in the Piedmont in the early 2010s….
… we were suddenly starting to see the cliff we were walking towards. We had been rushing around late for something with our heads looking down at our new screens, transfixed by the low-level panic of coffee, social media, and the background awareness of a deep hopelessness. Our attention spans were in tatters. Our hearts were tired. We knew it was bad but didn’t know how to change things. We still thought that probably, solar or wind or even nuclear power would somehow save us.
For many of us, a techno-fix was easier to believe in the early 2010s when people who seemed sure of themselves were still confidently publishing things from ivory towers or silicon valleys saying that something like the increase in driving route efficiency of people using smartphone mapping apps would be the kind of thing that reduced emissions enough that a lot of us could keep on going to jobs in air conditioned office buildings where we learned new productivity software to maximize some output. Whole Foods would ban plastic bags and somehow we’d be fine.
It was possible to think that Elon Musk or some other techno capitalist hero would create some kind of battery that defied the limits of growth and kept the show on the road. It was all really hard to think about for long and still easy enough to guess someone else, smarter than us, really rich, and with a lot more time than any of us seemed to have, knew what to do.
Some of us too had been sure there was going to be some kind of great shift in consciousness. We’d reassure each other at festivals that some great awakening was about to happen. The world would soon look like one big ecovillage.
Even the climate scientists collecting the data counseled each other not to say how bad it was in fear it would render people paralyzed, unable to take the very steps that those same climate scientists privately admitted probably wouldn’t matter anyway.
In the Piedmont in the late 2010s…
…many of us finally decided to stand up and look over the precipice. That election happened and many of us learned to loosen our grip on hope. We let ourselves learn in how many ways we were too late and we watched the world move further away from any kind of meaningful remedy. We learned more about methane under the permafrost and cascading runaway events we’d already set in motion. We started to see what would now almost certainly happen just in the lifetime of our children and the children of our friends. We became sick and dizzy. A great rift tore our hearts in two.
The reality of how we were too late for so much we’d already missed made many of us so dizzy that we started to trip and fall. Some of us didn’t get up. Just when we were about to make a home in despair, isolation, bitterness, addiction, medication, and digitally reinforced numbness, we found each other. We found each other and we took each others’ hands. We found a connection to something greater than hope or fear, success or failure, loss or gain. We learned to flower as the people who were already too late. We dedicated ourselves to all life.
This dedication to life meant every day we would weep and bleed with the wounds of the land, we would suffocate with the dying coral reefs, and we would suffer with the billions of people yet to be born; it also meant we would become woven inseparably into the life of all of it. Because we would let ourselves feel the wasteland of a tilled up field and the anger and sorrow of our great grand children, we could also feel the yearning of a spring shoot and be held by the vast open palm of space, familiar and kind. We could know the love that births stars and our hearts would be the wholeness of a forest. We could come to love ourselves and each other with no hesitation remaining.
Nothing had forced us to change yet, but our awakening to the life of mother earth made it harder and harder to keep doing the things that hurt her. We shed international vacations, went through the awkward miracle of getting to know our neighbors and letting them know us, and created ecstatic local community celebrations that could wake the dead and left us with far more than travel photos and debt; we slowly with the support of each other and the living earth got off our medications and learned the art of following the feelings we’d criminalized to the grove of mystery in our heart they had always been beckoning us to; we gave up screens and learned to be musicians, poets, dancers, storytellers; we stopped buying shit and our hands came alive with making; we stopped always looking for a cooler town so that the patient ground beneath us could finally wind its tendrils into our veins and claim us jealously; we canceled all subscriptions, traded air conditioning for earth walls and swimming holes, careers for livelihoods, and we accepted hopelessness as the complement to a newfound fearlessness. We did this all kindly together non-judgementally and piece-by-piece simple as leaves shedding water because we were in love and we wanted nothing more than to give gifts to all the forms of our true and one wild love.
In the Piedmont in the 2020s….
… knowing hopelessness and knowing we had no chance of succeeding, a wild idea began to root in us: what if we approached the ending of all life as we know it with style? Like the flowering of generosity we sometimes create in the face of a terminal illness: what if we came together to give, regardless of outcomes and with hands empty of hope, the most beautiful gift we can imagine to the future?
We came together. We decided to focus on land because it could connect so many needs and create the greatest reduction of atmospheric carbon and the greatest health for people and the wild. To do it, we wouldn’t have to wait for politicians or corporations to get it. We could act and so we did.
We were activists, novice and storied farmers, immigrants, scientists, unkillable ancient locals, people of faith, high schoolers, oil war veterans, concerned good hearted humans, and a lot of permaculturists. Somehow – maybe because we all knew the hour was so late – we managed to agree on something like a plan.
Economic shocks in the 2020s meant a lot of small- and mid-scale farmers were having to sell their land. The kind of farming that had gone on and long been unsustainable ecologically was now unsustainable economically too. Big developers and automated mega-scale industrial agriculture corporations were going to buy all this Piedmont land by the thousands of acres for almost nothing. California’s droughts had made it less arable and with lands at these prices and subsidies coming from an even more corporate corrupted government, automated big-ag could make a profit by selling the last of our area’s fertility as exported pork and soy. Wastes would run into the river and new chemicals into the bodies of the rural poor and big-ag had been permanently protected from lawsuits by the corporate state.
It was hard to begin, but the rapid threat of seeing all this already abused farmland right in our backyards become further destroyed pushed us to leap. We decided to stand up exactly where we were. We used all the decision-making and cooperation tools we knew to bring people together to use the lie that is land ownership and the poison that is money to buy thousands of acres of Piedmont land. We hoped this would be the last time the land would ever be bought and sold. We covered the land in covenants, agreements, and prayers. This land became the ground for our beautiful gift as the people of the Piedmont living in the time of too late.
We spent the 2020s learning to cooperate, planning, researching, acquiring land, finding allies, developing our permaculture skills, and laying the groundwork and agreements for the plan.
In the Piedmont in the 2030s…
… We had reached fifty thousand acres to be collectively managed as a heavily carbon sequestering air and water cleaning wildlife sheltering cooperatively controlled commons to serve life in this region.
The biggest difference between our collective land and existing conservation projects was that we would work with land intensively to also meet human needs as part of restoring the ecosystems so that those needs didn’t have to be met through degrading other land or participating in the industrial growth economy. We wanted skilled humans everywhere in the fields and forests helping all life to thrive including themselves and their neighbors.
We trained each other. We did everything possible to make sure that the small farmers and people of the rural Piedmont, as well as anyone in a disadvantaged situation who wanted an opportunity to live this way was invited to learn. In some ways, people who knew little were a blessing. They didn’t have to unlearn anything. In other ways, we benefitted immeasurably from the wisdom of farmers who had been here for generations.
We studied soil health, no-till, silvopasture, watershed regeneration, coppice agroforestry, natural building, regenerative grazing, seed and animal breeding, fire management, appropriate technology – as well as racial equity, anti-oppression work, consensus and sociocratic decision making, non-violent communication, emotional intelligence, cooperative living.
We made our projects economically viable, knowing we lived in the time of transition. The pastures we converted to silvopasture were more productive than they had been and needed fewer of the inputs which were quickly rising in cost. The permaculture orchards took a while to be productive but eventually became overyielding polycultures. We made medicines out of medicinal mushrooms and plants. We created fast-rotation bamboo biochar for ourselves and other farmers.
Importantly, we secured public and private funding for carbon sequestration. Lots of money was being thrown internationally at climate change and while most of it was going to corrupt contractors on pie-in-the-sky techno fixes, the amount our farmers needed to be viable was a drop-in-the-bucket compared to that. We could prove that we were sucking in thousands of tons of carbon with our land management approaches and we got paid for it.
We also cut our costs of living down to almost nothing. Being part of this collective, now hundreds strong, meant almost total autonomy but also required keeping certain agreements. Among them – we would help each other. Since we created our own food, fuel, fodder, fertility, fun, medicine & building materials, we ran collective schools, we lived in small collectively built and intelligently designed passive home, we shared tools and cars, and we shared elder and child care, the cost of living became less and less each year. Meanwhile, our skills kept increasing and the yields of our perennial crop systems did too.
This was more important every year as automation of jobs increased and corporations consolidated control. We recruited a lot of our next wave of forest tenders from the vast swaths of unemployed and from those whose corporate employers seemed daily to engineer graver and graver insults to human dignity for less and less pay. The life we offered was sometimes a terrifying leap even for the most renegade of us; but the life the industrial growth system offered was becoming worse by the minute. The spread of private debtors prisons sent a lot of would-be college students to learn tuition-free from our flowering fruiting wilds instead of risking lifetime corporate servitude.
We had a health care plan and maternity leave, too, when almost no one else seemed to anymore. Being part of the collective meant that we would take care of each other. If someone was sick or a new parent, we worked their part of their project. If someone was going through a crisis and just needed to fall apart safely, we helped them do it and welcomed them back when they were ready. We were a village for each other.
Because we were a collective and managed so much land with so many different strategies, it was always possible to connect any land’s “waste” to another part’s need. It was possible to raise water tables and heal whole watersheds. Because we were so many people, we soon had an expert on everything who could teach everyone else.
We gave tours and taught workshops. As climate change ravaged our area, our recharged water tables, heirloom seeds, irrigation-free growing, windbreaks, perennial crops, and fungal no till soils meant we sometimes had crops that were the only survivors of the kind in the region; and when the staple foods traditionally grown could no longer withstand the extreme weather and unpredictable dance of insects and diseases, our diversified forest farms and silvopasture polycultures backed us up each year with something nourishing that could carry on. As oil costs went up, we were the ones who could show how to grow copious food without plastic, industrial products, or mined inputs. When peak phosphorous finally drove the price of phosophorous inputs inaccessibly high, our diligent mineral cycling saved us. We shared everything we knew with an increasingly interested populace. Some of the farmers who originally thought we were crazy had started to hang around at our barbecues and we were everyone of us the richer for it.
In the Piedmont of deep time…
… I don’t know if we saved anything. What was going to happen happened; but along the way, more and more of us started to be claimed by this great flowering being beneath us, the foothills of the Appalachians, the oaks and hickories, the gentle roadside weeds. Our effort was the prayer that Something old and kind had been longing to hear again and that was Enough.
Acting so strongly like we did without any real hope of success never really made sense. We gave and gave knowing that some day we would have to lose it all. In this way, it was exactly like falling in love.