Leave the familiar for a while.
Let your senses and bodies stretch out
Like a welcomed season
Onto the meadows and shores and hills.
Open up to the Roof.
Make a new water-mark on your excitement
Like a blooming night flower,
Bestow your vital fragrance of happiness
Upon our intimate assembly.
Change rooms in your mind for a day.
All the hemispheres in existence
Lie beside an equator
In your heart.
In your thousand other forms
As you mount the hidden tide and travel
All the hemispheres in heaven
Are sitting around a fire
While stitching themselves together
Into the Great Circle inside of
… and so I find myself again, reading headlines that feel like re-reading; immediate like conflagrations an inch from my eyes, and at once also distant, aged, already rotting like a process whose residues I was birthed into and whose echoes I already know I’ll die amidst.
The news cycle is a cyclicality speeding up. A tightening spiral. Gasp at each weekly, daily, hourly horror and you’ll never again get to exhale.
Underneath the thrashing of dying industries and failing orders there are real faces, bones, acres, funerals, waste; but touching into the media, all there is to experience is that strange empty tentacled addictive pulsar of accumulating ungrieved loss. Even bones and funerals are made somehow unreal. The higher the resolution of the screen, the less reality there is. We consume new media like someone eating themselves into starvation.
I have most of my life been a seeker of perfect information; that is, I look to continually refine my decisions based upon the most comprehensive picture available. When I do Permaculture design, the temptation is to obsessively gather every kind of data available and synthesize it somewhere in my guts until a whole emerges; and then, to continually reassess this as new information inevitably arises. A Permaculture design feels consequential to me, and so I want it to be the best it can be. It tears at me when I make somewhat permanent decisions and can’t undo them as new information inevitably enters. I work with the discomfort of this experience as part of my healing and growth. I practice letting go.
I think when I read the news, I imagine I am getting new information that can shape my decisions. I’ve made what still feel like radical lifestyle choices, and it is hard for my personality type to not want to perpetually revisit them based on new information. For at least three years now, I don’t think consuming media has ever contributed anything useful to influence me. I have so much more to learn about my life path, but I know none of those learnings will come from the noise of mass media. Novel information isn’t media’s job. What seems like new information in the media is really just cycle, repetition; one tragedy published in the document template of the last; a new research study showing that such and such is … or another hands-off nod to collapse, as if it were happening in a popular serial TV show and not to the families of the newscasters, producers, advertisers, social media personalities.
Maybe I am just part of the collective human immune system exploring this drug of horrible news and rapidly refreshing headlines, trying like so many of us to develop the antibodies so our children will know better. Maybe I am just susceptible because it media is unapologetically addictive by design. It has become so addictive by stepping between us and the reality we wander these halls crying for.
Reality is just beyond this strange invisible anxiety engine. Reality is our lost beloved. We can see them just through the headline. Even the great hollowing of loss, unmediated, would be real in a way that would be preferable to this half-life of headlines forever setting the terms for our conjugal visits with reality.
Today, I miss you reality. I miss truth. I remember that reality includes loss, violence, loneliness, confusion, discomfort. I remember that truth includes my own inevitable death and the impermanence of everything I love; and here, across the gulf of the great distraction, the yawning scream of perpetual media, I miss reality, I miss truth. I remember reality, in every one of their seasons and thorns, is my beloved. How can I come home to them again?
I love you, reality. I love you, whole and full world, wiggling emergent universe, richness of moment, preciousness of breath, dignity of decay, potent inevitability of teeming life. How can I be with you?
Here in my ignorance and longing is what I suggest for myself and for others who are trying to come back home:
Shed any last hope that anything important will ever come from the news. Let it go, once and for all. You already have accumulated reasons enough to live your fragile life to the absolute fullest in service of all life. You already have drunkenly tattooed on every square centimeter of flesh at some point the oath to give yourself to love. You already have converted, you already have been initiated, you already have been enlightened, you already are blazingly awake. It’s enough to just stop and look around.
The news isn’t your teacher; you are drowning in a wealth of teachers. Every plant, animal, breeze, raindrop, sun ray, memory, breath, human face carries an infinite library for your heart to apprentice to. The same teachers that have always taught compassion and wisdom through all time are around you in all directions. They are so excited to begin teaching you again. They won’t make you feel bad for even a moment about playing hooky for days or months or years.
… and so, I guess yet again I am committing to dropping the news addiction I’ve dropped before and to starting again the long beautiful practice of hearing the wild and my own heart, knowing that it is the best chance I have of helping anyone in this world. When you talk about the latest tragedy that we can’t do anything about except continue trying our absolute best to serve love and learn how to live a life that cares for the earth and each other, I might seem a little like an ignorant hermit, unaware of what happened twenty seconds ago as I keep trying to learn the long art of taking care of my community, living without oil and corporations, and planting the seeds for Fall, singing a song to myself that reveals to all: I am lost in my own little world as vast as a flower, and narrow as the stars.
there’s a hundred billion stars
to show you where you are
the open hand of space
is holding you in place
-from a song by my friend Pete
Here after this record setting Winter waking up to the whole world outside my Yome glistening; sunlight passing through the prismatic ice crystals into a thousand hues of silence.
Here alone as my beloved is up on a mountain practicing her own sacred silence; alone and fully, utterly, divinely companioned by the Friend the Sufis dance of.
The secret of the life I have been sweating and cowering and weeping to live is that during my struggling someone has secreted into the back pocket of all the emotional baggage I’ve been lugging along a life that is the best imaginable one I could live out on this blessed aqueous earth.
Armored in wool and stripped of stories, I find that this journey into nothing offers the almost inutterably gracious gift of a life I choose wholeheartedly to live until its end.
Time will eat me; may I be delicious for him. I will lose everyone I love and it began happening the moment I was born. Another teacher of my heart, a Permaculture elder whose hand is holding mine whenever I am gentle to a sister weed, who delights with me whenever I garden naked in the sun, who shakes with me whenever I go to the woods to scream, and who harmonizes with me whenever I sing before a meal has become very suddenly sick and in danger of dying. She faces the uncertainty with an open-heartedness that seems no more and no less surprising than the butterflies that came to dance over her mandala garden. She is transforming. Beauty radiates outward.
A month or two ago something physical about our lives was very hard. Maybe it was the cold or lack of water. I told Pickle in great fear ready to give up that under all my pain I wasn’t so upset for my great discomfort, but for the terrifying possibility that this lifestyle turns out to be so excruciating to begin without a lot of money and without a village that when others find out, they won’t want to do it. Beyond the real shame I’d feel for ‘failing,’ beyond the terrible discomfort in my body, there was the worst loss of all: the planet is dying and our demonstration of a possibility will be scratched off the list for anyone who sees what our life is like. We can dress it up and paint signs on it but they’ll know from that sound in my voice: run away from this! take comfort where you can! this life is a mess!
As always, it seems like my healing is the increasingly radical art of staying right where I am.
“Permaculture.” – the art of rooting in place in a way that makes staying possible.
The physical circumstances that brought up my intense despair haven’t changed much yet, but my spirit has. Today I know: this way of life may not be for everyone – but for those it is for: if we can stick with it, under all the suffering a boundless joy awaits.**
I love these 400 watts of power, this tiny little woodstove, this asking sweet neighbors for sweet water, this ability to only afford a dozen young trees for your big Permaculture design, this asking friends for greenhouse space, this absolute necessity to hone with our diamond tears the tools of peacemaking and self-compassion, and this golden miracle piercing the rarest crack in the sidewalk of stories that you are even now trudging towards with your head low like a black bear in a business suit when suddenly choice streams through radiant and sultry saying: “you know, honey – you could choose to leave again but if you want to stay, I’ll be here.”
My life is for learning to stay so I can learn to go. Learn permanence to learn impermenance. Learn wholeness to learn emptiness. When it’s time to die, because I knew what it was to stay, I will know how to go.
** and suffering and thrashing and screaming and hopeless despair…! ***
*** and love as vast as space.
Thank you to all my beloved friends and teachers.
When I am awake, I see us all as one being, one pluriform dream of the earth who is herself one traveling warm teardrop of the universe watering the black soil of void so it can sprout flowering imagination to tickle the face of eternity into the stellar laughter through which tomorrow leaks.
Because I see us this way I know these great currents of life passing through me are passing through everyone else too. We are grains of sand, time is wind, world is dunes. We are waves, time is moon, world is ocean.
It’s this seeing that makes me know my experience, my suffering, my healing are never separate from yours. What lives inside me is at once both wildly its own and indistinguishable from your wild own within.
Since I see this, I offer some of what is going on inside me as I try to keep waking up into what can seem like a nightmare and I offer some of what helps me to stay. I do this in hopes it can serve all of you as my great family and hopes you will share what helps you stay awake, too – because I know in this time of exponentially multiplying distractions, we need to once and all finally decide to commit to staying as awake as we can. To do this, we need help.
Throughout my life I’ve developed the capacity to see in systems – and, I’ve learned that seeing in systems, by itself, can be a deeply painful path.
When offered the most precious gift of food: I often see in the food the fields, the tractors, the workers, the beings the land held before the land made my food, the future beings who will try to ask food from the land, the changing weather the growing of the land contributes to, the priest farmer plant breeders long forgotten by time, the thoughts in the heads of the farmers, the transportation infrastructure, the grocery store, the connection to wall street, the trillions of electronically traded dollars, empire, the military industrial complex, refugees, the rapidly collapsing governmental systems – and so on. This is all in my food.
Sometimes systems thinking is the kind of thing that can make one feel pretty sick.
Put differently, and because a feeling isn’t just ours, it can make one aware of a very deep sickness below the surface.
This awareness for me ever since I started to consciously develop it in middle school (not coincidentally, the time of most feeling like I and everything around me was completely wrong) mostly just kept growing in the background. The number of things I could innocently enjoy continued to drop each season. I gave up a lot. In things I didn’t give up, I still always saw the sickness.
When I saw a city, I saw wealth inequality, gentrification, concrete, pollution, alienation, economic dependence on employment from extractive corporations, addiction to technology. When I saw the country, I saw farming practices that are destroying the soil, the collapse of small farms into big farming businesses, gmo crops, wells going dry, habitat being lost, animals being lost. When I saw the ocean, I saw the rapid extinction of all coral reefs.
When I saw people, I saw everything we knew about deep down but didn’t know how to talk about and so we mostly weren’t talking about it. Everywhere I looked, I saw loss.
More and more of are waking up to this kind of deep awareness of the loss underneath all modern things. When it happens, we suddenly come, completely unprepared by our educations, to a decision point that no one tells us we have come to. It is a taboo to speak of it, yet it is as real as a fork in the road. It is this:
Do we go back to sleep, a little or a lot, because of how bad this awareness hurts? or do we deepen further into the long learning of the ways required to stay awake?
Going back to sleep is subtly orchestrated and endlessly celebrated. Pharmaceuticals, blockbusters, social media, tv, gadgets, empty food, alcohol, drugs, news, netflix binging, video games, empty sex, politics, online shopping – and the addictions of bitterness, forced positive thinking, self-judgement, resentment, regret, envy.
We can fill a life this way so easily and seamlessly. We can keep hitting snooze on our soul’s alarm – and if we don’t get help, I think there’s little other choice. Staying awake is a communal activity.
Sometimes community is people. Sometimes it is the earth, the animals, the plants, the wind, the rivers, the stars, and the songs. Either way, it is completely and utterly necessary to stay with the awareness of the world right now.
Here is where I am right now: I am 35, sitting in a cafe writing after a night of wondering if the ice crystal canopies of the trees above our yome were going to fall through the thin stretched roof, a week into a slow great re-membering of love, a re-opening of my heart.
All at once, the background awareness of how much my own speech was becoming bitter, harsh, cynical, judgemental, hopeless, came to the fore. It came in a crisis where we cut a sweetgum tree that like an omen went the opposite way I thought it would and then soon after I fell into an argument that almost crushed my marriage. When that moment passed, a dawn began to rise within my soul.
For months I’d been feeling the pain of the world so acutely learning each day of something so painful it would be reason enough to reorient my entire life to love – but instead of that turn into love, I just felt more and more bitterness and fear and anger. I definitely did not grieve. I ached in a tightness in my chest that I could not soften. It felt for months like a stabbing pain. I was becoming armored and stuck and brittle.
I remembered. I have been slowly coming to remember over the last week as I quit coffee and following a ceremony a new friend offered me, a burst of abundant love and understanding from my partner, and some great help on our land from friends. I have been remembering that this work I am doing to be aware of every loss and to in that truth heal myself and the earth requires help and gentleness.
I haven’t for months asked for the help of all the teachers around me. The singing coyotes and the stars and the soil my ancestors used to kiss. I haven’t been praying or meditating. I haven’t cried. I lost touch with the other side of the truth of systems seeing, of loving interbeing. I lost touch with that most cherished life-giving sun at the center of every moment.
To stay awake, we need help. This need is a gift.
In Christianity, there is a philosophical idea of felix culpa – the happy fault, the blessed fall. The fall is blessed because it gives us the opportunity for redemption – and redemption isn’t just a removal of the fault. It is greater to have fallen and to be redeemed then to never have fallen because of what the redemption brings. It is greater to have been sick and to know true healing because of what the true healing brings.
In my case, true healing requires I open my heart completely and connect to the earth, plant, fungi, animal, stellar, ancestral and human communities for help. It requires spiritual practices that awaken me to the ever-giving radiance within every moment. Because of this requirement, I come to know the impossibly rich inheritance of the common life I share with all beings and the luminous beauty overflowing within every atom of even the most terrible circumstances. A life in this awareness is the best life one could ever come to live. It is a life where an infinite loving family walks with us through any and every darkness.
Seeing in systems in the 21st century – and thereby opening to the pain of the world – is the beginning of a journey. It is a journey towards a life held in a love that does not end. It is not a line. It is a cycle. Suffering, awakening, suffering, awakening. Horizon, ground, horizon, ground. It happens again, and again, and again, each time a little different, each time old and new.
Thank you to my friends and all my communities for your irreplaceable help in trying to stay awake. Thank you to every time you work to stay awake. Thank you for the irrepressible wisdom that you cannot help but teach.
Living Energy Farm community in Louisa, VA, changed our lives.
They did this by simultaneously articulating the global situation we’re in and modeling a solution upon the same ground.
They gave us a place for our hearts to feel the depth of the danger and loss we are living through while immediately then being able to use this new way of seeing to apprehend the beautiful solution they were growing on the ground around them.
I want to honor the work they did by sharing this to me profoundly helpful publication about the life-support systems they use to live within the limits of the earth. Please read it:
The critique I often share of renewables (e.g. solar & wind) does not apply to LEF’s approach. This is because they adjust demand to supply; in other words, they live with the earth’s rhythms.
Even so, and very importantly, they live with a great degree of what I would call comfort – defined by having coolness in the summer, heat in the winter, clean water, healthy organic food, many tools of convenience (e.g. power tools for building), and even hot showers whenever they want.
LEF does this by bravely looking at the reality of living within limits and designing solutions that elegantly accept that reality. These solutions are skillfully designed. As a result, the seeming polarities of “comfortable life” OR “ecological life” are dialectically synthesized into an AND – a comfortable, ecological life.
It’s important to note that they could NOT achieve this life within limits by just living in a big house as a nuclear family and adding tons of solar panels. To understand why, see their publication and my previous post’s link to low-tech magazine.
In other words: living ecologically does mean living differently and sharing more, but on the home / community / village scale, it definitely does not have to mean living miserably. An abundant life within limits is possible if we have good design. LEF is a shining light of of one way to make it through the present and coming darkness.
While gratefully participating in the brilliant and beautiful recent NC Climate Justice Summit, I did find at least one piece of information on our shared movement I was desperate to hear in the conversation that I did not have the chance to share.
Stated simply: in order for 100% or even 75% renewable energy to work, we would need to adjust our demand to the available supply of sun and wind. High tech batteries can help but do not ultimately change this physical limit. This “shadow” of the renewables conversation is not a small thing. It has radical implications for the economy and our way of life that as a movement we must begin learning to face now.
Tons of smart person data here (and yes, this person is very sympathetic to renewables):
In other words – it would be possible to have a future where we have electricity and we do not destroy the whole planet, but it would mean not having electricity whenever we want or as much as we’re used to. It would mean the current American way of life just can’t be lived without future-destroying overuse of fossil fuels. We would have to adjust our lifeways and our livelihoods to the real patterns of the wind and sun regardless of battery storage. Our lives and our systems have to change – not just our lightbulbs. This isn’t a don’t-use-plastic-bags kind of change but more about actually learning to live within the rhythms of the planet and accept “no power now, wait until morning” as an answer for homes and businesses.
It’s also a pretty sure thing that we couldn’t continue “growing” the economy with 100% renewables. The economic growth imperative as we know it is not compatible with a fossil-fuel free world. Even as we ephemeralize more and more of the economy, growth still requires a growing power supply to support it. We can have economic growth or 100% clean power but not both (…though one of those will lead to its own end anyway).
It is hard for ecological advocacy organizations to accept and speak of this physical limit because it further radicalizes their position from the perspective of business-as-usual politics. The pressure is to adopt a “pragmatic” approach in order to get policy passed and keep receiving funding from large donors who make their money off the industrial growth system coming – but in this case, it can be at the cost of actually meeting the goal of enabling human life to continue on planet earth. That isn’t worth the short-term gains that we can achieve by not talking about the elephant in the room. This is a time to face the darkness together so we can speak the full truth.
The ecological justice movement has done so much courageous work to amplify intersectionalities and see the non-separateness of the different justice movements we work for. This is another of those truths it must learn to incorporate. The narrative around economy, jobs, and increased economic opportunity and the possibility of simply replacing fossil fuels has a shadow that it will need to just as courageously face and integrate in order to be whole.
If de-growth does not become a part of the same conversation as renewables now, it may later be faced as an unexpected limit and be a division point for the movement – or, far worse than that, it will be kept at the margins of the movement and we will continue being enablers of the growth economy’s energy addiction by building the CO2 intensive “clean” but CO2 intensive infrastructure (supergrids, batteries, peaking plants) for a 100% renewable system that can still keep the same corporate-state mess running in the same corporate-state way – which means we could find our grandkids fifty years from now in a situation where we have transitioned to 100% solar and wind with batteries and supergrids that the construction of which put so much CO2 and other gases into the atmosphere that future generations must still say farewell to most humans and much of recognizable life on earth. I think we should avoid that starting now.
This is part of why Permaculture co-founder David Holmgren suggests that the most valuable thing about solar power experiments like we’re currently running is the way they can teach us to live within limits (and right now, with that winter sun, we are feeling the limits! we’ve had almost no power the last three days). This is something missing from all the completely understandable cheerleading for solar panels and wind. I am not stating this to take the wind out of the turbines of my sisters and brothers fighting for clean power but to strengthen the movement with an inevitable truth that will surface sooner or later because of physics.
How can we begin to tell the majority of the people in the US who are used to on-demand almost everything that, rather than a future of flying cars, it will be a future of learning to accept new limits?
I suggest we can do this by becoming the ones who learn the beauty of those limits with our own lives and can speak from the actual joy that comes from the intimacy of living skillfully with the rhythms of sun and wind.
There is a mystery school teaching that the limits of a being are its beauty. The beauty of a flower is the shape of its limitations. The beauty of a bird is everything it gave up. It gave up heaviness, great stores of fat, strong land legs, a hard protective shell, deep ocean diving, warm burrow digging, nimble tree climbing – and in so doing, bird learned to live singing beauty in the heavens themselves.
Will we miss the industrial growth system and the “always-on” digital haze world that we’re all more or less compelled to give our entire lives to serve for the short-term profits of an oligarchy anyway? Let’s talk about whether or not we do when we share food from our gardens decades from now under the finally once again fully visible stars.
Dear friends: I am in the shaky practice of learning to speak my truth without judging. I am still a baby in this – and so I need to say: I trust you, I love you, please bring your disagreement, your wisdom, your forgiveness. I need to speak my truth and it is not in opposition to your truth. However you serve love, I honor you, I trust you, I am so grateful to know you and please forgive me when my pain puts a growl in my voice. I do not growl at you but at my own great delusion that keeps me from seeing you and all life as family. Even when I growl, may my heart yet be in the same moment setting a table for all of us even including all of myself. If the way I speak my truth pushes you away, the greatest gift you could give me is the intimacy of telling me how I’ve hurt or misunderstood you and the call for me to sit and hear who you are and what wisdom your life exists to teach. I don’t know anything but I also must use my voice. May I learn to use my voice to serve love.
It Isn’t Ours
I think owning land is a delusion.
I can’t create or destroy land. It was / will be there long before and after me.
Land doesn’t need me to survive. I need land to survive. I am totally helpless without it and my body is made of it – therefore, I am not the land’s owner, but the land’s child. I approach it only with the delusion of being its “master.”
We are completely dependent upon land’s gifts and health to live. If land decided to cease giving us the gifts of everything we need to live, we would see quickly who ‘owns’ who.
To arrive at the matrix of interlocking cultural assumptions required for us to even make sense of owning land took hundreds of years of indoctrination, theft, and force. It isn’t “natural” to own land. It took hundreds of years of campaigns of slander, violence, and theft to, for example, enclose the commons from the peasants of Europe. We can easily forget, growing up in America, that the concept of land ownership is a culturally bound one local to this time, place, and set of philosophical assumptions that don’t have any grounding in what is real. To misquote, it takes a hell of an education to make us take something this crazy as normal.
Owning land is not like owning a car or a house. It is almost sensible to us how flawed it is by talking about someone owning a whole neighborhood, though a neighborhood is really just people inhabiting structures on top of land. It is more like someone trying to own a river. Every piece of land is infinite and provides life for uncountable other beings through time.
Land is “bigger” than me. A square foot of earth and sky stretches farther above and below me than my entire body and is infinitely more complex, potent, and unmovable. Its memory is longer, its capacity to create life over time is greater.
Land does not have any boundaries. Land doesn’t have a beginning or end. Trees and animals don’t recognize property markers. At absolute best, property markers are a short-term negotiation between humans about how to peacefully share the means for survival. As they mostly are now, property markers are strips of plastic demarcating the ability to refuse others entry and abuse the land and its beings.
Property markers are flags of our old ancestral terror coming from thousands of years of war, exile, enslavement and famine that tell us in our genes that we remember not having enough and must keep what is ours. They are also a legal sorcery corporations can cast to sever themselves from the obligations they have to the land, the past, the future, and all life on earth.
It is Ours
I just returned from the wholly life-giving NC Climate Justice Summit. Many people there understood the basic delusion of owning land at all. Some of these same people (like myself) use land ownership as a strategy to accomplish goals, like protection of ecosystems from industry or helping long discriminated against communities keep home, livelihood, and generations of community, connection, rooted memories, and proximity to the ground and cemeteries containing the bones of their ancestors.
Owning land to protect mother earth and her peoples is one of the thousands of dizzying double-binds we’re forced into when we try to live ethically in decline-stage capitalism. Every time I spoke at the summit about our life and our best guess, I saw the shadow not just of the privilege that allowed us to buy land and add shelter on it, but of buying land at all. In my heart I can only always agree with indigenous peoples’ telling us that land cannot be owned; and we also find ourselves currently by legal definition landowners.
If someone came to us tomorrow and said, “you don’t believe in land ownership – therefore, I am going to do whatever I want on your land” we would try to get them to leave – first, through clear communication; but then if they did not leave, wouldn’t we also find ourselves reluctantly but inevitably summoning like a demon that we do not know the rites to afterwards banish the systems of enforcement of the institution represented by those paranoid orange flags – criminal “justice,” militarized police, the legal constructs of property ownership itself?
The “legal” in “legal ownership” means we possess a power backed up by the entire apparatus of the militarized state. The guns and prisons of the enforcement of law are there at the margins of our deed pointed at no one yet but waiting in the wings. That simple piece of paper contains an intimation of violence at the ready. That violence isn’t to protect the land, the soil, the water, the animals, the trees, but the ability of the landowner to retain the power to restrict the ability to take the life of the land to them and their heirs.
…and here we are, us with every intention of eventually sharing “our” land with others in true equal “ownership” in order to deconstruct some part of this violent delusion of ownership and personal privilege to use that delusion, but we simultaneously stand ready to “defend” the boundaries, keep the gates of who enters and who does not, who lives here and who does not, who and who does not meet their survival needs here and how they do and do not do it.
We Can Try
This, then, is the peace I’ve found for now with this question:
Like all life, all humans (including us) deserve to live and meet their needs and we need to live somewhere and to meet our needs from the life of some land (whether or not we see the face of that land). Owning no land does not mean we are liberating land from ownership. As renters of land / a home in the US, someone still owns it. We can both be more secure ourselves and do much more to protect land by having the “rights” to it. We also are not finding land ownership to be more expensive than renting. The opposite can be true. From this perspective the choice was easy, but there is more to consider.
Why should the land that we happen to be able to afford to “own” be ours just because we could pay for it? We had two good paying jobs for three years while living simply and so were able to save a lot of money that let us afford land; and, it’s completely arbitrary that our jobs that our privilege helped us to get earned more survival tickets (aka money) for the sacrifice of our time and labor than anyone else’s work (…if anything, I would think that the road maintenance workers breathing in toxic asphalt fumes while sweating in safety vests in North Carolina’s furnace of a summer or the sometimes completely unpaid workers picking tomatoes in fields of carcinogenic pesticides for my pasta sauce deserved a lot more remuneration than me in my comfortable office job moving around bytes). What can we do about the unfair distribution of the security and abundance of “owning” a place?
The way that I work with this question is this: those of us who happen to be benefiting from the current arrangement of capitalism can do our part to deconstruct privilege and private property by helping others who are not benefiting from the arrangement to have the same access that we did by actually giving up part of our access – and, at the same time, we can deconstruct land being “owned” by structuring agreements between people sharing land in a way that gives the land an overriding voice in the conversation.
This last point is one of the key differences between us buying our own humble 2.5-acre plot (i.e. what would be needed to meet our needs without extracting the life of land we are not in relation with and so cannot help to regenerate) while giving away the rest of our savings to others for a down payment and the current approach we are taking. We are holding what we believe is a vital opportunity to transform our relationship to land, “property,” privilege, and each-other. By following the former path (donating our surplus), we would be deconstructing privilege only. By following the path we’re following, we hope we can show a model that plants the seeds for a network of collectives deconstructing both privilege and ownership, living in equality and ecological harmony, and entering a scenario that is ripe for us to learn the future-vital tools for cooperation and peacework lost in our alienated to-each-their-own take-it-while-you-can autoplay-next-episode society.
Importantly, we are not going to live with separation between how we live and how the people coming to share “ownership” of the land live. We aren’t going to be sitting on some great discrepant security of savings or some high paying jobs while pretending to be in the same struggle as the people around us. We definitely aren’t going to be anyone’s saviors. We aren’t going to retain some elephant-in-the-room ability to sell the land out from everybody if things ever get uncomfortable for us. We will be skillfully renouncing anything that is more than what we actually need. We will struggle together, celebrate together, create together, as equals; and we will need each other.
From my limited life experience and ignorant perspective, I’ve come to think that this is the only way that “charity” can go without creating more separation – not towards “green” or “social” investing that lets us retain our great distance from the people we “help” while continuing to live a life that doesn’t begin to resemble the communities we “serve,” but a great composting of the inequality itself into something that feeds the life of everyone and that lets us indebted privileged people actually finally be healed within our own aching damaged and therefore damage-causing spirits by the only true riches of interdependence and mutuality with all our sisters brothers siblings plants waters darkness and light. I ask rhetorically: what can we ever know about the “problems” we try to solve unless we have the wisdom of our own bodies’ needs intelligently processing them in order to help us and our community weather the ten thousand storms? There is a genius in need, the ‘mother of invention” that any top-down solutions lose because the people making them never get to actually feel the needs from the comfort of executive conference center leadership retreats and impact measurement infographics tailored to likely even more vastly separated wealthy donors who likely have in their lives had to know very little about what it’s like to kiss the ground and pray for rain.
Compassion has only ever meant “suffering together.” Once your suffering is my suffering, we can together use the wisdom of our own blazing inner lights to inform the permaculture designs and healing arts that can lift all of us together as one out of that suffering hand in hand, teaching each other, feeding each other, needing each other. We remember that without each other and the land, our song is incomplete.
We are the Land’s
None of what we’re doing is a new idea. In the post-industrial US, eco-villages often do just this and this is the model we are primarily following. We are also massively inspired by the egalitarian communities like Twin Oaks, Acorn, East Wind, and others that share the radical economics we are working with. We also know that billions of people currently alive, recently alive, and on through history have already done this including probably the people who once intimately inhabited this very land that was stolen from them leaving confused moderns like me now two hundred some years after trying to figure out what the hell to do about it.
This experiment is a humble attempt to begin the infinite never-ending process of paying some part of the immeasurable unresolvable debt to those people and the earth that sustains us specifically for those of us like myself raised in this very recent version of cultural amnesia and deliberate state-corporate alienation of us from the earth and each other.
So, roughly, our guess, may it please. please serve life!: we buy as much land as we can afford, create an ecological agreement with the land that recognizes our sacred debt to it and our total dependence upon it, and then, living simply humbly lovingly gratefully cooperatively and joyfully within the healthy sustainable carrying capacity of the land (meaning its soil and water health will continue to increase year by year, its wild beings will still roam, its forests will still regenerate and mature, even as people can meet their needs and feel safe and reasonably comfortable), we invite others to share in true legal “ownership” of the land regardless of the monetary contribution they are able to make as long as the community can continue to exist.
Then, with the inviolable agreements we make with the land, we collectively move from “ownership of land” to “belonging to land.” Because we depend on the land for our food, heat, shelter, medicine, and emotional well-being and we meet these needs only within the limits of the land, we slowly move towards belonging to this ground we live upon. We tend it, we care for it, we love it, we shape it – but there is no question that we also need it, we are indebted to it; we are nothing, ultimately, but part of it, and some of us will return our very bones to it. I would say the land “owns” us, but I don’t believe any living thing can own any living thing. Rather, we belong to the land as children, as interdependent caretakers, as lovers. We live in close humble reliance on it that does not let us forget this, but we are not “playing” at being poor. We choose to give away our excess so we can stay in the profound gift of this close intimate relationship.
In this, we are crucially not martyring ourselves or having to leave because we’re too hard on ourselves; that’s bad design and though there will be bad days (like everywhere), we don’t have to be miserable to be humble. It is quite the opposite! I imagine all of us living in something like paradise together because we can feed each other abundant ecstatic foods, be surrounded by piercing natural beauty, and be held by people who love us for exactly who and all that we are – while of course having a very low cost of living so we can dedicate more of our time to purposeful life-serving work, rest, and play.
I have lived in an ecovillage in NC. It was certainly full of problems: most crucially, the cultural and racial homogeneity and the buy-in-cost, which we are trying our best to change with our design. Even so, the village was in some key dimensions the closest approximation of paradise I have known and I would wish it for absolutely everyone because modern “luxury” communities feel like a morgue designed by an Apple store compared to it and there’s definitely no time to miss shopping, netflix or facebook because you are too busy being completely, utterly, and resplendently alive beneath the stars’ eternal welcome home.
Living simply doesn’t usually mean living with heat stroke, frostbite, fleas, or hunger (if the rains come). Thanks to the struggles of all the beings that came before us and those that are working alongside us now, we do know the design patterns that enable us to live both joyfully and within the limits of the land. Permaculture’s promise is that a lot of misery is solvable through good design. We have the profound unrepayable gifts of countless millenia-tested-and-refined subsistence solutions from all the peoples of the world. Rocket mass stoves, terra preta, brilliantly designed hand tools, passive solar design, solar hot water, ancient seeds, perennial food crops, regenerative partnerships with animals, light applications of solar and wind, plant medicine, and the spirit tools of cooperation, meditation, prayer, song, play, love, and peacework – plus, a wood-fired sauna with caught rainwater next to a swimming hole. Thanks to our ancestors and earth healers from every culture of the world, we find immeasurable help on our side to make the simple life really really good and innumerable companions to help us along the way.
It would be hazardous to pretend our approach does not leave an intense power dynamic in place. When one person, family, or small group purchases the land to move from private ownership to collective belonging, they usually get to decide where they want to live on the land first and have thousands of invisible influences on the direction it all moves in as a result. They clear the first small patches for access, for forest gardens. They bring in animals and plants that can change the balance. They also lay down some or all of the ecological agreements with the land that future inhabitants would need to abide by to be part of this belonging. They have thousands of subtle and great impacts on the basic culture of the collective. They also, of course, are actually deciding what land to live on at all. Finally, and perhaps most unjustly, they are deciding as an initial group what additional people are allowed to come share in living together on this land. They can say ‘no.’
I am, then, being a gatekeeper in at least three important ways. I am saying that anyone who wants to live here must 1) agree to a specific kind of ecological relationship to the land that determines some of what they can and cannot do to meet their needs 2) agree to a certain amount of cooperation, emotional intimacy, and conflict resolution that will keep our living together harmonious and our collective surviving and 3) have enough alignment and personal compatibility with us that we all actually want to see each others’ faces every day, through the good, the bad, and the rising waters.
This is not insignificant and it is not fair, but it seems like an essential compromise for this particular guess. I see how privilege led us to extra money which led to more ability to begin the process which led to more initial influence.
This approach deconstructs a lot of the privilege by taking ownership out of the hands of one person, nuclear family, or company, but it still carries a ton of it. The hope would be that much of it equalizes over time as it moves further and further from the initial “purchase,” and more and more towards the collective belonging and legal and economic equality, but it still would massively exclude people who are not willing to live in a certain kind of relation with the land and each other (or who just don’t want to share a life with us!). A little more can be done to remove privilege concentration by separating the land from genetic inheritance. The real “inheritance” is the ecological agreement of belonging with the land and not the right to sell or profit off the land in any way. The children we love may or may not be the caretakers who tend the face of the future wild but they will not be the sellers of it at auction as inheritance defined by ownership of property is a deep disparity-concentrating iniquity in our time.
The experiment does exclude people who are not culturally aligned with the kind of ecological care and commitment to cooperation and conflict resolution we’re talking about. This is very significant, as this would exclude even cross-culturally almost everyone in America right now.
Part of my choice to do this is that I don’t think we’re going to survive the future without cooperation and healthy soil and so while I don’t think everyone needs to base their life around re-membering these lifeways that were how most humans through most of human history approximately lived, but I do think some of us need to and I need to and I also don’t feel comfortable with assuming that cooperation and caring for the earth is this liberal white thing rather than actually what every non-manufactured culture has done for pretty much all of its existence when not isolated by tremendous wealth or being actively hunted starved killed or enslaved. I also don’t think I’m doing myself, any people, or the earth any favors by pretending we can all keep tilling, flying, growing our economy, and using air conditioning and it is just not my path to act like it will be OK if we do when I now irrevocably understand and accept that it won’t be.
A justice movement based around letting all communities get access to the same earth-destroying, life-commodifying and culture-eradicating systems just won’t last very long as mama earth is starting more loudly to burn and to weep and the dying soil has put us all as equals on notice.
With this said: it is also important for me to remember that the scale of our experiment means it is replicable and iterative. Others can copy it and change it open source style. There can be communities that make all kinds of variations on the ecological agreements and lifeways at the core of it. Ours, for example, probably won’t ever accommodate air conditioning or flush toilets, but some ecological collectives could accept those as a trade-off. Others could have a shared spirituality, culture, or ethnicity as defining traits.
We dream of there being a place that feels like belonging for everyone. We dream of a strong resilient diverse network of cooperating collectives across this region and we enact that dream by working to create our own small part of it.
I benefit from hearing and being changed by your disagreement, your body’s wisdom, your life experience, your needs. I am lost without it and I dream so deeply of a regional wisdom council made of a hundred rooted Piedmont communities integrating our different perspectives and approaches into one blazing lamp of uncountable colors that needs no oil and just might save some of our most precious cultural and biological seeds for the future tribes of the long renewal, those for whom I live.
Living the Questions
This, then, is part of our dream and a question we will never lose sight of. How can we move from the lie of owning land to the truth of belonging to it? How can we move from the market assertion that we deserve a safe place more than others to the just sharing of what economic resources we have been given? How can we tend the vital wild together in the shadows of our grandchildren singing a song of love where every voice is heard and where in the silence clean waters still sing, coyotes still play, gentle trees still grow?
In gratitude to my sisters brothers and siblings at the NC Climate Justice Summit. You are all my teachers.
I used all the firewood I had cut last night. I followed the fire right to its very last log. I’d wake up and glance to see if the fire was still glowing. I curled up in a sleeping bag and slept. I woke up cold with no easy way to make it warm. No switch, no dial, nor kindling or firewood. Because I grew up in a safe and materially abundant home, this is was the first time this had ever happened outside of camping. Experiencing this, I learn what it is to depend on heat. Winter has now stepped up to be my next teacher.
Our yome looks like a spaceship inside now halfway insulated with shiny reflective radiant barrier. Seven year old me is insisting we keep the silvery material exposed for a while and spend the winter playing space travelers together. No doubt we face all kinds of imaginary peril, there in our octagonal vessel with triangular windows in the middle of emptiness, somehow coming through it with ourselves and our bunnies and our cat alive and well for our arrival at the paradise planet called Spring.
I don’t know if half of our perils are imaginary or not. This is something that my childhood, mostly sheltered from danger, did not teach: to discern whether or not danger is real. This means once in a while I have to ask myself if all the systemic collapse talk that Pickle and I pretty much take for granted is just another result of not having learned to discern what the real dangers are. Asking this is good and I ask it by relying on others I trust who didn’t have quite the same upbringing I did. The conclusion is that the danger facing everything we know is almost certainly real but that all we’re doing makes sense to do either way because it feels right so we don’t need to be certain. We just need to keep acting in humble service to what we love.
Being scared of everything we know falling apart feels very different than being scared of trees falling on you in the middle of the night. The worst part about being scared of trees falling on us is the nagging sense that yesterday, I could have done something about it. Even tonight, couldn’t I heroically go out in the 20 degree weather and, after I guess hastily researching how to safely fell big trees next to one’s dwelling, throw ropes around them and use wedges and fell them so that we can sleep as safe as possible? This is where some fear for me has a degree of embarrassment and guilt: I could have done this thing if I were good enough / if I had the right priorities / if I hadn’t made such bad decisions / if I were a better permaculturist / etc. etc. etc.. It really as if the fear isn’t the tree crushing my bones as I sleep but the awkwardness of explaining why I didn’t do something about it beforehand.
For the big fear, the fear that can only really be spoken around fires and sometimes even then only by not speaking, I feel less afraid because I know we’re doing all we can. I also feel less afraid because I know we’re not alone. I know our friends and family and teachers are with us. I know the land is with us, patient and generous in light of our fumbling and trying. I know the earth is with us because she is us and when our hearts are open, we are her acting for her. When I feel afraid of it all changing, I know how to ask the stars, the plants, the animals, the ancestors for help. I don’t know when I feel afraid of trees falling on me other than to pace around inside or to hold my breath with each surge of wind that sounds like a tree-snapping gale through the thin membrane of our walls.
When the wind blows, I think to cut the trees. When the wind stops, I think about other things. The trees don’t get cut.
When there’s a drought, I think to catch water. When the rains come again, I think about other things. The water doesn’t get stored.
When my marriage is suffering, I think to heal it together. When the suffering stops, I think about other things. The struggle comes right back.
When I feel sick, I ask the plants and animals for help. When I feel well, I lose the ability to see plants and animals. I become sick again.
Staying with a thought, rooting a thought, staying with a priority, rooting a priority. Rooting the long-growing subtle places of our heart instead of scraping it all clear each day, each year. A life with silence, a life with seasons, a life with little. I’m giving away half my books, I’m shedding possessions, I’m shedding habits. I’m giving love to my friendships, love to my marriage, love to my family, love to my plants, love to myself. I’m also buying an electric chainsaw. I’m trying my hardest to gentle my rushing eroding changing river into meandering channels and ponds that overflow only to give life. I’m learning, over and over again, to stay.
The one storm exhales. The wind is blowing from the wrong side of the forest. At 11am I heard coyotes singing a round down past the stream. Why are they singing now?
The forest feels completely in every way a different being than it did a month ago. Meanwhile, those clouds and I find myself pacing, unable to settle on a task for long.
Saw a small grass green snake I almost chopped beneath my peasant hoe. Moving biomass into piles. This is what animals do, I think. We use our bodies to concentrate the green life from distributed all over to built up in certain places. I’m trying to guide the dream of the young healing forest into the dream of a forest garden. If I get confused and start to think I’m the dreamer, I only need to stand still in the small clearing and feel those backwards winds, feel how I and the soil are holding in the same breath in the same waiting.
Storms rains and winds have this way of totally ruining the work my fear has done all life long to see me and the land as separate beings. Actually what it’s like is the looping anxiety of tired stories falls away as a more elemental fear / awareness / sharpening / reality takes the stage. Here I’m pacing watching the trees, scanning like the vultures, moving down the same paths with new efficiency in response to the chill in our fur each of us mammals in this young forest are feeling alike.
I see ahead a season of winds and rains punctuated by small charcoal fires and then more winds and rains and all along something in our cells saying let go, get ready, grow fur, get light, burrow, nest, prepare, walk fast, eat lots. It isn’t yet the season of the scythe and it also already is and always has been.
Somewhere in me I know there is only one storm. A storm has no beginning and end. You can never draw its limits. There isn’t a place that isn’t the storm. There isn’t a place that isn’t the calm. Here the awakening chill is just the distant whisper of a roar happening to places we know or have heard of. We are flooded and we are dry.
Our way of life makes hurricanes. This isn’t because we’re bad. We’re trapped and we don’t know how to do it different. I drive to the coffee shop because I am lonely and I am a hurricane maker.
I think if I didn’t have permaculture and all the permaculture teachers I’ve learned from I’d have given up by now; even then, all I really expect from permaculture is to slightly control the fall. Permaculture is a parachute for civilization – we will certainly fall but we can have a little say of where we land. The best dream I seem to be able keep is that we’re falling together holding hands, singing songs about the beautiful fall and seeing and telling from the high vantage point of people falling the vision of a land and people restored and healed on some day to come.
Like coyotes we will learn to sing as the storm winds begin at once to blow.
I only know the smallest fraction of the beautiful contributions of Chuck Marsh in the service of mother earth and from that glimpse alone he is a hero to me.
Permaculturist Chuck Marsh died yesterday, his spirit set free to echo on in the lives of the plants and people he tended joyfully, generously, with laughter, skill, and devotion.
I am grateful I had the opportunity to learn from him even a little and to bathe in the peace of the place he helped to create, the courageously always flowering and reflowering Earthaven Ecovillage.
The last thing he ever said to me was, “nice hat, brother!” This is probably the point I decided to permanently wear a hat whenever I ‘do permaculture.’
To honor Chuck last night, I made a biochar fire in the site of our future forest garden. I’m sure those at Earthaven were offering their own beautiful prayers as I know they have so powerfully learned as a village to do.
Here is a Permaculture Podcast where this dear human talks about the neo-horticultural revival: http://www.thepermaculturepodcast.com/2012/chuckmarsh/
…and if you tend to fruiting perennials of any kind, his free videos from the Useful Plants Nursery he started at Earthaven are a tremendously helpful resource: https://www.usefulplants.org/
May the seeds he planted in the hearts of so many all flourish. Peace, Chuckster. We’ll watch for you in the garden.