Friday, May 27, 2011

Growing Berries and Cultivating Abundant Relationships

A fine drizzly rain was falling this morning when a neighbor couple came over to help me dig a dozen raspberry canes out of our garden.  Our raspberry patch started with only five canes a few years ago and they are now uncountable.  They propagated quickly through our sandy soil covered with a thick layer of mulch I'd obtained by flagging down a truck filled with wood chips after utility contractors came through to clear tree limbs from the power lines.

This is it; this is how the Green Hand Initiative works for me.  When the couple arrived they saw the results I’d obtained with the raspberry plants, and how the free mulch had encouraged their abundant multiplication.  They also got a lot of strong plant stock for free, and I shared information on how to transplant them and what to expect when moving the canes after they had already leafed out.  Plus, they had a up-close view of how I garden generally, and I cut them a couple heads of lettuce.  We probably have more than we can eat this spring.

For me, the first practical benefit was that removing the raspberry plants cleared a pathway connecting two garden sections that had gotten nearly impassable because of the thorny canes.  As a side effect, I’m also willing to guess that through this interaction also I earned some gardening “garden cred” (“street cred” hardly makes sense in this context), and my experience is that this often leads to some paid gardening work, which can be very satisfying.  Plus, later this summer when the strawberries take a turn expressing their overspreading exuberance, maybe I’ll have some folks to whom I will be able to give them so I won’t have to fill a wheelbarrow and compost viable plants just to keep the size of the strawberry patch in check, as I did a couple years ago.

A deeper, systemic benefit to me is that now I have neighbors with more food production going on in their yards.  Personally, I would rather not be the only one around here growing food.  The more growers, the better. 

There are a number of clear benefits of living in a community of growers rather than as a lone nut devoted to helping the planet to transform dirt and waste into food.  What I’ve found over the years is that the most successful gardeners are those who cultivate their human relationships with the same enthusiasm that they cultivate their plants.  The way botanical abundance keeps expanding, it takes an expanding network just to keep up with it!  By building a gardening network, I’ve both given and received many new plants, and had plenty of enjoyable interactions such as this morning’s misty homage to the raspberry . . . and indeed it was a great day for transplanting here.  If you’re going to have the audacity to move bareroot plants in full leaf, conditions could not have been better than the misty drizzle alternating with downpours we had in SE Michigan today.

But finally, and probably most importantly, there was a wonderful feeling of shared gratitude in the whole interaction, and I could feel added depth in the relationship I already had with this couple.  Such sweetness!

How easy all of this is, how natural, and how mutually beneficial.  It’s relationship-guided and natural-process-driven, so everyone comes out the winner.  Sometime soon, I am expecting another neighborhood couple to visit who also recently expressed interest in growing their own raspberries, and I’ll be happy to share more.  But if ever such interest ever exceeds my supply or my willingness to share (which it never has), I’ll just tell people to wait until next year.  No biggie.  It’s free, after all, a true gift, and practically nobody will complain about a gift, even one in the future.

I’m hoping this story inspires others to design their participation in the Green Hand Initiative in ways that work for them.  I can easily imagine a person with a lot of tomatoes to preserve teaching canning procedures to a much-appreciated friendly neighborhood helper who, in addition to the skills, might also be lucky enough to take a few quarts of tomatoes home to be enjoyed like bottled sunshine some January evening.  In my household we have done something similar for years with our annual pesto freezing parties.  It’s amazing how many basil leaves can get plucked and washed after some wine has been uncorked, and with the promise of a great meal following the effort. 

It was also interesting to observe the role my Green Hand sign played in today’s sharing.  I’d already agreed to give the plants before my neighbors saw the Green Hand or knew of its significance.  However, once we were digging, I had a chance to explain the sign and tell my neighbors about the Green Hands website where they could learn how Transition and anticipated economic shifts are part of what motivates me to continue to build capacity and share skills for home-based food production.  So in this case, the communication value of the sign will follow rather than precede our practical sharing.  I’m guessing that until Green Hand signs become more widely recognized and understood, this will likely often be the case.

Well, bravo then!  That works for me!  Besides, the most important outcome as far as I’m concerned is that my neighbors enjoy success with these amazing and generous plants.  If understanding the other layers of my motivation also leads to more sharing in the future, so much the better.  One way or the other, I’m sure those berries are going to taste just fine.

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Lens of Metaphor in Social Discourse

As a teacher in a girls’ lockup treatment facility in the 1990’s, I read about a US Supreme Court case argued during the previous decade in which the “inculcative role” of schools played a part in the legal opinions about the constitutional rights of local school officials to include or remove materials in school libraries.

I found something unsettling about the words “inculcative role,” so I looked up the word inculcate in an etymological reference book.  There I found the source of my discomfort.  While various references will describe the derivation somewhat differently, the basic idea is that inculcate comes from the Latin root calx, or heel, and suggests “to drive in,” as with the heel.

Well, call me an old softie, but I didn’t like that metaphor as a description of the role I was to play in these girls’ lives.  I felt my students had been stomped on enough, some of them probably quite literally, and I sensed that more stomping, even with the best of intentions, was not likely to be well received.  In fact, I don’t really like the idea of inculcating anyone with anything.

Besides, the writer in me winced; the word inculcative is an awkward and seldom-used variation on inculcate, yet some highly educated seated justices decided to use it.  The only reason I can think of is that the word expressed exactly what they were trying to say. 

Fortunately, a few years earlier a scholarly acquaintance of mine had encouraged me to read the works of Jacques Derrida.  While I do not pretend to have understood much of what I read, one idea I did glean from my time holding Of Grammatology in my hands is that much of our language consists of dead metaphors, of which the word inculcate is a fine example. Derrida says words are like coins that have circulated so long that the markings denoting their metaphorical implications have been effaced.  Thus it could come to pass that educated people in the highest court in the land could write about schools stomping values and ideas into children, and do so apparently without the slightest sense of queasiness. 

Such metaphors, however, can be extremely powerful.  Like a transparent lens through which we view the world, metaphors can shift our focus at a subconscious level, shaping our perceptions and with them the thinkable range of our practical options.  And, let us not forget, our feelings and the emotional content of language are heavily involved in the idea-building process.  Even without knowing, for example, the brutal metaphor hiding in the word inculcate, consider how different it would feel to discuss sharing values, or perhaps cultivating, promoting, or introducing them to children. The feeling tone of inculcate casts a particular emotional light on things, with real consequences in the actions that follow.

I believe such invisible metaphors are at least part of the reason why so many of us in the environmental movement now find ourselves in the midst of a multilayered challenge that also embraces the areas of psychology, economics, peace, and social justice.  For example, we may be horrified by agricultural practices that appear very much like chemical warfare, replete with insecticides, pesticides and herbicides. The incidental exposure of agricultural workers to these chemical agents is a hazard like that of soldiers at war, and the contamination of soil, air, water and the general population constitutes what in military euphemism is called “collateral damage.”  Fundamentally, however, the problem is that in the thought processes of those who are creating this system and operating within it, effective action is conflated with killing enemies.  War is in effect the guiding metaphor.  For those who think poetry has no real effect on the world, consider this: the practical upshot of the metaphor of “agricultural warfare” is that millions of tons of poisonous materials flow into the ecosphere, and options available to produce food and fiber without them seem to vanish. 

At the same time, we wonder how to promote international peace.  But how can we do that when the way we “wage peace” is so very like the way we wage war?  Given that killing, warfare, and brutality are central metaphorical constructs that consciously or subconsciously govern the discourse, it doesn’t matter to what field they are applied, be it education, medicine, agriculture, economics, or international affairs.  Since everything connects, sooner or later real (not metaphorical) tanks will roll, and actual toxins will be introduced into the environment by the ton.  Thus we find ourselves behaving in ways that are unfeeling precisely when the exigencies of these times call for us to gather all of our sensibilties: to feel more comprehensively and to think more fully in order to successfully engage with our current circumstances.

With both economic and natural systems in upheaval and big changes both ongoing and immanent, clearly the time for practical action has arrived.  Yet to discover new ways of relating to others and the planet, we will need new lenses on the world.  This is precisely why the development and conscious choosing of new metaphors is needed in the discourse on peak oil, climate change, transition, environmental stewardship, and international peace.  The Green Hand Reskilling icon, the promotion of which is one of the purposes of the blog where perhaps you are reading this, suggests one possibility for such a metaphorical construct.  It is a hand.  It is, hopefully, your hand, reaching out, open, suitable for lending, and connoting all an open hand implies in terms of connecting, creating, giving, receiving, and the all-important quality of willingness to engage with others and the world.  Posting a Green Hand sign is an invitation, a way of saying to the world that you, personally, are willing to step forward, dream up wonderful new ideas, dialog with others, and share visions, information, and practical skills that can make a difference.

Like other powerful metaphors, the Green Hand connects to and draws energy from a host of related cultural signifiers, such as a handshake.  In addition, the idiomatic expressions and words of many languages (such as, in English, “lend a hand” and “handy”) will work synergistically to help extend, define and add emotional color the Green Hand icon’s metaphorical domain.  My hope is that these observations will offer a useful framework for those who would like to offer up their own guiding metaphors to the flow of social discourse.  Upcoming blog posts will introduce more.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Self-Inflicted Injury of Emotional Callousness

I’m drinking a cup of coffee right now, having boiled the water with natural gas.  I’m not exactly sure where the fuel I used comes from, but my guess is that natural gas from various sources gets marketed and distributed together.  Therefore as I enjoy my coffee this morning, people in shale gas states now may have combustible household tap water and carcinogenic bathroom showers as a thank you for my convenience.
One of the hazards of environmental inquiry is to see horrors like this hiding behind pretty much everything I do and much of what I own, right down to the cotton socks on my feet.  And my question today is: How did I get to be so callous about it?  And what should be done?
My most recent answer to the first part of this quandary is this:
Step One is to see that I was born into a culture in which emotional callousness is a fundamental coping strategy. 
Step Two is to notice that approaches to solving the basic problems of living that would be unthinkable if we were not so callous are then baked into successive generations of technology, social norms, and institutions.
Step Three (and it’s a short one) is seeing that it’s nearly impossible for an individual to live in a culture thus designed without also becoming callous.
Step Four puts the whole thing on wheels: as conditions get worse and nearly every aspect of our culture holds in its shadow some kind of hell, the motivators are in place for yet more callousness leading to yet greater violations of sensibility in a self-reinforcing feedback loop.
So that explains a lot about how we got where we are and why it’s so difficult to change: we’re living a callous morality, and we’re doing it on a global scale. Callous corporate ruthlessness has been part of the mix since these entities were first invented.  Ships bearing cargoes of slaves, tea, and spices started the ball rolling, then coal, petroleum, tobacco and “unsafe-at-any-speed” car companies came to rule; when talking about profits before people, it’s nothing new.  Callous government has been with us even longer than callous corporations.  Consequently, as these entities have come to dominate our lives, we have in response become callous as well.  What’s also becoming apparent is that there are consequences to this trend, and that they are serious ones.
“It’s the law of the jungle! It’s a matter of survival!” I hear.
Yes, this is true.  Cultures that are ruthlessly efficient in extracting resources and developing weapons have overrun and exterminated all others.
And now, I would argue, that game has played out. The idea that power naturally accrues to those who are most ruthless and myopic in the pursuit of their own short-term gain, and that this is the best way to run human society, is about to hit a wall. 
In the long run, callousness and consciousness do not support one another.  Although a certain toughness is required of everyone to meet the rigors of life, the tolerance for and even idealization of loss of feeling is not compatible with any sustainable form of human intelligence, since loss of feeling is a kind of loss of consciousness.  Because of this, callousness and power are also ultimately at odds with one another. 
The emotional callousness currently endemic on the global corporate and political scene, as well as in our consumer culture, works a bit like leprosy.  Contrary to popular belief, leprosy does not cause limbs to fall off.  What happens is that the disease attacks the nerves, resulting in a loss of feeling.  Without the conscious feedback loop of feeling and physical sensation, nearly constant unintentional self-inflicted injuries result.  Chronic infection and continuous scarring further the process, until disfigurement and deformity occur.
I would argue that emotional callousness does pretty much the same thing, and although the inner disfigurement is more easily hidden, at least among others who are similarly afflicted and who thus have difficulty feeling what’s going on, the consequences of it are visible everywhere.  I believe we are fooling ourselves in the often unexamined belief that loss of the feeling sense and the inner connection to reality it can provide would have any better practical outcomes for effective action in the world than loss of physical sensation does for the human body. 
Of course, an unfeeling approach seems to work so well at first.  Then again, so perhaps does heroin.  However, the complications that loss of feelings so efficiently eliminates are, in fact, information.  Feelings are an irreplaceable mechanism for inner guidance and course correction.  To the extent that we allow ourselves to become callous, we lose the holistic perspective feelings would otherwise provide.  So, while emotional callousness can be compared to a kind of numbness, it also results in a kind of blindness.  Either way, depending on the degree of the emotional impairment, nearly constant unintentional self-inflicted injuries result.
If my supposition is correct, it seems likely that the erosion and deformity of the emotional potential of humanity would generate other self-reinforcing feedback loops.  On an individual level, disfiguring inner pain often results in further retraction from the feeling sense that would reveal its true nature and extent.  The typical judgment is that it is simply too much.  On aggregate, social pressures mount not to feel much, since one person’s emotions are likely to trigger and thus reveal another’s.  Fortunately, we have the distractions, drugs, and prisons to handle it, or we wait until body systems fail under the stress and then treat the problem in the form of diseases.  A rather reliable indicator of numbness is the level of stimulation required to generate a response.  Here our culture seems to up the ante with every passing year. 
News flash: Callousness, glamorized by many images in the media as strong and “macho,” is actually form of cowardice.  To choose to be unfeeling on a consistent basis is to choose unconsciousness and death.  When the people of a nation governed by democratic institutions embrace callousness as a coping strategy, that nation will be led by those who mirror this tendency.  In time, and often rather quickly, leaders who embody callousness as an ideal will destroy their nations.  The law of leprous self-inflicted injury will work systemically to debilitate the nation and its capacity to respond effectively to emerging conditions.  This is exactly what we’re seeing.  If we cannot change course at this moment, it is because not enough people can feel what’s going on.  Without feeling, there is neither information nor motivation. 
So, it’s not resource depletion, peak oil, climate change, rising population, corporatocracy or environmental devastation that will be the cause of our demise. Nor is the problem a political stalemate or the stranded costs of our investments in useless, outmoded or destructive technology.  These are the not the problems, really: they are the symptoms.
Our callousness plays a causal role here, empowering all of these immanent threats to humanity.  Change that and we start to change everything.  And the beautiful thing is, we can change that.  We can begin right now by bravely choosing a path of feeling, promoting values and institutions that are consistent with the development of feeling, loudly and clearly proclaiming ourselves to be people of feeling, and recognizing that being a person of feeling requires living a life of profound integrity.  
In consequence, as I continue my inner work to open the doors to the deeply informative world of feeling, I must also for example begin to divest myself my participation in forms of agriculture that poison the land and abuse those who work it, and I must shift away from forms of transportation that ruin the air and pollute land and sea.  The reason is, as I open those inner doorways, I feel my connection with all of these things. As incrementally as necessary and always compassionately, a person of feeling is required to connect precisely where the callous approach to living would disconnect.  This is how we heal the planet by healing ourselves, and this is also the wellspring from which we will draw our strength, our inspiration, and our motivation to continue our work in the world.