distractible, half-crazy gringos into direct contact with the numinous layer of existence through the focused power of his voice and will alone. Lately, though, I’ve been focusing on the vision itself: what does it mean if joy is the maker of a living form? How can it affect my vision and my actions to see that the living world is a visible expression of joy?

I ask because this seems to be nearly universally unseen: from sassafras trees celebrating their sassafrasiness to curly docks curling luxuriantly in their own exuberance. Attempting permaculture as a survivor of a culture that sees form as something disconnected from joy (or any other aspect of subjectivity) will probably devolve into folly unless this error is corrected. Let’s take a look at how this affects our thinking, and assume that what’s true of plants is just as true of animals and possibly much else.

In this culture, when we see a plant growing or a chickadee flitting from twig to twig, we see it “doing” something:

Q: “What’s that bird doing?”  A: “It’s flitting from twig to twig.” 

But I doubt such a statement would make any sense from the interior of the chickadee’s experience. The chickadee is a part of the world, but it remains intimately connected with it. Each twig in each moment draws forth that bird for unfathomable reasons – perhaps partly the relative positioning of bird to branch, partly the need to spring up and take flight that is built into the chickadee’s physiology, partly the timing, but mostly the onrush of interweaving stimuli in which, as Jon Young says in his course, Advanced Bird Language, the bird is inextricably linked as both a signal responder and signal generator. So the short answer is that, like the plant, the bird is moved by the joy of chickadeeing around as a chickadee, in its chickadee way in its chickadee world. To put that bird in a cage without a branch to hop on, for example, would deprive it of its joy.

Photo courtesy Rick Scholz
“Nonsense!” says the ogre consciousness that seems to rule these days. “That bird can learn to trudge around on the floor of the cage the way sensible birds like chickens and turkeys doif I allow them to do so, that is, before I eat them.”

The result of this kind of thinking, if we can call it thinking, is that the songbird thus treated would most likely sicken and die. But even if it should live on somehow, this much is for sure: it would be less of a chickadee. Deprive a living being of the opportunity to inhabit its form with joy, in other words, and its form would begin to weaken and possibly dissolve altogether.

We have a habit in this culture of denying subjectivity and creating a picture of the world through a grammar that by its very structure misrepresents it. To its credit, Permaculture takes the dualities of noun and verb, actors and actions, people and landscapes, and tries to pull these into a better unity, its focus on relationships and dynamics replacing reductionistic cause and effect. But as a design science it’s going to fall short if it focuses merely on form and not on what fills it, even if it brings in the moral dimension as part of the design process.  What really distinguishes successful permaculturists is their joy in being part of this process, which is to say—in being. That joy is as much a part of their designs as is the joy within my sprig of bittersweet.

And, if there is truth in my perception that the quality of joy infuses and gives form to the living world – from sassafras trees to chickadees – it follows that it would apply to people also. One logical consequence of this would be that those who most fully inhabit their joy are also most fully present on the planet, and the best in-formed. Conversely, those who are not in their joy are not fully present. Note that joy does not preclude suffering. In fact, what I’ve seen is that only those who connect most deeply with their joy have the strength to suffer, to overcome obstacles, and to feel most deeply into the troubles of this world in their search for new ways.

For all of these reasons, the connection between being in joy and being truly present would seem to be enormously consequential. It throws into the open and validates the deep desire of many of us for a way of being in the world that really works, one that feels good on the inside and which does not amount to a continuous assault on our sensibilities. As a culture, we ignore this desire, or worse, we get it backwards, and the forms we create are actively hostile to life.  But we won’t be able to design healthy systems unless we really show up, and we cannot really show up unless we find our joy, more fully inhabit our forms and thus better connect with the living world around us.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Tossing and Turning: Our Disturbed Soils and Troubled Sleep

I’m sitting under a halogen light right now and staying up late to write about soil.

That probably doesn’t sound ironic to you. I think it should.

How I came to reflect on soil and sleep as functionally related and analogous in their processes is something of a mystery, though the sequence of events that led to the idea is clear enough. I recently spent a weekend learning about soil in a workshop that outlined some of the basic science. Weeks later, a person I spent time with at the workshop emailed me late one day wanting to connect about a soil-related project we’re working on together, but informing me that, at the moment, sleep was a higher priority. My response upon reading the email was that no person who is seriously interested in soil would dismiss the importance of sleep.

At first my response puzzled even me. As I thought about it, though, I realized that the work of the body in sleep and what I’d recently learned about the life activity of the soil are very much connected. Shrouded in layer upon layer of darkness and opacity, both the body in sleep and the soil beneath the surface teem with important goings-on. Interestingly, much of this activity has to do with the movement of nutrients through their respective systems, and the regenerative and growth processes that require these nutrients.

As we fall asleep at night, if everything is working correctly, we shift focus, our eyes and somatic sensibilities adjust to new surroundings, and we engage with these. We move in a different world. We awaken to our dreams. And these dreams, whether we acknowledge it or not, are absolutely essential to the functioning of our daily waking consciousness. Certain processes of the body wake up in sleep, and the body needs sleep the way the mind needs dreams.

Like our nightly sleep, the sleep of soil isn’t really sleep at all; I would argue that instead it’s a kind of awakening to a different level of being. The dreams of the soil when left undisturbed support the growth of plants into light, just as our own dreams support the growth and flowering of consciousness. These dark processes remain as guessable to those of us walking on the earth as are the dreams of a friend we see twitching in his sleep. Yet the visible, colorful expressions of plants above the soil surface and their capacity to metabolize light into food are directly dependent on their ability to gather from the sleep of soil the elements needed to accomplish this. What we find if we look into soil and follow its sublime, heroic dreams are exceedingly complex relationships, fine chains of mycorrhizal fungi and associated bacteria fed by plants in just the right way to help them to locate and channel these nutrients to the plant roots. Mycologist Paul Stamets calls the interconnected mycelial network of soil, "the neurological network of nature." 

At night, the plant’s energy and sap move down into the soil to support and feed this hidden activity. At night we likewise descend, in our own way, into the depths, and there make use of the nutrients we have taken in as food that were originally dredged up by plants in their own dreams. Thus, by linking our dreams to those of the soil through the mediumship of plants, we dream our bodies into being.

At some point, people discovered that they could get a temporary boost in productivity from the soil by inverting it, exposing its dreams to the light. As the plow inverts the earth, a vast and largely invisible conflagration ensues within the soil, a plume of CO2 rises from it, and from this waste and sudden death the enterprising food plant draws its life. Of course, all the other plants, including the weeds and grasses that had formerly held the soil and embraced and fed its microorganisms, are caught up in the maelstrom, and when they die the nutrients they had sequestered are at first liberated, then ultimately leached away. In time the food plants grown there cannot make it anymore. In traditional farming, the exhausted soil was either abandoned, kept exposed but on life support with manure or compost, or allowed to rest and regenerate during a fallow period. Like a sick and wounded soldier coming home from war, the land must sleep. Today’s methods of chemical agriculture seek to continually stimulate more productivity from the soil as it lies dying. There is no rest for the soils that produce most modern foods, and our widespread exhaustion follows.

Missing from our understanding is how the deep dreams of the soil ultimately nourish our own, and how our reckless pattern of disturbing our soils eventually disrupts our ability to sleep as well as the capacity of our sleeping bodies to dream themselves anew. I don’t think it’s too far of a stretch to say that in the natural course of things, each night we refocus on the place where we connect in the quiet womb of the Earth, and each morning we are born again. Going into that womb, we take with us the products of the communion of plant, sun and soil. We call it food. The human digestive system can be seen as an internalized placenta by which we draw nutrients from the mother. We are, in every way, still inside of her. These nutrients, the products of the teeming, active dreams of soil and sea, then meet with the imaginative processes of the body that regenerate us in our sleep.

Meanwhile, here I am still writing under the halogen light, following my culture’s habit of inverting things for temporary gains -- this time by using technology to put day in the place of night. As with inverting the soil, there is a short burst of heightened productivity associated with artificial light and the dreams it breaks up and postpones. There’s always a purchase price for such advantages, however. I can push my fallow period off for an hour or two, convinced that the most important work is happening when my eyes are open, but eventually I reach a point of diminishing returns. And it’s worth noting that from a biological point of view, a significant part of the price we pay for the stress we induce in this way is the loss of minerals…the very nutritional components that plants are accessing from the earth by feeding the microbes of their soils every night. Turning night to day leaches minerals from the body just as though we are soil being turned to face the sun.

So what are the ultimate consequences of all of this? Let’s put it all together: we diminish the fertility of the soil by disturbing it, gain fewer mineral nutrients needed to build our bodies, then degenerate and sleep badly. In the midst of this, we also focus on our waking consciousness and productive labor at the expense of sleep and productive dreaming. The net effect is that slowly but surely the aperture of human consciousness narrows. Most people will experience this clearly after even one sleepless night: we can feel how we start to move more robotically, how our thoughts tend to stay in their established channels like computer programs, and how irritation and reactivity supplant creative responses to the day’s events. Our experience thins out. Deprived of the depths of sleep for a night, we sense that we’re not fully living but just going through the superficial motions. And here’s something worth noticing: vitality, like soil, is a thing of depth. Yet, what happens if sleep and our capacity for it is incrementally eroded over time? What happens when soils continue to thin and degenerate, artificial light fiddles with our hormones, food plants are tricked into growing on chemicals, diseased plants protected by sprays, people are tricked into feeling ok with drugs, received images from the media take the place of active imagination in people’s minds, and stress takes the place of deep upwellings of primal energy?

If this change were gradual, would we even notice? And what if the perceptual systems by which we would notice such a change are among those that get damaged?

I’m not sure, but the questions are worth asking. What I am growing increasingly confident of is that most of the aisles of my local grocery store are filled with food that is unfit for human consumption. And I’m sorry to say this, but many people I see putting that same food into their shopping carts look like they’re sleepwalking in a bad dream — they seem startled and annoyed if anything should awaken them. Perhaps this is another cost of our ongoing inversions: We start living nightmares instead of occasionally just dreaming them.

So what’s the answer? I think we’ve tossed and turned and disturbed the sleep of our soils too long, and I’m guessing we need deeper nourishment than what most people are getting. With deeper nourishment comes the possibility of more productive sleep, with deeper sleep the possibility for deeper dreams, and the deeper the dreams, the deeper the capacity for consciousness.

This idea goes against much of our conditioning, which teaches us to extend our waking hours and work harder with our conscious minds. Yet as every toddler eventually figures out, the fastest and best way to get from one exciting day to the next is to let go of the one you’re in, that is: to go to sleep, and then wake to day again. Collectively, we seem to think we’ll arrive at that new day by turning our minds faster. What it looks like to me is that all we’ve managed to accomplish in this way is to more quickly generate correct answers to the wrong questions. But what if the world we live in heals fastest and best when moving at the infinite speed of rest?

Friday, November 14, 2014

Nascent Neofeudalism?

It was during a winter in about 1991, I believe, and I awoke after midnight to an astonishing spectacle: “thundersnow.” Lightning flashed against the windows of my rented second-floor flat as the wind drove falling snow with an intensity I hadn’t seen since childhood. By the end of the storm, drifts had shut much of the city in. Main roads had been cleared, but driving to them from where I lived on a side street was nearly impossible.

As the storm abated, the digout began. Neighbors piled snow high beside their driveways and sidewalks, but the road was still nearly impassible as the traffic that had somehow made it through had only compressed the snow and made it heavier. Nonetheless, resident after resident attempted to navigate it and get to work. Whenever somebody tried and got stuck, five or six people who were shoveling nearby driveways would walk over and push and shovel as needed to free the motorist. This happened maybe ten times that I saw, and I helped push four or five cars at my end of the street.

It’s kind of cliché to observe that neighbors often get together to overcome weather-related challenges, but in the years since then what stuck with me was the economic value that this neighborhood cooperation yielded. Local towing services were overwhelmed with disabled vehicles. Because of this, the “normal,” get-out-your-credit-card-and-bite-the-bullet, middle class response to a disabled vehicle was simply not available. There would be no savior in the form of a professional tow-truck driver showing up with a huge piece of machinery to help get cars out of the snow in exchange for “money.”

But it was amazing how, with five or six people pushing for a few minutes per vehicle, we managed to get car after car out of that neighborhood, quickly and efficiently. And here’s the thing: while we were certainly generating value, we did so by bypassing the traditional economy, which mandates that we earn money, have our income taxed, put it into a bank, then swipe a credit card to pay for the driver, tow truck and associated maintenance, fuel, insurance, advertising and other miscellaneous business overhead, and of course the credit card issuer’s transaction fees. None of that happened. People just moved. When the money economy failed, a different, more primitive, and more efficient one prevailed.

Ironically, our efficiency came at the cost of our normal productivity. The people pushing were in effect temporarily unemployed, and could not get to their fossil-fuel-enhanced, highly productive jobs.  The distinction between efficiency and productivity is probably worth a quick mention here.  Let’s use the example of a bicycle as a piece of technology.  A bicycle is highly efficient in terms of energy required to move a person and a small load in many kinds of common conditions. If a person is using the bicycle to make deliveries, putting a gasoline powered engine on it does not add efficiency – in terms of energy use per unit of work, the engine reduces efficiency, in fact – although it will very likely add to the user’s productivity. In confusing efficiency with productivity, people may consider cars to be an efficient way to get around. Automobile transportation may or may not be an efficient use of the driver’s time, but in terms of energy used per passenger mile, cars are grossly inefficient: most of the energy in the fuel is wasted. And the important thing is, while our culture can discount such inefficiencies for a time, nature doesn’t really lose track of what’s going on. Do you desire timely delivery of hot pizza to outlying rural areas by motorcar?  It’s technically feasible, requires highly productive machinery, and in some areas it has even become a cultural norm. But on a basic level of physics and biology, does it make any kind of real sense as a way of feeding ourselves? 

I don’t think so. Beginning with the assumption the rural hot pizza deliveries and a great many other such highly productive but inefficient kinds of economic activity will prove unsustainable, the Green Hand Reskilling concept embraces a more primitive and more durable concept of efficiency. And the fact that efficiency is currently coming out the loser in its competition with all the glittery prizes that energy-intensive productivity has to offer does not dissuade me from betting on efficiency as the winner in the long run.

In fact, the efficiency of direct value creation is what motivated the Green Hand Reskilling Initiative in the first place. For those just joining us for the first time, this blog was intended to promote a very simple community-building and skill-sharing strategy: displaying a sign with a green hand printed or painted on it to indicate one’s willingness to share knowledge with one’s neighbors. Born out of a statewide strategic meeting of Michigan Transition groups in 2010, it’s a low-tech, intrinsically local strategy that is elegant in its simplicity and efficiency – and, as a practical initiative, it’s basically gone nowhere.

However, recently I happened to read John Michael Greer’s blog post,” Dark Age America: The End of the Market Economy,” and I felt it lent some support for the inevitability of concepts such as the Green Hand in one form or another, and so I thought I’d share the connection here. One of the themes Greer has been following in this series of posts is about the collapse of civilizations, including ours, as the energy required to maintain a given level of complexity is no longer available. “Loss of complexity” in Greer’s post refers to all the aforementioned layers of structure that insert themselves between producer and consumer. Greer introduces the term disintermediation to describe the movement toward direct value transmission. This basically means the removal of all unnecessary layers of economic complexity in the process of value creation, including eventually money and all its associated costs. Disintermediation is the name he gives to the process of removing the administrative clutter from value creation, such as we saw when money, business, and machinery were efficiently bypassed by neighbors to overcome the problem of cars stuck in the snow.  

Greer’s point, if I read him correctly, is that these layers of complexity inevitably disappear as a society loses the net energy surplus that had supported them. The result, after a period of adjustment, is a relationship-based, land-centered, steady state economic arrangement that Greer identifies as feudalism. But the process takes time. It starts with people in straits finding workarounds in an economic system that is failing to provide what they need, often finding those workarounds in opposition to those who still striving to maintain the dying system.

I encourage everyone to read Greer’s blog, but for now this sketch should be adequate to help the reader understand why I would be inspired to draw a connection between the ideas Greer is sharing and the Green Hand Reskilling Initiative. Greer’s “disintermediation” is the essence of the Green Hand concept: direct exchange of information, skills, or what have you, all in the name of building a community resilience (read: a community with more than one way to get necessary tasks done). And while I conceptualized Green Hand being largely a gift economy in which, for example, everyone’s food security is enhanced by the dissemination of food production and food preservation skills among community members, disintermediation does not require the instantaneous abandonment of the market economy, nor does it require that everything be shared for free.  It happens also at a farmer’s market or roadside produce and egg stand, where money moves directly into the hands of the producer without distributors, managers, advertisers, marketers, or other intermediaries taking a cut of the transaction. It happens when the woefully underused productive capital of the typical American kitchen is put to work turning raw commodities into tasty foods. It happens when you watch your neighbor’s kids for a day after getting some help repairing your brakes.

But while the compelling efficiencies of a roadside transaction for sweet corn, for example, may be understandable to many (and they apparently are for the producer, anyhow), the concept of sharing skills for the sole purpose of having a skilled community is still a long stretch for people. We’re born into the thrall of the market. On some level, we think food comes from stores and believe that money has some kind of intrinsic reality when it’s actually simply a social construct. I’ve taken the money economy and markets to task several times in this blog (some of the more salient broadsides can be found here, here, and here). These articles also found a readership at the Post Carbon Institute’s and Energy Bulletin websites, but these are hardly mainstream venues. However, as immediate conditions on the ground get harsher, as we realize that we really don’t need most of the crap people are selling, and as it becomes obvious to many that Wall Street has become, at best, bloated administrative overhead, and, more fundamentally, a nonproductive skimming and scamming operation, more people may be willing to start waking up from the hypnotic conditioning of money, at which point, mental barriers currently inhibiting all kinds of alternative economic arrangements will start to make sense. Whether the Green Hand plays a part in it or not is anybody’s guess, but I’m still advocating for personal relationships over money-mediated ones because some day we may find that “social security” boils down to a door that opens for us when we’re standing in the rain.

Basically, the question I found myself asking this week was: What if Greer is right and we’re at the beginning of a long slide toward feudalism? You could call our current period 'nascent neofeudalism' if you like big, tasty words, or just “people figuring out smarter ways to be poorer” if you don’t mind plain English. Either way, I agree that it makes sense to start practicing ‘disintermediated’ (i.e., direct) value creation, as well as building the kinds of relationships that can collectively push our society forward when our economic machinery is spinning its wheels.

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Inner Path of Permaculture

There’s something magical that happens for me around mid-July as we decidedly move out of the summer solstice time and I feel reenergized by a barely perceptible yet daily increasing tilt toward fall. I don’t think I’m alone in this, and as we get closer to the month of August and start accelerating toward the equinox, I often feel another, stronger uptick in nervous energy as the days grow shorter. Perhaps in this people are similar to squirrels busily fattening up on summer bounty. Maybe I’m on the same page as my garden leeks, which usually seem to suddenly realize after a few months in the ground that it’s time to get busy and start outwardly growing.

But I love mid-July because, even though I can feel the pace starting to pick up with each passing day, we’re also still plenty deep in the fat part of summer, a time known for bringing on midsummer dreams. I find myself caught up in little whirlpools of fascination everywhere, whirlpools that tend to get bigger the longer I participate in them. I think the languor brought on by summer's heat helps me relax into those places, too. As a gardener or walker in woods and meadows, I am certain I’ve learned as much by ambling about in this way as by disciplined study. Sitting down in the squash patch or resting on a fallen log for a while can be an educational experience, and at this time of year especially, it feels like there’s still time for some of this productive laziness.

Noticing way the tilt of the earth affects the inclinations of my mind and body brought me to a number of thoughts about permaculture as a personal journey. I am reminded of a few years ago when I read Sam Keen’s book, A Passionate Life. The basic idea I gleaned from Keen’s book is that humanity is in the midst of an erotic crisis, and the conflation of the erotic and the sexual is but one of the many symptoms of a broader cultural crisis at the root of many of our social ills. Keen takes his readers back to the original meaning of eros, which to the Greeks was understood as “the prime mover of stars and acorns and the affairs of men.” (p. 26) 

Setting aside for a moment the obvious error evident in the quote above — did the Greeks leave women out of a discussion about eros? — the immediate point is that eros moves everything, which perhaps also explained for them why people, squirrels and leeks all tend to step it up a notch at certain times of year. However, by relegating our conception of the erotic only to what happens in our bedrooms, there is a tendency in our culture not to see how this same forward-leaning impulse of life also moves in our thoughts and feelings, and how it forms the driving energy behind our households, communities, and workplaces. It is easy to forget how this thing that moves us, call it what you will, also connects us to everything else that moves. This connection spans everything from the slowly moving mountains to things most ephemeral: the flash of insight, the bursting of an angel’s trumpet into flower.

This is highly significant, because from what I’ve seen, the strongest practitioners of permaculture are not first and foremost the most learned people. Yes, they do tend to amass considerable, even amazing stores of knowledge, but the most essential quality of real permaculture practitioners is their aliveness to their world, since only by being alive to the world can we align our livingness with it.

However, we run into strong cultural headwinds here. The culture tends to separate things, and our inner schisms ultimately manifest as an overdeveloped capacity to compartmentalize. This in turn is reflected in the structures and systems we design. These external structures tend in turn to militate against awareness of our profound connection with all of life. Modern agricultural practices show one of the more grisly outcomes: the reproductive power of plants and animals is here commandeered and dominated in a way that would make most devoted sadists woozy. We lay waste to the fertility principle. I suggest we do so because we have not adequately cared for our own, and more broadly for that thing now beyond the pale of science that Keen hints at —perhaps we should just call it life.

Keen writes, “First love and sex, like value and fact and mind and matter, were separated. Love became a private, subjective emotion, a way of feeling about another person. Its cognitive status was denied; it was not considered a way of knowing. Modern philosophies of science rejected as sentimental nonsense Augustine’s conclusion that we can only know what we love.” (p. 15) Yes, that does sound like science: Get rid of that fluffy-headed “love” stuff! 

But we see where that takes us, right?  It brings us exactly to where we are, and I honestly think we can do better than this. Love may not be reasonable, but that doesn't mean there is no reason for it. Still, there are those who would say that it is naïve to include feelings in our ways of knowing, or even deny the possibility of connecting with the pulse of life that moves us. Some look at the state of the sciences and say and that what is needed to rectify the absence of these inner connections is a stronger code of ethics. From my perspective there is no evidence to support the idea that external measures will support life-enhancing action in any field when the inner connections to life are lacking or disregarded.

Later in his book, Keen elaborates on the observation that we treat the earth precisely as we treat our bodies. This should come as no surprise, because the two are one and the same. Thus, the junkie and the industrialist, both under their own kinds of anesthesia, become addicted to spilling toxic substances into living streams, be they blood vessels or rivers, and the CAFO operator is, in every sense of the word, a pervert.

In a way, it’s a bit of an irony (and perhaps a great moral victory!) to even study permaculture as I first did, in a university biology department, given the extent to which science has become the handmaiden of industry and a tool for the abstract, symbol-driven world of monetary gain. Take a look at the people who really care about the practice of permaculture and we see that it’s about making connections, and the deeper motives of these people must align with those of the natural systems in which they are embedded. Thus, and this is really the main insight I’m offering here, there is another axis of permaculture practice that intersects with the art and science of arranging elements on a given piece of land. This other axis, the one I’m calling the inner path of permaculture, goes straight through the living heart of the designer.

The importance of this axis is obliquely hinted at when we look at the crucial role of observation in the design process. What moves the designers’ eyes?  What sublime impulse walks us forth?  What moves our thoughts, our feelings, and what brings forth remembrances that lead to sudden conceptions, ideas, and the creative upwelling of inspiration?  In a very real sense, our ideas spring from the soil of our minds as the flora and fauna of that inner terrain. “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower,” as Dylan Thomas wrote . . . yes, that too drives us.

This is why it’s so important to follow those little whirlpools of fascination, the ones that that get bigger the longer one looks, even if it takes a bit of time. Through them, the world looks into us as lovers, touches and dialogs with us, and moves us to its side. When we feel the ancient depth and urgency in the rise and fall of each breath that we take as part of earth, we will know ourselves as well as the planetary system that meets and inspires us, breath by breath, with its own gifts and passion. A friend of mine once quoted, “I am the Earth walking,” and so likewise we must also be the Earth’s thought, speech, and feeling. Taken together, this is the consciousness of unity, and as a connecting science, the practice of permaculture ultimately requires nothing less.

Friday, April 25, 2014

If This Didn't Seem Impossible, It Probably Wouldn't be Necessary

A seed potato in a planting hole, April 2014
It’s been three years since I launched the Green Hand Reskilling Initiative as a way to generate community resilience in the face of economic and ecological shifts. The basic idea is this: display a sign at your residence with a green hand printed or painted on it to indicate your willingness to share skills. When I first put forward the idea at a strategic meeting of Transition groups from around Michigan in Feb 2010, the idea was warmly received, and subsequent conversations with knowledgeable people were very encouraging.

But so far, the simple idea – that physical signs in neighborhoods would generate conversations, skill sharing, and more resilient community, has gone nowhere. It seemed so elegant in principle, requiring no centralized organization, no expensive or hierarchical infrastructure, and no organized meetings except among interested and presumably local people as needed to meet immediate needs.

When I first started the Green Hand website and blog at the suggestion of my friend Ken and the help of my technologically astute daughter, it was intended to be a solutions-focused affair, a celebration of the possibilities of sharing and human ingenuity, promoting the Green Hand sign concept as a vehicle for community building.

Three years later, the blog might just be the most successful part of the project in terms of people I’ve reached, because as far as I know, I myself possess the only Green Hand sign in existence. I wondered about this failure for some time as I continued with my increasingly sporadic blog postings and occasional presentations at community events. Was the problem my admittedly lackluster performance as a promoter and marketer of ideas, or with the idea itself?

While I’m certain I could do more as a promoter, before I renewed my efforts I felt that it would be a good idea to vet the concept’s viability again. As it turned out, I had the good fortune to encounter a  consultant in cooperative living with 20 years’ experience in the field. After sharing my "elevator pitch" version of the concept, I asked why the idea wasn’t getting any traction. He said simply: “We’re not ready for it yet.”

Is it really that simple? But then, I thought about what I’m really asking people to do by tracing their hand in green on a sign and posting it. It’s taking a public stand within a known community at a real location. It’s showing up as “different.” It’s opening the door to interactions with strangers. It’s identifying yourself as a person who values basic skills that may not get much attention or value in the world today. It’s saying that you’re willing to do something untried, unproven and maybe even a little bit nutty because it’s a dead certainty that the stuff we’re doing that seems ‘normal’ is leading to a nasty future. It’s saying: I’m here and I’m willing to trust my neighbors enough to start making (as James Howard Kunstler would put it) “alternate arrangements,” because in my view, it seems quite likely that our leaders in government and industry are planning for a future that isn’t going to happen.

In other words, participating in the Green Hand Initiative is asking a lot of people, socially, emotionally, and psychologically. It’s terrible but often true that when people get stressed, they tend to hold more firmly to dysfunctional coping strategies that may have worked in the past, even if they are now plainly part of the problem. Trying new things can get harder as it becomes more imperative.

However, the difficulty of each of the things the Green Hand concept asks of people – publicly identifying one’s self; reaching out in trust and build community solidarity, embracing novelty, ambiguity, uncertainty, and standing up in the face of potential ridicule, taking a stand for a future that isn’t here yet but could be by virtue of my standing for it – these are the very things we will ultimately have to do anyhow.

My conclusion is that the Green Hand Initiative is “failing,” at least in part, because it is asking of people precisely those behaviors and attitudes of mind that, were they the prevailing norm, would render the signs moot. Just as with individuals stepping "out of their comfort zone," in communities the contours of resistance delineate our areas of potential growth. Thus came to mind the maxim: If this project weren’t so impossible, it wouldn’t be necessary.

What to do about it?  Personally, although my blog postings have been irregular at best lately, when it comes to the actual Green Hand work of skill-sharing, plant-sharing, and relationship-building, I keep at it. On that level, I have never stopped. My driveway is becoming a veritable nursery of plants destined for new homes in other gardens. And, amazingly enough considering my location on a dead-end road, my Green Hand sign actually got noticed. One day in the middle of the record-setting winter we endured here in southeast Michigan, I was startled as I drove down my driveway to meet a visitor making his way toward me on cross country skis. He identified himself as a neighbor living some distance away who had seen a presentation I’d done at a local church. He’d seen my Green Hand sign and my fenced-in garden while skiing and wanted my contact info for a friend who was asking to know how to build a fence that keeps out deer and other animals. Of course, I’ll be happy to help. I’m also directly adding labor these days to other people’s gardens, and giving seeds, seedlings, slips, and offshoots away. Last year I estimate I gave away over 100 raspberry canes just as they were leafing out in spring, with maybe 50 or more of them going to one friend alone. A couple months later I received a photo of my friend’s grandson sitting by her new long row of raspberries, messily eating the ripe fruit from his hand.

But honestly, can this kind of thing really help to stave off or mitigate suffering as our high-energy culture sputters out of gas?  My response to that question is that the Green Hand idea is more than helping people grow food or learn other basic skills, it’s also about cultivating relationships in the process. In addition to relationships with plants, animals, wind, sun, rain and soil, I encourage everyone to build human relationships because at a very basic level, “social security” may come down to a door that opens when you’re standing in the rain.

As far as the work itself goes (supposing we as a culture are capable of better than shooting one another for canned goods if food delivery systems break down), we’re going to need to take productivity into our own hands somehow. There’s no time like the present to gather the treasure of last year’s fallen leaves and layer them in place to improve the soil, no better time than now to plant a tree or vine, no better time to befriend a property owner and offer to grow and share some food on an underused piece of land.

Do I honestly believe that the millions of garden spades hanging in the garages of America can make a difference in meeting the nation’s food needs if they were put to skillful use? Absolutely. If not, they wouldn’t have been called into service in the Victory Garden campaign of WWII.

And in addition to uprooting weeds and preparing soil, those shovels can also help dig out the pernicious idea that anything that isn’t the latest electronic gizmo from China is irrelevant to the future. On the contrary, I encourage you to put down your phone and pick up instead a handful of really good soil—at that moment you’re holding something of vastly greater subtlety and complexity. Plus of course, I’m planting potatoes in that soil today because, come November, it’s nice to know where to dig for them, and even nicer if I can find a friend willing to dig them up together. It’s amazing to see how they glow as they come out of the dark earth. You can almost bask in the stored sunshine.

So in the end I don’t see this project as impossible after all, because personally I’ve found a place to build from, and that’s all I can do. Scope and scale can come later, and hopefully will, as changing conditions continue to prompt social transformation.  I take some comfort in the thought that this and many other worthy ideas are slowly spreading, often underground and out of sight, and that they will be ready to sprout into action when we really need them.  For now, my approach is simply to share what I know, do what I can, spend time and work with those who appeal to me, and model what can be done with a piece of land. I can, in short, “be the change,” and if those I share with further expand the web by connecting with others, then maybe one Green Hand sign in the world is enough. At least – like the handful of bee balm roots I brought to a friend yesterday to encourage pollinators in her garden – it’s a start.