Archive for December 2011
A Need For Response
For those following this blog, it’s likely become clear that I don’t expect our society, economy and general way of life—either here in America or elsewhere in the industrialized world—to last far into the future. Despite previous stages of this belief of mine, I don’t currently think that the end of our way of life will manifest itself in some extreme, apocalyptic moment. Rather, I have come to believe in the likelihood of a stairstep collapse, thanks to the writings of a certain Grand Archdruid. I think the underpinnings of what we consider modern society will come apart—as they, indeed, already have started to come apart—and this entire sorry game will unravel. I don’t expect that unraveling to happen entirely in my lifetime, but I expect to live through enough of its beginning to see and be forced to deal with quite the fallout. I have no illusions of a zombie apocalypse, but I neither have illusions of a relatively easy transition or the saving grace of new technology or a grand shift in consciousness that solves all our problems. We’ve made a mess of the world and we’re going to have to deal with the consequences.
Similarly, the mess we’ve made is a mess that most everyone in the industrialized nations have had a part in. That’s not to say there aren’t certain bad actors who have turned in virtuoso performances, but even they have almost certainly been functioning to some degree within the context of this insane society and culture we’ve all helped to create. I have been no stranger to bitter complaints about Obama’s failed promises—and much less a stranger to bitter and venomous rants about Bush the younger’s detestable administration—but Obama’s is a presidency in context as much as all the others. As a society, we have not shown a particular interest in being told the truth and even those of us who have opted out of our culture’s dominant narratives of myth have too often opted into alternate narratives of apocalypse that serve just as easily to protect us from the hard work a new way of life requires. That politicians are less than eager to tell us the truths that we are so quick to avoid ourselves is no surprise. It’s not particularly relevant whether they do it because they don’t know those truths or because they are actively ignoring them due to a recognition that speaking them would not be beneficial to them on a political or economic level. Either way, our broader society holds a certain level of culpability.
Within this mind frame, I wrote a recent post that served as something of a criticism of the Occupy movement. It was my attempt to advocate for a longer view within the movement: a recognition that our problems are not just about social and economic inequality—which is a serious issue, no question—but also a distorted view about what is a reasonable standard of living. I specifically called the American middle class way of life bullshit. I stand by those words. We have a worldview that is built on top of a fantasy of independence from hard ecological and environmental realities. That worldview is falling out from under us and we need to respond to that changing landscape immediately and with an intention based in community, care and cooperation. Unfortunately, that’s not a task that will be easy, and there are many forces, both external and internal, which will serve to push us toward more destructive responses.
The Risk of Demagoguery
One of those responses that I worry could happen is the Occupy movement turning more and more toward a movement of revenge. I’m not saying this is what will happen, but I do consider it a legitimate and reasonable concern. As the world economy continues to spiral out of control, austerity measures assert themselves ever more harshly and the ability to get by financially for a majority of the population becomes more challenging, our collective level of stress will rise. And the sort of harsh and stressful environment I think we’re facing in the near term will be a fantastic place for demagoguery to flourish.
Understand, I think many in the financial industry should be doing perp walks and the lack of that reality is a massive failure of justice and the rule of law. Similarly, the way Obama swept the war crimes of the Bush administration under the rug was despicable. But all of these injustices happened, again, within a societal context. And that context is something that all of us have played a role in. Hell, if you’re reading this blog, I can pretty much guarantee you that you had a role in this reality, because the internet and the vast infrastructure put in place to maintain it and provide access points to end users (i.e. me, you, and somewhere around two billion other people) is an infrastructure built on vast ecological destruction. It is an infrastructure built on economic and social inequality. It is, as well, an infrastructure that helps to perpetuate the sort of war crimes that the Bush administration engaged in. While the Iraq war might not have literally been conceived in a cartoonish, movie villain style plot geared toward oil capture (though it certainly may have) our country’s never-ending need for fossil fuels brought that war into existence. The outsized existence that we have become accustomed to powered the mechanizations that led, tragically, to that war. It’s easy to put it all on the head of W and Dick Cheney, but that’s the sort of short view that leads to demagoguery—of which I have engaged in, believe me—and the convenience of never having to examine oneself in the mirror.
The Need for Good Work
It also leads to the convenience of not having to throw oneself into the challenge of doing good work. The myth of progress leads inevitably toward desires for utopian schemes. We imagine new ways to structure our economy or our government or our cultural institutions to lead to a gloried future, a cornucopian golden land in which we have everything we’ve ever needed or wanted. We proclaim the ability to smooth out the inherent vagaries and fallibility of human behavior, if only we create the proper context for their existence. The problem here is that we seem too quick to place our hopes into the utopian basket of revolutionary change (or forced utopia that always seems to be waiting on the other side of apocalypse, once all the people we don’t like have died) and too hesitant to engage in the long, hard work of actually creating new cultural and economic contexts that can indeed inspire better behavior and constrain damaging impulses.
Let me provide an example. I have been meaning to write this blog post all day. However, I didn’t start it until late afternoon. For multiple hours before that, I poked around on the internet engaging in largely useless but satisfyingly distracting behavior. This is a common theme of mine: the lack of self-discipline and the propensity toward distraction. Overcoming it can only happen through restraining my own behavior, dedicating myself to what I consider worthwhile pursuits, and ignoring the need for overstimulation. This is all hard—oddly hard—and it as often as not devolves into me wasting hours of time looking at shiny things on the internet because, you know, it’s easy. Writing, on the other hand, is intensely satisfying when it comes out well but also, often, extremely hard. It’s so much easier to read about the NBA or look at my blog stats or read someone else’s hard work. This, of course, extrapolates out to TV, shopping, bitching about whatever we happen to not like at the moment, speaking rapturously about whatever we happen to like at the moment, eating, drinking, and a thousand other ingrained societal behaviors that serve to distract us and keep us from the hard work of making our life and community better.
Another example. I have participated in the Occupy movement and thoroughly enjoyed my time marching and shouting, protesting and bonding. I met great people, I felt empowered, I believe without question that I did good things. I also thrived off the emotional power of laying the blame for our very messed up world at the feet of other people. I felt the bonds of shared outrage and anger. I felt the easy pull of demagoguery. This is a fine line, of course—where does a legitimate demand for justice end and the blaming of problems on everyone else but yourself began?—and I have not figured out the exact placement of that line. I probably will never figure it out exactly. But there is a line and I think all of us need to both be very aware of it and be constantly vigilant in wondering whether or not we are crossing it. This is especially true in our culture, where distraction and shallow soothings are constantly championed at the expense of the long, hard work of figuring out how to live and work well in this world.
And that is the idea I keep coming back to. This is an idea championed by Wendell Berry, and there’s no question that I have been greatly inspired and influenced by my readings of him. We have to begin—or for those who have already begun, continue—the hard work of figuring out how to live and work well in this world. That’s an incredible challenge. I would argue it’s the central challenge of being human, of being alive in this world. What else could be the point? For what other reason could we be here? It’s not to see who can die with the most toys. It’s not to see how high a percentage of our life we can spend being distracted by shiny, technological toys. It’s not to discover how quickly we can convert the living creatures of this world into cheaply-made commodities. And it’s not to find the one person who’s screwing everything up for the rest of us. It’s the very personal work of living well in this world. That is a challenge. That is a huge, never-ending challenge—a lifetime of work, the question that only has incomplete, always changing answers.
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I returned shortly ago to the quiet apartment where I’m staying here in Portland for the holidays, entrusted to me by friends who are out of town for their own holiday celebrations. I came back to it tonight from a rowdy Christmas Eve spent with family. We exchanged presents and cracked innumerable jokes—many of them inappropriate—and ate so very much. It was not quite as conspicuous as past Christmas Eve celebrations have been, but it was conspicuous nonetheless. Yet it was nice, enjoyable, a fun gathering of family and a wide expression of good cheer. It was loud throughout, though, and coming back to this silent apartment is quite the contrast, inspiring some late-night reflection.
I received a few Wendell Berry books tonight as gifts, as well as a bevy of other beautiful and intriguing texts that I look forward to exploring. But coming home tonight—to my temporary home, this lovely gift from my friends—I couldn’t help but set aside my new books and pick up instead the hardcover edition of The Mad Farmer Poems, left out by my friends for me to peruse while staying here. I read the Author’s Note, the Foreword, the Introduction, the first couple poems, and soon came to a particular poem I’ve read before and have loved unconditionally, every time I read it. It’s a beautiful poem, a moving call to action, and if you find yourself caught in the craziness of Christmas and the holidays as I am finding myself to be, I think this is a poem to keep in your mind and heart. Read it, speak it aloud, know it, and hold it close on this day, and the days to come. For the Mad Farmer may just be the person best able to keep you sane in these odd times.
Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front
Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
— Wendell Berry, 1973
One of the more impressive and fascinating aspects of living here at R-evolution Gardens is watching the ways in which Brian and Ginger ingeniously piece this farm together, crafting a place of beauty, function, comfort and humanity while working on a budget somewhere between tight and nonexistent. Using permaculture-inspired design, thoughtful creativity, and thrift, they consistently work within the context of this land and climate. As such, the farm exists off the grid, with all our electricity being generated on site via solar PV panels and a micro hydro generator. Hot water comes from passive solar in the summer and waste heat from the wood stove in the winter. The wood stoves also provide heat and—in conjunction with a hot plate running off the on-site electricity and the occasional use of the outdoor cob oven and a rocket stove—cooking. The farm uses no propane and the wood for the stoves is cobbled together from multiple sources—this year, half came from off the land and the other half was salvaged from a downed tree in a nearby bay, prepped and then kayaked in to an accessible location during a high tide. In other words, Brian and Ginger have created a farm that works with the land and local energy flows, crafting a comfortable living space using a building and design model that’s much more sustainable than the typical one.
The key component of the bath house---the soaking tub. Photo courtesy of Brian, with many thanks to Leann for modeling.
While the farm is a constant collaboration between Brian, Ginger and a continuous flow of interns, WWOOFers, volunteers, friends and neighbors, Brian is the point person when it comes to building the farm’s structures and alternative energy systems. Incredibly, he does this having self-taught himself the ability to design, craft and install these systems over the last few years. His is a certain kind of energetic genius that can be a mixture of inspiring, confusing and dumbfounding to watch—but which always seems to lead to beautiful and effective structures. He calls his methods “farmitechture,” but I would simply call it appropriate (though I love his term.) He works within the land, on a budget, and he creates buildings that fit their surroundings and are built as much as possible from salvaged and local materials.
In that vein, the most recent addition to the farm is a Japanese-inspired bath house, powered by sun and wood. Brian built it over the course of this summer with a bit of help from a friend, a couple WWOOFers, Ginger and a few brief assists from me. A significant portion of the bath house is made out of salvaged and recycled materials: blown down cedar poles from a friend’s property, a downed cedar from the bay, beautiful 3x3s found washed up on the beach, old solar hot water panels from the 70s found at the dump, a soaking tub bought at a recycling center. The building fits into the land, looking like it belongs there. The hot water for the tub can be heated by the sun in the summer, by burning wood in the winter, or by a combination of the two during the shoulder seasons.
There are clever touches, such as the electric water pump that circulates the water through the solar hot water panels. While Brian’s preferred method of rigging a solar hot water system is to entirely use natural thermal siphoning (that’s how the system in the main house is rigged) that design wasn’t feasible for the bath house. So instead, the water pump is wired into a small PV panel, so as soon as the sun hits it, the pump starts up. This works perfectly, as the water only needs to be circulating through the solar hot water panels if the sun is shining on them. In another nice touch, the Chofu wood stove resides in a small room which takes up half of the bath house space. The waste heat from the Chofu is thus captured in this room, quickly warming the room to about 90 degrees in the winter. While it’s not sauna-level heat, it does provide a nice, warm space to rest in if desired. It also provides a heated dressing room.
A look at the bath house from the outside, showing off the two solar hot water panels and the solar PV powering the pump. Photo courtesy of Brian.
Of course, the draw of the bath house is not just it’s inspiring and appropriate design, but the actual comfort and relaxation it provides in the form of hot baths. A night of hot tubs has become quite the common occurrence here on the farm and the pleasure it provides is something of a revelation. Hot water does amazing things to tight and sore muscles, and the experience of soaking while exposed to the cool night air is a lesson in juxtaposition, creating a pleasant discord that only serves to heighten the sense of comfort. Furthermore, there’s a certain luxury to the bath house the effect of which is hard to overstate. It’s a luxury that isn’t always a part of this off the grid lifestyle, no matter how much I do love this lifestyle. The fact that it’s been instituted in a fairly sustainable and thrifty way is a small revelation. It’s a push back against the idea that living sustainably necessarily equals living uncomfortably. It doesn’t. While this lifestyle may not provide the sort of hermetic seal that a life on the grid can and often does, it provides something much more: connection, purpose, a life that feels humane, a sense of care and respect—and now, a significant bit of luxury to go along with all of that. That’s something to be noted and documented.
And it has been documented. Not just here, in this post, but in greater detail and with significantly more pictures at Brian’s website. I urge you to check out that link for the story of the bath house’s building in Brian’s own words and a much more detailed break down of how he built it, what materials went into it, and the philosophy behind his design. A structure as beautiful and generous as his is all too much a rarity in this mass-produced world, so I encourage all to read about what he did and use it as inspiration and as proof of what can be done in this world, even within a low-energy framework.
When I was young, I loved to play basketball. I played in the street, on a pair of facing hoops in the cul-de-sac where my family lived. At times, I played games with other neighborhood children, but I more often played on my own, shooting on both baskets, practicing my layups and turnaround jumpers, the fundamental off-balance three. Sometimes I did what so many children do, pretending to be in the last seconds of the fourth quarter of a critical game, my team down by one and me taking the final shot for the win. Still other times I slipped into the steady rhythm of running, dribbling, shooting, retrieving the ball, running, dribbling, shooting and so on, over and over, until my breath came hard and steady, each pull and release of my lungs a recognized necessity. During these stretches of play, my actions never quite followed the same pattern on a micro level, but they did on the macro and thus provided a steady rhythm. I would run up to the basket, make a lay up, grab the ball–never stopping–and rush out to where I imagined the free throw line would be, taking a quick, long step and flinging my body round as I rocketed off my right foot, falling back, tossing the ball at the basket and half the time nearly killing myself as I landed awkwardly on the pavement, sometimes stumbling. This was terrible form, of course, but I didn’t care. It was exhilarating and the extreme actions pushed my body–burning lungs, dripping sweat, flushed skin–to the point that I began to feel it all, to be aware of the full depth of my limbs, the beating heat of my torso.
After perhaps fifteen minutes of this physical rhythm, this tiring play, another love of mine began to assert its presence: the imagining and writing of stories. I often best constructed the plot and characters of these stories within this realm of physical exertion. As my body succumbed to the labor of play, the tempo of my breath and blood would focus my mind, allowing me to continually engage in physical activity while existing to a large degree within an internal world. The movements between baskets became automatic–the ball an extension of my body, the basket’s whereabouts a constant underlying knowledge, my musculature’s actions programmed and unconscious–and I could slip ever-further into these constructed realities, fleshing them out and devising plot points, providing myself the particular therapy of self-imagined worlds. My mind and body worked together, but toward different goals. It all happened simultaneously and provided for some of my more joyous moments as a child.
As a teenager and adult, I’ve been a regular hiker. I don’t backpack, but I take day hikes, immersing myself in beautiful places. Typically these places involve significant numbers of trees and often a good amount of elevation climb. As such, my hikes prove good exercise, providing burning muscles and strained lungs, as well as moments of turning a bend to see only more elevation gain and thinking, son of a bitch. During these climbs, though, I often find myself slipping into a steady rhythm of steps and breaths and swinging arms and there typically comes a point–if I allow for a continuous process and don’t stop too often for breaks–when the various functions of my body that serve to propel me up the path sync up into a kind of balance that suggests sustainability. It’s not that in that precision I could hike forever, but there is a stretch in which it feels that way. For a transcendent moment of time, the exhaustion of the hike becomes a fuel in and of itself and I think I might never have to slow–that I could take myself anywhere.
Of course, there’s the inevitable moment when I must stop to fumble for my water bottle or the grade becomes a bit too steep or my breath too hard and I pause, beneath the trees, and succumb to the realities of being human, being of a body that can only take me so far. And yet, those moments when everything syncs up become something particularly special–a stretch of time during which I can do some of my best thinking, my mind able to function clear and robust, undisturbed by physical discomforts because those discomforts have been elevated to a point of brief transparency.
This is not a state I can reach outside of physical activity. It’s part and parcel with the functioning of my body. In other words, it’s only in the use of my body that I can most effectively use my mind.
In 2009, when I first began to farm, I read Anna Karenina with a good friend. We both made note of a particular passage in the book: Part 3, Chapter 4. In this chapter, Levin–the owner of a farm in the countryside–chooses to help mow with a scythe alongside the muzhiks, or Russian peasants. He does so because he enjoys the work but also because he “need[s] physical movement, otherwise [his] character definitely deteriorates” (from page 248 of the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation, linked above.) As Levin finds the rhythm of the work, Tolstoy writes that he “lost all awareness of time and had no idea whether it was late or early. A change now began to take place in his work which gave him enormous pleasure. In the midst of his work moments came to him when he forgot what he was doing and began to feel light” (p. 251).
I loved this passage then as I love it now. I find it a wonderful illustration of the phenomenon I noted above. But I also love it’s placement within the context of farming. There are certain aspects of farming that I particularly enjoy, and they tend to be the more laborious aspects. For instance, two of my favorite jobs on the farm is broadforking and 3-tooth cultivating. The former involves using a tool that looks suspiciously like a large, broad fork to aerate the soil. You place the tines in the bed you’re working, step down on the tool as you would a shovel to sink the tines down as far as they’ll go, then pull back to gently break up the soil beneath. It provides better drainage and looser dirt for the plants to grow within without actually turning over the soil and destroying its structure. The latter–the 3-tooth cultivator–makes use of a tool designed by Eliot Coleman to stir the top soil of a bed, incorporating fertilizer and compost. You do this by placing the three claws of the tool into the soil and then pushing and pulling it back and forth, keeping the tool in the dirt. It’s surprisingly good exercise, working core muscles and inspiring a sweat in short order.
These two jobs tend more toward the manual labor side of farming and I appreciated them greatly. Both tools involve rhythmic and challenging work and, given a long enough bed, they provide me a few moments of the sort of exertion-inspired concentration that basketball and hiking can provide me. There’s a certain uncomplicated pleasure in knowing that both jobs are straightforward and involve not the application of complex thinking, but of work of sufficient strength and duration. That frees my mind for other pursuits, allowing the consideration of ideas or the observation of my surroundings (or, in many cases, conversation with a co-worker.)
In December 2010, I attended a ten day course in Vipassana meditation. It wasn’t for me, for a variety of reasons I likely will write about in a future essay. It was, however, a helpful and, in certain ways, a rewarding experience. It taught me lessons, one of which being that I am not particularly adept at sitting very still and meditating. I begin to focus on every slight physical discomfort and my mind looks for distractions. It’s likely that I should spend some time working on this tendency, as it may be a challenge I should attempt to overcome. However, I also think this was the simple realization that I am often better able to think in conjunction with physical activity.
During the course’s specified free times, I would walk the limited trails on the center’s grounds. I found my time on those trails a consistent source of insight and revelation. I would walk and circle and mix up my routes a bit but still slip eventually into a rhythm of movement and breath and pulse. And in that rhythm, I began to uncover thought processes I simply was unable to access while attempting to sit motionless on a cushion, in a meditation hall. There, the process was constricting. Outside, the process opened itself, thriving on my body’s movement in and reaction to the natural world.
I gained multiple insights during that time and, after the ten days, walked away with a greater understanding of my place in the world. But I don’t think those insights would have arrived without my daily walks. Yes, the contrast between that time of walking and my time inside, trying to sit still, was a significant driver of those insights. But I still needed the physical movement to complete the picture. It was what allowed me to understand my place.
For now, this is simply a series of experiences within which I’ve noticed relations. I believe there are greater implications here–implications that I have yet to fully uncover. Perhaps a long hike would help me to discover them.
I’ve been buoyed of late by the Occupy movement. Having joined the kick off march and rally for Occupy Portland, participated in the October 15th global day of protest, and closely followed OWS for months, I saw the movement as the first real possibility in my lifetime of enacting broad social, political and economic change. As a proponent of such change–of radical change–I dared to hope that this may be the beginning of the long sought revolution, unveiling itself before my very eyes, in my lifetime, at what seemed a critical moment of history. I have, in recent years, danced around the sense that a reckoning is coming–an apocalypse of some kind, the collapse of industrial civilization–and I have wanted to see a revolution to help head off that collapse, or at least to try to work within its confines rather than fight it to the bitter end, inevitably to the still-further impoverishment of all.
Occupy slotted itself very nicely into the space in which those dreams resided. There was an intoxicating power to the way it grew and flourished, drawing in thousands and spreading across the globe, linking up with other protests, movements and revolutions, and commanding the attention of political and economic elites. This, finally, seemed to be history unfolding. It was happening.
But then, within the same time frame, I began to question my dreams of apocalypse. Much of this questioning came out of a series of posts written by John Michael Greer over at The Archdruid Report. In writing about magic and thaumaturgy, he brings to account the sort of binary thinking that drives such apocalyptic thinking, as well as its utopian sibling. Greer argues that humans have a tendency toward binary thinking, seeing “polarized relationships between one thing and another, in which the two things are seen as total opposites.” He believes, due to its frequency, that this is “likely hardwired into our brains” and that it stems from “the snap decisions our primate ancestors had to make on the African savannah,” sorting things into “food/nonfood, predator/nonpredator, and so on.” Today, we have the ability to go beyond such binary thinking into more complex thought processes, but a proper amount of stress can trigger our more primitive mind frame, pushing us back into binaries.
The tendency to project our timeline out into apocalyptic or utopian fantasies, then, stems from that binary thinking. Some see history moving us toward an ever-more-perfect society while still others believe that we are heading for a complete collapse–the end of civilization or, more colloquially, the zombie apocalypse. I’ve tended toward this latter mind frame, spurred on by signs of ecological catastrophe, a rapidly changing climate, the plateauing of oil production and the exhaustion of physical resources. And I do still think that we’re in for a reckoning on a global scale. Yet the idea that it’s going to collapse all at once, in some kind of fiery apocalypse–or more specifically, in some kind of sudden and complete withdrawal of governmental authority, industrial economic activity and legal and social structures–no longer holds as much sway with me.
My new found hesitancy to embrace such a concept stems, again, from recently-read writings of Greer’s. He notes that past civilizations that have collapsed have all followed a similar model, though the details of course vary wildly. However, the similarity tends to manifest itself, in Greer’s words, as a “stairstep sequence of decline that’s traced by the history of so many declining civilizations—half a century of crisis and disintegration, say, followed by several decades of relative stability and partial recovery, and then a return to crisis; rinse and repeat, and you’ve got the process that turned the Forum of imperial Rome into an early medieval sheep pasture.” Furthermore, in his book The Ecotechnic Future, Greer argues for a long perspective view of societies that casts them in evolutionary terms, with our current industrial civilization being, essentially, a less-evolved mutation of a technic society. In his frame, our use of technology was the evolutionary leap and our current use of it is just one early and not particularly resilient manifestation of that leap. As we deplete the fossil fuels and other physical resources that power our current evolutionary branch of society, we’ll be forced into new branchings. However, he foresees (far) future societies likely still using technology, just in more appropriate and sustainable manners.
Looking out on Cape Falcon from the beginning of the trail.
These new-to-me perspectives–of stairstep collapse and an evolutionary model overlaid on our society–has evolved my own thinking about what our future may entail. While, as I mentioned above, I still see that reckoning on its way, I see it less likely as playing out in complete and catastrophic collapse. Rather, I’m swayed by Greer’s argument that we’ll see more of a stairstep collapse and future transitional phases–though they’ll likely be trying affairs, to say the least. This shift in perspective on collapse, meanwhile, has also shifted my perspective on the Occupy movement. Simply put, I no longer think it can or will lead to the revolution I previously hoped for. More specifically, I don’t think that revolution is even possible.
If we are heading for a stairstep collapse rooted more in the increasing scarcity of fossil fuels and their incredibly-concentrated sources of energy, as well as the inability of America to continue to control a share of the world’s resources far beyond its population share, then we are facing a future with no grand solution. Our course is untenable; there’s no solution to make it tenable. If there’s no grand solution, then there’s no revolutionary moment that can save us from collapse, from a series of harsh changes that we don’t want to and are unprepared to make. There are only small moments of adjustment. There are only high levels of persistence. There is only a long process of muddling through, of taking the next step not in accordance with a long-established plan, but with a deft adjustment to recently-arisen circumstances. There is only a series of moves made in conjunction with local realities, not one grand saving grace rooted in a globalized reality. There is only you, and your family, your household and your neighbor’s, the small community around you, a watershed, a localized climate and geography that is asserting itself every day as a greater and greater percentage of your total reality. That’s the only solution, and there’s nothing particularly grand about it.
My experiences with the Occupy movement have been intoxicating. They’ve been empowering. And I don’t think there’s anything surprising or unique about this. In the context of a political and economic system that has rendered the vast majority of people powerless, that voice and sense of impact that the Occupy movement has provided can be addicting. Finally, we think, politicians are responding! Finally, the media is acknowledging us, even if it’s half the time an acknowledgement made up of nothing more than spite and degradation. The Occupy movement isn’t an online petition destined to be ignored. Nor is it dispiriting, as such petitions tend to be. It, rather, engages you in a way that such easy actions do not. Instead of clicking mindlessly, you come together with like minded people and you voice your displeasure, your anger, your frustration and outrage. My experience with that was addictive–I wanted more of it! Based on the growth of OWS, I don’t think my reaction was an isolated one.
Yet, Greer once again wrote something that impacted the way I thought about this reaction. In an essay entitled “A Choice of Contemplations,” Greer writes that “The vast majority of Americans these days believe that something has gone very wrong with their country, but there’s nothing like a national consensus about what has gone wrong, much less how to fix it. By chance or design, the Occupy movement has capitalized on this by refusing to be pinned down to specific demands or specific critiques, mounting a protest in which protest itself is the central content. Tactically speaking, this is brilliant; it’s created a movement that anyone with a grievance can join.”
A particularly beautiful and calming spot along the trail.
This rings true to me. Since the inception of the movement, I’ve been sympathetic to people who have called for specific demands, but unconvinced. Ultimately, I thought the lack of demands lent the movement a great strength. As soon as demands were introduced, they could be used to split apart the movement, to discredit it, and could become a flash point for a full-fledged attack from the movement’s enemies. All of which, I think, is true. Yet the part I wasn’t seeing as clearly was what Greer wrote. The lack of demands opens the movement to anyone who’s angry, which is damn near everyone. Not all will join, but the potential is there. In that sense, the movement was primed for growth. It seems not a coincidence, then, that it grew very fast from its inception.
But I can’t help but think there’s something more we’re facing here. Yes, we have an exploitative and brutal economic order and a corrupt and ineffective political class. Yes, we have a co-opted and bankrupt media and decaying national infrastructure. Yes, we have a societal and cultural order that is propped up by the underpinnings of domination and brutalization. And God yes, we need movements against these unfair and destructive aspects of our society. But what do we do when these movements get caught up in the same system? It’s a common refrain from the Occupy movement (though by no means a consensus) that we need to rebuild the middle class and create a fair economy that provides everyone an honest opportunity for a well paying job with benefits. But let’s be honest for a moment here. The middle class America that most of us envision when we talk about this is bullshit.
It is, I’ll say it again, bullshit.
This is a class built on the exploitation of the rest of the planet: many of its human occupants as well as all its non-human occupants and damn near everything else found in the earth’s ecosystem. The American way of life consumes vastly more resources on this planet than it has population–and the planet is overpopulated. We’ve been living in a fantasy land of the exploitation of concentrated-energy fossil fuels and the destruction and waste of the planet’s physical resources, and we built multiple classes on that exploitation and waste. One of those is the middle class. It’s not as wasteful and as unsustainable as the upper class here in America, but it sure as hell isn’t sustainable, either.
I don’t see a future in which we don’t have to deal with dramatically lower wealth and standards of living. This doesn’t mean we all have to be miserable, dead or living in squalor–though I will be surprised if we get through this tumultuous next few decades without our share of chaos and suffering–but we sure as hell aren’t going to have processed foods and microwaves, TV and the internet, video games and 401k and guaranteed retirements, a country in which a tiny fraction of the population farms, massive tractors and automobiles and development strategies powered by oil, or an endless supply of cheap technological gadgets to distract us from our ever-more meaningless lives. We’re going to have to reacquaint ourselves with limits and physical realities and the necessity to live with the sustainable levels of energy and resources provided by the planet’s ecosystem. The analogy is simple and has been used numerous times: we’ve run up the credit card bill and now we’re going to have to pay it off–while simultaneously learning how to live without the extra purchasing power of that credit.
The model going forward is impossible to predict in its exact details, though one could sketch some likely outlines. One reality that seems undeniable, though, is that we’re going to move away from globalization and return to localities. In fact, we’re looking at a hyper-localized future, in which we’re going to have to reacquaint ourselves with the idea of making our living from a particular piece of land, rather than just existing on a piece of land that means nothing to us while we import our existence in from the globalized, industrial economy. This is huge. It’s going to be hard and it’s going to be made harder by the fact that, over the last couple generations, we’ve discarded an incredible amount of the knowledge needed to live in such a manner. We’re going to have to resurrect as much of that knowledge that still exists, create new knowledge through lengthy trial and error, and train incredible numbers of people in these forgotten skills. And we’re going to have to do it within a compressed time frame–much quicker than such a process would play out naturally.
A stray root from this tree forms what looks like a little hobbit house door.
Over the last month or so, as these ideas have been percolating and coalescing in the back of my mind–spurred on by a variety of Greer’s writings and my own knowledge base and lifestyle–I’ve been struggling to figure out what I think now about the Occupy movement and my place in it. And while I haven’t come to a firm conclusion, I did come to one particular course of action on December 12th. On that day, I had originally planned to travel to Portland from the Oregon coast, where I’m living on a farm, and join in on the attempt to shut down the Port of Portland. As the Occupy encampments had been broken up by authorities and massive displays of force had successfully pushed the movement into a new and quieter phase, I felt the urge to join in on striking back and making clear to the authorities that the movement was not defeated–that it had not been broken under their violent repression. But as the day grew closer on the calendar, my motivations changed. The more I thought about leaving the farm to drive again into Portland, the more I wanted to stay. The more I thought about shutting down the port, the more I wanted to connect to my local landscape.
Therefore, I chose to hike on December 12th. I hiked up Neahkahnie Mountain, which is not the particular land I live on, but is a prominent element of the local geography. It was not a long hike–about four miles round trip, up to the top of the mountain from a midway point and back down to that point. It was a beautiful hike on a glorious day, the sky blue and the sun shining and everything simply far nicer than it typically would be on a mid-December day along the Oregon coast. The air was chilly, but it was no match for the body heat worked up by the physical exertion. I hiked, I observed, I experienced, I worked my body and touched the trees and stood multiple times in awe of the beautiful world around me. I felt calm and relaxed and my mind slowed but became sharper, more perceptive. This, then, was a different kind of exhilaration than the protest and port shutdown would have offered. It was something that struck me as more holistic, more calming . . . more grounding. It was a connection to my local landscape, and it was critical.
If we’re to live in a future with limited access to fossil fuels and the need to live at a truly local level, then we are going to have to rediscover the places we live. We will need to study them, observe them, become intimate and familiar with them. We will need to do our best to understand them, love them, forgive them the challenges they provide us and embrace their peculiarities. This is not a quick process. It is, in fact a lifelong process–a process ideally suited to multiple lives, even. In an ideal reality, culture would provide us the capability of understanding the land over multiple lifetimes in the form of the knowledge passed down to us from previous generations, living on the same land we came to live on. The reality today is far different. Very, very few of us have such a connection. Many of us are nomads.
The port–in its current form, at least–will not last my lifetime. Perhaps my certainty is hubris, yet that certainty remains within me. The land I live on now and in the future (which will hopefully be approximately the same) will be there throughout my lifetime and beyond. And at some point during this life of mine, I will be necessarily more tied to it than I am today. If I want to secure my future, then, and to make that future better, than I best learn the lay of that land. And every day I jet off somewhere else is another day I’m behind in that process. Similarly, every day I exist on this land but spend the day on my computer rather than out on it is another day I’m behind in that process. (Hello, today!) I need to make these days count, and on December 12th I believe I made my day count.
I don’t begrudge the Occupy movement. Rather, in many ways, I cheer it on. We need the activism. We need protest. We need people who are willing to do whatever they can to try to stop this machine as it murders our fellow creatures, human or otherwise. But I also think we have to keep a steady focus on a future beyond that machine. It’s coming down, the machine–that’s inevitable. It’s fuel is running out and its structural integrity is degrading. What replaces it is a question of high importance and whatever the answer is, it’s going to be rooted in a future reality that is smaller and more local and far more connected to the landbase and the ecological sphere within which each individual exists.
I ask people not to lose sight of that. Protest, yes, absolutely, but don’t become too addicted to the intoxicating sense of power and voice. There is a smaller, quieter, but I would argue greater power in learning your land, connecting to the creatures of this world, and figuring out how to live and work well in this world. That is the ultimate struggle of our time. The machine we attempt to stop is simply the result of our failure to do this good work. We have to figure out our own lives and how to live them better–how to live them as properly as we possibly can–if we are to craft a future better than that machine. Otherwise, when it comes to a coughing halt, devoid of fuel and falling to pieces, all of us who spent our time only fighting will no longer have an existence. We’ll be lost, and in that loss will only be chaos–the vacuum where a meaningful and connected life should be, where our new culture is searching for purchase, for the nourishing soil within which it will grow.
The view from the top of Neahkahnie Mountain, looking out over Manzanita, Nehalem and beyond.
One of the particular joys of farming at R-evolution Gardens this season has been the chance to meet so many amazing people throughout the course of the year. Ginger decided that for the 2011 season, she was going to start bringing WWOOFers onto the farm to help out with the expanded operation. Rather than it being just her and an intern, like it was in 2010, it was this year going to be her, two part-time interns (Emily and myself) and somewhere in the vicinity of 50 WWOOFers.
In other words, a bit of a jump in personnel.
My fellow intern Emily, me, farmer Ginger and two-time WWOOFer and movie night-instigator, Erin.
Of course, the 50 WWOOFs didn’t all arrive at once. They were spread out over the season, arriving for stays of two weeks or less, with usually two or three being on the farm at any one time. Yet, it still was a certain kind of madness having the constant influx of new faces and helping hands. At the same time, it was a certain kind of lovely to meet so many incredible and heartfelt people, all of them interested in growing food and living more sustainably, their excitement and enthusiasm a constant lift.
While this year was my third farming experience, it was my first one with WWOOFers. And I liked it. No, actually, I loved it. Having these people cycling through provided uncountable moments of friendship and good conversation, work and play, new perspectives and unique bits of wisdom. It’s a special person who decides to go live in a tent for a few weeks on a farm and trade their physical labor for food. It’s the sort of person who has moved herself to an honest questioning of our society’s functioning. It’s the sort of person who seeks good work, good food and good community. It seems to be the sort of person who tells good jokes and asks good questions and makes smart observations and enjoys a good sweat, either from labor or a sauna or both. My kind of people, then, and I’m lucky to have met every one of them.
There are memories galore. From chopping wood and exchanging books with Matt–who walked away from our farm with a new tattoo inspired by this place, as well as the intention to return next year–to the ginger ale-making session with Cori, Sarah and Kyle. From cob-oven pizzas made with a multitude of different WWOOFers to long conversations with Erik about Derrick Jensen and farming and future plans. From the late-night summer bonfires with strumming music to the burrito adventure with Skyra and Erin. From wood hauling with Casey, Sarah and Karen (so appreciated right now as that wood burns and pushes back this winter’s day chill) to listening to the easy conversation between Matt and Kaiti next to a bonfire on the beach, to sitting by the river on a hot day with Jed, Alex and Erin, to talks of dating in Portland with Christine. From so many amazing meals made by Kate, to Matt and Minjie bringing a bit of Chinese culture to the farm, rocking the authentic fried rice and talking mooncakes, to the always-amazing Leigh-Ann and Jena initiating us into this crazy WWOOFer adventure via their hauling and spreading of gravel and their getting covered with chicken shit (a rite of passage!) Not to mention, Leigh-Ann’s continuing friendship when she moved to Cannon Beach, providing me some wonderful evenings of beer and good conversation up north. From Glen’s thoughtful conversation, steady presence and smart insights to Erik’s fantastic handwritten instructions for growing mushrooms to Aaron’s calming presence and hard work. From a night of music and burnt cookies with Laura, Sky and Rob to conversations about basketball with BJ. From Julie and Kevin’s dangerous over-consumption of Rooster sauce to Kevin’s drunken nudity (oh, tequila!) to Tiffany and Michael’s enthusiasm for weeding and faux-theft of M (see the adorable picture at the bottom of this post.) From our wonderful overlapping of two different Nicks, to Ally’s listening skills on our drive to Tillamook (sorry for the babbling.) From the steady hands and farm free-styling of Marguerite and Alex to Rachael’s cob-oven cobbler and condemnation of this coffee-connoisseur’s caffeine over-consumption. (That’s how you do alliteration!) From conversations about Buffy with Piper to conversations with James about how to make a little money with this lifestyle. From going in to Portland to see music with Liza and Sean and snagging ourselves some free fries to the odd relaxation of our final WWOOFers, Nicky and Darci, who showed up after the markets were done and the CSA appreciation dinner over and with everything finally having eased down from the utter craziness and stress of late summer. It was nice to have that last couple WWOOFers to be more relaxed with and to have a sense of cyclic-closure, as they represented some kind of approximation of experience to the rainy, more-relaxed first WWOOFer experience with Jena and Leigh-Ann.
Casey and Sarah, flexing those muscles after an exhausting day of non-stop wood hauling and heaving. An extra thanks to them as I burn that same wood now to keep warm.
All these WWOOFers provided not only their perspectives and work and friendship and energy, but they provided an extraordinary social scene in a somewhat remote setting. While we have a town of great people nearby, that town isn’t huge and the farm is still about nine miles from it. With my past farming experiences, I’ve often found myself feeling isolated to the degree that I have to somewhat crazily head out on a semi-regular basis to a local coffee shop or bar or both just to hang out and be in the presence of other people–even if I’m not actually interacting with those people. This takes a bit of a financial toll when you’re pursuing a life that provides little to no money, so having the WWOOFers here this year really helped with that. I very rarely felt the need to leave the farm to fulfill some social longing. If anything, I was anti-social at times, needing a break from the constant interactions, and I apologize to those WWOOFers who hit the farm during those anti-social periods of mine. Sometimes I can’t help but just want to hunker down in my yurt with a good book and my own thoughts.
In celebration of all these kind souls who helped us work, play and grow food this year, Ginger has put up a more comprehensive WWOOFer retrospective on the farm’s website. I encourage all to check it out. It’s highly entertaining, with photos of most of our visitors, some thoughts from Ginger and quotes from the parting notes everyone left in the WWOOFer book at the end of their stay. You’ll even see a few pictures of me scattered throughout that post. We really were blessed to have so many incredible people work with us this year. A huge thank you to all of them–you really made this year happen, in so many different ways.
Something that, over the last few years, I’ve seen as odd in our society is how common it is to interchange the idea of a job and the idea of making a living. Life in our industrial, capitalist economy has more and more removed us from the idea of making a living–or having a particular skill or trade–and instead moved us toward the idea of getting a job. We need money to pay rent or a mortgage and to buy food at the supermarket and to pay for our heating and electricity, to buy clothes and toiletries and of course to distract ourselves with the internet and television, Netflix and books (or the Kindle, perhaps) and music and DVDs (or Blu-Rays now, I suppose) and video games and a million other bits of stimulation. We need money simply to continue to exist on this planet, even if we pare back our lives considerably and remove most of the distractions. And the way most people get money is to get a job. However, jobs are ever more being removed from any particular, personal skill and more turning into slots to be filled by willing and able workers, until that slot is no longer necessary for the functioning of the corporation that holds it or until that worker is no longer willing or able.
I’ve played this game. I worked in the electronics department at Fred Meyer, a general retailer here in the Northwest, doing a variety of jobs over the course of six years. I made an hourly wage and received benefits and this job allowed me to continue to legally live on this planet, in this society, and gave me the means to distract myself from the various ways in which my life failed to satisfy me. The job was a slot and I filled it. It didn’t particularly make me happy and it certainly didn’t provide me with fulfilling work. It was a means to an end–it was a job to be worked, not a living to be made.
I think of making a living as something different. In my mind, there’s more meaning to it. These days, I don’t want a job. I want to make a living. And there is a certain literality in that term. In making a living, I want to be making something and I want to be making my life. This is why, in the last few years, I’ve turned to farming. With farming, I’m helping to make food while simultaneously crafting a new sort of existence for myself. I am making meaning within my life and creating happiness and joy and a connection to the land upon and community within which I live. In as much as this is the case, I then gain satisfaction from my work.
The fact that it’s not, in general, assumed that one should and will gain satisfaction from one’s work is not only some kind of special insanity, but it speaks very deeply, I believe, to the ennui that is so widespread in our society. We have transitioned to an economic and social structure that proclaims most jobs to be the province of nothing more than interchangeable drones. One is not expected to do good work–one is expected to do her job. That is all.
I want to do good work. I want to derive meaning and satisfaction from the work I do. Helping to grow healthy food for people in my community provides this meaning and satisfaction. Working for people whom are not just employers, but are neighbors and living mates and friends and damn near family–this provides me meaning and satisfaction and even joy. This also places my work in the context of something real. I’m helping to sustain my local community, not just selling shit to people who live in the same geographic area but with whom I have no connection. I’m feeding friends and neighbors, not enriching absent, unknown corporate executives and shareholders. I’m improving and connecting to the land I live on, not raping and pillaging it in a race to see how quickly it can be turned into money for people who already have too much of it.
Earlier this year, when I was working on the farm I currently live on for nothing more than room and board, a family member of mine would joke that I didn’t have a job because I didn’t get paid. And she was right–I didn’t have a job. I had good work instead.
Thank God for it.
I think the process of applying for a job speaks to how inhumane many jobs are. You first find an open position that seems as though it might not be entirely soul-destroying, then put together a resume and write a cover letter for that job–which is, essentially, an act of advertising oneself, often in a whorish manner. Then you wait too long for a response that may or may not come and hope for an interview, which–should it even occur–will often lurch its way through awkward questions and suffer from anxiety and terrifying optimism, quiet desperation and need, and will almost certainly bear no resemblance to normal human interaction. After this interview and perhaps multiple follow up interviews, you finally are told whether or not you got the job. Or not told. Sometimes, you simply don’t hear back, are forced to call and inquire as to your status, and then are told almost in an offhand manner–oh, did I forget to tell you?–that no, someone else was hired.
This is a horrid way to find work. Granted, I realize there are plenty of people out there who experience the above process in a more positive manner and there also are those who feed off the challenge of it. Even so, what is particularly human or humane about this process? There is rarely any sense of honesty or care to it, and it most often serves as a winnowing–a battle, a competition.
In contrast, I currently work for a neighboring farm and I found that work by simply asking if they needed help one evening while I was visiting to watch a basketball game. The two interns who had been living on the farm were both on the verge of leaving. As we talked about their impending exit, I casually mentioned to the farm’s owners–my neighbors–that I’d be happy to do some work for them if they needed it. They said that could work out great and everything fell into place from there. I started by mowing the fields, began to sell at the farmer’s market, and have branched out into other necessary tasks on the farm from there. The process was natural, it was human, and it literally began from a conversation, not a cover letter. I never had to sell myself to them. I simply had to offer to work, then show up, do it, and prove my worth. Everything else sorted itself out.
I’m not saying this is the only legitimate way to find work, but it is a particularly human way to find work. And I think it stands out in stark contrast to the way of finding work with a corporation or large organization that involves resumes and cover letters and nonsensical, anxiety-inducing interviews.
Many people see jobs as a ticket to security. And they’re not necessarily wrong in that assessment, though I think most of us now realize how tenuous such security is. Jobs provide a steady paycheck which can in turn provide a steady roof over your head, food on your table, and the resources to cover all those other odds and ends of living within our complex society. Jobs also can provide retirement plans and health benefits, though many jobs these days, of course, provide neither of these amenities. And if you have a career, well . . . that’s like a super job, certain to have those aforementioned amenities and perhaps more, along with a theoretical path to more money and more amenities and–again, theoretically–greater security. Perhaps a career even provides you with work that you really do find meaningful, but that’s in no way guaranteed. It may just be what you fell into, because it was a particularly nice looking slot that you were able to snag.
It’s been interesting to me, these last few years, to see the reactions of some people to my choice of work. Some think that it is a particularly shortsighted way to conduct my life–that I should be looking for a steady paycheck with a business, building a retirement fund, paying into social security, getting my damn teeth cleaned. And while I do indeed have a particular desire to be able to go get my teeth cleaned without it breaking my bank account, I have little desire to slot myself back into the system that will provide me with a retirement account and dental benefits.
In fact, I have little faith that a traditional job would provide me the sort of security that others think it would. I see us moving toward a future in which we will have dramatically less access to wealth and energy. In such a future, most of today’s retirement schemes will have ceased to exist but the sort of retirement scheme that has existed throughout most of human history–a base of knowledge and skills through which to prove and provide your worth–will be particularly relevant. So rather than build a 401k, I am learning how to grow food and raise animals, how to work the land, how to live with little money and energy, how to enjoy physical labor, how to be okay with extra blankets and less heat, how to entertain myself without benefit of TV or video games (cats work wonderfully in this regard, as do various kinds of poultry, as does observing and interacting with the land) and how to set up and piece together alternative energy systems. I am also learning to figure it out as I go, and I think that’s a skill that will be overwhelmingly useful in the near future.
It’s entirely possible I’m wrong about the future, though I feel relatively secure in my outlook. But even if I am, I still would choose the life I’m living now. What I’ve found with farming is that I’m building skills, I’m integrating into my community, I’m getting by, and I’m enjoying my life. I’m not making tons of money, I’m not in a perfectly secure financial situation, but I’m lucky enough to feel stable and not at any risk of being homeless or hungry. I’m making a living, in other words–very literally. And you know what? I really, really like it. It’s real, and humane, and satisfying, and it provides the deep connection and authenticity that I missed when I just had a job–and the absence of which was slowly killing me.
In making a living, I have a life. In working a job, I had no future. I don’t know everything this path will bring me, but I know that it will at least continue to bring me joy and new skills. I’ll trust that to secure my future more than I will a retirement account of any size.
A new essay should be up within the next day or two. In the meantime, here are a couple colorful photos from the farm.
A few days ago, I noticed this cartoonish but beautiful mushroom growing halfway down the driveway. My mushroom identification skills are more or less nonexistent (and need to become existent in the near future) so I have no idea what kind it is. I'm going to go ahead and assume it's non-edible and extremely poisonous, just based on appearances. If I'm wrong, I'd rather it stay anyway as a lovely element of the land rather than a meal.
We cleared the tomato plants of their green tomatoes a few weeks back in anticipation of the winter weather. They're now inside and as they ripen up, we've been chopping them, drizzling them with olive oil, sprinkling on some herbs and then roasting them to then be frozen and available throughout the next year for a variety of culinary uses.
Today, I worked at many jobs. I woke early in the morning, in a freezing cold yurt under a pile of bedding, and allowed the alarm clock on my cell phone to ring multiple times. Eventually–knowing I needed breakfast, and knowing I needed to conduct the day’s business–I eased my way out of the warmth of my bed and into the extreme chill of the morning air, pulling on yesterday’s Carhartts (belt still threaded through its loops) and a fleece and an extra pair of thick socks, then walking–cold, stiff–to the main house both for breakfast and its small, lingering warmth from the previous night’s fire.
I ate a pair of duck eggs from the farm, bacon and toast not from the farm. I made coffee and filled my thermos with it. I attempted to wake up. Before leaving the house, as the sky finally began to lighten, I opened the duck and chicken houses, welcoming them to the cold world. The birds seemed largely unperturbed by the chilly weather: the chickens cautiously wandered outside in typical fashion and the ducks went straight for their
pond plastic kiddy pool, though the coating of ice delayed their entry into its waters. Meanwhile, I drove to the farm down the road. There, the farm’s owners and I loaded six lambs into the back of their canopied truck and, shortly thereafter, I drove off with them–and with one of the farm’s owners, Brian, riding shotgun.
We were driving about two hours to a small butcher. Today was to be those lambs’ final day. As it turned out, it could easily have been Brian’s and my final day, as well. About half an hour into our drive, at perhaps 60 mph or a bit less, I lost control of the truck on a patch of ice on Highway 26, the main route between the Oregon coast and Portland. We spun 180 degrees and I have little idea of what I did during that spin. It was fast and slow–a bizarre meditation. I know I hit the brakes at one point and I think I let off them not long after, some small voice in my head telling me I shouldn’t hit the brakes. I don’t know which way I turned the wheel, if any. If I had moved quicker, with more certainty, with greater skill, perhaps I could have avoided the full spin and danger of that moment. But what little I did or did not do ended up not mattering. We simply spun around in a half circle, the tires squealing, the truck out of control and sliding out of our lane, into the lane of oncoming traffic, toward a hill side. I remember thinking, don’t flip over.
We didn’t flip over. No oncoming traffic hit us, either, as we had the good fortune of there being no oncoming traffic. We came to a stop in the left lane of the opposite direction of traffic. Having completed a bit over a half circle, we faced approximately in the right direction. I noted no traffic coming in either direction and I tried to start the car, which had died. It was still in drive and thus didn’t start, though I hadn’t yet recovered my wits enough to realize that. I knew we needed to get out of the road, to make sure we hadn’t lived through this spin only to get plastered seconds later by traffic coming around the bend a short way behind us. I let my foot off the brake and we coasted forward, which happened to be down the hill, and I guided the truck over to the side of the road.
Brian and I caught our breaths. We tried to calm our adrenaline and talked a moment about what had happened. At most, a minute had passed.
On the shoulder of the road, facing the wrong direction, I put the truck in park, engaged the parking brake and then checked on the lambs. They seemed fine–all upright and oddly calm. I can’t imagine they had enjoyed the ride, but who’s to say? I know not the mind of a sheep. Returning to the cab of the truck, Brian and I decompressed a bit more and then I awaited a full clearing of traffic to maneuver my way back out onto the highway. We had survived. We still had work to do. So back on the road we went–this time at a slower speed and with the four wheel drive engaged.
We made it to the butcher almost two hours later, due in part to my slower, steadier pace. There, we unloaded the lambs, picked up some stored cuts of beef, hit a nearby farm supply store to buy poultry feed and then headed into Portland. We met up with a chef and sold him twenty pounds of beef brisket. We ate at Burgerville–a local fast food chain that prides itself on using many local and seasonal ingredients and engaging in sustainability initiatives (see my previous post for related thoughts)–gassed up the truck and headed home.
After the trip back, I used the remaining hour of daylight to feed the awfully hungry ducks and chickens back on my home farm and then went down to the lower field, where I inspected some damage to the hoop house from a previous storm and replaced the blown-off row covering on our overwintering beets and carrots. I returned up top to the main property, closed up the ducks and chickens in the waning daylight, then brought firewood into the main house, fired up the stove, sat down with a beer, and promptly became distracted by the writing of this blog post.
Which brings me to now. So why did I just regal you with tales of my day? First, I wanted to write about the more exciting moment of spinning out of control on the highway. Second, I wanted to note a thought I had earlier this evening, when I was walking down to the lower field, which was that if I had died in the Great December Spin-out, and the six lambs in the back had happened to not only survive the wreck but break free of the back of the truck and escape into the woods, I would like to think that–should I have some form of post-life consciousness enough to note this exciting development–I would be supremely pleased, despite my own death. For all the misery we’ve heaped on the animal world as humans, why shouldn’t they get the last laugh now and again?
Finally, though, I couldn’t help but place my day today in the context of something I read last night. I’m currently reading The Ecotechnic Future by John Michael Greer, a masterful peak oil writer and Druid. In this book, he writes about the future he foresees for industrial civilization, which is one of contraction and collapse. He believes, as I do, that we are running out of fossil fuels and that, in the last three hundred years or so, we have built an industrial economy that now guides the world but can’t run on anything other than fossil fuels–which means that we’re in for some rough times ahead. There is far more detail to this story and I would recommend the book for anyone interested, even if you’re familiar with peak oil theories and have read other books about the subject. Greer takes an approach that I find unique and only 78 pages into The Ecotechnic Future, I find myself fascinated and extremely engaged by all the possibilities and theories he throws out in the text–many of which I likely will write more about on this blog in the future.
Anyway, Greer believes that in the not-too-distant future, we will all find ourselves living with much less (energy, stuff and stimulation) and scrambling to make our way in a new world. He writes, at the end of one chapter, that “Most of us will learn what it means to go hungry, to work at many jobs, to watch paper wealth become worthless and to see established institutions go to pieces around us.” Today seemed to me to be a small glimpse of that future reality. While I certainly did not go hungry (I ate as a glutton, though not in any way other than normal in this country) and my money still means something, I worked many jobs. I worked here at the farm I live on, I worked at the farm down the road, and all that work was varied and piecemeal–a lamb driven to the butcher here, some frozen meat sold there, a duck fed here, a row of beets covered there. I also simply lived meaningfully–bringing in firewood to provide heat and cooking, burrowing deep under my covers on a very cold morning. I also had small moments of joyful clarity–not just the very long seconds of spinning out of control and wondering if I was about to die, but also the moment when multiple small icicles slipped out of the hose along with icy cold water while I refilled the duck’s water jug. True, I drove far more than will be feasible in the future and ate fast food and drank both homemade and purchased coffee–also unlikely future activities–but I lived today a life that seems to hold something of a framework that will be quite relevant in the future. There will be exposure to the actual local climate, not just controlled environments. There will be close interactions with a variety of animals–many of which will be feeding us in some way. There will be both mundane and enlivening chores. There will be direct engagement in the production of heat, not just the turning of a switch. There will be moments when you will suddenly realize you might die, much sooner than you think, which Greer also notes in the sentence right before the one I quoted. There will be moments of wonder at the world around you and its beauty, both despite and because of its challenges. There will not be air conditioned or over-heated offices, nor will there be many highly-specialized careers. Most of us will again become generalists, and our work will be about providing basic needs.
I feel like I glimpsed all that today, and I must say that I enjoyed it. Of course, the future will be harder, but there is an undeniable joy in the immediacy of such a life–and that joyful immediacy will be more common even as the discomfort and challenge is more present. I enjoyed the variety of my day, the direct engagement of it, and the sense at the end that I had lived honestly, had even almost died, but had not just trudged and–other than at a certain literal moment–had not just drifted.
Today I worked at many jobs. Today I lived a future life.
Yesterday, I ate an organic, frozen pizza, bought from a grocery store owned by Krogers. I walked to this grocery store and, after purchasing the pizza, I placed it in my reusable, cloth bag to carry it back to the house where I’m staying. I also, yesterday, picked up some books I had ordered from a local used bookstore, then perused them at a locally-owned coffee shop, where I drank a mocha made with coffee and chocolate from across the world. I drank organic tea, also from across the world, at another small, locally-owned business later that evening, chatting with a friend. I did this after getting there on the bus and I returned home on the bus. I walked over five miles yesterday, all total. I ate two sandwiches–one of them a simple turkey sandwich, made with left-over, factory-farmed turkey from a family Thanksgiving, some Best Foods mayonnaise, and bread from a local bakery that uses sustainably grown wheat. The other sandwich was for breakfast, using the same bread, bacon from a local, Portland-based grocery store chain that focuses on local and organic foods, Tillamook cheese (sort of local, sort of not) and duck eggs from the farm I live on, still covered in duck shit. I made that sandwich using a cheap, non-stick pan.
While using that non-stick pan, I experienced a small moment of disquiet. As a non-Christian, I wondered if this was what blasphemy is to Christians: that enveloping sense of not right. I wanted to and should have been using a cast iron pan and, frankly, wanted to be using it on a wood stove, rather than a natural gas-burning oven. But I was not at the farm I call home. I was in Portland, in a house not my own–one without a cast iron pan or a wood stove.
Portland, for me, is conflict and contradiction. Sometimes–as that first paragraph may make clear–it’s practically schizophrenia. Yet it’s a city I love, and in some ways it’s able to at least partially satisfy my ideals. It’s brimming with small businesses, many of which proclaim goals of sustainability. Local and organic food is available almost everywhere (in the inner core) and many of the city’s restaurants and bars aspire to provide that same sort of local and organic food (to varying degrees of success.) The city has fine public transit available and is immensely walkable. It is, in fact, a joy to walk around Portland. The streets are quaint and typically tree-lined, the houses are adorable and often unique, there are other people out walking, the drivers are mostly courteous, and there are plenty of places to walk to. It is a beautiful city and people here are nice. It’s tied enough to the local landscape that you can be in the city without feeling disconnected from nature and it is, similarly, close enough to natural and rural areas that you can easily escape out to these areas for a more complete nature fix, should you need it. It also is a city that strives at every turn to make people who want to live more sustainably feel very comfortable spending their money and consuming a variety of goods and services, all under a veneer of sustainability. It is, as such, a contradiction.
I’m reminded of this whenever I come here. My trips into Portland are typically to see family and friends, to consume alcohol and good food, to socialize, perhaps to engage in a protest, and to spend some time walking around a city I love. Yet it takes me away from a current life on the farm that has reached a somewhat satisfying level of minimalism, coherency and simplicity. On the farm, I live off the grid, heat and cook using locally-harvested wood, eat lots of food grown and raised on the same land I live on or a nearby farm, and I stay much more connected to the land base. It’s not any kind of perfectly sustainable life–there are still plenty of inputs, imported foods, gasoline-powered drives, electronics, plastics of all kinds, and so on–but it’s pretty damn good and a hell of a lot farther down the road of low-impact than I’ve ever been before. It’s also incredibly satisfying, engaging and connecting, which leaves me happier.
Here in the city, on the other hand, I live on the grid, eat out, drink lots, eat a decent amount of packaged and prepared food, often drive a lot (in getting here and then getting around town on short notice) am much more divorced from the land base, am not around chickens and ducks, typically have no idea where my food came from and certainly didn’t help to grow it. I do this for a few days (or a week and a half, for my current visit) and then return to the farm, where I settle back into my simpler, normal existence and try to get my head back in order. Sometimes this takes awhile.
Mostly, though, what I feel here in Portland is that weird sense of contradiction and conflict. It’s a city striving toward some kind of sustainability, but it still wants to engage in the energy- and resource-intensive, industrial way of life. So everyone still goes out quite a bit and eats and drinks and consumes far more calories than necessary, indulging in deliciously rich food, but it seems okay because the eggs come from cage free chickens and the greens are organic and from a local small farm, the coffee is organic and shade grown and fair trade and micro roasted, and the meat isn’t factory farmed. Hell, it might even be 100% grass fed, depending on where you are. The beer is a microbrew, crafted in Portland or at least the Northwest, and perhaps from local, possibly organic ingredients. The breads are from a small Portland bakery. The businesses are small, and local, and I bet they support the Occupy movement. You can have it all!
Of course, I don’t think we can have it all, and that’s part of what’s driven me away from Portland. I love this city, but it can’t give me exactly what I want. I want a deeper and more immediate connection to the land. I want to live on it and engage with it and I find that extremely hard to do in the city. I want to have non-pet animals living with me. I want to live off the grid and generate my power on site. I want a wood stove! I love wood stoves! And I want to harvest the wood for that stove off the land I live on, or off a neighbor’s land, in some kind of a trade. I want to live slow and cities tend to live fast. I want to take my time getting somewhere and I don’t want distractions at every turn. Maybe most importantly, I want to live simply and be always attempting to bring my consumption down to a more minimal level, and that’s something that becomes almost impossible in a city which is constantly waving consumption-ready delicacies in my face and proclaiming them guilt-free. I am not a man with overwhelming self-restraint, especially in the face of food and drink. And even more especially when facing that food and drink while hungry.
So when I come here to Portland, I tend to give in to the delicacies, the indulgence, the gluttony of the city. I eat and drink and I buy books at local bookstores and I walk around this city and marvel at its beauty and I eye small and adorable houses for sale and wonder what it would be like to move back to Portland, to find some kind of well-paying job, and to just fall into this life of indulgence. It would be a uniquely Portland life, I imagine, conducted on a salary that would seem too small in most places and using less energy at home than your average American and with far more local and organic food being consumed and less TV watched and more small businesses patronized. But it would just be a shifting of the usual, unsustainable order. It would be better, yes, but still a mirage. Too much food and drink, too much outsourcing of the day-to-day of life, too much complexity, too much energy, too much money, too many resources, too little thought and consideration. Therefore, I always end up heading back–and not just because the likelihood of me finding a well-paying job in Portland is almost nonexistent. It’s because, as much as I love the indulgences and the contradictions of this city, I want the simplicity of my life on the farm yet more. I want the thought that I’m moving toward something more real. I want the connection and the coherency. I want the slowness, the sound of the rain on the roof of my yurt, the unique heat that comes from burning wood, the constant use of cast iron cookware, the constant cooking, the connection to my food, the mud and chicken shit and duck shit and all the dirty clothes. I want that life more than I want the food and the drink and the leisure and the indulgence because as much as I love all that, it’s not real.
The most authentic thing in this house, as a matter of fact, may just be the dried duck shit on the eggs in the refrigerator. I love this city of contradictions, but I’ll be glad to go back to the farm where that shit came from.