Archive for the ‘Encounters’ Category

Tree Hugger   16 comments

An entry in Encounters

One of the challenges of attempting a life in the margins is the sense of alienation it can, at times, produce. Granted, a life lived within the confines of society’s dominant ways and thoughts can be alienating as well—even more so, in many ways. Still, the simple fact is that in divorcing oneself of the myth of progress, spurning a great deal of material wealth in efforts toward voluntary poverty, believing that society is in the beginning throes of contraction, and limiting your intake of the newest and shiniest technologies, you tend to alienate yourself to some degree from a good many people. If, like me, this is a somewhat new project for you, then it’s likely that you’ll find yourself navigating tricky ground with at least some of your friends and family as you try to live your life in accordance with your beliefs while not becoming completely inscrutable to those you’ve known for years.

I’ve struggled with these challenges, though I’m blessed in that most of my friends and family seem to have taken my odd behavior in good stride. I suspect some of this is due to a sympathy toward my core beliefs, even if the expression of them skews somewhat radical, while some is due to the fact that I’ve always been at least a bit odd and contrary. Whatever kick I’m on at any given time is typically suffered with good nature, and for that I’m grateful.

What I do miss in my attempt to live a life of less is a partner. While I’ve done some dating over the past four-ish years that I’ve been farming, I find it a bit of a challenge to find people who understand the sort of lifestyle I’m trying to live and are either interested in pursuing a similar lifestyle or who simply are sympathetic to it, even if it’s not exactly their ideal. It’s not that I can’t find people who believe we live unsustainably as a society, but that it’s more of a challenge to find people who are interested in or are already taking the next steps of living with much less. I can’t help but feel that the term “voluntary poverty” is a bit scary to a number of people out there, though perhaps this is as much my own sense of self-consciousness as anything else.

It’s within this context that, just shy of two years ago, I found myself hiking the trail up Neahkahnie Mountain, not long after moving out here to the coast for my third farming apprenticeship. I hiked alone, climbing the mountain for the first time, shouldering a backpack with some water and food in it. It was a spring day and the sun shone, though I hiked mostly in the cool shadow of trees. I kept a steady pace with matching breath.

Hiking is something of a meditation for me. I’ve written about this before, in The Rhythm of Contemplation, but as I fall into a steady pace of hiking and breathing, my mind tends to wander and explore various corners within itself, tracing out paths much as my body follows the forest path, though not with such a singular focus. Sometimes I find myself thinking out some new bit of philosophy or insight, while other times I fall into a contemplation of lingering personal issues or frustrations. Hiking up Neahkahnie that day, my mind took the latter path. I focused in on a complex and somewhat unresolved relationship from a year ago, allowing the frustrations that had arisen from the relationship to pull me toward depression, even mild despair. Wandering through the trees, engrossed within my own mind, I felt an intense alienation and loneliness, wondering if I would ever find a settled place and a partner, good and meaningful work, a life which felt right.

I had only recently moved out to the coast, relocating for the third time in two and a half years. I made these moves in service of broader goals: learning to farm, finding meaningful work and a meaningful life. But that didn’t change the fact that each move proved a challenge, further heightening my sense of alienation and divorce from the social world, and further unsettling my life. I wanted desperately to find a place to stay and familiarize myself with, but that place continued to elude me. I wanted a partner, and she also continued to elude me. In that moment, then, out on the trail and surrounded by intense beauty, by an incredible amount of life, I couldn’t help myself from falling into the confines of my own mind, blocking out the abundant world around me and indulging in a great loneliness. I felt I might never have what I wanted. I questioned my decisions, this life I had chosen to lead.

I stared at the ground, at my feet, placing each of my steps carefully but automatically, avoiding rocks and roots and keeping a firm footing. I could see the ground, but not really—I was in my own head, lost in pity and frustration, in the dark paths that the hike’s physical rhythms had opened up to me. I imagined human touch, physical intimacy, and the longing for it clawed at me. I wanted all these things that I didn’t have at the moment, and I couldn’t see all I did have.

At that moment I looked up and ahead, along the shadowed trail beset on each side by high-reaching Douglas Firs and Western Red Cedars. One of those firs towered on my right, moving in close as I continued to walk along the path, its trunk deep and wide and covered in vibrant green moss. I didn’t think about it, made no conscious decision; I simply reached for the tree. In that moment of intense sadness, I turned and reached and hugged the trunk of that tree, pressing against the rough bark and soft moss, and I felt relief flood me. The tree comforted me as well as any human could have and for a startling moment, it was as real and alive to me as any friend would be. It mattered not that the tree was of a different composition than flesh and bone, a different species, in many ways an alien being.

Trees are alive, of course. They have power and spirit. They are creatures of this world, the same as humans are, the same as any animal. And yet, despite my love of them and despite my joy in their presence, I don’t tend to gain a comfort from them the way I do a friend, or a family member, or a lover. I know there are some people out there who feel that intense a connection to trees on a regular basis, but I’m not one of those people. Sometimes I’ll stop to touch a tree, to feel its bark, to rest or lean against it and I’ve even been known, once or twice, to speak to a tree, though I’ve never heard a response. Hell, I’ve hugged trees more than a few times in my life. But never when I felt the way I did that day, in that dark moment, in desperate need of comfort from another creature. I sought that tree out, not even thinking, and I felt as connected to it as I would anyone. Even as it happened, it shocked me.

I stayed against the tree for a few moments, shifting my head to place my forehead against the cool and damp moss, taking deep breaths, self-conscious enough to glance down the trail to see if anyone else was coming into view, able to see me in my arborous embrace. Thankfully, no one appeared. I was left alone with the tree and its comfort.

After a few minutes, I stepped back, placed my hand against its trunk, thanked the tree. I felt infinitely better. I did not feel nearly so alone, nearly so destitute. My loneliness and self-pity dissipated and the incredible community around me came into focus, reminding me that I wasn’t alone, even if it at times felt that way. I continued my hike, buoyed and thankful. Blessed. I stayed alert and aware of the life around me, even as I continued to think and meditate, to allocate a portion of my attention to the inside of my mind.

Since that day, I’ve stayed here on the Oregon coast. I’ve moved a few times, but each time only down the road, not to some other town or region. I’ve been building a life, integrating into the community, meeting people and making friends, establishing myself. I don’t know that I’ll stay here—it’s very possible, but not assured. I have yet to find a partner. I still find myself lonely at times, and I even occasionally question my decisions, wonder if I’m on the right path. But almost every day I’m surrounded by other life, some of it human and much of it not. That’s always a blessing. It’s always a comfort. It’s always a confirmation that I’m on the right path, wherever it may be leading. Yes, there are still human relationships I yearn for and that I hope to eventually cultivate. But they’re not the only source of comfort and connection. They’re just one amongst many.

I don’t know that I’ll ever feel such a striking and intense connection to a tree again. But I love knowing that it’s possible—that in dark moments, a greater number of species than I might otherwise have imagined can provide me deep and true comfort. I love that sense of connection, of being intertwined, of transcending unnecessary and imposed boundaries. Flesh and bone, bark and pith—it’s all the structure of life, all from the same source. It’s all connected. It just sometimes takes a dark moment to realize it.

A New Year’s Plan: Worshipping the Earth   15 comments

I’ve always enjoyed New Year’s Eve and the ensuing New Year’s Day. The midnight celebrations of the new year strike me as somewhat magical moments, with a fresh year stretched out before me and all its promises of bad habits eliminated, mistakes corrected, good habits established, a fresh sense of proper living beckoning. I’m a sucker for this arbitrary moment so embraced by our culture. I feel as though I should transition that moment of renewal to the Winter Solstice—to synchronize personal and natural transitions—but New Year’s Eve was always the celebration in my life growing up and so that tradition still has its hold upon me.

Sometimes I make resolutions and sometimes I don’t. But I never fail to attempt to regroup in the early days of January. I begin a new year of reading with a new reading list. I think about the bad habits I want to leave behind and the productive habits I want to establish. I take stock of the ways I’ve gone astray from my life goals and look to recenter and refocus myself. This year is no exception.

In fact, this year offers even more of an opportunity for a fresh start than normal. On January 1st, I took up a new residence. For the first time in over two years, I’m not living on a farm. This isn’t as drastic a change as it might seem, though. I continue to work the same two farm hand jobs that I’ve been working for the last year and my move was only about a mile down the road from where I was before. My life is changing, but it’s not a complete overhaul.

I moved to a new place, about a mile down the road. This is the view out my bedroom window, looking out on the North Fork of the Nehalem River. As you can see, we had a dusting of snow this morning.

I moved to a new place, about a mile down the road. This is the view out my bedroom window, looking out on the North Fork of the Nehalem River. As you can see, we had a dusting of snow this morning.

I’ve moved in with a couple, Anthony and Victoria, living in their house on nine acres along the North Fork of the Nehalem River. I have a decent sized room, my own bathroom, and a walk in closet. The house is a manufactured home that’s been altered and retrofitted. Anthony is an architect who focuses on sustainable design, so this home has been updated to at least somewhat take advantage of solar energy. It’s very well insulated. A number of windows were added to let in natural light and a few solar tubes were installed in the bathrooms for daytime lighting. The home is outfitted with a solar hot water heater which assists the electric water heater. It also is equipped with a highly efficient Sun Frost refrigerator. A wood stove sits in the living room and provides much of the heating during the winter. The furnace rarely turns on.

There is a large gardening space, as well, a green house, a compost system, and a wood-fired sauna that sees occasional use. A stream cuts through the property on its way down the hill to the river, though the drinking water comes from a well. This is perhaps the worst aspect of living here: the water has a strong sulfur taste and smell. After living on two farms with incredible water from above ground creeks, I was spoiled. The water doesn’t too much bother me, though. If that’s the worst part of being here, then I can hardly complain.

Over the last few months of 2012, I slipped into bad habits. I was distracted, spending too much time on the internet, and had allowed my living space to devolve to the point of messiness that it left me unmotivated to engage in productive activities. During the summer, my lovely roommates Kayleigh and Lily kept me socially engaged and my garden—in addition to my work, of course—kept me physically busy with productive tasks. Once winter rolled around, the roommates left, and my garden died back, I took all that extra time available to me and sunk it into bad habits of distraction. I wasn’t cleaning up after myself regularly and would far too often choose the distraction of the internet and movies over good work.

This was my own fault, the result of allowing bad habits to take over. One thing I’ve learned about myself is that I’m very susceptible to patterns and habits. The bad ones put me into a negative feedback loop and the good ones put me into a positive feedback loop. But my self control is something that I’m still working on and leaves much to be desired; even when I know I’m engaging in bad habits and understand what I need to do to transition myself to productive work, I too often don’t do it. I allow myself to fall into distraction even though it depresses me and reduces my quality of life.

This happens most often when I spend a lot of time alone. At my previous place, I was alone more often than not the last few months. The farm owners also live on the property and I still was working, so it wasn’t a constant solitude, but the farm owners live in a separate house and we didn’t spend significant amounts of time together. The other social outlets in the area largely clear out in the winter. There are a good number of people around in the summer but far less in the winter, and many of those who do stay here through the winter time are people in town whom I haven’t made friends with.

Much of my socializing, in fact, has been happening in Portland, where I’ve been dating a woman now for a couple months. She’s fantastic and has made my life quite a bit better, but she’s 80 miles away. She’s not integrated into my day-to-day life. I go into town to see her, have a grand time, feel good about life, then I come back here to the coast and to a certain amount of solitude and my bad habits. It’s been unsustainable and it’s knocked me off the path I’ve been talking about here at this blog, upon which I place such high value.

Another angle of the view out my bedroom window.

Another angle of the view out my bedroom window.

I believe it’s important that I be able to change bad habits and unproductive patterns without having to make large physical changes in my life, such as moving to a new location. One of the downfalls of our modern society, I believe, is something of which Wendell Berry has written of extensively: the migratory nature of our culture. Many of us here in America have an expansionary frame of mind stemming out of the westward migration of the past and the availability of cheap energy and resources. As such, we feel we can use up a place because there’s always somewhere new and fresh to move to and begin anew. Sometimes this is conscious activity, sometimes not. Cautious and thoughtful husbandry, within this frame of mind, is not required. But, of course, this is a destructive and false belief and one that contributes to many of the ways in which we live poorly and destructively. And so I fight to eliminate this way of thinking from myself and to reorient myself toward the ideal of staying in place and of caring properly for my home.

Yet, in recent years, I have moved continuously. In the last four years, I’ve lived in six places, including my new residence. This has been the result of multiple farm internships and of the way I’ve chosen to live my life in recent years, with far fewer resources. It means that my homes have often been temporary, either of necessity (a set-period internship) or of likelihood (living situations that are expected to be temporary but with no set expiration date.) In some ways, this can be frustrating. In other ways, it’s one of the costs of how I want to live. But ultimately, I want to settle into a particular place, learn it well, care for it, and establish the patterns and habits that will allow me to live more sustainably, on less, with a small amount of money and resources and energy. Familiarity of place is one of the most critical elements of such a way of living.

In my small defense, the last three places I’ve lived have been within a few miles of each other rather than spread across different geographical areas. I am closer to settling, and I would be happy to live in this area here on the north Oregon coast for the rest of my life. I like the community, I love the land, and I continuously feel blessed to now be making a living farming, outside of internships. As others might feel about landing a powerful and high-paying job, I feel about finding good farms to work on for a small but sustaining hourly wage: it is a grace. Here is home for now, and hopefully a good ways into the future.

But once again, I have moved, and I must admit that this move feels like a fresh start and an opportunity to limit my bad habits and reinstate good ones. I had fallen into a funk at my previous residence, through no fault of the place itself but only of my own shortcomings. This move has given me a psychological boost to changing my behavior. It’s a small condemnation of myself that I felt a need for such a physical move to make psychological and emotional changes, but it’s just the place where I’m at for the moment as a flawed human on this chaotically beautiful world. I’ll continue to work on making myself better, on gaining a greater control over my habits and patterns.

There is an element to my new home that is specific to this place, though, which is the people I now live with. I’ve only been here ten days, so there no doubt will be continual learning of how to live with my new roommates and continual adjustments for all of us, but I must say that it’s a joy to be living with people again after a few months of residentiary solitude. Particularly in the winter, I think it’s important for me to be a part of daily community. I’ve enjoyed sharing meals again, having casual evening conversation, having new perspectives and ideas introduced into my thought processes. Similarly, my roommates are older than me and are conservationists—they have designed habits of living rooted in an attempted sustainability and lighter living. They have established patterns and habits that support these ideals as well as a seemingly settled way of day-to-day living. This, I have to say, is a godsend for me at the moment.

As mentioned earlier, I have been scattered and at the mercy of my own bad habits of late. I haven’t been living particularly well, though I can’t say I’ve been living horribly, either. But I have been undisciplined and that lack of discipline has pushed me from my stated goals, which has been painful for me. Through their behaviors, Anthony and Victoria are reminding me of the value of good habits and patterns of living, and of how simple it can be to integrate tasks and ideals into my day-to-day life. They are reminding me how to live well, which is something I had half forgotten the last few months. That, too, is a basis for a fresh start—the modeling of good behavior in my small community of residence.

So 2013 is bringing a particularly fresh start for me this year. I have new residence in a beautiful and settled place, with good people providing good conversation, and who model excellent patterns of behavior for me. I am reminded of good ways of living and of the simplicity of it, given the right frame of mind and a deterrence from self-defeating thought patterns. Much as with the good work I have found, this is a grace.

With this fresh start, I have fresh goals. First of all, I plan to refocus on my reading and study this year. Last year, I only read 17 books. I imagine this will seem a lot to some people here and not a lot to others. For me, it’s a small amount. I normally read closer to 50 books in a year and I like that level of reading. I plan to get back to it in 2013, assuming I don’t run myself too ragged in the summer (though much of my reading takes place during the year’s shoulders, anyway.) Second of all, I plan to get back into various homesteading projects. I haven’t made butter in a number of months; I want to resume that habit. I have some cabbage in the mudroom that will make some fine sauerkraut, as well as providing fresh eating. Fermented ginger carrots would be excellent, as well. I’ve been meaning to make my own enzyme cleaner for months. I finally am going to do that. I’ll attempt to bake a homemade loaf of sandwich bread that will reduce or eliminate my desire to keep buying Gabriel’s bread, a Portland bakery whose sandwich bread I adore. I haven’t made ginger ale in a long time—add it to the list. Homemade pasta on the simple, hand-powered pasta machine I received for Christmas over a year ago? Absolutely, it’s time to give it a try.

When I step away from the computer and engage in a productive activity in the home, I feel infinitely better than if I had just spent that time continuing to stare at a health-sapping screen. And yet, the screen beckons me constantly. It’s a weakness, the amount of time I give to it doing unproductive things. Turning it off and engaging myself in the kitchen, rediscovering the earth through my food, reading a good book or watching the birds on the back porch, considering the world, writing a letter to a friend, taking a bit of time to listen to good music and watch the flames in the wood stove—all this brings me a happiness the screen often can’t. And so, in this new year, I am recommitting myself to stepping away from the screen and putting my time and effort into quality activities, into connection and good health and happiness. I’ve noted this quote before, but Peter Berg once relayed these words of a woman from Mexico City: “The kitchen is the place where you worship the earth.” I wholeheartedly agree with that sentiment and, further, think screens are often where we lose touch with the earth—one of the primary places where we learn to degrade the earth. I want to worship the earth instead, which means more time in the kitchen and less time on the internet.

That said, I am keeping my commitment—sporadic as it’s been of late—to this blog. There is still much I want to say and much conversation I want to have with all of you, those who take the time to read my thoughts. I know I’ve been largely absent for many months now and that I’ve made false promises in recent times. All I’ll say at this point is that I intend to write more regularly here going forward. I don’t yet know how regularly that will be, but I enjoy writing for this blog quite a bit when I actually sit down and do it and I want to resume that habit in the new year. The screen is not so bad in this regard.

I expect I’ll continue to add to The Household Economy as I recommit myself to kitchen projects and other homesteading activities. I also intend to write more entries in the Encounters series. I have a number of encounters I still want to write about. The How To Be Poor series on voluntary poverty is a different beast. I have not felt happy with it of late. It’s not that I don’t still have a commitment to voluntary poverty, but I don’t like what I attempted to do in that series of writings. I knew too little. I portrayed the series as one of instruction when, in reality, I am far more a student than a teacher when it comes to such a way of living. I tried to avoid being too preachy, but it came through anyway. It’s not that I don’t think I should write about voluntary poverty, it’s that I think I should have been writing about it in a different way, with more humility, more openness, and more a sense of imparting my own experiences rather than attempting to give people advice, which was one of the ideas behind the series. I made a mistake. I got ahead of myself. I do that sometimes.

I’ll have to think more about How To Be Poor before I decide what to do with that. I may just put it to bed with a final post in which I express some of the thoughts above. Or I may try to take it in a new direction. I’ll decide soon enough and then put up a new entry in the series. (I’m open to suggestions, too, if anyone wants to provide some feedback in the comments.) Whatever I do with it, though, expect thoughts on voluntary poverty and simple living to remain a part of this blog. After all, it’s a major component of what I’m trying to do with my life.

Finally, I may yet start the Considerations of Death series that I anticipated almost exactly a year ago. I still think about it at times and have a few entries in the mental queue that I would like to write at some point. I’ll leave it up to whim for the time being.

Yesterday, after doing a couple hours of work over at the farm I lived at until just a couple weeks ago, I wandered over to my garden there and began the long-neglected work of harvesting out some of the remaining food. I filled a 14-gallon plastic trash bag with multiple heads of cabbage, a few pounds of frost-sweetened carrots and parsnips, an oversize bunch of kale, and a few stray beets. I brought them home, cleaned them, ate a bit and packed the rest away in the fridge and the mud room. There is still a bounty of food out there: more carrots in the grounds, lots of parsnips, probably at least a hundred pounds of potatoes that I really need to retrieve. Still more kale, as well. It’s the remaining legacy of this summer’s good work, of the fulfillment of ideals and the result of good habits, of sustaining patterns. It was a reminder, as well, of the importance of working against distraction and malaise and of finding a constant renewal within an engagement of the earth. That can happen out in the garden, in the kitchen, at either of the two farms I work for, or even on the back porch, the back yard, in the fire in the wood stove, in all the abundant places in which the natural world asserts itself and recaptures my attention.

I intend to cultivate that capturing. I intend to worship the earth—and to let it revive me in this new year.

Good Friday   8 comments

An entry in the Encounters series

I keep staring at the moon.

I only noticed it perhaps an hour ago. Granted, I saw earlier in the day on my wall calendar that it would be full tonight, but I’ve become so conditioned to cloudy nights that I feel like I haven’t seen the moon in ages. It’s just not out there most nights; I’m not used to looking for it. Yet tonight, I happened to glance outside and noticed a bright light in the night sky. There hung the very bright, very full moon.

It’s out there—visible, conspicuous—because today turned out to be a day of sun. While clouds came and went in the morning, the afternoon brought clear skies, blue and accented by that lovely daytime orb that’s grown so unfamiliar over the winter and early spring. In eventual celebration of said sun, I opened up a few of the windows while I went about making butter and seasoning a couple cast iron pans. Granted, I opened the windows more for the smoke from the pans. However, the cool spring breeze that began streaming through the house brought about a certain seasonal joy that overtook me. As I made my butter (which I’ll be writing about soon enough) I kept feeling that cool but exhilarating air, kept hearing the lambs and ducks, wind and birds, kept smelling the grass and dirt and kept remembering how achingly beautiful this area is in the overgrown thick of summer. It’s beautiful year round, of course, but when the plants are bursting and there’s even more green than usual, the skies are blue and the mountains bright, the breeze is warm and refreshing—well, there are few places so incredible I’ve ever experienced in this world.

That insistent breeze and shining sun brought about a pleasure that I’ve been missing of late. I haven’t been hiking in awhile and my forays outside have mostly involved work. While I certainly can revel in nature while working—one of the many benefits of working outside—I’ve tended in the last couple weeks to be more focused on tasks at hand and have done much of my work in less-than-lovely weather, which makes the appreciation of the natural world not quite so spontaneous. During my free time, I’ve been mostly inside, working on unpacking and cleaning, organizing and—yes, it’s true—engaging in various distractions like the internet and television. (More about that soon, as well.)

Today, though, I remembered that there’s a world outside, and that it often calls to me. I felt the sun, the breeze, the happiness of a clear and sunny day. I felt the emerging spring, the impending summer. As I felt these seasons, I made butter and listened to music, drank coffee and cleared smoke and felt a contentment that has been too infrequent of late.

Then came the dark of evening and this glorious, full moon.

Stepping outside into the cold night and taking a few minutes to just stare at it, to marvel at it, I couldn’t help but be reminded of what a gift the moon is. It’s really quite incredible, hanging up there in the night sky, such an otherworldly presence so regularly available to us. I find it slips into the background too easily for me, as does the night sky in general, that cascade of stars. Every now and then I’ll remember the beauty waiting up there above me—that glimpse into the universe, stretching out to such impossible depths.

It’s really a blessing to have. It’s a blessing to be able to look above me and see something that brings the world into such a sharp focus and provides us a context for our existence. I’ve been here in my new place, wrapped up in such a very small world and forgetting, in many ways, the much bigger world around me. It’s bound to happen, but it’s important to bring back an understanding of my context and to remember what makes me happy. The moon, bright and full and dominant in this Good Friday night sky—that makes me happy. An early spring breeze slipping in through windows that have been opened for the first time in months—that makes me happy. Homemade butter and freshly-seasoned cast iron pans—those make me happy.

Today lived up to its name. It was a good Friday. There’s a moon out there confirming it. I can’t stop staring at it and I don’t particularly want to. It reminds me of so much, calms me, brings about reflection and meditation, all while hanging there silent and present, offering an entire world of understanding and an even greater amount of mystery. How lucky I am to have that, and how amazing it is that I continue to be surprised by its presence, that I must so often be reminded of what’s always there waiting.

Posted April 6, 2012 by Joel Caris in Encounters, Farm Life

Tagged with , , , , , ,

The Desert Tells   12 comments

An entry in the Encounters series

Six weeks ago, I walked amongst the red rocks surrounding Sedona, Arizona. I was in Sedona after having driven my mother there and was able to take a few days to enjoy the local landscape, to sit in the sun and read, to walk in the desert and reconnect to a place I had visited once fifteen years before, when I lived in Arizona for a year. Ever since that year, I’ve felt a connection to the Arizona desert landscape and didn’t hesitate to take advantage of the chance to return to the state.

Bell Rock. Taken by Ken Thomas.

Twice while there, I walked the trails looping around Bell Rock and Courthouse Butte, winding my way across the red sandstone and between the twisting Junipers, the trail dipping down into washes and scaling rock outcroppings. On February 4th, I skirted around Bell Rock and took Llama Trail, which meandered away from Courthouse Butte. I lost myself in the rhythm of the hike, my breath syncing with my steps, the landscape unfolding around me. A bounty of birds flitted about in the branches of the surrounding Junipers—which were short and squat, hunkered down low to the ground—and I would stop on occasion to watch them for a few minutes, their quick and jerky movements mesmerizing. The day was a bit cool, the temperature in the fifties with clouds passing overhead. The sun peeked out at times but proved hidden more often than not. As I traversed farther along Llama Trial, the passing clouds turned dark and borderline foreboding, kicking up winds that suggested an oncoming storm.

Climbing up and out of a wash, I crested a small hill and came out the other side of a stand of trees, looking upon a wide expanse of red sandstone marked with small cairns. Off to my right, nearby cliffs towered high, as red as all the other rock and dotted with trees. Beyond the cliffs stretched the sky—and a series of heavy clouds promising rain. I carried a rain jacket in my backpack but no other rain gear. I hoped that any rainfall wouldn’t be too heavy.

In the middle of that stretch of sandstone sat a pair of large rocks, one of them perhaps three feet in diameter and the other a bit smaller and higher. A cairn balanced upon the smaller rock. I walked over to those rocks as an increasing wind stirred around me. From the vantage point of the two rocks, I saw a series of shallow pools forming a line in the sandstone, the worn cavities holding stagnant water from the previous rain. I dropped my backpack on the ground, next to the larger rock, and then went to one of the cavities, kneeling to inspect it. A dead scorpion caught my eye at that moment, its dried husk of a body perched on the rock about a foot from me. Just as I focused on the scorpion, a rain drop hit the stone right next to it, creating a sudden and surprising, tiny burst of darkness. It startled me. I glanced up at the dark sky and then over at the cliffs to my right. There, a mist in the distance—a fuzzy opacity in front of the cliffs. Rain falling. Moments later, more rain arrived, increasing in scale and intensity. The rain patterned the rock around the dead scorpion. Ripples spread in the small pool of stagnant water.

What am I to do in places like this, at such moments? I considered this as I retreated back to the pair of large rocks, toward my backpack and rain jacket. The wind grew stronger and the rain continued to fall, insistent but not overpowering, not yet drenching. I wondered how long the storm would last and how strong it would become. I could have retreated at that moment, beating a path as quick as possible back to the parking lot, but even that would have been something of a futile effort. I had no car at the parking lot—only the prospect of a further walk back into Oak Creek and the condo at which I was staying. Furthermore, I didn’t want to retreat. I wanted to experience. What am I to do in this situation? Abandon the desert, taking shelter somewhere inside, in an insulated building in which I can’t even here that it’s raining, in which I can forget what the world is doing and instead exist in my own oblivious comfort? Turn my back on the desert when it doesn’t provide my every comfort, a perfect encapsulation of my desires? Or sit on a large rock and welcome the storm, feel the water against my skin, the wind slipping around me, and smell the wetting of the desert rock and sand? I donned my rain jacket and chose the latter, settling myself upon the larger of the two rocks, crossing my legs and facing away from the nearby cliffs, looking out toward Bell Rock, the red ground, and the twisted Junipers.

As I sat there, staring out into the desert, the wind blew hard against my back, driving rain against the back of my head. The wind and rain were cold, but not freezing. Rather than discomfort, I felt exhilaration at the power of the weather—the heaviness of the clouds above me, the force of the wind, the abandon of the rain. The water opened up the sands and the desert plants, bringing forth a familiar and comforting scent. I reveled in the fluctuating sensations the storm provided.

Rain splattered against the stretch of sandstone in front of me, creating intricate patterns on the rock. As the wind blew, it brought the rain in waves. The waves painted the rocks—a visual representation of the wind pattern. Even as I watched it, though, the sun emerged from behind the patchy storm clouds and shone down as the rain continued to fall, alighting each drop on the stone, illuminating the wind’s pattern. As more rain fell, each hit upon the rocks created a short burst of reflected light and before long I saw the wind’s pattern in the waves of light—a rhythmic pulsing of cold wind and water coupled with the sun’s light, the collaborative art of the elements. It was beautiful. It was a magic, far better than any Christmas light display.

I marveled at all this. The visuals, the sensations of the storm against my skin, the sound of the wind flowing across the desert land and through the trees, the push of that wind against my back, the simultaneous chill of the wind and rain on the back of my head and the warmth of the sun on my front. It all came together to create a weaving of contrasts, a heightening of sensation that thrilled me. It awoke and inspired. It lasted long minutes that weren’t long enough.

Eventually the squall passed. The wind calmed and the rain trailed off, the sun-accented patterns on the ground drying and disappearing. I sat on the rock for awhile, holding onto and reviewing the memory. I thought of what it meant to be out in that power and restrained fury—at how much of a presence could arise in so little time, uncontrolled by us humans but capable of so much consequence. I recalled that first surprising moment of the rain drop next to the dead scorpion, its sudden appearance at the exact moment I trained my focus on the scorpion shocking me into the present world. I thought about sitting on the rock in the storm and how it might contrast with sitting under a tree, or under a rock ledge, in a yurt where I could hear but not feel the storm, or in an open field. I breathed deep the smell of the wet desert and for a few moments I stared at the cairn on the rock next to me, wondering about the person who had made it, about their love of this particular place.

Then I slipped off my rain jacket, returned it to my backpack, shouldered the pack and continued on. I continued following the Llama Trail for awhile until I stopped, pulled a small notebook from my back pocket and a pen from my front, and wrote, No machine, no matter how powerful it makes us feel or how much destruction it lets us wreak, can make us gods. Those machines are as dependent on the wide world as we are, and if we continue to degrade our home, they will fall first—followed shortly by us.

No machine is as powerful as that small storm. No human being is as significant. And nothing we’ve ever created is worth disavowing that beauty and power and exhilaration. Sitting on the rock, in that storm, I remembered how small I am as a human on this planet and how big the world is—how huge and daunting and empowering this world is, every day, if only we’ll acknowledge it. Everything we create is a piece of that world. Everything we create is subordinate to it.

We need those kinds of storms to remind us of this. But we need them, also, to remind us that such a reality is a good thing. If we could tame such storms through our creations, the world would be a lesser place. If the world was of our making rather than something far larger than us—far more complex, mysterious, magical and incomprehensible—than it would be a lesser place. I’m happy we’re subordinate to the world and not the other way around. I’m comforted by it, in fact. It means that there will always be those moments when the world takes me over, surprises me, asserts itself in the most unexpected of moments and makes me remember who I am, where I am, and how little I know. It can be just a rain drop, at just the right moment. It can be the art of sun and wind and rain. It can be hot and cold at the same time—front and back, two powers meeting. It can be the world, finding me on a desert afternoon, out on the rocks with nowhere to go. But it’s all beauty, and power, and magic, and appropriate. And I’m thankful that I was there that afternoon, that I saw the world’s beauty in a way I never had before. I’m thankful to have been reminded in that moment of how small I am and how large and unexpected the world is.

I’m thankful for what the desert told.

Encounters: An Introduction, Concerning Hubris   14 comments

An entry in Encounters

It strikes me that one of the great challenges we face at the moment is getting a grip on our own hubris. We need, first of all, to recognize its existence, which we too often do not recognize. We need also to understand the danger its existence bestows upon us. I believe it’s due to our hubris that we think we can control the world. More to the point, it’s due to our hubris that we think we can understand the world. I suspect the tendency toward that belief is one of the greater dangers we face and divesting ourselves of such beliefs would go a long way toward helping us to deal with a future that’s likely going to be very much out of our control.

One of the better ways of ridding ourselves of such hubris is to embrace this world of ours in all its mystery, messiness, confusion and contradiction. Every day we find ourselves a part of a planet so brimming with life and magic that an honest appraisal of its reality would make it clear to us that we have very little understanding of it. It is, after all, a trickster, and seems always ready to prove our folly—to place into sharp relief our arrogance. We approach this world as though its mechanics are simple and straightforward, as though they can be understood and modeled and thus predicted, and as though we can therefore control the world, shaping and molding it to our liking, creating a preferred reality rather than working to live well within our actual reality. Time and time again, this approach has proved misguided at best, and often times deadly.

We build nuclear power plants, for instance, thinking that we can set in motion incredibly powerful natural reactions, create massive amounts of insanely deadly wastes that will exist on a time frame essentially outside the bounds of human comprehension, and control and manage this process and these wastes. Time and again, we’ve been proven wrong. The fail safe designs fail, the earth provides unforeseen circumstances, the impossible events become possible. Earthquakes and tsunamis occur, human error and fallibility takes its toll.

We think we can dump massive, incomprehensible amounts of pollution into the biosphere and it will simply absorb it, dispose of it for us, protect us from ourselves. We are proven right to a degree, but wrong to a more important degree. The earth rebels, we are forced to suffer the consequences of our own waste, and our assumptions are proven false. Cancer rates rise, asthma increases, rivers burst into flames.

We proclaim that money will bring forth oil, but it doesn’t. We proclaim that war will bring about peace, but it doesn’t. We proclaim that we can abuse and neglect our soils and still they will feed us. But our soils die, and turn to dust, and they blow away in the wind. The oil we dump on them only lasts so long before it destroys that which we claim is being nourished. Eventually, if we can’t get past our own blindness, we will starve.

We believe that we can run every aspect of the natural world through the scientific, reductionist wringer, break it down into pieces small enough to understand, change each piece, put it back together and then expect it to function based on those reductionist changes. It doesn’t work, because the world doesn’t work so simply. The natural world functions as a whole, and the pieces put together begin to take on mysterious tendencies—the sort of tendencies that don’t always show themselves until the complexity and interactions of the whole takes hold. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, after all, and the whole tends to have a spirit that we can’t find so easily in the parts.

Dismember a human body and you may, through study, gain a great understanding of the individual pieces: this leg, this hand, this finger, this foot, this stomach, and so on. But you won’t understand the person you’ve dismembered. You’ll get no sense of their spirit or personality, of the impossible complexity of their personality and consciousness, of their unique traits and experiences. And, perhaps more importantly, you’ll kill that person by dismantling them, by breaking them down into separate pieces. You can only break down the whole a bit before it dies.

What’s ironic is that this sort of scientific reductionism—upon which so much of our hubris is based—has also provided many accountings of the world’s mystery and magic. I remember, years ago, reading Brian Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos and being enchanted by his recounting of certain scientific experiments involving quantum mechanics. These experiments documented physical activities at the smallest scales of matter that behaved counter-intuitively to how we understand the world. Reading about quantum entanglement and the quantum eraser experiment brought me a sort of giddy joy. Here, in the midst of scientific reductionism, was an assertion of mystery. While, yes, these experiments and their results were based in mathematical and scientific theory, their counter-intuitive and, frankly, bizarre results when compared to our normal, every day experience with the world was a reminder of how much mystery surrounds us.

We are in great need of a recognition of that mystery. We’ve fallen into the habit of daily going out into the world and working to destroy it. We have given up the idea of learning to live well on this earth, given up spending our lives in the never ending effort of doing good work, and instead have turned our lives into the never ending pursuit of arbitrary wealth and luxury. We seek out comfort and gratification without regard for what it means for the rest of the world, our fellow creatures, or even our own health and well-being. We do this with the backing of vast amounts of energy, resources and money—far beyond what our forebears ever had available to them. With this historically unique backing, we have engaged in historically unique destruction. We have damaged the world on a scale previously unknown, previously incomprehensible. And we do it most of the time without even a recognition or realization of the consequences of our actions. We are children—grossly immature, horrifically arrogant, and clueless on both counts.

But, as children mature, so can we. Much of that maturity can be derived from a connection to the broader world and the other creatures who live in it. As we grow older, we tend to better understand others as unique individuals, with their own internal lives and realities. While we may not fully know those internal lives as we do our own, we can still recognize that they exist and that, therefore, this other person is prone to the same emotional realities, the same human failings, the same sort of hopes and desires, the same complexities that we are. In other words, we begin to realize that they are wholes, rather than mechanistic collections of fingers and toes, hands and feet, arms and legs, torso and head. We therefore bear responsibility for treating them as such and dealing with them in a kind and caring manner. We may not always succeed in this responsibility, but our understanding of it and our attempts to fulfill it is the measure of our maturity.

We cannot reserve that sort of maturity only for other human beings, though. We must also provide it to the uncountable other creatures that live with us in this world: animal, plant, fungi, soil—hell, even the stones, the solid ground we walk upon. This is harder, and it’s easier to stray from this ideal, and more understandable when we do. Yet it’s important that we afford all creatures this respect, and take upon us the responsibility of treating them with care and kindness, because otherwise we too easily will find ourselves destroying them for our own easy comfort and casual desires. And in their destruction, so we begin our own.

Also, though, in connecting with these other creatures, we connect to the mystery of the world. We begin to see our own limitations and understand the full breadth of consciousness and individuality these other creatures hold. Animals are no more machines than we are. In the last few days, I’ve worked around, interacted with or seen cows, sheep, baby lambs, calves, dogs, cats, wild turkeys, elk, chickens, ducks, pigs, donkeys, goats and raccoons. You can’t tell me that the cow that kept approaching me and licking my rain pants had no different a personality (or no personality at all) than the one who kept her distance, or the one who would come cautiously close and then back up when I reached out to her, or the cow whom would go running and kicking in a fit of activity, seemingly unprovoked but almost certainly provoked in some manner or another. You can’t tell me that the hundred or so baby lambs running around Meadow Harvest right now aren’t unique and individual creatures, that they don’t experience this new world with joy and confusion and the occasional bit of fear or caution, that they don’t love the cold air and the intermittent sunshine, bounding through the wet grass and drinking milk from their mothers. I’ve watched them. I’ve held them and fed them. They’re every bit a living, conscious creature as I am.

Interacting with them serves me on two levels. First of all, it helps to remind me that the world is full of creatures that deserve the chance to live well, and that my desires for comfort and gratification don’t supercede their right to the possibility of such a life. That helps ratchet down my arrogance by reminding me that I share this world with billions, trillions of other creatures and that I have a responsibility to all of them, that I can’t willfully damage our world or live my life without concern for what kind of work I’m doing, how I live, and what damage or good I do. Second, it helps connect me to the mystery of this world. Seeing all these other creatures, living, engaging this earth in much the same way I engage it, very much conscious in the way I am conscious, is a reminder of just how magical a place this is. Often times, as well, these creatures engage in unexpected behavior, or take me by surprise in some way or another, much as in the way I wrote about last summer, in what I now am considering the first Encounters post. This, too, is a reminder of the world’s magic. It’s a reminder of my place in this existence, and how small it is, and how it stands as just one amongst billions of places, occupied by billions of creatures.

I suppose, then, that this is a third level of benefit from these sorts of interactions. This is the benefit in being reminded that, while I am unique, I am not Unique. I am not, as a human being, better than the other creatures in this world. I am not more highly evolved. I am not morally superior, or closer to god, or more deserving of good, or endowed with some sort of right to dominate the earth. I am not above reproach. I am one of many, sharing this planet, and at my best I’m engaging its mystery in the same way that all these other creatures engage it. At my best, I’m able to lose myself in the brilliance of this existence, to step for a moment outside the convoluted and exhausting machinations of my turbulent mind and find myself, for one transcendent moment, immersed in this incredible and beautiful, heartening world—and in awe of it.

The Encounters series of posts will be about this awe. It will be a cataloguing of such moments when I found myself connected to another creature in this world, engaged or surprised or in conversation, snapped out of myself and my self-absorption and reminded of the larger world around me. It will be about mystery and magic and beauty, and the intention of this series is to help shed us of our arrogance and hubris, and to remind us of our incredible world and bring us back into it. We are a species on this planet, much as any other species, and in many ways we are a profoundly immature one. We have much to learn from our fellow creatures. I hope to discover some of those lessons in future entries.

Posted February 18, 2012 by Joel Caris in Encounters

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A New Year’s Plan: Death, Poverty and the Household Economy   16 comments

Predicting the Future

As we move into 2012, my plans both for my life and this blog are beginning to take better form. As I wrote in my post on returning home, I am settling into this area—Nehalem, on the northern Oregon coast—and, for the first time since 2009, staying in a particular place for a second year. While I’ll have to leave the farm I’m on now in a few months, I hope to simply move a short way down the road. Either way, I’ll be in the area. I have work on two local farms now and have a third farm offering a significant social scene, all three of which are nothing to be dismissed. I’m beginning to integrate into the community and finding that there are many opportunities here. It doesn’t hurt, either, that this is a particularly beautiful part of the northwest, with the sort of forested landscape that holds a great draw for me, along with quick access to incredible coastal environments.

So what specifically does the new year hold for myself and this blog? Well, as I’ve been making clear, I believe that we’re a country in decline. We’re in the early stages of peak energy and face a future in which fossil fuels—the primary fuels behind our economy, behind the entire way we run our country and other industrialized nations run theirs—become more expensive and more scarce, even as worldwide demand continues to grow. This will put significant pressure on our economy, our infrastructure, our political system, on the ways in which we organize our lives, on everything. You know how most of us in recent times have been slowly ground down under the pressure of a dysfunctional economic and political system, particularly since 2008? Well, we’re not in an anomaly. We’re experiencing what is now normal in this country. We are in decline—pretty much all industrialized nations are now, but America is particularly due to its empire status—and so we need to rework our expectations and rethink how we are going to live our lives.

This isn’t just about peak energy, either. This is also about ecological catastrophe, climate change, a collapsing financial system and, I would argue, a spiritual crisis. These are all interconnected and they all work together to make one hell of a mess. Governments and municipalities are going bankrupt, families are losing their purchasing power, ecosystems are exhibiting signs of incredible strain and we have a culture that is utterly failing us, focusing more on the Kardashians and fleeting memes than these very serious problems—or even thoughtful philosophy, affecting art or explorations of religion, spirituality and nature. We no longer know our way, and many of us know we’re lost.

The way we’ve come to expect life to be is not how it’s going to be in the future. Unfortunately, most are still living as if it is. But instead of an economic correction and a return to the comfortable living most Americans expect as something of a birthright, we’re going to, in general, become poorer every year, less materially rich and comfortable, and are going to find many of our foundational supports crumbling. It’s likely to be a rough road ahead. Yet, we can prepare for it and there’s no reason not to. We need to begin to learn how to be poor, and we need to begin now.

I realize that’s not going to be a popular sentiment and I’m sure there’s a contingent reading this who might think me a bit crazy. But I really do foresee this future, and there’s a lot of science and literature out there to support it. We are coming up against some hard ecological and physical limits as a species and there’s no getting around it. For all the talk of human ingenuity and endless progress, the reality is that human history is the story of cycles and patterns, of rising and falling civilizations, of a multitude of different ways of experiencing and living within the world, and this particular way that we’re in now—industrial civilization, for everyone reading this—is starting to come apart. We’ve had our time, and that time brought us a standard of living and a level of wealth unknown throughout the history of humanity. That makes us unique, yes—but no more unique than thousands of other civilizations and no less vulnerable, either. We’ve mistaken wealth and comfort for permanence and immortality. Wealth provides neither. It’s just a different mode of living. And it’s a mode of living that’s particularly ill-suited for our future.

The basis of our wealth and comfort—the burning of fossil fuels, which provide a level and accessibility of energy unlike anything else on this planet, and certainly unlike anything renewable, as well as the intensive exploitation of this planet’s resources—is coming to an end. It won’t all be gone in our lifetime, but we will certainly see shortages and most people alive today are going to be seeing the chaos that will result in those shortages. We’re seeing it already, in fact. The financial collapse of 2008 was a necessity, not an anomaly, and there are further corrections that will have to be had simply because we chose to address that collapse with attempts at propping up an unsustainable system. The lack of rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina is another indication; a society in collapse simply doesn’t have the resources to rebuild itself after major disasters the way a society on the ascent does. The gridlocked political system and vapid culture are indications, too. The keystones in declining civilizations commonly cease to provide value to that civilization’s citizens. The collapse is not on its way. It’s here now. We’re already in it.

What’s important to note is that this collapse is very unlikely to turn into an apocalypse. It will happen gradually, which is the course that collapsing civilizations typically take. The exact details and timelines are unknown, but the full process of collapse generally takes a couple centuries. That means that we will not see it through its completion. We’ve had the fine luck of drawing the straw that put us at the beginning of the collapse. We get to deal with the initial stages, which are unlikely to be too fun, and it’s entirely possible that few people of consequence will ever acknowledge this collapse during our lifetime. Again, this is because it’s unlikely that there will ever be an event so undeniable and of such magnitude that everyone will point to it and say, “Aha! Here is the collapse.” Instead, it’s just going to be a slow grind. We’ll get shocks to the system, then stabilization and a period of reduced standards of living, and then another shock, another stabilization, and another period of yet-more-reduced standards of living. We had one of those shocks in 2008 and we’re living right now in the stabilized period with a lower standard of living. How quickly is unemployment recovering? How many people have fallen off the rolls? What’s the real unemployment rate? What’s the economy like now compared to the 90s?

So, then, our future holds further monetary and material impoverishment. It holds access to less energy and less resources. And it holds the promise that if we do not start to learn how to live under these new realities, we are going to be a lot worse off than if we do. You know how every few years we hear news stories about the hot new career track? It’s the career that forward-looking people are training for so that they’ll have a place in the economy of the future. Well, I’m here to tell you that the hot new career going forward is living in poverty. Learn to do it well and you’ll be in good shape. Ignore the coming reality and cling to the hope that all the same activities that have supported people over the last couple decades in this country will continue to support them and you’re likely to have a harsh time of it.

Living in Poverty

With that mindset, I’m planning on diving full bore into voluntary poverty in 2012. Not that I’m not already there to a large degree, but there’s plenty more I could do. Luckily, I have a couple sources of work lined up, so I’m not going into a completely income-less poverty. But my cash flow will be small anyway, far below the official poverty line in this country.

My plan for voluntary poverty has a few different elements to it. Aside from working at two farms, I plan to do some serious gardening this year. Coming off three seasons of veggie farming, this should be something I can do. But I have to admit I still don’t feel fully prepared to supply myself with homegrown vegetables all through the season. I expect I’ll do fine, but imagine it will be a bit more of a challenge than it should considering my experience. Still, this is the exact experience I really do need—a situation in which I’m fully in charge, which will burn quite a bit of knowledge and experience into my brain. When working for others, I too often do the work without paying full attention to the reasoning behind it. When I have to understand the reasoning—to figure out the work myself—I learn much better.

This gardening I’m hoping to do may actually take place on the property of one of the farms I’ll be working for. If this is the case, then I’ll be doing a work-trade with them for rent and gardening space. That would leave the other farm to provide most of my cash flow. However, with my rent and food taken care of, I won’t need a significant amount of money. This is another element of my poverty: getting out of the formal economy as much as possible and working within the informal economy of barter, work-trade and so on. This is fantastic preparation for the future because it’s the formal economy which will be failing us. The informal economy should be trucking along quite well. In fact, it should be growing quite a bit in the near future, and undoubtedly already is. This is a reality simply because as the formal economy fails to provide the living of more and more people, most of those people aren’t going to just lay down and die. They’re going to find some way to make ends meet. And if the formal economy isn’t capable or willing, then they’ll turn to the informal economy.

The Household Economy

Part of that informal economy is also the household economy. These are the things you do for yourself at home, using your own labor, rather than paying someone else to do them. Cooking, for instance, is a big part of the household economy. Various food processing you do at home is part of that economy, too. In 2011, I lacto-fermented a variety of veggies, made traditional pickles, made ginger ale and blackberry soda, made butter from cream, made mayonnaise, helped Ginger can tuna fresh off the boat, made pesto, made my own pizza dough, roasted and froze tomatoes and did many other things, all of which were part of the farm’s household economy.

As part of my household economy in 2012, I plan to regularize a series of homesteading activities. I don’t know for sure which ones it will be yet, but I suspect butter making will be there, as well as condiments, and I want to start making my own bread. I would love to begin making cheese and I’ll continue to brew sodas. I’ll certainly be preserving vegetables and probably canning some fish. I also would like to learn how to mend clothes. And I really would like to better learn beer brewing. I’ve brewed four times, once alone, and I have the basic process down. I need to figure out my equipment situation and then start brewing beer as a matter of course.

All of these activities will save me money by transferring the processing and packaging of food from a factory to my kitchen. By saving that money, I can live richer while being poorer. This is the point of learning how to live in poverty. It’s not about learning how to survive a cold night in a cardboard box in an alley—it’s about how to make your life as comfortable and rich as possible (in both a material and non-material sense) with very little money. Most of us will likely have access to less money in the future, or more money that will buy less due to inflation. The more we figure out how to make our lives without money—with thrift and cleverness and our own labor, as well as simple pleasures—the easier it will be to maintain comfort, happiness and a decent standard of living in the midst of a crumbling formal economy.

And if I should prove to be wrong about the economy, then you’re still in a better situation, with access to far more money now that you can use to do whatever you would most want to do with money, such as buy land or travel or start your own business.

Study, Meditation and Death

While I have plenty of physical plans, I also plan to focus on the mental and spiritual in the new year. Part of this will take the form of new avenues of study, with a likely focus on history in the broad sense, history in the very local sense, and my local ecology. Part of it will also be the consideration and possible engagement with a nature-based spiritual study. Part of it, as well, will be a meditation practice, likely involving quiet sits in and observation of the local land. All of these plans are still somewhat tentative and less planned out than what I wrote about above. They also are very personal and less applicable on a broad scale. As such, I won’t get into great detail here, though I’m sure these aspects of my new year will be commented upon and documented to some degree here on this blog.

However, I think consideration of a spiritual element is important for us, especially when dealing with collapse. I believe as a society, we’ve allowed ourselves to become too cut off from the natural world. As we live in an economy and society that is predicated on the use and destruction of the natural world, being cut off from that destruction is necessary for us to not be driven insane at the death constantly perpetrated around us. But as our material society begins to fall apart and offer far less material comforts, many of us are going to need some kind of spirituality to turn to. We won’t be able to fix these problems by buying a new tablet computer or paying someone to fix us a nice meal. New clothes or the smartest smart phone won’t make these issues go away and neither will trivial obsessions with celebrities or fleeting trends. We’ve elevated shopping and electronic distractions to the level of spirituality in this country; as those go away, we’ll need something else, both to provide comfort and to provide new myths for us to use in learning how to live well in a changed world.

With that in mind, I plan to explore some spiritual aspects on the blog this year. One of those will be a series of posts on death. Many of us need to think more about death, become more acquainted with it, and better accept it. Death is something we tend to shy away from in our society and I honestly think we’ll be forced to confront it more directly in the near future. As our economy and infrastructure continues to worsen, public health will, as well. The death rate will rise and we ourselves will be more likely to die earlier. We may be caught in one of the many coming shocks I spoke about earlier. This is life; we just as well could be killed tomorrow in a car crash or die of cancer brought on by the extreme toxicity of our environment, the horrid slop we call food. Death is around us now but as the forms we’re familiar with and have normalized begin to give way more to new forms—failing public health and the occasional dramatic catastrophe, for instance—we may find ourselves forced to confront death in a more direct way than is considered normal.

As such, we need to think about death. We need to better understand it and make our peace with it as much as we can. We need to actually acknowledge it. Therefore, I’ll be writing a series of posts that will recount experiences I’ve had with death. I don’t expect to make too many grand, sweeping statements about those experiences. I imagine I’ll let them more speak for themselves—will simply try to capture some of the emotions and sensations I’ve felt and pass them on to you, for your consideration. I find death somewhat unfathomable and fascinating and frightening. I suspect many have similar feelings about it. But the more we deal with and think about it, the less frightening it becomes and the more it begins to take the shape of something recognizable, of something that is both a necessary and profound part of what it is to be here on this earth.

I, finally, plan to focus more on the Encounters category on this site, which has been neglected up to this point. These posts will deal with encounters with the natural world and its inhabitants. We are a species on this planet, as every other living thing is. We are different, yes, but I don’t believe we are inherently better than other animals or plants, or even the dirt beneath our feet. I also believe we have quite a bit to learn from the other species we share this planet with. We have proved in recent times particularly destructive, particularly hubristic, particularly immature and particularly cruel. As we necessarily transition into a less dominant and more reciprocal relationship with this planet and our local ecosystems, we would do well to observe and learn from the other species around us. They have a lot to teach us, a lot to remind us of, and much joy to impart to us. We would be wise to receive it.

A Plan, Then

In conclusion, there are four main elements of my plan for Of The Hands in the new year.

  • How To Be Poor — This will include a variety of posts, from projects I’ve done that I think are helpful for living in voluntary poverty, to thoughts I have, to posts on certain subjects and themes, to ventings about the trials and tribulations of being poor. This won’t be as structured a category, but there should be much there and I think it will prove helpful for those who are interested.
  • The Household Economy — This will be a series of documentations of my household economic activity. There will also be some theory and philosophy, I imagine, but the focus will be on actual activities that constitute a part of my household economy.
  • Considerations of Death — This will be a series of posts detailing different experiences I’ve had with death, in an effort to better understand and become familiar with it. Most of these will simply be stories rather than long pontifications, but I imagine it will trace my own evolving attitudes and thoughts toward death, as well.
  • Encounters — This will be a documentation of encounters with other species. Much as with Considerations of Death, many of these will simply be small stories or anecdotes, but hopefully they will prove helpful. Where I think I’ve gathered some wisdom from another species, I’ll share it here.

In the coming days, I’ll be doing a bit of redesign of the site’s navigation bar, making these sections easily accessible. These are the main focuses I have for the blog going forward, but I don’t intend them to be the only writings I’ll share. If I ever get my camera working again, I’ll still put up the occasional photo posts and there will be other random thoughts and musings, documentations and stories. In fact, I plan to make one of my next posts a review of some of my reading in 2011.

I also, over the next week or two, will be putting up introductory posts for each of these categories. And, of course, I reserve the right to grow bored with these plans and change the blog’s direction. But for now, I like this path and am excited to delve more deeply into these topics. Here’s to hoping you’ll join me, or at least peer quizzically from the other side of the screen.

A Short Meditation on Ducks   1 comment

Today was supposed to be a particularly stormy day for us here on the Oregon coast. Up to two inches of rain was forecast, along with high winds. I found myself looking forward to this. While we’ve certainly had a fair number of rainy days since fall set in, we haven’t had a two-inches-of-rain sort of day. I imagined hunkering down in my yurt, the wood stove fired and keeping out the chill, listening to the pounding rain as I immersed myself in a good book.

While the storm didn’t end up being quite the rager as originally predicted, I did find myself hunkered down in my yurt for the first part of the day, along with the aforementioned good book, the hot stove, and the sound of rain all around me. We didn’t get the advertised two inches and the winds didn’t kick in until later in the afternoon–and weren’t as bad as predicted, either–but the rain was heavy enough to turn at times cacophonous and create a mesmerizing aural and visual backdrop.

Within that visual backdrop, not far from my yurt, were the farm’s eight ducks. (It used to be 14, but one or more raccoons recently gained a couple meals from the flock, sadly.) As I noted on Twitter a few weeks back, our ducks and chickens have different, distinct reactions to stormy weather. While the chickens tend to huddle under a tree or simply give up and go to bed early when it’s particularly rainy, the ducks grow ever more active and ecstatic as the rain increases. A torrential downpour and furious wind seems only to encourage them–to set their stubby tails wagging with greater energy and frequency, thier beaks digging beneath grass and weeds with ever more purpose and conviction. When I let them out of their house this morning, they ran out into the wet, cold and wind with a joy and abandon I couldn’t help but find contagious. They bobbed their heads, wagged their tails, searched for bugs and quacked heartily at each other.

As I watched, I couldn’t help but to wonder what it might be like to be a duck in a rainstorm. Their joy spoke to something natural–to a sensation that surely must fulfill whatever innate sense they hold as to what it is to be a duck. And I couldn’t help but wonder if being a duck in a rainstorm is not unlike a heightened sense of me being myself in a warm yurt in the same rainstorm. As I curled up later that morning with a good book, a fire crackling in the wood stove and heat radiating from it, listening to the rain hit my yurt but staying dry within, I felt a deep comfort from knowing what could be and having, instead, the opposite–existing within the best definition of coziness: a small warm space protected from the cold and wet beyond. What if being a duck in a rainstorm is simply a greater version of that sensation? Imagine the wind whipping around you, the rain drenching you, but your body being impervious to it. The rain runs harmlessly off your feathers and the wind slips around you, no better able to penetrate those feathers than the rain. You are warm and you are in your natural element–wet, perhaps a bit muddy, but comfortable. Not only is the wind and rain unable to touch you, but it invigorates you. Its power and primacy is potent, yet it brings you only comfort and joy. The raindrops feel good as they slide off you, providing a pleasurable sensation engrained deep into your genetics, triggering that sense deep within that comes whenever you bob upside down in a body of water, searching for food–perhaps even mystery–flowing that water over you, eating and drinking and feeling, engaging. To be a duck in a rainstorm–is it like a long, hot shower or a soak in a hot tub on a cold night? How does that feel?

I wish I knew. I know I like to be in a small, warm space when it’s raining outside, able to hear the hit of those drops but not having to feel the discomfort of being cold and wet. I know I like being in effective rain gear in a storm, able to feel the vibrations of the raindrops hitting my gear and feel the wind against my face, pressing against my body, but not suffering the cold and wet discomfort of being exposed. But what would it be to be naked and invulnerable? To be able to feel it so much more directly, yet still maintain your comfort?

Surely it would be exhilarating.

When I watch our ducks in the rain, I feel that–small and incomplete, but joyous just the same. I stand in the rain long enough for a smile, for a few moments of shared pleasure, and then I retreat back to my warm home–to my good book and the muted echo of rain and all that infrastructure of dry comfort.

Posted November 16, 2011 by Joel Caris in Encounters, Farm Life

Tagged with , , , , ,

The Magic in Small Places   3 comments

An entry in Encounters

I already wrote about the abundance of life here on the farm. It’s evident everywhere you look: the plants tall, bushy and vigorous, the crops yielding fruit and leaves, flowers and roots, the earth crawling with tiny creatures, winged friends singing and flying all over the place and the sun presiding over it all. Yet, while the macro is impressive, the micro yields still more to see. In fact, it presents the details–a face that in some ways is perhaps more true than the broad view of the beautiful fields and towering trees. That broad expanse is a picturesque one, fitting into a societal standard of beauty, suitable for framing and for the common oohs and ahhs. On the small scale, though, amongst the cracks and crevices, the more intriguing realities come to the forefront and the reality of just how rich and diverse the life is here becomes apparent.

A moment ago, I heard a commotion in the seedling house attached to the western wall of the main house. Inside this small greenhouse we have seed trays of fall starts sitting on shelves and raised beds on the ground, currently filled with our eggplant. There are three raised beds, one in the middle and then one on each side, with a few inches of space between the raised bed and the greenhouse’s wall. The motion that attracted my attention came from the bed to the left of the entrance and I could immediately tell it was a bird flying amongst the eggplant.

Curious, I stepped inside and knelt down to peer into the plants in search of the bird. I couldn’t see it at first and thought it had found its way out of the eggplants and into a corner, but then it revealed itself within the plants, clamoring away from me, back toward the front of the greenhouse, its movements erratic as if the bird’s body was broken. As I found its position and was able to focus on the small creature, I could tell that this was indeed the case. It lay on the ground, close to the edge of the raised bed and near the greenhouse’s western glass wall, breathing fast, faced away from me but its head turned so that it could keep an eye on me. Its legs spread out flat behind it, seemingly broken. I spoke to the bird for a moment and then–and I don’t know if this is defensible–took my camera out of my pocket and took a picture of the bird. It continued to watch me, wary. I spoke again and thought about the cats, that one of them likely had done this to the bird.

Unsure what to do, I stood and moved toward the bird. I would have to pass it to exit the greenhouse anyway, and I thought perhaps I could pick it up and take it outside. Upon my movement, though, the bird attempted to fly forward again and fell into the couple inch space between the raised bed and glass wall. It was now out of my reach. The bird’s fate was its own–which seemed appropriate, anyway.

Still curious, however, I moved up to the front entrance and peered into the space between the raised bed and the southern wall, to see if the bird had moved far enough forward in its space to be seen from that angle. For a split second, I thought it had, but then I realized it was not a bird I was seeing, but a chipmunk. It crouched silently in that space, facing forward, about a foot in from where I stood, staring at me while very still. I watched it for a few moments, meeting its eyes through the tangle of cobwebs dotted with dirt and small bits of plant debris, the emptied husks of caught insects. The dry body of a familiar caterpillar dangled right at the edge of the space. A few inches further in, a spider waited, curled up into a ball and pressed against its egg sac. In this small space, the chipmunk–normally such a small animal when seen in our more familiar open spaces–was a hulk, a strangely-large beast hunkered down but still filling an inordinate amount of its limited area. From this perspective, as well, I could feel myself as a giant. I ceased to be the below-average, five foot five inch human being and became instead something massive. Peering into that space, I actually entered it and became–for a moment–that chipmunk, peering back out at me through the crisscrossing cobwebs, this strangely-thin insulation. I became a mass, giant and threatening, my head alone far bigger than the chipmunk. I lost myself in that moment. My change in perspective–with the orientation of my view so much closer to the ground than normal and my up-close view of the cobwebs growing them to a size far greater than I would normally perceive them–and my discovery of a new place far more complicated and full of mystery than I had anticipated transported me into the body of another creature, into a view of the world not my own.

There was a magic in that moment spoken of by David Abram in an interview I had just read earlier this morning. In the interview, conducted by Derrick Jensen and published in How Shall I Live My Life?, Abram spoke of the importance of using magic to alter our perspective and jolt us into a renewed awareness of our interplay and interconnectedness with the living world. A sleight-of-hand magician, Abram said that “magic is an experience. It’s the experience of finding oneself alive inside a world that is itself alive. It is the experience of contact and communication between oneself and something that is profoundly different from oneself: a swallow, a frog, a spider weaving its web. . . . Magic is that astonishing experience of contact and conviviality between myself and another shape of existence, whether that be a person or a gust of wind. It’s that sense of wonderment that arises from the encounter with that which I cannot fathom, with something that I cannot ever fully exhaust with my thoughts or understanding.”

The surprise of seeing that chipmunk–what is she doing there?–shocked me as a sleight-of-hand trick might, causing me to question the world around me and my knowledge and awareness of it. I went looking for a bird and found, instead, a chipmunk–and a spider, and cobwebs, dirt and debris, drained insects, and more. I discovered an entire other world and–left unbalanced by the surprise of an unsuspected presence, my perception altered so that small things seemed bigger and a tiny space that could not fit me filled the entirety of my vision–I entered that world. Through a co-authored magic born of contact, I fell into the chipmunk, the primary focus of my attention, and entered into an otherworldly alteration, discovering my place anew and seeing myself as the other, as something astonishing.

It was not only an experience of wonder, but a subversive moment, as well. As humans, we spend so much time in a human-centered world. We tend to live in human-built buildings, exist in human-built environment, transport ourselves in human-built devices. We speak with other humans but rarely speak with nonhumans. We see, constantly, as humans, and rarely take the time to attempt to see as nonhumans. But this is not an impossibility. An alteration of perspective, a sudden surprise, the magic of the unexpected–these experiences can transport us better than any car, subverting our human experience, opening a door into the nonhuman world and reminding us that not only does that world exist, but that it is the world and we are simply of it, within it, not separated from or above it.

Today I was transported in just such a manner. I discovered a bird and ended up becoming a chipmunk. It was an astonishing trip, brought about by a special kind of magic and grounded within the sudden contact between human and nonhuman, between myself and the other, between two manifestations of life–both of them unique, authentic and valuable, both of them with their own perspectives of the world. I’m grateful that today I was able to experience both those perspectives, rather than just my own. I’m grateful that today I peered into a small, forgotten space and discovered magic.

Living With the Other – An Introduction and Consideration   3 comments

To Begin With

I’m currently living with an evergreen blackberry.

The blackberry in the middle of July.

It’s growing up out of the earth through a very tiny crack between the bottom of the wall and the floor of my yurt. It’s dark green, with jagged leaves, a stalk that thickens by the day and thorns that grow ever more sharp and substantial. It’s growing by the corner of my bed and every day it overhangs that edge–the corner of the head of my bed–a little more.

Luckily, I don’t tend to sleep on that side of the bed. This is good, because I’ve been stabbed in the skull with a blackberry thorn before–while harvesting those ever-alluring berries–and I can’t say it’s an experience I’m particularly eager to relive. Certainly not in the middle of the night.

But To First Backtrack

I’m living in the aforementioned yurt because I’m interning on a small, off-the-grid, organic farm called R-evolution Gardens, located on the Oregon coast. I’ve been here nearly five months and will be here longer yet–at least through Thanksgiving and likely beyond. The yurt’s part of the deal: room and board in exchange for my work on the farm. It comes with a Jøtul wood stove, fantastic (and laden) bookshelves made in part with small alders off the land, a colorful desk, a (futon) bed and, finally, that neighborly evergreen blackberry vine. The vine, of course, wasn’t here in March when I first moved in. It’s a relatively new addition, having been around since the beginning of July.

Now, I’m familiar with blackberry bushes. Back in 2006 and 2007, I did two eleven-month AmeriCorps terms of service, working on a field team doing environmental restoration work. Often times that involved removing invasives, and it was not uncommon for said invasives to be Himalayan and evergreen blackberry. They are beasts, terribly vigorous and not a plant to take your eyes off of for a moment. They spread fast and with little mercy for whatever’s in their path. Trees, shrubs, various native plants, perhaps a particularly still human being–they will happily swallow all, never slowing down to consider whether or not it’s fair for them to be devouring so much land.

A bit like modern humans, no?

In the process of this growth, they’ll create massive tangles of thorny vines that are quite capable of tearing flesh and anything else they come into contact with. They also will create garish, gnarly root balls which can keep them growing and expanding for long periods of time. These root balls turn blackberries into zombies. Kill them all you want, but they’re going to come back. You can chop back those vines time and again, sever them right at the surface, and they’ll still come back. Do it over and over and over again for years, with the right timing, and you may be able to kill them off eventually, but what you really need to do is dig up that root ball. Because if you don’t, the next thing you know, that blackberry’s going to be growing right up into your home.

Enough About Blackberries–For the Moment

This is my third farm internship. Last year, I lived in Portland, Oregon (oh, home!) and farmed at Sauvie Island Organics. The year before that, 2009, I lived my first farming experience at Rosehip Farm and Garden, up on Whidbey Island in the Puget Sound (a bit northwest of Seattle, essentially.) Rosehip was a brilliant introduction to farming, showing me the glorious sort of life that can grow from organically farming a small piece of land while living on that land, engaging in a simpler life and feeling far more connected. I lived in a tiny airstream trailer and the first time I strolled out of my trailer and across the field to our onion beds, snagged an onion from the ground, peeled the dirty layers off as I walked back to my trailer, and then chopped and added it, fresh as could be, to my dinner . . . well, let’s say I was a bit hooked on the farming life. It quickly felt as though I would never be able to go back.

Unsurprisingly, I never have.

In actuality, I’ve simply moved farther down the rabbit hole. Along with a love of growing and eating good food, I’ve discovered over the last some-odd years that I love to homestead. I often make the joke that what I really want is simply to be some lovely woman’s housewife, but it’s not really much of a joke. If I could stay home all day and cook and preserve food, make cheese, brew beer, bake a wide variety of breads (from hand-ground flour!), ferment anything I can get my hands on, churn my own butter and make my own sour cream and creme fraiche and buttermilk, brew up kombucha and ginger ale, roast my own coffee, cure my own bacon, and so on and so forth, I would be an extremely happy man. However, I haven’t yet found that lovely woman who will support me financially while I indulge such endeavors, so for the moment I’m left fitting these projects into my free time.

Of course, that means that my farming and homesteading have grown organically (so sorry) over the years, evolving slowly and concurrently with my similarly-evolving philosophy about life, the natural world, and the way we humans live in it. In between farming and homesteading and various other activities, I’ve spent quite a bit of time reading the works of a wide variety of authors, many of them environmentally conscious. Wendell Berry, Derrick Jensen, David Ehrenfield, Paul Hawken, Annie Dillard, Richard Louv, Gary Paul Nabhan, Thomas Berry, Bill McKibben, Joanna Macy and others have burrowed into my brain with their words, helping to lead me to a radical reevaluation of what it means to live in this world. These readings, coupled with a few years of reconnection to the land via farming and a significant distancing from the dominant culture and economic system, have brought me to a new way of understanding the world and have left me unable to reengage with business as usual. Further, they’ve altered my ways of thinking and have left me making and noting connections that I could not see before.

And So a Blog

I am a writer. Sometimes I qualify that statement with an “occasionally” or a joke about being a writer who does not write. But I do write, even if not always, and I intend to write quite a bit on this blog. This website is being started mainly to provide myself a venue for the exploration of these new connections I’ve been making, the new thoughts I am thinking, and for the cataloging of the experiences that give birth to these connections. This will include longer, more formal essays as well as short vignettes and the relating of observations, stories and activities. There will be the cataloging of farming life, homesteading activities, stories of hikes in the woods, encounters with other creatures, and small meditations on what it is to be human, to be in this world, and how one might work, live, play and love well. The thoughts and considerations will come from experience, from my life and the lives of others, both human and nonhuman, from my readings, from my successes and failures and from the challenging words and thoughts of others–including, hopefully, this blog’s readers.

I want to share how I came upon this path and where it leads me. I hope to do this not just for my own better understanding, but also to inspire and challenge others. Because, to be blunt for a moment, our society is extremely screwed up and its going to take a whole lot of us realizing that deep level of corruption and bankruptcy to disengage from the dominant culture and forge a new one. Luckily for those of us who want to do this, this is an extremely rewarding and joyful undertaking. It’s amazing how much more satisfying life can be when you start to find your true place in this world and begin to understand how to live well in it.

The Other

So I return to the evergreen blackberry that has found itself cohabiting with me. It has grown quite tall now and, yet, has begun to blend into the background. This is not so much because it is less visible, but because I have normalized it. Upon first discovering the blackberry, it nearly shocked me. However, there are blackberries all over our farm, which we constantly work to keep in check. They are remnants of its former use as a staging area for logging of the local land. They are the signifiers of previous abuse, a colonizing species brought forth by abuse of the land.  To find one on the farm is not surprising at all. My yurt, however, is a particular place–a circle of human space, walled off from the outside world and supposedly controllable. It is, it seems to me, not a proper place for an evergreen blackberry.

But that is only because I did not introduce the blackberry and because it made its way into my yurt of its own volition. If I had chosen to bring the blackberry into my living space within a pot, I would not look at it strangely. I would in fact care for it, water it, feed and dote upon it, making sure that it received enough light and worrying if it began to look sickly. In other words, if I controlled it, I would find it acceptable. It’s the fact that I don’t control it that makes it odd. It is another creature–the other–and, thus, does not belong in my home.

At least, that was my initial reaction. I quickly questioned that reaction, though, and wondered if I should not leave it to its own devices. I could always change my mind and cut the vine off at the base, reestablishing the previous order and slowly forgetting about that brief appearance of an uncontrolled guest in my home. Why not? I thought. And so I did.

To Return To The Present

The blackberry now, near the beginning of August.

It is taller than that first picture shows, now approaching the roof. At a certain point, it began to hang too far over the bed due to its increasing weight, so I tucked the blackberry up against the wall, latching it enough to the crisscrossing wooden framework of the inside of the yurt so that it would stay there, rather than dropping upon my face in the middle of the night. There is a second vine, almost as tall as the first. At some point, I suspect I’ll have to cut them both down, yet I can’t find much motivation to do that while they still present me no significant problems.

See, this is one of those moments in which–silly as it may seem, to be uncertain as to whether or not to allow this blackberry to continue to grow in my yurt–I feel compelled to play with expectations, both my own and society’s. It would be logical to cut down these blackberry vines. At the same time, though, they present a fantastic learning opportunity. I observe this blackberry much closer now that it’s in my home than I would if it were outside. I notice its growth and change, the color of its leaves, the breadth of its thorns. I examine, curiously, how well it will grow in diffused, nondirect sunlight. The answer, so far, has been, “Quite well.” I suppose this is an unsurprising observation, considering how well blackberries seem able to spread within the shade. Still, it’s an observation born of direct experience and, as such, might better linger.

A Tying of Loose Ends

Upon first seeing the blackberry growing in my yurt, I wanted to remove it. On further consideration, I decided to live with it. The desire to remove it seemed rash. It appears to not be harming the yurt in any appreciable way and there is no one but me to suffer the mild consequences of living with the plant. Therefore, why not hold off on decisions and allow myself time to consider and learn, to observe, and to perhaps come to some new conclusions? Much can be gained by living with someone other than yourself and little would have been gained by immediately removing the blackberry. I would have already forgotten it and any consideration of the intertwining of our lives would have likely ceased upon the blackberry’s removal.

My reaction to the blackberry and my creation of this blog, then, come from similar intent. I want to study, consider and observe in an effort to better understand how to live, work, play and love well in this world. My interaction with the blackberry is one small manifestation of that effort; this blog will serve as a partial written record of that effort. With luck, it will also grow into a community of people engaging in similar efforts, gaining knowledge and inspirations from my posts while simultaneously providing me with their own knowledge and inspiration. That would be a blessing, for we have much good work to do and too few people who know how to do it. The more we teach each other, the better care we will take in our work and the healthier the world will be.

Let’s get started.

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