The Effect

On the way out of this year’s life-giving Firefly Gathering a new friend asked potent questions we didn’t have time to answer:

How do we think our move towards creating a community in a rural area away from the city still can be a part of affecting significant change on all the major social issues of our time? In other words – are we hiding in the country taking care of ourselves while the world burns? How is what we’re doing part of anti-oppression work? How does it address the overwhelming increasing global suffering outside of our little forest?

I told our friend I’d write a blog post and send it on, and so here it is.

While I know in my heart there is no one right way to live or one right answer to any of this and that we need people working in all places in all ways for the healing of the world, I arrived at this lifestyle in part because it was the only answer I could personally come to believe in doing (with my limited knowledge, learned biases, blind spots, fears, loves, etc). For me with my limited perspective, this way of life is my best guess at an appropriate response.

The best way I can explain this guess is by approaching it both from the dimensions of gut feeling and of systems thinking.

Systems thinking is how, years ago, in response to the world pain I was feeling, I approached the question of what I could do seriously and I began to eliminate some guesses of how to do this. As I continued to explore hypotheses and learn more, my guess became more and more refined towards this one.

The paradox here is that while I use systems thinking to eliminate many approaches to world change for myself, I still respect anyone else’s choice to take any of those approaches and can believe in most of them pretty well. This is because I follow another systems thinking principle: that a healthy intelligent system (in this case, our collective response to the pain of the world) involves diverse inputs receiving and transmitting wisdom about different parts of the whole that they uniquely experience; in other words, other people know things I don’t and that’s wonderful. If I love you and trust you, I love you and trust you and I am so grateful you can see things I don’t and so contribute intelligence to the healing that I can’t.

I also struggle intensely with trying to have the ‘perfect’ answer in a way that I know is based largely in my own beloved neuroses. This is why I had to do a lot of consideration of all the possible ways people follow to make change and rule out the ones that didn’t work for me.

So then – please take my writing here as revealing my own personal thought process to guide myself and not as the one true or right answer. This is not meant to be persuasive. I really believe that part of the power of Permaculture is that a skillful practitioner guided by the more-than-human-world can apply it absolutely anywhere. There is no right way to live and there are endless ways to love the world and I am grateful for all my fellow beings doing whatever they do wherever they do it and loving however they love. We need all ways and every act to relieve suffering of even one being even for one moment matters completely. 

Why I don’t want to live in the city

We were previously living in Durham. Community organizing and neighborhood-level power is one route I did see open as a potentially meaningful and effective way of creating change. For me this started to turn when I saw that if we were going to continue to live in the cities near us, we had one of two options: either to buy into an affordable neighborhood, or earn more income to live in an expensive one.

If we lived in a neighborhood we could afford, we could find no way not to contribute to gentrification. The towns near us are experiencing massive and rapid neighborhood-by-neighborhood gentrification, tripling of housing values, massive explosion of condos, and a rapid homogenization of race, class, and culture. Our attempts at creating community sometimes seemed to make it worse. I came to think, in my pain, of activists and artists like ourselves unwittingly serving as the first wave of development in affordable neighborhoods that would make them “safe” and “funky” for the second wave of condos and then the third wave of yet more luxury concept hotels (i.e., Durham).

Additionally, the kinds of community activism we tried over the years (gift economies, alternative currencies, barter networks, commons) were always interesting, meaningful, and led to some benefit, but never became an actual meaningful alternative to business-as-usual because none of us in the city needed to rely on them. They were something fun that some people chose to work with but did not ever reach the point of demonstrating a viable alternative to the industrial growth capitalism all of us in the city needed to rely on to pay our bills. I don’t think it’s impossible that they could and they may come to as things get harder in cities, but for now the commons in cities always seemed to serve as primarily an additional benevolent layer that never touched the root of the system devouring the world.

The second option – living in an expensive neighborhood that had already gone through this – meant we would have to work so much that we couldn’t afford to do anything but earn money, that we would have largely culturally homogeneous friends and neighbors who didn’t really need a commons to survive, and that, I suspect, we would be in some way become more and more servants of the industrial growth system that offered us the paychecks required to afford that more expensive way of life.

With an already gentrified neighborhood, if something needed to be done that wasn’t significantly financially rewarded by the system, we would not be able to do it and still pay our bills (& I think just about everything that needs to be done is not every going to be significantly financially rewarded by the system since most of what needs to be done would undo that same system).

As resource-scarcity and industrial automation increase, the jobs that will still be rewarded by the growth system will likely become increasingly and increasingly onerous in terms of both daily worker experience and the ways in which they contribute to the exploitation of people and planet.

With either option, city life still means relying on resources extracted from somewhere else. Most estimates of what resource base it takes to support a human being require more than a few acres even in a very simple lifestyle. Though I think urban forest farming has significant potential for city self-reliance in food production (with some major caveats for where the fertility comes from, since we don’t have horses making manure everywhere like the 19th century urban market gardens of Paris, or the minerals, since we’ve depleted them all in city soils), building materials, firewood for heating and cooking, energy for keeping houses cool that were designed around cheap oil availability and air conditioning, and all the energy required to maintain urban infrastructure that urban life is dependent on results in the taking of resources from some other ecosystem outside the city limits.

Finally – both Pickle and I came to believe in Intentional Community / collective ownership and living as a vital part of the puzzle.

To get to the root of our separate apartment, separate land, separate property, separate lives alienated culture and return to the interdependence of a village that is vital for an ecological life and to learn the tools of cooperation that can hold us together when our government enforced agreements begin to falter and economic stresses increase, we need to be able to live together.

My own experiences at Earthaven and Twin Oaks convinced me that a life lived as separately as most of us do in the cities is not how we were born to live. We were evolved to be intimate and relational beings. My experience at Living Energy Farm further taught me that most of the ecologically appropriate technologies we need to survive a post-oil world make the most sense at a small community scale. Owning enough land collectively in a community to meet our needs is extremely difficult.

Punk collective houses accomplish some of it but few of them can acquire long-term stability or meet their resource needs. Co-housing communities accomplish some of it but are usually totally unaffordable for most people and also don’t often meet their resource needs. Walkable friendly neighborhoods accomplish some of it but never get to that level of collective decision making or interdependence that is at the heart of true community.

When things get tough, we just go back to our own houses and so we never really have to learn to live with each other.

I do think it would be easier for us to live a lower carbon lifestyle in the city; in fact, we were living one (though I suspect we can long-term change this both by having a community around us to meet our needs and by practicing carbon sequestration via biochar creation, soil building, and forest management strategies). This is acceptable to me because my theory of change isn’t just about reducing my impact….

Why I don’t focus on reducing my impact

I can reduce my impact to zero (i.e., I can die) and nothing in the greater systems trend will change. Shocks to the system will happen, chaos will spread, things will fall apart, suffering will increase. Focusing on a single number makes us lose sight of so much. This is different from focusing on non-participation in systems of violence (e.g. extractive mega-corporations) which I think can make a difference if we make this non-participation choice available to others. Instead, I’ve come to believe in Permaculture’s philosophy that while reducing our footprint, we need to increase our handprint.

What My Gut and Heart Say About It

Doing what we’re doing feels absolutely right to me in my heart and gut. Relying on corporations that destroy people and planet doesn’t feel acceptable for me anymore. In the image of the product or food item I’m holding, I see the suffering embedded in its creation. Living close to the earth feels beautiful and life-giving. Living the way we’re living feels like I’m learning to let the planet speak through me. I know at the end of the day that it is right for who I am. I can find endless gratitude for the opportunity to serve life in this specific way. It works with my specific gifts and simultaneously heals my specific wounds so that I can continue to heal the wounds of the land and of others.

If You Do Want to Live in the City or Have to Live in the City

Your life in the city is still extremely precious and potent, and there is a magnificent Permaculture book arguing that we can and should focus Permaculture on cities and that the advantages of doing it there are as numerous as the advantages I think of for rural places. Here’s that book:  Permaculture City

What I Do Focus On

Here is a fast vision of what I think we can do by living rural in this way.

We can actually come to collectively meet our own needs. Within our community, we can learn how to meet our own needs for food, water, shelter, medicine, fuel, fiber, fun, friendship, beauty, joy, purpose, and so on. The whole ‘means of production’ thing is so critical. Land is the only reliable ‘means of production.’ Everything else produces for a capitalist marketplace that may or may not need you tomorrow.

We can create an option that is actually accessible to people violently marginalized by the industrial growth system. Because the rural ecological life can be lived with far less dependence on earning money (land is cheaper, needs are simpler), the way of life we’re experimenting with can exist as a real viable option for people who are continually priced out of life in gentrifying cities or discriminated against in terms of well paying jobs. Arguing for a living wage is important, but creating a replicable way of life that is at its very root more affordable does both far more to create a stable dependable life for systemically marginalized people and more to slow and soften the eventual massive destructive impacts of climate change and market collapse that will almost inevitably follow the usual pattern of hitting those who are most already injured by the system the most.

The rural cooperative model offers the basic dignity of people meeting their own needs rather than trying to convince a racist, sexist, classist system to throw us a bone by not make the gross inequality even worse. Instead of focusing on petitioning corporate executives to create more jobs by decreasing their tax rates, we learn to rely on our own hearts and hands and those of our neighbors.

We can move to a renewable wood-based livelihood that can work for future generations. It is possible to meet our energy needs for a simple life but we need biomass to do it. Solar and wind at small scale will always struggle to meet our heating, cooking, and cooling needs. Using coppice agroforestry practices, we can do it without deforestation, but it still requires trees. A wood-based livelihood for all, incorporating these new understandings of coppice agroforestry and biochar production, could become a truly sustainable model for the future. We can additionally sequester carbon in the form of sustainably grown lumber for two-hundred year small homes rather than making disposable factory-made dwellings that fall apart in decades and become poison in the landfill. I can’t see any economy working in the future that isn’t based primarily on well managed trees, soil, and healthy aquatic systems as our primary renewable resource bases.

We can be a model for accessible low-tech distributed reduction of atmospheric CO2. Permaculturally managed land can offer a solution right here and right now that each of us can do to pull CO2 out of the atmosphere and turn it into healthy soil to support life. Waiting for policymakers to do this or for high-tech solutions with unforseen consequences to solve it is likely to lead to catastrophe. When we work with land, we have a directly accessible route to reversing climate change (via a coppice -> biochar – > soil carbon – > coppice cycle) that also regenerates topsoil and provides us with food.

We can have time to do the work that needs to be done. Because buying land is cheaper than buying a house, we can, if we’re willing to live simply, support ourselves on very little money. This means that we have much more choice in what jobs we take and most importantly, free time to do what will never be called a job but needs to be done.

We can have a community. While neighborhoods are still sources of community for many, the difficulty of ownership for most and the fluxes in market prices and available jobs lead to frequent migrations in and out that disrupt forming community. Rural communities can potentially have much more stability by starting simple and staying simple. You can get people who really dig in deep to knowing place and each other. We can also buy enough land that people can live together and share ownership. Acquiring land in the city that allows many people to live together and meet their needs is almost impossible.

We can meaningfully participate in and support existing rural communities. If we feel a need to work to lift up populations of people who have disproportionately borne the brunt of the violence of the industrial growth economy, we will find those people everywhere in the country. Of course – if we approach this as being the heroes we’re going to cause a lot of problems and miss out on a precious opportunity to remember that we are the new people there and our job is to listen, care, and ask for help as often as we give it.

We can experiment. There is a great need to find lifeways that can work for this entirely new era we find ourselves in of 9 billion people, powerful extractive technologies, shredded remnants of ecological cultural lifeways available but growing in the margins. The rural areas can be a living experiment for cooperative living close to the earth in a way that cities, with their upheavals, lack of available experimentation space, and complicated overlapping political and economic interests, cannot. Permaculture experiments especially take years and even decades. It’s unlikely someone will suddenly build a highway or extend the city development plan through a rural Permaculture experiment sufficiently outside the city. It is also far easier to experiment with alternative dwellings, water systems, and energy systems in a rural area.

We can learn from earth how to live with earth and ourselves. The skills we need to survive without violent extractive corporations are almost lost in America – but beyond the physical skills of growing food without tractors, we also need to learn how to be basically OK with ourselves and to see like a mountain. Permaculture believes that nature is the greatest teacher of what is real and what works. Like Masanobu Fukuoka, we can take our philosophy to the soil and see if it works. If we approach earth systems with our delusions of separation, or our aggression or our greed, eventually those systems become depleted and we fail. All the layers of abstraction that the bizarre modern economy puts between us and reality fall away when we are in a forest itching and thirsty and wondering how to keep from giving up every single day. Living close to the earth, we live with the greatest teacher and lover we could ever ask for. Earth can teach us how to work on the root as it exists within our world and ourselves.

We can network. Urban activists and collectives can work in a potent synergy with rural cooperatives. The wisdom and unique resource bases of each can form a powerful link of mutual support. There are innumerable benefits to having radical rural collectives and radical urban collectives working hand-in-hand.

We can heal. Part of being alive now is acknowledging the traumatic upbringing most of us have experienced as part of the industrial growth system. Schools-as-prisons, prisons-as-prisons, constant messages from the media to be aggressive towards ourselves and fearful of everyone else; we are almost all deeply wounded inside. The pressure a lot of activists put on themselves is to see their own healing as something they don’t have time for or that is selfish; but without healing ourselves, we will eventually recreate the patterns we are trying to work to undo. Living rural gives us an opportunity to create a model of a non-violent world free from extractive and exploitative systems while simultaneously healing ourselves. The work for the world and the work for ourselves doesn’t have to be compartmentalized. In the forest, nothing does. Each day is born as a fertile question of what our lives is about and instead of facing it alone, we have the innumerable living beings of the land to walk with us as we make our guesses one moment at a time.

A dream:

People aching with the pain of the world sell their city houses and leave the city. They buy land together and near each other in rural communities in which they absolutely listen to, respect, learn the history of, and humbly contribute to (and depend on).

These small rural collectives cooperate so that when one struggles, the others hold it up. Then the network weaves together in the form of collective decision making and economic power. Each part of the network contributes to a fund that helps people who cannot buy land but who want to live this way acquire it. Each person who buys land in this way agrees to certain ethics of earth care and people care.

The countryside becomes full of healed forests, rivers, and meadows where the seeds of a viable lifeway form. By the time the system starts going through greater collapse and the jobs begin evaporating, there are hundreds of thousands of people practicing Permaculture in the rural areas who know the formula of how to live lightly and live together. The next wave of people leaving the cities were anticipated and they are welcome.

The collective learning of all the nodes of this rural network means the livelihood they provide, while still very much living within the limits of the planet, is beautiful and joyful, simple and smart. The people welcomed into it suddenly discover a sense of purpose that being assigned as a random cog in a big corporate bureaucracy never provided. The wisdom they bring helps it all really come alive.

People have learned to grow food for a whole family on 1/4 acre with no loss of fertility. No one really needs much money anymore. A new culture of music, celebrations, and ritual emerges around these lifeways, guaranteeing the survival of it for a time through the changing future.

The hills and valleys sing with the joy of free beings willfully tending the wild.

Life Within Limits and the Falling Corn

A theme for our first forest year has emerged for me: life within limits.

Pickle and I set out to learn to live within the limits of the land and ourselves in hopes that in doing so, we could eventually become part of the regeneration of the land and, by extension, our community, our region, our culture, ourselves. One understanding I’ve come up against is that my life didn’t prepare me at all for what these limits might actually be.

When you learn to garden, organic or otherwise, you’re usually presented with something more or less formulaic. Modern gardening usually assumes a relatively substitutable situation. There is open land and you either till it just as it is, make raised beds, or go no-till like we did. You then bring in x quantity of some amendment, y quantity of compost (or industrial fertilizer, or manure), water it at this frequency in this month for this region and use this much and this type of mulch / plastic / spray while weeding it so often. It can work pretty well for a while as long as you have these abundant inputs and can keep finding new land once you’ve exhausted the existing soil. When you grow this way, you don’t need to encounter so many limits or so much complexity. There are tidy rows, scheduling tasks, spacing guides, and formulas.

To begin to garden, this approach can be very important. For my first garden, we just found some fencing in the woods and planted a few tomato and jalapeno starts, maybe adding some kind of random bagged fertilizer. We watered pretty often. By my second, I had read Toby Hemenway’s Gaia’s Garden and so I started with a really messy version of sheet mulching that probably went a little too anerobic, made largely as it was of mostly unfinished compost. The next year for that same garden I caved and brought in a few cubic yards of compost and I fenced it and kept the whole thing watered with a porous soaker hose. The life that came from that keyhole bed and the surrounding crescent shaped raised beds and that beautiful half-concrete unapologetic herb spiral helped me believe I could be a gardener. Suddenly I could join conversations about how my eggplant was doing, how the polyculture method seemed to provide all these wonderful benefits, how the insect life in my garden was singing with life. My heart soared.

One Permaculture experiment that year did not do so well. I tried a totally-hands-off 3-sisters bed. I planted the corn, beans, and squash at the same time and wound up with a small keyhole jungle. The corn lodged and I didn’t at that time actually have any interest in harvesting beans so most just stayed in that jungle and fell in place. I felt sad when the beautiful corn collapsed but also understood that this was an experiment in the low-maintenance / self-maintaining systems part of Permaculture (… and for me, low-knowledge too, in that I didn’t know anything about how those three plants would grow together). Because it was an experiment in how little I could do, it had value for me. Things went where they were went and it was sad, but OK. I learned a limit.

Today, I’m deep in a kind of welcome heartbreak that both hurts far worse and, because of the depth of that loss, connects me to spirit and the land far more than that brave frivolous keyhole bed years ago.

Much in my early first in-the-forest garden has grown little or not at all. The sandy soil was early succession forest just 4 months ago. Part of the experiment of it has been to have no irrigation whatsoever (only use water from the land itself, preferably held in the ground and small ponds) and no outside fertility inputs (use the forest fertility, build soil, keep the life alive). It also involved keeping some of the weeds in place to cut and re-cut as green manure, keeping the tree stumps in place to aerate the soil and hold water, and not till at all, meaning no access to the easy burst of fertility that dying soil organisms release when we till. In this way of growing in the forest, we had no formula to follow. Without formula, we look around us for what could be a source of fertility, water, mulch, soil organic matter, and we try it.

I planted two types of flour corn this year: two large beds of Cherokee White Eagle and one large bed of Oxacan Green. Guided by the teachings of fully alive human Martin Prechtel and my time learning from the rare mountain jewel of a permaculturist Zev Friedman, I’d begun the long journey to seeing corn seeds as one of the most precious gifts my hands could hold. When the corn kept growing higher and higher above my head swaying in the wind ten feet tall in the bowl of the forest, I felt my heart leap through the trees. Without water or fertilizer and with some of the weeds left in place, the maize unhesitantly thrived. Standing in the back of the field and looking at the tall tassels, I felt like I was in the company of elders. A few weeks ago the Oxacan Green corn began to lodge – one stalk after another after another. The strength of the Cherokee White Eagle during this and the relative shortness and thinness of the stalks led me to think that it was just less adapted to drought or to our wild unamended sandy soil. A few days ago, the Cherokee White Eagle began to fall too. All at once, after a rain that followed drought, the corn stalks toppled. Such great heavy ears brought the ten foot stalks crashing down. I tried to tie some in tipis but I’d come back and found them fallen again. The weight was so great, the soil so loose, and the ground became painted with their emerald bodies, ears chewed through, silks strewn about the soil. Beings I love have died.

Beings I love have died and in their death I have received a gift I think I could have received no other way. Back when I grew maize in the city and watched it all fall over, there was no question of having to depend on it to live. It was a ‘why not,’ a curiosity. Now as the maize fell in our field I could begin to imagine what it would be like if I needed their seeds to feed my family; if I couldn’t go buy more maize seeds next year and try again; if the prayer of this food was the only prayer we had and the stalks fell to the ground.

One of the central lessons of my experience at Earthaven Ecovillage was something said by one of the residents of Medicine Wheel. He said we won’t all be community until we really have to depend on each other to live. Soldiers become like family because they have to count on each other to make it every day. In a village where each harvest is the life or death of the whole, the threads of interdependence weave a tapestry of peace and beauty. For me to hope to be in community with the plants and by extension, the animals, the soil, the rain, the sun, the earth, I have to actually depend on them. I need to be woven into a kind of sacred debt with them where my body is made of theirs and their wild hearts are tended by my hand which is really also their own.

A prayer I sometimes make when I start to work in the forest garden is: “May you teach me how to care for you. May I remember I am you, caring for myself.”

My stomach does not yet depend upon my plants. We go to the local co-op, we buy food, we survive. It is comforting and safe and we are deeply fortunate. Like everyone, I would choose safety for all beings over precarity, over the fear of starving; but I’ve come to believe that the safety of the grocery store is an illusion that delays a great oncoming suffering. When the last of the topsoil is lost by the last tilling, the last deep well runs dry from the pull of the last drop of the aquifers, the last soil amendments are distributed by the last of the cheap oil – in some ways we are already there in the bodies of our older selves, in future beings, and buried in the earth, the safety already over, reality already vivid like tilled up clay crying out the last of its minerals in the rain. I am safe and I am threatened; I am in fortress middle class America and I am unemployed and frying up pine bark on a fire in the lean time; and so, I know what it is to depend on the plants for food and I also have no idea what it is like to depend on the plants for food; but I am certain that I know what it is like to depend on the plants for spirit.

I have told it a thousand times, but the real reason I stuck with gardening was the before and after of my own spirit. I tried gardening because of an ideal and most things I tried because of an ideal did not stick. What stuck was the way the soil changed me. My fumblings in the community garden near my house magically made me forget my anxieties for a time. I would stay in the garden for hours and hours without any awareness of digital time. Where I absolutely depend on the plants and would be nothing and would be dead without them is my heart. They are my teachers and healers, they are myself. I am grateful for the lesson of my precious fallen maize even as it makes me want to cry and cry and cry. If there is a Spring, if there is a rain, if there is sun, if I can ask the wild weeds for their vitality to feed the soil, if the young trees can offer their bodies to the fire to become charcoal for the soil, if there is a wind, if there are insects and birds, if there is a community of human support to walk Pickle and I through another many months to the Spring in this sacred forest bowl then I will bring maize to the field again, I will watch them like a mother even as they are mother to me, I will plant a seed as a prayer knowing something more this time about how that simple act offered beneath the stars is the most fragile and true hope my hands can ever come to express.

I am grateful for the revelation of these first limits in how far we can go in growing food in the wild. I am grateful that in the meantime, we can still eat. May the pains of our losses be lanterns on the path through the forest to a field that nourishes the earth and all of the beings it dreams.







I once swore I would never grow corn…

…that because my young body had been made mostly of corn syrup and corn chips and corn-fed animals I didn’t want corn in any garden I’d grow.

Now even as I turn more and more towards perennials, I hope to grow a jungle of maize every remaining year of my life.

(this year I grew Oxacan Green and Cherokee White Eagle maize interspersed with squash and beans fertilized only with my own pee-charged forest-made biochar and a tiny bit of rabbit poo from our pets and irrigated and watered so far not even once amidst the tree stumps that I left in the ground in what had been forest 5 months before. I grew buckwheat on the beds first for a month and now am cutting all weeds in the bed and leaving them in place as green manure)

As far as I can tell, if I try to figure out what “invasive species” means from how broadly people use it, it usually just means any plant, animal, or insect that does well in its circumstances.

We Don’t Know What We Are

I cannot give you comfort but I can give you home

I’ve knowingly made two decisions in my life very high on the scale of permanence: creating a marriage with Pickle, choosing her above all other beings that I’ve known and will know to share the whirlpools torrents ripples and shallows of my one life, and deciding to enter into something like a marriage with this place, above all other places I’ve known or will know, on our mother planet.

The day I married Pickle, I experienced a certainty in choice that I had never felt before. It’s my nature to leave every option on the table until the last moment; to seek perfection by being flexible and gathering all the gross and subtle data in the swirl of my gut where it can hopefully, by the last minute, reveal itself as an elegant pattern, a harmonious synthesis, a jewel made entirely of non-jewel parts. I act out this need in the most consequential and minute details of my life. By myself, it can be functional. I spend an entire day in a bookstore, feeling certain that I’ve let every possible novel pass through my subtle processing so that whatever I emerge with is a work that can change my life. It usually seems to be true. I find favorite novels, favorite songs, peak experiences; restlessly I discover beautiful spiritual traditions, magical musical instruments that contour to my hands and yearnings, forgotten state parks that have an inexpressible life to them not discernible from any descriptors but cascading off every gnarled early succession tree twisting towards the continual rearrangement of holy light.

I also find, somehow have found, the love of my life. Life with her can be absolutely excruciating and I know as simple as breath she is the specific ever changing human form of the places of the eternal fractal song that my form’s places of the eternal fractal song would choose to dance with again and again infinitely across all possible worlds. Pickle was the first big choice in my life I ever really fully without any reservation or questioning left to do made.

Life largely consists for me of sensing utopias, paradises, perfections, just outside the periphery. Sometimes I wake from a dream remembering a dream arrangement of an angelic composition synesthetically painting ultraviolet colors through my ears I think were made to adorn the sunsets one watches only from across the far shore reached after life and which I know I could spend an entire life trying in ecstatic futility to recreate even a single sound of only to glimpse it in the eyes of the last person I see before the light ceases to enter my brain.

The decision to enter into the somewhat nauseating modern ‘purchase’ of land – really, the walling off of some arbitrarily gridded non-separate section of a living being with orange surveyor flags, trading for some kind of dominion over it a quantity of imaginary digital sums originating ultimately, as all digital financial wealth, to Wall Street’s great culture- and biome- dessicating-and-paving-over engine – was not like marrying Pickle in any way except for the deep committed lifelong entangling it involves to a vast living being. In this case, my guts never really came to that unqualified ‘yes’ about it. I second-guessed the decision every day – both up until the day where we could still get out of the contract, and after, when there was really no ‘out’ I could discern anymore besides total collapse of my life. Like realizing I married the wrong person – which I did not in any way at all do; I love Pickle more and more with every ‘problem’ we tenderly walk into the light of our love – I felt a deep dread enter my guts. Breath became tight. All I could see were the thousand wrong choices I made. These were my failures – as a permaculturist, as someone trying to turn his life into a leverage point to change the systems of horror we are together bound in, as a hopeful community founder, as a systems thinker. I fucked up my one chance. Our one pool of savings from my only high-paying job, all those months of help and support from others believing in us, all the other places I turned down, all of Pickle’s arduous work and dedication and attachment to what we were making together – I messed it all up so bad, because this place could not be paradise, utopia, perfect, a jewel.

Naming the flaws isn’t the point. There are multiple endemic crucial cracks in the facets. I close my eyes and see all the places that inspired me to try and create this life and I open my eyes and see: this is not them.

Various spiritual practices have for periods of time swung me free from this spiral of eroding dread. My commitment to Pickle, who can love this place unconditionally (and who is one of my dearest teachers of unconditional love); my prayers to the land and occasional humbling of myself to utterly depend on it, only to be shocked by how generous it is to this ungrateful perfectionist who approaches it; my work in surrender, in humility, in music and blessings; my touching of the garden soil, the miracles of every corn and squash seed germinating in the raw forest soil; the gathering of beautiful beings together to make charcoal together as a tiny winking guidestar that dares to say we can slow this great coming planetary trauma with our own sooty hands even a little. I keep these practices going and sometimes I sing myself through the day, walking lightly upon their graces, pulling off ticks with a laugh, playing in the mud and water like a child, praying to the forest floor with a sharpened peasant hoe. Sometimes it is paradise, and then sometimes it collapses.

Last week something broke. My ears are my most intimate sense. I’m prone to feeling like the pop song playing in the grocery store was put there specifically to brainwash me, breaking me down into some kind of zombie slime mould beneath the onslaughts of ‘and days go by i’m hypnotized’ or this apparent new musical genre primarily about taking shots. Likewise, someone whispering in my ear sometimes feels a little bit like we should be wearing protection. Bird song feels personal. Crows tell my favorite jokes. Sound healing is one of the most powerful medicines for me. Living in a tent and almost exclusively outside, there is no refuge from sound. Music has always always been central to my life; and now, living outside, the neighbors’ amplified music finally really ‘got to me,’ and I broke.

Our neighbors – kind people by any signs we so far have from them – innocuously play the same funk music at the same time of day just about every day. This is not evil. Some people play louder music. Some people play music later in the evening. Some people play angry music loudly. Some people play music aggressively. This is none of that. It is someone trying like me to create their sense of a beautiful place in the world where they feel at home. They are like me humans building a nest, a place of belonging, a chill zone. They also wouldn’t have any way of knowing that the low frequencies carry a half mile back to the back of ‘our’ land, that we have no walls to hide behind nor windows to close, AC or fans to turn on, TV to turn up, or any real way of protecting ourselves from it. They definitely don’t know that around 5 each day, my shoulders start to tense up and I start to jump at every low frequency sound expecting the 1 hour loop of songs, of which my body has already committed every single bass hit of deep into a remembered muscular tension, to begin and hold me in its paralyzed thrall, rendering any attempt at reading, meditating, thinking, wandering in nature, or connecting with myself or my senses impossible. At this point, I jump in the car, burn fossil fuels, drive to nowhere close since there is nowhere close to drive. I flee my home, I give up on belonging, I throw away my nest, I lose the ability to find a way out.

What is all this?

On one hand: fossil fuels created a historically unprecedented human accessible energy gradient which inevitably like all uncontained energy gradients in scenario universe formed a homeodynamic impermanent self-maintaining system serving primarily to dissipate this energy concentration from higher to lower organization – like the continual explosion of a sun, a whirlpool off a rushing river, an algae bloom off a nitrogen spill, the dendritic nutrient and energy transports of a tree – the whole autopoietic industrial growth system horror formed around the energy gradient’s dizzying dissipative flow turning high concentrations of fossil energy (dark compressed time my great grandfather gave his lungs to pull from collapsing pits) into low concentrations of entropic dispersal (heat dissipation, waste, advertisements, the death of language, confusion, clear cuts, barrens, the ruined education systems, idle shopping, nights without coyotes) leaving us each helplessly pulled into contributing to this through our personal use of the asymmetrically apportioned quantity of the great energy glut we are charged to individually waste in order to try and always only fail to fill the horrible gaping absences in our lives that capitalism has stolen to monetize for its own self-maintenance; and so, we don’t have a village, community dances, stories of each other’s days, shared grief, love and closeness, places we can walk to, gardens we work together, love we give to each other, but instead have speakers mined from one country and sold by another to here where we can play music made mostly by computers that tries and mostly fails to fill the absences we feel, the great growing distances between the fast spreading stars of our soon winking out lives and between which we are erecting fences, just in case the universe isn’t expanding fast enough to make the distances in which we imagine we can finally find comfort. And so – I turn my speakers up too, watching through a mournful glaze as even the wild nature of the exploding jazz drummers I love gets shackled by the aggressive way I’m using their magic not to fly with them like a fellow witch but to try and fail to protect and isolate myself all the while rotting from within with spreading vengeful corruption like the once noble boar people in Princess Mononoke.

On the other hand: We don’t know what we are.

Tomorrow, it might all change. Love takes our dirty trembling hand again and walks our shaky legs to our neighbor’s front door where we are emptied out enough to listen because we have been purified by the glimpse of the only real hellfires there ever could be of the just-how-it-feels to succeed in becoming so terrifyingly separate. Our senses open to the unceasing paradise that always only and ever existed in the invisible nova fusion halfway between perceiving and perceived which for eternity sings the song of two and not-two. We realize our white-knuckled quivering fists ready to break themselves against themselves are clenching clay seed balls of forgotten trees that can grow the poles that frame the walls of the shape of the shelter of the original home for peace counting on us to remake it over and over and over, after genocide again, after clear cut again, after mass extinction again, after death of our loved ones again, after shuddering with the sickness of hatred again. Empty and open, the Fool barefoot off the cliff the dog of love barking, another story vine winding around us inevitably to senescence and strangle, to wither fall and compost, to grow a zero, a zero, zero, always coming home to ourselves.

Hollowed out we somehow share a beer with our neighbor who is like us always both sick and completely well, drowning and breathing, and offer our tattered second-hand drum to help that same old broken music in the quest of all music to remember for an endless fleeing moment the original wiggle.

One of the most powerful magics I have ever been taught by one of the most living beings I have ever met and to whom I am infinitely and lovingly indebted, I want to share here.

I don’t think there’s anything this can’t heal.

Directions: make a rattle out of anything.

Shaking it continually, sing these four lines in whatever melody fits it:

I’m sorry

I love you

Please forgive me

Thank you.

… and repeat until done.









Useless Tree

Someone visiting the land once looked at our trees through the eyes of the market. He looked at our sweetgums and said: gum trees are useless. I’d just bulldoze and burn them.

I didn’t tell him how in that moment my heart immediately reached out to the nearest sweetgum tree silently reassuring it that it absolutely belonged here, that I was grateful for it, that I would never call it useless.

Thirty-five years later, May, 2052:

it barely matters to us that the new virus rippling through our bodies is antibiotic resistant, as most of us can’t afford to go get antibiotics anyway; but we are not helpless. Many of the sweetgums were lost to the heat and flooding and drought and new diseases, but we’ve protected the healthy ones remaining like grandfather oaks. They have become our most cherished medicine trees. In addition to the styrax resin we use for coughs, wound disinfection, and as copal incense for our rites, we have invaluable bottles of the alcohol extract of immature sweetgum balls from the last five years and even a sweetgum mead to mend our spirits. The shikimic acid in sweetgum balls is the same as the one that used to be used to make a corporate drug called Tamiflu, ages ago; but as a whole plant medicine, there’s much more than an isolated constituent to help us heal. There is a friend, an ecstatically perfumed ‘useless tree’ that now has given us hope enough to share with our neighbors and surrounding communities. We give our medicine away as freely as the tree gave it to us, grateful for this light through the dark

Meanwhile, today in May, 2017:

I found a study showing that sweetgum has both strong antiviral and antibacterial effects. It can work on MRSA, the notorious hospital-incubated antibiotic resistant virus.

Sweetgum, our ‘useless’ tree, has been a medicine plant for a long time. It was traded around the Americas as the sacred offering of copal incense. The seeds in the seedballs provide food for wildlife. Its ability to grow in our injured soils has held the soil life in place, stopping further erosion. When I do take the life of a sweetgum, I can use their hardwood bodies for grade A shiitake logs. We intend to work with the beautiful wood of smaller ones as railings for our deck. I know this friend tree has many uses beyond this.

Taoist wanderer Chuang-tzu tells a story about a useless tree. Because it is not good for anything, the tree does not get cut down. It grows large and old and many enjoy its shade. I am sure, too, that its branches, roots, bark, leaves, and flowers were full of life. Now, I’m also sure that it wasn’t useless. Sweetgum has taught me to trust my intuition that no living thing does not have an ecological role to play in the system it is found in nor does any not hold a lesson for us to learn. All living things are teachers; all living things belong.

Bonus points: how would this all differ if we thought of sweetgum as an ‘invasive?’

after the rains

Nearly 3 months, a quarter, a season now.

Weeks ago the leaves came out later than anywhere around us and everything changed completely.

Each leaf revealed the surprise answer to our attempts at Winter botany. All the sudden, old friends get new names; and, all the sudden, there are hundreds of unnamed new friends just now showing up.

Pickle has been bathing in the creek. I didn’t think I ever could feel like I was bathing in something so shallow. Then, today the creek flowed with our five inches of rain like the ones I know from the mountains. I could hear its song more clearly than I ever had. Seeing it flowing so strongly is like seeing into another time in this forest; past or future, I don’t know. I yearn for the creek to flow more fully, even while knowing its gentleness is also its health. I have so much to learn about supporting the life of this creek.

The field where I hope to grow food survived the record rains, shining. The little channels carried the rain down to the little basin and on to the creek below. Working with water through a contoured garden feels profoundly freeing and life-giving.

I feel like fresh air is entering into the spaces between everything and that everything is only ever made of more and more spaces between the spaces between. I imagine this is how lichen feels.

Evolving Thoughts on Permaculture

I talk a lot about this movement called Permaculture. If it gives me no other gifts, it has transformed my life simply by bringing together the people it has. By running around using the p-word all the time, I meet plant people, healer people, poet people, animal people, appropriate tech people, community people, most of them closer to the wild margins of our world than not, and almost always holding some living wriggling sprouting question in their day-by-day healing bodies.

When you go to join the official formal lineage of Permaculture as a movement, you take a Permaculture Design Course. For many students, it is transformational. Depending on the teacher, the place, and yourself, you can be taken apart and remade. In the twelve-plus days, you’re being filled with knowledge received through all senses on dozens of interwoven topics. If taught well, every topic is a holon containing the whole. For me, what I learned in fourteen days was more important than what I learned (and had to slowly unlearn) in the 14+ years of formal education because it primarily concerned what was real and meaningful in a world where we are separated from the earth, ourselves, each other. Receiving this knowledge, my hand flew through notebook after notebook, filling multiple books in just two weeks, writing and sketching as a frantic prayer to hold some of the soil of this new learning through the inrushing waters of life.

I have never gone back to these cherished notebooks. A year later, these ten thousand vital facts sit in a plastic file box somewhere. Meanwhile, one lesson from the class never leaves me. It sits in the center of my heart. It was there informing me when I walked away from my job. It is there each time I take a big leap to go change my whole life or a small leap to be radically honest with a friend. This lesson was not how to build a cistern or what the 12 Permaculture Principles are, but a talk shared one evening near the end of the course where a teacher sat down with us below the stars and told us, without slide or structure, a story of future weather.

I can’t tell this story of the weather here. It is a sacred story that can only ripple out from one heart to others in person beneath the darkness between stars. I can tell you how that story now is calling me to be curious again about what this Permaculture path really could be and what I can offer to it.

The last thing you do in a Permaculture course’s curriculum is a Permaculture design. You use all the skills you hopefully learned to understand the patterns of a landscape and its inhabitants and then, on paper, create a drawn design attempting to weave all the elements in a harmonious arrangement that reconciles, amplifies, heals the forces embodied there towards some aspiration of ecological reintegration. What this feels like at its best is like gently holding a blessed paradox; a poetic image where opposites dance into each other; the closing chord resolving the orchestra swirl big bang chaos of the Beatles’s Day in the Life: here it is, all working together, dissonance into abrupt reunion. What it looks like is a bunch of squiggles and circles on paper in different line weights in a rectangle and with some color.

If you practice Permaculture design for someone for money, you are usually delivering to them the paper (and of course, a lot of support and discussion, too). After you leave, they are primarily experiencing what this paper with drawings looks like. You hope that if they are one day lucky and determined enough to see this vision teased, sculpted, raised, and seeded into physicality from the living material of the land, then they will also get to know the harmony that went into the design, too; but this is not guaranteed by the long and expensive paper design process. Ultimately, Permaculturists at their best get to embody the harmony, hold the paradox, and be changed by their communion with the patterns of the land; and their clients usually are left with the design, the two-dimensional left-brain plan, the visually appealing way forward into something we can only hope approximates what is living in us when we set pen to paper at all.

This pattern is where some of my current questions about Permaculture come in. As far as I can see, Permaculturists, if they get to ‘do something’ with Permaculture, end up doing one or many of a few things:  they design, they educate, they work on their own place, or they find a way to have a livelihood from growing things. All of these ways seem worthwhile to me and are appropriate and usually land- and people-regenerative uses of the systems thinking of Permaculture; but when I think of that moment that transformed me, of that story of the weather, I glimpse a new deer track through the forest I have an urge to wander down a while.

What if the culmination of Permaculture for our clients / friends / neighbors / beloveds / selves wasn’t on-paper design at all, but the laying of the first stones of a lifetime path towards their own gnosis of the whole – their / our own awakening of them-/ourselves as all the land, plants, animals, fungi, waters, soils, and people of the place? What if we focused first on helping students to awaken to the deep life of the land – not separate from the deep life of themselves – inviting it through personal work seamlessly interwoven with ecological gardening and systems design to remake them, even if only for a time, as an extension of the land and its beings; on letting the vulture soaring above them in the field teach them how to see the field as a whole and themselves as an inextricable part of it; on feeling the dryness of parched soil as the dryness in their own mouths begging for moisture relieved by rain entering a keyline; on linking themselves in an unbroken circle flow of nutrients by fertilizing the land with their own composted waste after a feast from the same land; on letting them discover the tears they didn’t know they have been too numb to cry by learning to feel where and how and why the land is suffering?

The other day, I was meditating by our creek. I was so curious why I was feeling so distant, so shut down, so distracted, checking the news daily against every intention I’d set not to, only half-living this life I had been praying to live every single day.

When I sat in silence and birdsong with this curiosity, what came up was a sunken river of grief. I was aching with subterranean sorrow for our world, but I was too far away from myself to cry. I stayed with this feeling with curiosity, and then something else came to me: you need to help the land cry.

A week ago I’d discovered that the Milpa field I work in has a very high water table. When I did a test dig for a possible charcoal trench, I struck water. When the rains came multiple days in the week, all the low places between the first garden beds filled with water. The water stayed. I was ecstatic and afraid. There was certainly enough water, but maybe too much. I thought about chinampas style agriculture, about ponds, about working with the water. The water didn’t go away. It stayed and stayed, and it led me to the feeling – not thought – that the land needed to cry. The need wasn’t separate from my need. The body of the field is my body and we were already woven together as one so much more than I had consciously known.

That day, the motivational slump I was in shed completely. Mostly with just a grub hoe, I dug channels all over the field from where the water was pooling down the hill. I invited it to move, to flow, to let go. I sang as I dug, feeling limitless energy to move the water through the soil. I got down with my hands in the ecstacy of wet clay covering my arms and hands, the scent of it, the coolness of it. Trickles of sandy water and trickles of clay water met in a dancing harmony of mingling fractals: the pattern of the harmony of opposites, joining to move downhill – to cry.

I didn’t shed any tears that week, but something changed. I’ve been finding it so easy to motivate myself to work non-stop. Something brought me home. The next week, when I sat in stillness with myself, I could see an image behind my eyelids of water gently washing over me and around me. I saw myself as reeds being bathed in estuary flows, gently being cleaned and cured – and the next day my buckwheat, having cried away its pooled water, sprouted its first precious leaves. The healing of the land is the healing of ourselves. Care for the land is care for ourselves.

As systems thinking, Permaculture is always about perceiving and integrating the whole. For myself and others from my cultural background, we never know what it is to be whole. We reject people, groups, whole cultures outright. We name some plants bad and some plants good, some dreams bad and some dreams good, some feelings bad and some feelings good. We struggle daily with addictions, self-judgement, aggression, and mediated disconnection all to avoid experiencing the terrifyingly beautiful wholeness of ourselves.

Permaculture follows from the assumption that we can learn everything we need by observing and interacting with forests, rivers, meadows, oceans. I’m wondering, then, if one of Permaculture’s greatest possible outcomes for some of us is the offering of a powerful way apprentice ourselves under natural systems for reweaving ourselves into the whole that the exiled places in us are patiently waiting for us to become again so that we may then begin to seat the whole of that personal ecology within communal, cultural, and greater biological wholes – all the way up to relearning, re-experiencing we are a planet, and we are a whole whose known boundaries are the cosmos.

When we relearn from beautiful wild complex ecological systems that we ultimately are beautiful wild complex ecological selves, we will be endlessly more able to heal, love, or even recreate from a parking lot the beautiful wild complex ecological systems yearning to be in all of our surroundings and in each other.

If I read a book about designing water systems, I can better help water move through the landscape; but when I remember I am the rain, then I am the rain welcoming itself, healing itself, drinking itself, quenching itself.