Archive for the ‘Work’ Category

A Discomfiting Upward Movement   21 comments

For a time there, I had it figured out.

Okay, that’s only half true. For a time there, I felt comfortable. There have been moments during the last year when I felt at peace, in a good place, comfortable and happy with my life. I found a good place to live with roommates I understood and who understood me; I had good work; I had somehow slipped a bit ahead of the game financially, mostly through simple living; and I felt more at peace, calmer, my life less distracted.

I don’t know if such times ever can last. My life has been thrown at least partly back into chaos as I have taken on new opportunities, met new people, rediscovered the internet, developed new relationships, and am once again on the verge of making major life (and living situation) changes.

I guess this is just what I do this time of year.

— ∞ —

It’s interesting how much strife and happiness can correlate within my mind. I am happy right now. I’m very happy. I’m also stressed, worried, partly confused, and at least vaguely terrified. Some of that may be exaggeration. Probably not, though.

In early January, I’m moving. I’m continuing my trend of moving yet farther south, except that I do it in much smaller increments than I suspect most people do when they move. In March 2012—when I lived at my first home here on the North Coast of Oregon, R-evolution Gardens—I moved about a half mile south along the highway to live at one of the farms I currently work for. Then this last January, I moved another mile south along the same highway to come to my current situation, living with two fantastic roommates who got on this simple living boat long before me, back in the 70s. Living with them works. It works well. I like them a lot, and we understand each other.

Despite that—and this is at least part of my strife—I’m about to move yet again, and in keeping with tradition, it’s going to be about two miles farther south along the same highway. (I suppose I should scope out the property four miles south of there so I know what my future holds.) But why do this, if I’m in such a good living situation? Well, that’s a question I’ve asked myself, and while I’m comfortable with the answer, my uncertainty about whether or not I’m making the right choice has admittedly stressed me.

I’m moving because this is the sort of opportunity I’ve been thinking of for the last few years, and I want to seize it. I’m moving to an old, 1917 farm house on eight acres of property, with a large barn, a garage, and a couple other outbuildings (which are, admittedly, in disrepair.) In other words, this is an opportunity for me to experiment with homesteading or even micro farming. It’s also an opportunity for me to build a home for myself from scratch. It’s a blank slate, and I’m fascinated to find out what I might do with it.

I should note, I’m not going to own this property. One of the couples I farm for are buying it and I’ll have to pay them rent. This also means I’m going to have to find a roommate to help pay rent. (Know anyone good, who’s into simple living and homesteading?) But, there’s at least the potential for me to be there long term, if I should want, and I don’t know that I’ll have another opportunity as right as this to set up my own home. I’ll be comfortable with the owners, I trust them, and they’ll be happy to rent to me for many years if I should so desire. I don’t have money to buy property; this feels like the right alternate option.

Of course, all of this is little more than a vague outline in the fog. I don’t know how long I’ll be there. I don’t know where my life will go. I don’t know how well I’ll be able to set up the property or if I’ll be able to make the time to properly tend to it. I will continue to work, as I’ll have to pay rent. But I do want to grow food, perhaps get a small flock of ducks, continue a variety of homesteading activities, and hopefully begin to establish some kind of business of my own. I’d like to sell excess produce and eggs in the community and hopefully do something a bit more ambitious on the level of education and providing a community resource. I might attempt to produce local seed, I might do small amounts of value-added food processing, I might teach classes, I might attempt to become some kind of local gardening resource. I don’t know for sure yet, but these possibilities are all open.

I’ll need to narrow my vision at some point, and probably soon. But I also believe I need to get on the land, walk it, listen to it, and see what it wants before I do. This decision isn’t mine alone. And I don’t believe the work can be mine alone. So I’m going to have to ease into it and see what opportunities arise, who shows up to help, and what ways I can benefit my community.

It’s an incredible, overwhelming opportunity. I’m very excited about it. And I’m terrified, as well. It’s a commitment, even if the commitment doesn’t come with bright, bold lines. I don’t yet know the exact form of it, but it’s a commitment of my time and energy and efforts, of my life, for however long I’m there. It’s also a financial commitment, and one that makes me nervous. Not because I think I can’t meet it, but because it’s more of a commitment than I have now. It’s also going to demand an unknown community: at least one person to live with and the help and involvement of plenty more, in some capacity or another. That’s unnerving to me. Not because I dislike community, but because I hate getting into something I don’t know the outcome of.

Unfortunately for me, that’s one definition of a life: something you can’t know the outcome of. So I suppose I should get over it.

— ∞ —

The new property looms large in my life. But there’s more. Earlier this year, I joined the Board of a local non-profit organization, Food Roots. It’s a great organization, working to build the local food system. Obviously, that’s an interest of mine, and I joined the Board hoping I could help with the goal in a more systemic manner than just being a direct part of the local farming scene, as I am now.

As the months have whiled away, I’ve taken on more and more responsibility. I’ve been elected Board Treasurer, have helped with business plan editing and plenty of other tasks, and now I find myself running a crowd funding campaign for a major new project we’re about to embark on. This is easily my biggest commitment yet.

Let me talk about this campaign for a moment. There’s a box over on the left hand side of this page, up near the top, that links to the campaign on Indiegogo. I want to address that. I haven’t asked for money at any point while writing this blog. I haven’t wanted to, I haven’t needed to, and I don’t think too many of my readers are chomping at the bit to give me any, anyway. I did, however, decide to put up a link to this campaign—after some hesitation—and I want to explain why.

One reason, to be blunt, is that I want it to be successful because I’m more or less running it. The whole organization is contributing to this campaign, publicizing it, and working to make it successful, of course, but I’m the one who wrote it, put it together, put it up, and am doing a good bit of the publicity for it. And so, just for personal reasons of ego, I want it to succeed. I don’t want to be the guy who ran an unsuccessful campaign. It’s not altruistic, granted, but it is true.

A more important reason is that I think this project could do a lot to help the local food system out here on the North Coast of Oregon. I suspect the majority of my readers understand that small-scale, sustainable farming is not typically a lucrative business venture. It’s really hard financially. I’ve worked for five farms at this point in my life, volunteered for others, and talked with a heck of a lot of other farmers. A very common theme is the economic challenge of farming. Land isn’t priced for it. Supermarket groceries aren’t priced for it. The economy doesn’t support it. Our models are not built around small-scale and sustainable farming that utilizes hand labor; our models are built for tractors and vast monocultures. Small-scale farming is a challenge to the dominant economic system, yet it still has to exist within that system. That’s a brutal combination.

There are a lot of people out there who want to farm, and a lot of them are relatively young—which we need. We need that new generation of farmers. Not just to replace the older generation, but to build upon the number of farmers we have now. That’s a necessity if we really are going to continue to grow the local food system. But a heck of a lot of those young people who want to start farming are staring at a grim financial picture, very tight margins, too expensive land, and an economic system fighting tooth and nail against them.

And so we want to start this program to help them with that. It’s going to build three 30′ x 96′ hoop houses to provide training space for new and existing farmers; create an outdoor demonstration site to go along with that; lease hoop house space to farmers who need it; create a database to match local buyers with local farmers; provide a matched savings program to create start-up and ongoing capital for new farmers; create a database of local land that people want to see farmed; and establish a tool bank to provide local farmers with tools without having to purchase them. None of this is a silver bullet; longtime readers will know what I think of those. But it very well may help establish new farmers around here, help relieve some of the financial stress on current small farmers, improve market connections to make this local food system work financially for the various players involved, and help lessen the learning curve on how to grow all this local food, in our local conditions. Done right, it’s going to create a lot of new connections amongst all the people playing some role in local food and, hopefully, we’re going to turn it into a full-fledged farm incubator program within a couple of years.

It’s a nearly quarter million dollar project, which is a crazy amount of money to me. We have a lot of it already committed through grants and local businesses. We need to raise another $7,000—and a bit more would be fantastic—to provide the final bit of matching funds.

I’m only going to say this once here, because this blog doesn’t exist to try to raise money and I don’t much like trying to do that anyway. It makes me anxious. (A Steinbeck quote comes to mind: “And all their love was thinned with money.”) But here it is: if you have a few spare bucks and you’ve enjoyed this blog enough to want to show your appreciation with it, then donate it to the campaign. That would be awesome. I won’t get any of that money. I’m not an employee of the organization or employed by this project. However, I will eventually benefit from it as either a local farmer or just a local citizen, or both. It’s going to help the community, and that’s really what I most want to see.

And if not a cent comes from this post, I have no problem with that. I just wanted to explain to you all where that box came from and why it’s there.

— ∞ —

But I also bring it up because it pertains to this post, which is that in running this campaign and being an active Board member for Food Roots, I’m starting to feel a touch more professional. I’m establishing more connections within the community and starting to feel more is expected of me. I like this. I want to be an important part of this community. But it’s also strange and unnerving, because it doesn’t quite fit the image of myself I had crafted.

Part of my comfort from earlier in this year stemmed from the fact that my life felt so simple and bare bones. I farmed a few days a week and loved the work. I came home and ate some good food and read. I talked to my roommates. I drank coffee and sat and stared out the back window and delighted at observing the birds. I saw friends, drank beer with them, laughed and ate. I fostered connections here and there—in small and subtle but important ways—and felt like someone who benefited the community, but mostly in the background. I was off the radar. I liked that.

Now the radar’s blipping. I keep showing up on it. I’m more official, I have responsibilities, I’m taking on roles and probably becoming defined by them in the minds of others. I’m a Board Treasurer; it’s not a big deal, but it’s still a title. I’m running this campaign. I’m writing press releases and perhaps next week I’ll be interviewed on the radio. That’s strange.

On top of that, I’m moving to this new place and taking on the responsibility of it. I’m not just going to be a roommate—I’m going to be The Head of the Household. It’s not a big deal. It’s just one more small thing. And yet, here I am, feeling so damn official. I had come to the point of not believing I ever would find these roles, and I was perfectly happy with that. But then people started asking me for help, and I started saying yes. Then opportunities came my way, and I decided to take them on.

At Thanksgiving, telling my family about being a member of the Food Roots Board, a family member joked, “Wait, so now we start having to take you seriously?” Yes. Shit. That’s what’s happening—I feel like I’m starting to be taken seriously. Which means people are going to expect things of me. Which means I’ll want and need to live up to those expectations.

Damn it. It was so much easier before.

— ∞ —

There’s more, too. An amazing new relationship, complete with nonsensical happiness. Tentative first steps toward establishing a religious practice. It feels sometimes like it’s cascading down upon me, like I’m being thrust forward into a level of responsibility I’m not prepared for.

It’s not that I don’t think I can handle it. It’s that I don’t understand where it’s going. I don’t understand what will be demanded of me. I don’t know the shape of it yet, and so I can’t properly plan, and sometimes that feels like ice. At my core, I always fear letting people down. Now there are so many more people I’m at risk of letting down. How do I navigate this minefield? And how the hell did I get here? When did I become so fracking legitimate?

How did I go from farming, reading, and writing slightly-too-revealing-posts on a blog to this? And what do I do with it?

I wish I knew.

— ∞ —

And yet, I’m happy. Major change tends to unnerve me, because I always want to plan and I hate risk. However, I also want to do good things, and that’s always going to take precedence. I can be uncomfortable if I think it might make my community better, improve my life, be good to the people I care about. I want to do good work. That’s always what this blog has been about and it’s always in my mind, the importance of this core goal.

I’ve unnerved myself, but it’s all in that pursuit. The hell of it is that sometimes good work is uncomfortable. And so here I am, moving onward and upward (he writes wryly, thinking “myth of progress”) and trying to make sense of these changes, to come to terms with this discomfort, and to understand that this is the precursor to a future figuring out—a future comfort that will simply be the precursor to the next cycle of discomfort and uncertainty, that unending cycle of a life’s learning and experience.

Posted December 14, 2013 by Joel Caris in Farm Life, Farming, Homesteading, Meta, Work

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Patience in an Emergency   10 comments

I’ve always cared about justice and the proper way to live in the world. My specific beliefs around these ideals have changed and morphed over time, but they always have been a concern for me. I remember, as a child, calling McDonald’s to ask them to stop using styrofoam packaging after watching a 20/20 report with my parents. I remember, upon learning what it meant to be gay, being dumbfounded by why someone would care about, or become angry over, the gender composition of two lovers. As soon as I understood the concept of gay rights, I unabashedly supported them.

At the same time, though, I’ve never cared for conflict. I don’t like arguments. I prefer to get along with people. So while I have many strong beliefs (quite evident throughout this blog) my ability and willingness to rage against the world, and its people, has waxed and waned throughout the years. At my core, I want to get along, even when I disagree.

There have been many times, however, when I felt like I should not get along. I’ve written before about my history with political involvement, and that stretch of my life is one of the key moments when I felt compelled to rage. I immersed myself in a partisan world view that encouraged anger and defiance, that turned concerns about the proper way to live in the world into a blood sport, a war, a desperate struggle with immense consequences. Within that paradigm, I felt the need to challenge my aversion to conflict and instead to embrace conflict as the only effective way to make the world a better place. I came to see hard lines as a necessity and I tried to fit myself into that worldview, hardening and raging, pushing against a world I too often saw as unjust. And as, time and time again, my ideals failed to be implemented, I despaired.

In “A Letter to Wendell Berry,” Wallace Stegner tells Berry that “The lives you write about are not lives that challenge or defy the universe, or despair of it, but lives that accept it and make the best of it and are in sober ways fulfilled.” The line struck me, because it perfectly encapsulates so much of what I enjoy about Berry’s arguments. It’s not that he never rages against the world, or condemns it, but it’s that he accepts it, reminds us that we must ultimately bear it, and that he consistently recognizes and acknowledges his own role in the destruction and improper living. He is thoughtful, first and foremost. He tends not to let rage distort his view. He is considerate—in the archaic sense of engaging in long and constant thought—and iterates unflinching examinations of the world. Granted, they are of his particular view and thus are not truths for all, but they’re always honest and thoughtful, the product of extensive consideration.

I appreciate this approach. At my best and most honest, it’s my approach to the world. I’m not a rager, despite my occasional lapses into it. I have a very hard time hating people or maintaining anger. I want to like people. I want to engage with them, to be considerate, to find common ground. I don’t mean this as some sort of self-flattery; if anything, it often drifts into detrimental territory. But properly harnessed, I think it’s a powerful trait.

In my criticisms of the way we live as a society, I cannot often get away from considering my own role. It feels too dishonest. Yes, I get on my high horse and enjoy—perhaps too often—rousing bits of rhetorical flourish. But I always attempt to bring it back to my own behavior, my own thoughts, my own complicity and engagement. It’s the only way I see to make an honest difference in the world. I can’t help improve a destructive system if I can’t see my own role in it.

But it’s also more selfish than that. I’m not particularly happy raging against the world. When I tried to engage in politics, I consistently found myself worn down by it more often than not. I didn’t like the division. I didn’t like trying to force people’s hands, to push my way into their lives and try to get them to do something they didn’t want to do. I didn’t like making cold calls. I didn’t particularly like get-out-the-vote efforts. The scapegoating corroded me, made me anxious and frustrated, angry and brittle. The dominant politics of this country is not one of building and engaging community, but one of demonization and hatred, of the stoking of division for power, of simplified and binary thought patterns. It’s about identifying and eliminating the enemy, first and foremost, and any engagement of others to make the world better is incidental. A mere byproduct at best.

That’s not a path that sustains me. Nothing about my involvement in politics heartened and sustained me. It was a zero-sum game at best, and far too often a negative. It drained me of energy and constantly felt like a battle. I had to push myself to engage in behavior contradictory to my natural instincts. I did this because I thought it was necessary to make the world better—that this was the way to improve a society I so often found incoherent, painful and cruel. I punished myself with politics, and I told myself it was my duty to do so. It was the cost of being a good citizen.

Inevitably, I burned out on the process. I suspect the same constitution that made my engagement in politics so draining also guaranteed that I could not keep it up. I prefer to enjoy my life, and I’m not driven or self-disciplined enough to consistently and unendingly engage in behavior I don’t enjoy. But even as I drifted away from the sanctioned political realm, and even as I found farming and the fulfillment and sense of purpose that it provided me, I still could not entirely leave behind the sense of duty toward disruption.

For a brief time, Derrick Jensen’s argument that industrial civilization had to be dismantled—and similar arguments from others—captured my attention and imagination. My tendency to see the pain and destruction in the world opened me to the idea that I had a duty to do whatever I could to bring down industrial civilization and help limit its destruction of the world. I became at least somewhat sympathetic to the idea of sabotage and destruction for a greater good. Yet, again, my constitution wouldn’t allow it. I never seriously considered engaging in any destructive acts (let alone violence, which is utterly anathema to me) but I did briefly consider it a compelling and logical argument. I still consider it a fair argument to consider, even if I have serious problems with it.

The argument eventually lost its draw for me, though. I’m not a warrior. I rarely fight. I have little interest in machismo. I don’t like conflict, have little interest in competition, and I don’t like defeating people—even in approved ways. When I played basketball in my teens, I liked to play point guard. Not because I was short, but because I loved to pass. I far preferred passing over shooting. A good assist was poetry to me, and it still is. It’s one of my favorite aspects of basketball. I like cooperation. I like to make others happy. I want to work with people.

Much of current politics isn’t about working with people, but about defeating them. There may be some incidental cooperation in that process, but abstract victory is the primary goal. Ostensibly, it’s in service of making the world a better place, helping people, improving lives. But honestly, that never seems to happen, and still the thirst for victory continues. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen people on the right and left justify something that a politician on their side has done even when it conflicts with their supposed core values. The desire to win is stronger than the desire to govern. It trumps ideals. It lays waste to all other priorities.

I couldn’t last in that environment. And so, I farm. I work to scale back my life. This is the reason I find the concept of voluntary poverty so compelling. It’s rooted in changing my own behavior. It’s rooted in dealing primarily with my own life, not others’. It’s not about competition. It’s not about imposition. It’s about changing and improving my own life, first and foremost, and it’s about then helping to change society via modeling and cooperation. The more I learn, the more I’m successful in scaling back, the more able I am to help others who are interested in my lifestyle do the same. The more I change my own life, the better I’m able to advocate through my writing here on this blog, through conversations with people out in the world, through a willingness to show others what I have learned and to tell them about the ways in which I’ve failed.

This is a model that actually works for me. It makes me happy and works in conjunction, in cooperation, with who I am at my core, with my own personal truth. And so it renews me. So I thrive in this behavior. So, even in its challenges, I seem to find joy and happiness. I’m more at peace and I feel like I actually am, in very small ways, helping to improve the world.

I’ve read and listened to and spoken so much rage in my life. Berry’s writing is a refreshing and rare change in the way that it deals in acceptance. In a recent interview with Bill Moyers, Berry said that, “to be patient in an emergency is a terrible trial,” but that “the situation [we're] in now is a situation that’s going to call for a lot of patience.” Somehow, this feels far more possible and rewarding to me than raging against the world. A lot of terrible things are bound to happen and are already happening. I want to help limit those terrible things in whatever way I can. But I can only do that in trying to live well myself, not in fighting tooth and nail against the inevitable aspects of the future. Not in laying the blame for those inevitabilities at the feet of others in favor of myself.

Perhaps this is an escape as much as anything else. Perhaps part of my draw to this attitude is its ability to absolve me of certain hard choices. But it still feels more honest to me, and I know that it’s by far the more sustainable approach for me in particular. Rage doesn’t sustain me, but good work does. Digging in the dirt does. Bearing the future does, in its own strange way. Thus, I more and more these days deal in acceptance and adaptation, and hope that this path will lead me to good living and to poetic—if small—assists. I hope that it will lead me to a helpful patience. I hope that it will open paths of cooperation for me, even as it closes paths of competition and defeat.

Let Us Please Not Make it Worse   18 comments

It happens often. A large job waits for me, and for a moment it seems almost impossible. Or, if not impossible, at least quite daunting and far more than I want to tackle. It might be planning and planting the garden, or clearing a fence line overgrown with blackberry, or simply completing some new task I’m unfamiliar with. In that moment, the doubts creep in. It feels like too much. It feels too hard. It’s overwhelming. I’m not of the personality that tends to thrive on these challenges; faced with such tasks, I often want to go sit on a sunny patio with a good beer or curl up inside with a good book. I am a creature of comfort. I can’t deny this.

Sometimes I do this. I ignore the job in front of me, the unwanted but necessary work. When I do this, I’m almost always poorer for it. The temporary comfort of ignoring the necessity gives way eventually to the consequences of an important job undone. Turning your back on reality does not make it go away. It only adds to the ferocity of its eventual return.

How many ways this is applicable. I have two jobs—not at all hard—that I’ve been avoiding today. One is the writing of a post for this blog. The other is going over to my previous place of residence and dealing with the piles of recyclables that I need to sort and take to the local recycling center. Neither of these tasks has yet to be completed. Outside, it has been raining throughout the day, often heavy. And so I’ve found myself inside, drinking coffee, reading a report on the shale bubble, reading a post on The Automatic Earth about building out renewables, conversing with my roommates, avoiding the nagging reminder in the back of my mind that there are jobs to be done. This is not a good response to my reality, to my present, to my future. It’s a small failure—not helpful, but not disastrous, either.

Yet there’s no reason not to tackle the jobs. The blog post can be written—it’s just that no idea is grabbing me by the throat, demanding my attention. I have plenty of ideas, though, that have been waiting for months to be written. Nothing is stopping me but my own small avoidance. And the recycling, as well, is not such a big deal, but it does need to be done. Others are waiting for me to complete this task. It’s another small failure, this time at a community level. It doesn’t help.

— ∞ —

Last night, John Michael Greer argued that the shale bubble is on the verge of popping, and that it could mean another round of harsh economic realities for us in the near future. He wrote of a bubble-and-bust economic trend to be carried out over the foreseeable future and all the complications of dealing with our current and future circumstances that will entail. We face a troubled present, and more troubled future, consisting of constricting energy resources, a dysfunctional economy, and the hard realities of contraction. There are a number of responses we could take—none of which would solve the problem, granted, but could help soften the predicament—but due to our inability, as a culture and society, to face up to the truth of what’s taking place, we will not be able to marshal the action and resources to carry out those responses. As such, our likely response as a society to the future is one in which we “evolve through crisis, not through proactive change,” as Dennis Meadows noted in an interview in Der Spiegel. We are not planning a sane response to our future; we can’t even agree on the foundations of a sane response. Counting on centralized action at this point would be disastrous.

Luckily, we’re not at the mercy of centralized action. Every one of us holds the ability to change our lives. This ability is not complete or unencumbered, granted, but we can challenge societal norms, opt out from excess modes of living, and begin the hard and necessary work of scaling back our lives to a level more appropriate for a contracting economy and deindustrializing world. We can engage the household economy. We can learn to garden, to raise and care for livestock, to cook from scratch. We can take up coppicing, experiment with biochar, build rocket stoves, teach ourselves the ecological principles that more and more will assert themselves in the day-to-day reality of our lives. We can expose ourselves to the outside climate, scale back our need for climate control, learn to live with heat and cold in ways that don’t involve a thermostat and piped in fuel. We can remember what it is to be human, to live in communities, to build democracies, and we can get down to the hard work of implementing again those realities and complex human interactions. We can insulate our homes, put on sweaters, sit in the shade of a tree on a hot summer day. We can bike to work, walk to the store, take the train rather than the plane, ride the bus, either across town or across the state, or just stay home. We can begin to cut out our wasteful habits and tendencies—unnecessary entertainments and distractions, that cable bill, that Netflix account, high speed internet, video games, Blu-Rays. We can turn off the television. We can replace vacuous pop culture with meaningful work, useful hobbies, sustaining activities. We can, in other words, get out of the game.

That’s a small list of the things we can do, today or tomorrow or early next week—but soon, damn it. It’s not time to just think about these changes, philosophize about them, talk in abstract ways about them. It’s time to do them. Every day is important. Every day puts us closer to the next crisis and a form of evolution that is chaotic and messy and painful. Every day spent changing our lives in response to the crisis before it happens is another step toward a more humane response to the challenges of the future, hopefully a bit less chaotic and messy and painful. And every action we take to help soften our own personal blow, we put ourselves in a better position to help our community—which in a lovely feedback loop, may very well help to further soften the personal blow of the hard times here now, and the worse ones coming.

— ∞ —

But this means work. It’s inevitable. It’s unavoidable, no matter how good we are at avoiding it. Thinking about the popping of the shale gas bubble, perhaps another recession like in 2008, or perhaps something worse, can be frightening and paralyzing. It seems so big—it is big. It’s challenging. It’s overwhelming. And the more dependent we are on the overarching system, the more vulnerable we are, the more challenging and hopeless it might seem. But allowing ourselves to be overwhelmed by that challenge, that sense of hopelessness, that fear—it’s pointless. It doesn’t help us. Avoiding it does not eliminate the predicament. Busying ourselves with other, unproductive tasks does not better our future.

It’s a cliche, but it’s the getting to work that usually is the hardest. It’s that initial engagement that can so easily stop us. But once we begin the process, it can snowball from there. Not always, of course—sometimes there are challenges, missteps, moments of depression and despair that temporarily halt our progress. But again, we have to press forward and continue on, to not allow ourselves to lose out to that sense of impossibility.

The antidote to fear is good work. Never forget that. It’s one of the most important truths we have right now.

— ∞ —

When you get into the thick of the work, when it begins to click, the world starts to fall into place. Everything hums. It’s exhilarating. The progress begins to build upon itself, each step forward suddenly seeming a bit longer and a bit more sure, a bit more emphatic. The final accomplishment begins to come into view, and in view of that accomplishment, many more seem possible. This is another positive feedback loop, and it’s one of the most important ones for the troubled times ahead.

Today I can grow a garden, raise livestock, make bread and butter and yogurt and homemade sodas, cook from scratch, suffer the cold, weather the heat, and thrive on physical work. Not too many years ago, I either couldn’t or cared not to do all those things. But those skills and that knowledge did not come at once. It was a long procession—a procession that continues to this day. It was filled with leaps forward and fallings back. It was filled with triumph, with exhilaration, and with uncountable moments in which it all felt impossible, in which I questioned every decision I had made. It involved depression and doubt. And it involved resolve and certainty.

But all my successes ultimately came about through work. It came about through engagement, through tentative first steps, through a process of discovery. And all of it involved initial doubts and fears, often times overwhelming. As I said, I am a creature of comfort. Some people thrive off new challenges and the opportunity to master unknown skills. I don’t, at least not instinctively. That’s not my psychology. I hate to appear incompetent. I hate to admit I don’t know what I’m doing. I like comfort and routine and ease. But despite all these traits, I’ve managed to dramatically change my life and learn an array of new skills over the preceding five years—and every year, I learn a vast amount more. Granted, there’s still a vast amount I don’t know—I’m still incredibly ignorant about so much—but I’m in a far more resilient place than I was just a few years ago.

I worry about what might happen with the shale gas bubble, or with some other sort of dramatic economic trouble. I suspect another shock to the system is coming soon, perhaps later this year or next. It seems a bit too quiet and our economic foundation is far too rickety and rotten. My worry, though, is more about my family and friends, and my community, than myself. I think I’m a bit insulated. I know I can live on a small amount of money—relatively speaking—and could cut back even more if necessary. I suspect my work is mostly safe from economic shocks, at least up to a point. (I could be wrong about that, of course. The economy is a tricky, complex, interrelated system.) I have skills. I have potential fall back plans. Nothing is guaranteed, but I don’t expect the next economic shocks to wipe me out.

That small sense of security is, again, the result of the work I’ve done over recent years. It’s a result not of centralized action, but of personal action. It’s a result of the ways in which I’ve changed my life, changed my expectations, built my skills, built my resiliency, and engaged my community. It’s about me getting down to the business of saving my own ass—with an irreplaceable number of assists from my local community, of course!—and accepting the trade offs that that entails. I don’t mean this to sound self-congratulatory; my sense of security could be a complete illusion, or the next troubles could be far worse than I expect. I only mean to advocate for a course of action that I suspect could benefit every person who reads this.

— ∞ —

The future is one of crises. I write that with complete confidence. Our ways of living, in the developed world, are brittle at best. They are temporary. They are perched upon the ricketiest of foundations, and they are going to come down bit by bit, in a slow overall crumble punctuated by the occasional dramatic collapse.

But our lives are not entirely at the mercy of the broader societal crises that are an inevitable piece of our future. We can take action now to insulate ourselves a bit against those crises. We can choose to evolve proactively at the individual and community level. In doing so, we can make the future a tiny bit better. We can have our own small impact.

It’s not a panacea. It’s not a grand fix. It’s just our small piece, our little bit of action. It’s those first steps in the face of an intractable and overwhelming predicament. But it’s necessary, because there’s nothing else to do, unless we’re content to lay down and die. We could turn our back on the future and pretend its challenges aren’t real, but that would be a terrible mistake. It already promises a great enough ferocity; let us please not make it worse. Begin the work today. Start tackling those problems. If you haven’t taken the first steps, take them today. If you have, but you’ve faltered, get back to work. And if you’re cruising right along, continue that hard and necessary process.

I expect no centralized solutions. But every day, even in the midst of the crises, the individual solutions and responses are there for the taking, in every person’s own life. That’s the hope. That’s the antidote.

Take it.

Work Made a Farmer   17 comments

— ∞ —

And on the 8th day, God looked down on his planned paradise and said, “I need a caretaker.” So God made a farmer.

God said, “I need somebody willing to get up before dawn, milk cows, work all day in the fields, milk cows again, eat supper and then go to town and stay past midnight at a meeting of the school board.” So God made a farmer.

“I need somebody with arms strong enough to rustle a calf and yet gentle enough to deliver his own grandchild. Somebody to call hogs, tame cantankerous machinery, come home hungry, have to wait lunch until his wife’s done feeding visiting ladies and tell the ladies to be sure and come back real soon—and mean it.” So God made a farmer.

— ∞ —

In 1978, Paul Harvey delivered a speech at the Future Farmers of America Convention entitled, “So God Made a Farmer.” It’s a beautiful speech, filled with stirring imagery and capturing a romantic view of the hard working American farmer. Harvey delivers it impeccably, in his distinctive voice and often falling into a poetic torrent of description. I like the speech; even in its romanticization, it speaks to the agrarian I am at heart, and speaks to a number of truths about farmers of all stripes—not just in this country, but across the world.

Yet, Harvey gave that speech one year after Wendell Berry published The Unsettling of America, a collection of essays bemoaning the destruction of rural and farming communities throughout America. Already, the process of centralization, corporatization, destructive industrialism, and overproduction was ripping through America’s farmlands, picking off farms and farmers, literally killing many of those who worked the land. From 1940 to 1970, the farm population in America dropped from an estimated 30.8 million people to 9.7 million. At the same time, the general population of the country increased by 70 million. Farmers made up 18% of the working population in 1940. By 1970, that was down to 4.6%. Two years after Harvey’s speech, in 1980, there were just 3.7 million farmers, and they made up only 3.4% of the work force. The day Harvey gave his speech, most of the American farm community had already been destroyed.

In 2013, just this last Sunday, Chrysler unveiled a television advertisement featuring portions of Harvey’s speech. Chrysler overlaid his eloquent words with gorgeous portraits of farmers and ranchers. For two minutes during America’s annual celebration of consumption and vacuity—now one of its greatest cultural touchstones—Chrysler’s ad stirred the hearts and minds of a nation of people, seducing them with a romanticized picture of American farming and evoking this country’s rich agricultural heritage. At the end of those two minutes, no doubt, the vast majority of those who had felt so stirred by the words and images set forth before them went back to their Doritos and Pepsi, Budweiser and industrially-produced meat, their various repackagings of oil-soaked corn and soy, and they watched the next commercial pimping an unnecessary industrial product rooted in the destruction of the very same land that so many past Americans loved and worked. In other words, they went back to the sort of lives that have destroyed and debased American farmers—not to mention farmers across the world, creatures across the world, the very land and ecosystems that all of us here on Earth consider home.

— ∞ —

God said, “I need somebody willing to sit up all night with a newborn colt. And watch it die. Then dry his eyes and say, ‘Maybe next year.’ I need somebody who can shape an ax handle from a persimmon sprout, shoe a horse with a hunk of car tire, who can make harness out of haywire, feed sacks and shoe scraps. And who, planting time and harvest season, will finish his forty-hour week by Tuesday noon, then, pain’n from ‘tractor back,’ put in another seventy-two hours.” So God made a farmer.

God had to have somebody willing to ride the ruts at double speed to get the hay in ahead of the rain clouds and yet stop in mid-field and race to help when he sees the first smoke from a neighbor’s place. So God made a farmer.

— ∞ —

Chrysler’s commercial—the first, last, and only purpose of which is to sell trucks and boost their brand, let’s keep in mind—doesn’t present an accurate view of the American food system. The current system is one rooted largely in industrial processes, massive corporate agriculture outfits, degradation of the land, overproduction, commoditization, exploitation of migrant laborers, and the enslavement of farmers via perpetual debt cycles. Farm workers in this country are not primarily white, as the commercial might lead you to believe. They’re primarily brown; a majority of agricultural workers in this country are Hispanic, most of them foreign-born. The majority of children raised on farms don’t “want to do what Dad does.” They leave the farm. They move to urban areas, get “good” jobs, join the industrial economy and never look back.

The hard truth is that most of this country has little interest in getting out there and putting their hands in the dirt and doing the hard work of growing and raising food. We think we’re beyond that. We think we’re too “advanced.” We think that’s something best left to less civilized people. Within the context of the myth of progress—one of the ruling ideas of our time—an agrarian society and economy is seen as less civilized and inherently worse than an industrial society and economy. It’s something best left for the less developed countries. First we stopped dirtying our hands with the growing of food, then we stopped dirtying our hands with the making of actual things, and now—surprise!—we have a dysfunctional economy that no longer even provides the opportunity to keep our hands clean in the magical “information economy” that was supposed to elevate us above all the messy, nasty physical realities of our past lives. Perhaps we shouldn’t have taken such a dim view of the dirt on our hands.

Chrysler and Harvey suggest to us that God makes farmers. I would submit that that’s the wrong message for our time. Harvey’s speech actually reveals the message we most need to hear: that work makes farmers.

— ∞ —

God said, “I need somebody strong enough to clear trees and heave bales, yet gentle enough to tame lambs and wean pigs and tend the pink-combed pullets, who will stop his mower for an hour to splint the broken leg of a meadow lark. It had to be somebody who’d plow deep and straight and not cut corners. Somebody to seed, weed, feed, breed and rake and disc and plow and plant and tie the fleece and strain the milk and replenish the self-feeder and finish a hard week’s work with a five-mile drive to church.

— ∞ —

The recurrent theme in Harvey’s speech is the hard work involved in farming. While Harvey’s math may occasionally be questionable (how does one complete a 40 hour work week in 36 hours, for instance?) the basic message is correct. Farming is hard work, and it involves quite a bit of busting of one’s own ass. Unfortunately, we live in a society that has so been cushioned by the ghost work force of fossil fuel slaves, that we’ve forgotten the hard work that’s necessary for living well in this world. It’s only been in the last few centuries, with the discovery of massive stores of fossil fuel energy, that we’ve been able to live the myth that we can survive without having to engage in hard, physical, yet rewarding labor, without having to know and intimately understand the land upon which we live, without having to have a distinct and instinctual understanding of our local ecosystems and what keeps them functioning. It’s only through the brute force of massive amounts of applied energy that we’ve been able to escape lives rooted in the earth and our fellow multitudes of creatures. And this has made us soft. The vast majority of us no longer understand the hard work that it normally takes to live in this world. We will know again, as we continue the long and ragged process of running out of fossil fuels over the next couple centuries, but for now we are a population divorced from the hard realities of surviving on this planet.

This is my frustration with Chrysler’s ad. It feeds American myths that died when everyone decided it was too much work to live the lives they exalt. It feeds our national complacence by telling us that this reality still exists—even when it largely doesn’t—and provides us a comfort that requires no work, requires no change in our lives, requires no alteration of our behaviors or decisions. By weaving these quiet and comforting tales, by obsessively romanticizing lives that most people no longer bother to live, it insulates us from the hard and necessary work of actually living those lives.

And so I argue instead that we be honest about the American food system and pay attention to the real message of Harvey’s speech. Don’t romanticize the American food system—change it by getting involved in it. Plant a garden, grow some herbs, ditch the pre-processed and pre-packaged crap and buy whole foods, learn to cook, get a CSA, go to the farmer’s market, barter with your neighbors, bake your own bread, make your own yogurt and butter, buy as much of your food as you can from local farmers who do things right. Build your own household economy and then build your local economy. Feed yourself, feed your family, feed your neighbors and help them feed you. Join your local grange. Teach your children what real food is and how to grow it. Learn to live small and within your means, with room to spare.

The food system we have now exists because of our decisions, because of the power we grant to corporations and individuals who have happily corrupted farming for their own gain, destroying farmers, rural communities, and rural economies in the process. Change your actions and decisions. Strip their power. Build a new food system. The government isn’t going to do it, the corporate agricultural outfits aren’t going to do it, even the farmers and farm workers aren’t going to do it if we don’t, through our actions, grant them the power and flexibility to change the way things are done.

It’s up to us, to each of us changing the ways we live. It ain’t gonna get done any other way.

— ∞ —

“Somebody who’d bale a family together with the soft strong bonds of sharing, who would laugh and then sigh, and then reply, with smiling eyes, when his son says he wants to spend his life ‘doing what dad does.'” So God made a farmer.

Paul Harvey, 1978

— ∞ —

We’re going to have to question honestly the lives we lead today, and answer honestly about the changes we need to make. A good many of us are going to have to decide to stay put, to not leave for the city, so to speak, to not dive into the temporary luxuries of an industrial economy divorced from good and honest work, to do what dad does, what mom does, what—mostly, today—the migrant workers do. We’re going to have to return to the land, to our connection with it, and to the hard and good work of living right upon it. The fossil fuel slaves and ghost acreage aren’t going to last forever. The longer we ignore that fact, the worse off we’ll all be.

You got a farmer in you, like the ad says? Honor it. Don’t buy a fucking truck—that doesn’t make you a farmer. Work the land. Grow food. Engage the household economy. Learn to live with less, build your community, turn you back on global and corporate systems that destroy the land, destroy local communities, and make us all dependent on a rickety system with an ever-approaching expiration date. Come home and begin the long and hard work of staying in place, of strengthening the land on which you live, rather than tearing it apart for temporary luxuries.

Work makes a farmer. Inspired by farmers? Well, then, get to work.

The Power of Letting Go   12 comments

This morning, I read a diary about guns at Daily Kos. For those who are unaware, Daily Kos is a liberal political blog focused on electing Democrats, and while there’s a range of thought on a variety of issues there—as well as some very smart people in the community—you primarily find orthodox liberal and Democratic views. As will likely surprise no one, gun control is very much supported at the site, though there also is a significant and vocal contingency of gun rights advocates there. The arguments over the issue are heated, even there on a site where most all the participants find themselves in much closer political agreement than within the country as a whole. Indeed, for many people there, the issue seems one of life and death—and no doubt it literally is considered that for a number of the participants.

Of course, you can see similar extremes of argument over a number of issues at the site, as you can at most any political blog of any stripe. Political discussion in this country is at a fever pitch of emotion and rhetoric and distinctly lacking, more often than not, in substance and rationality. The particular issue of gun control here isn’t so much important to what I want to say in this post, though, as is the form of political argument that makes these issues into life or death—into extremely charged outbursts of emotion. As I’ve recently written, there was a time when I engaged in similar outbursts and found myself absolutely vexed by the politics of this nation. I read and posted at Daily Kos and a number of other liberal blogs. I closely followed political news and happenings. I champed at the bit for a better world with more progressive policies in place in this nation and a contingent of Democrats holding the Presidency and majorities in Congress. To a large degree, I lived and died based on the whims of the political narratives, on my hopes and fears over various policy decisions and, even more so, on electoral outcomes.

I look back on those times with a certain bemusement. I don’t necessarily regret them—I had to go through all that to get to where I am today—but I don’t look at them fondly, either. I’m happy to be past that point in my life, because my extreme investment in this nation’s politics was rooted in deeper issues and thought patterns that I’ve had to abandon in more recent times to begin to live a life that actually makes me happy, and which I believe to actually be productive and beneficial to the community, as well. I’m thinking in particular of two myths that I believed in wholeheartedly and one resultant thought habit that I engaged in continually within the context of politics (and still engage in too often today.)

The myths are those of progress and apocalypse, and they’ve been written about extensively by John Michael Greer at The Archdruid Report. In the aforelinked post, Greer summarizes these two myths well, stating that “[b]elievers in progress argue that industrial civilization is better than any other in history, and its present difficulties will be solved if we just put enough money into scientific research, or get government out of the way of industry, or whatever else their single story presents as the solution to all problems. Believers in apocalypse argue that industrial civilization is worse than any other in history, and its present difficulties will end in a sudden catastrophe that will destroy it and usher in whatever better world their single story promises them — a better world in which they will inevitably have the privileged place denied them in this one.” Greer goes on to note that both of these myths are ultimately myths of Utopia. With the myth of progress, Utopia is brought about by the continuing progress of humanity while in the myth of apocalypse, Utopia is the ultimate result of the destruction of the currently wicked world, which conveniently kills off all the people the believer in apocalypse dislikes and leaves behind only like minded people who band together to create a utopian society out of the old world’s ashes.

My time within the world of politics was a result of my belief in both these myths. Initially, it was my belief in progress that largely drove my involvement. I saw the world as a beautiful place and our society as potentially a great one. But I also saw trouble: environmental devastation, discrimination and bigotry, a rigged economy and corrupt political system. I believed these problems could be solved via the election of the correct politicians and the application of proper legislative policy, but I believed they could also become worse with the wrong policies and politicians. In that sense, the myth of apocalypse played it’s role, as well. Initially during my time in politics, I had great faith in the future and believed it would be a better time, but I still saw the possibility for a much worse outcome with the wrong people in power. Thus, I agonized over our political scene and became emotionally entangled in the political process.

Over time, I began to transition from a favoring of the myth of progress to the myth of apocalypse. As I read about peak oil, climate change and ecosystem destruction, I saw a dark future ahead if we did not make dramatic changes in the way we lived. I wanted a ful fledged response to these crises, complete with a Manhattan Project-type response rooted in a full transition to renewable energies and a complete move away from fossil fuels. I saw this as imperative and, thus, I agonized over our political scene and became emotionally entangled in the political process.

Due to my belief in these two myths, I fell into a habit of thought that is common in our society: that of binary thinking. In the aforelinked post—again written by John Michael Greer, within a series of posts that eventually turned into his brilliant book on magic and peak oil, The Blood of the Earth—Greer notes that humans “normally think in binaries—that is, polarized relationships between one thing and another, in which the two things are seen as total opposites. That habit is universal and automatic enough that it’s most likely hardwired into our brains, and there’s good reason why it should be. Most of the snap decisions our primate ancestors had to make on the African savannah are most efficiently sorted out into binary pairs: food/nonfood, predator/nonpredator, and so on.” Continuing on, he raises one of the main problems with binary thinking, which is that it leaves no room for middle ground. Within the context of determining if something is food, that’s not a problem. But it’s very problematic when we’re trying to deal with complex issues or attempting to tease out a variety of possible responses to a problem, all of which may have their own levels of efficacy. We have to break out of our binary thought patterns if we’re to approach these problems well.

However, during my times of obsession with politics, it was these exact binary thought patterns coupled with my belief in the myths of both progress and apocalypse that caused me so much trouble. I believed in liberal and progressive ideals, so I saw Democratic politicians that expressed a belief in the same ideals as good and Republican politicians that disagreed with many of these ideals—or interpreted them differently—as bad. I didn’t make honest assessments of any of these politicians, for the most part, but instead fell into binary thinking patterns that layered emotional charges over those little “- D”s and “- R”s. What were those emotional charges? Well, they were progress and apocalypse. I saw the Democrats as leading toward progress and Utopia and the Republicans as leading toward the apocalypse.

Let’s go back to the gun control issue. In 2010, there were 30,470 firearm-related deaths. A bit under two thirds of those were suicides and the rest homicides. Now imagine that you support new gun control laws. If you fall into binary thinking, you’re going to see new gun control laws as being capable of saving the lives of thousands of people and preventing horrific tragedies like the Newtown shooting. A lack of new gun control laws means another 11,000 or so gun murders this year and perhaps another Newtown-like tragedy. This is literally a life and death issue. Gun control laws equal 11,000 people alive while no gun control laws equal 11,000 people dead.

Now spread this form of thinking across all political issues and suddenly you have the difference between progress and apocalypse. The complexity of these issues gets lost and the reality of the world does, as well. It becomes a battle between two myths, expressed in binary thinking that manifests itself in the taking of political sides. This is why I lived and died on these issues for a number of years during my time with politics. In my mind, this was an epic struggle for a bright future of progress and joy versus a dark and dystopic future of destruction and pain, of human misery. No, I didn’t always imagine it in such stark terms, but every policy decision was a step down one road or another and so they all felt so very monumental.

You can see this in the gun control debate. You have a number of people wanting more laws with the belief that it will greatly reduce gun deaths. But it’s not just about reducing gun deaths—it’s about the continued human progress that so many have come to accept as natural and inevitable. That’s what many people advocating for new gun control laws really are looking for. Then you have those on the other side that believe that new gun control laws will result in the confiscation of all weapons and the rule of a tyrannical government—in some major steps toward apocalypse, in other words. But neither outcome is likely. Progress is not inevitable and our immediate future suggests a distinct lack of it in many areas (though at least the possibility of progress in other areas, such as in deriving real meaning in our lives from human-scale living.) And a few new gun control laws are not a path to a tyrannical dictatorship. No one is proposing confiscating already-existing guns.

But it’s not about the actual outcomes of these policy decisions. It’s about the myths. It’s about Progress and Apocalypse. It’s about Utopia, and how we get there (because of course we’re going to get there, some way or another, right?) That’s what it was about for me when I was down in the muck of the political world and I can’t help but suspect that’s how it is for a number (though not all) of people who visit political blogs of all stripes. The emotionally-charged reactions and arguments that seem to suggest that every policy decision is a struggle to the death confirms as much. After all, at the end of the day, a few new mild gun control laws aren’t going to change the fact that we have a massive number of guns in this country already. It’s not going to change the underlying societal and cultural dynamics that produce our culture’s significant levels of violence. It’s not going to outlaw and confiscate all guns or mark the rise of a new American dictatorship. It’s not going to eliminate gun deaths.

No, any new gun control laws will do what most all of our policies do these days: futz around the edges, with predictably mild results. All of the few policy decisions you’ll see currently coming out of the American political system are completely unwilling to deal with the multitude of very real and big problems we face today. They won’t deal with our economic system’s dependence on the decayed undergirdings of cheap energy and perpetual growth, and the system’s resultant disintegration. They won’t deal with our atrophying culture and collective loss of faith in societal institutions. They won’t deal with the inability of our economic system to provide its citizens with honest work rooted in the necessities of life. They won’t deal with the collapse of the American empire and all the chaos and disruption that will create as we all find ourselves dealing with the resultant, significant decrease in wealth and security. They won’t deal with anything but appearances, with the hope that insubstantial tweaks to the same old system will pacify the public until the next election ramps up—which should be just around the corner.

In other words, the American political system of today is about running in place—and tearing your hair out while doing it. It’s a special kind of torture to place your most compelling hopes and fears upon the vagaries of our President and Congress. I say that from too much personal experience. This is not a system that has any interest in tackling our problems or in being honest with its electorate. It’s a system interested in perpetuating itself, first and foremost, and then putting on a particular sort of theatre for the common folk in the hopes that they won’t get too restless—or that their restlessness will be conveniently channeled into roughly equal, competing narratives that take the entirety of Congress itself out of the cross hairs.

And this is where the power of letting go comes in. Yes, it’s true that I still sometimes get caught up in the theatre. For the most part, though, I’ve tuned out the nonsense coming out of Washington D.C. and have instead focused on something that I can control and through which I can make some meaningful, if small, change: my own life. In letting go of politics and all the binary thinking it helps produce, I’ve allowed myself to get off the treadmill of disempowerment that is our political system and instead focused in on making changes within my own life, of doing honest work, and attempting to craft something of my own future. And I’ve never been happier. It’s challenging at times, of course, and moments of frustration and alienation are common, but I have a significant amount more of honest living in my day to day life than I did in the past.

Since I started farming in 2009, I’ve paid less and less attention to politics, and it’s been incredibly liberating. As I’ve introduce good work into my life, I’ve felt less need to outsource my future to others—politicians, primarily—and to live and die by their corrupt whims. In the last few years, I’ve mostly divested myself of the myths of progress and apocalypse, though they still make their appearances now and again. That, too, has been vastly liberating. I’ve come to better see the course of humanity’s history not as any sort of linear procession but as more cyclical, and even beyond that as more tumultuous. The passing of time is not a great narrative leading to a final ending but instead just a continual unfolding of the messiness and beauty and heartbreaking intensity of life. We are today at a time, with all its particularities, and tomorrow we’ll be at a different time, and further on at yet a different time. It’s not about a destination, it’s just this continual unfolding. And that’s good, because it’s thrilling and heartening and horrific, this life. It’s enchanting and astounding, overwhelming in all the best and worst ways. It’s a ridiculous blessing, being able to be here. And it’s a calling, too, to do good and honest work, to make our lives into something meaningful and lifting, to be human and embrace the insanity of it and to not let ourselves be guided by others or to be led sleepwalking through our existence, always waiting for someone else to make our lives into what we hope or fear they might be. That’s a slavery, a condemnation, and to instead take on our own lives and turn them toward the future we hope for—and to then continually deal with the future we actually get—is a liberation. It’s an empowerment, an honest freedom, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

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.

Our National Blood Sport   25 comments

Here in America, we had an election on Tuesday. Some of you may have noticed.

I have to admit, I still love Election Day. No doubt, that enjoyment is derived at least somewhat from the brief stretch of my life when I became veritably obsessed with politics. Bush the Second drove me crazy during his presidency, his policies diametrically opposed to many of my own beliefs and desires. During that time, my already established liberal and Democratic lean became more pronounced and partisan. I worked to elect Democrats, obsessed over political news, threw myself headlong into political blogs, did some political blogging of my own, and lived and died by election results.

It didn’t last that long. I shuddered at the 2002 mid-term results, backed Howard Dean with a vengeance in 2003, watched as he went down in flames in early 2004, got behind Kerry, wished fervently for him to defeat Bush, was crestfallen when he didn’t, rejoiced in the 2006 mid-terms, bounced around a bit in the 2008 Democratic primary, ultimately became sucked in by Obama’s candidacy, rejoiced when he was elected, and then quickly soured on the entire process as he pissed away the enthusiasm and support upon which he was swept into office and instead gave us little more than the third term of George W. Bush.

That’s the very brief and incomplete summary, and it’s one that I believe tracks with a number of people in this country. My relationship with politics is, of course, much more complex than that. I believe in the importance of local elections, I still find great value in the process of voting—as a ritual act if nothing else, as has been talked about in the comments of the most recent post at The Archdruid Report—and I still believe that representative democracy can be a good system of governance, though surely not the handed-down-from-God perfection that America’s leaders often like to cynically portray it as. Yet, I believe that our system—on the federal level, at least—has become hopelessly corrupted, utterly ineffective, and largely a sham in these dying days of the American empire.

Despite all those beliefs, I voted a second time for Barack Obama. Consequently, I enjoyed the hell out of Election Day.

And I can’t help but wonder: Why??

— ∞ —

Well, there are good reasons and petty reasons. In terms of the good reasons, I quite enjoyed watching gay marriage pass in Washington, Maine and Maryland and an anti-equality measure fail in Minnesota. I enjoyed seeing Washington and Colorado legalize marijuana. Here in Oregon, the marijuana legalization measure failed, sadly, though I suspect legalization will pass here in the near future, either by the state legislation or a future measure. There were other state measures that have immediate effects on myself and my state—private casinos, the legality of gillnet fishing, and the estate tax were a few—that all went my way. Local elections, of course, have a significant impact on me in a much more visible way than federal elections often do, and so I followed those with interest. They didn’t all fall as I voted, but none of the results seemed a disaster, either.

In terms of the petty reasons—though there is good in these, too, I think—I loved seeing the defeat of certain odious personalities, like Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, Paul Ryan and Allen West. Hell, you can add Mitt Romney to that list; he seemed like a dick to me, to be honest. I enjoyed the election of Elizabeth Warren, who seems smart and empathetic, even if she also is as blinded by the madness of perpetual economic growth as every other federal politician. I found it fascinating to see the further rise of the electoral power of women and minority groups, as has been talked about endlessly by talking heads since the election, and took a petty satisfaction in the slightest of marginalization of white men—a hilarious apocalypse to certain commentators. However, I see a certain pettiness in that fascination because it doesn’t, in my mind, change the overall tragic trajectory of our nation and the industrialized world at large.

The pettiest reason of all for my joy on election night, however, was the way in which it served as base entertainment—as the same sort of competition spectacle as sports. Most of my love of Tuesday came from the simple joy of my team winning. It’s a sad statement, especially considering the fact that I find myself bitterly disappointed in and skeptical of my team. The Democrats are almost as clueless as the Republicans, wedded to the same horrific and destructive ideals of unending economic growth, environmental destruction, and cultural genocide. They worship at the same alter of industrialization, specialization, growth and all its attendant destruction. But they do it with a bit more of a smile on their face and a few throw away platitudes about how we don’t have to have all the attendant destruction, if only we elect Democrats. It’s horrifically cynical, complete bullshit, and arguably a more immoral argument than the Republicans’ argument that the destruction doesn’t actually exist.

And yet, I voted for it on Tuesday. And cheered when that argument won.

Why? Because that argument was my team, and on that bloodthirsty night, I wanted to see my team win.

— ∞ —

I could claim that this was about social progress, the rights of minorities, and the belief that people shouldn’t be discriminated against because of whom they love or what genitalia they were born with, the color of their skin or their religious beliefs (or lack thereof.) That is a seriously motivating factor. I don’t like the way so many GOP politicians seem to hate brown people, the way they demonize gays and lesbians, their too-often dismissive and clueless attitudes toward women, and their apparent hatred of reproductive rights. But to embrace the Democratic party in turn seems to me little more than a betrayal of that agitation against discrimination. The Democrats, after all, are also excellent at creating divisions for political gain (though perhaps not typically as effective as Republicans.) There’s no shortage of apocalyptic rhetoric on the Democratic side, casting Republicans as religious fanatics and demagogues who are opposed to the basic nature of progress. Rural and religious people are too often looked down upon. Cultural knowledge and tradition is dismissed at the behest of scientific specialization. College education is a sign of knowledge; lack of the same is a sign of ignorance. Abstract knowledge is valued over practical knowledge. And how about the incredible discrimination based on place of residence found in the drone murders of countless overseas individuals by the Obama administration?

Granted, these are broad assertions about the general fault lines. You can find Democratic and Republican politicians that buck these tendencies and ideologies. Much more importantly, you can find significantly more self-identified Democrats and Republicans amongst the general populace that don’t fall into these neat categories. In fact, in interacting honestly and openly with people on both political sides—and the many who refuse to affiliate themselves with either side—what you most often find is a population of people who don’t fit these neat categories at all, or whom have complex reasons behind their backing of these categories. You find individuals, informed by their own experiences and influences, rather than the cartoons that these people are cast as by politicians of both stripes.

And that, as much as anything, reveals the key to these divisions: each side’s greatest divisional tactics are in their castings of their political opponents, and their opponents’ voting base, as caricatures. Republicans—not just the politicians, but Republican voters—are ignorant and backward reactionaries, stuck in their outdated religious and cultural worldviews, completely devoid of empathy, violently against any social safety net and eager for those less worthy of them to die. They’re rural rubes and suburban hate-mongers who fetishistically cling to their guns, their religion, their hatreds and their fear and stand in the way of the glorious social and economic progress promised by Democrats. Democrats—not just the politicians, but Democratic voters—are elitist, urban intellectuals who hate religion and any sense of tradition. They despise American values, capitalism, democracy, rural folk, religious folk and entrepreneurs. They want to destroy rural communities and economies. They want to eliminate guns and the cultural traditions that come with them, destroy independence, enlarge government to the point that the entire country is completely dependent upon it, redistribute wealth and ensure that no one may rise or fall via their own hard work or lack thereof. They want a completely homogenized culture, where everyone thinks and acts the same and the government dictates all standards of decency.

Those are your caricatures. And guess what? When your opponents are this evil and outrageous, then politics can only be a war. It’s about stopping the other side, no matter what. It’s not about working toward solutions, it’s about eliminating a threat. And so it goes. So goes the theater, so goes the sport in which all that matters is the final score, in which all that matters is whether or not you vanquished your enemy.

— ∞ —

But in the midst of all this sport and theater is the crumbling of the American empire and the collapse of the industrial paradigm. We are running out of our fuels, tearing apart our ecosystem, straining under insane financial and economic policies, and clawing at each others’ throat with the crazed idea that if we can just kill the other side, we could fix all this.

Eliminating each other isn’t going to solve our problems, though. The only way to do that is to change the way we live. The only way to do it is to thoroughly and honestly evaluate the way we live and choose different, less destructive ways to live. The only way we can even begin to solve our problems—even to just stop making them worse—is to be honest with ourselves about our privilege, about the outsized ways we live, about our hyper-abundance and all the ways it destroys the ecosystems we live within and are dependent upon, as well as our own cultures, societies and sanity.

In The Unsettling of America, Wendell Berry writes about the need for “kindly use.” In talking of conservation, he notes that we can only preserve a portion of the land in wildness, and that, otherwise, “Most of it we will have to use” (p. 30, from the Third Edition published in 1996.) He notes that only a considered, kindly use of the land “can dissolve the boundaries that divide people from the land and its care, which together are the source of human life.” He speaks of this kindly use largely in the context of agriculture, but also makes it clear that this is a broader concept applicable to the entirety of our culture—and that kindly use of the land and the world is integral to a coherent and healthy culture.

This is a massive question. It is, essentially, the question for our culture. Indeed, it is a variant of the question for every culture: how to live well in the world. Without constantly engaging this question—and finding some successes in that engagement—any culture will ultimately perish. Despite our fervent proclamations to the contrary (perhaps most fervent amongst politicians) we are simply another species living upon this planet and within this ecosystem, and we are beholden to the same limitations and restrictions and necessities of good work and living that any other species is. If we don’t accept those limitations and restrictions and learn how to live and work well within them, we will die out as a culture. It’s as simple as that.

Numerous past cultures have actively engaged this question and thrived as a result of that engagement. They have suffered the consequences and made corrections when their use turned from kindly to destructive. They have made mistakes and had successes, but their continued survival was always dependent on the engagement of that question and the corrections necessary to fall more on the side of kindly than destructive. When they failed to make those adjustments and corrections, they collapsed.

As a culture, we do not engage this question nearly enough in our personal lives and we engage it almost not at all at a national level. Neither of the major parties is asking how we can engage in kindly use. It is not a question they have asked themselves and so it is not a question they will attempt to answer. I could create my distinctions between the two major candidates for President on various social issues and by allowing myself to buy into the caricatured divisions that both candidates so skillfully evoked amongst the population, but the reality is that both of them articulated and fought over an identical vision of America: one of extractive, destructive empire devoted solely to the comfort of its population at the expense of all other creatures—human, animal, and plant—on Earth. Neither of them even began to honestly engage the question of kindly use, and so both of them represent a continuance down the path of destruction. As important as I think many of the social issues that these two candidates use to divide this country are, they are completely and utterly subordinate to the ultimate question of kindly use. They, too, will become irrelevant if our culture collapses under our own destructive tendencies.

— ∞ —

On Tuesday, I voted. I allowed myself to fall into the spectacle and entertainment, the blood sport of national politics in the final days of the crumbling American empire. And, more often than not, my team won.

But when it comes to the trajectory of this country and the industrialized world at large, we all still lost. Because we chose between two people who have not even attempted to engage the question of kindly use, of how to live and work well in this world.

We are now suffering the consequences of our destructive use. We have been for many years. Tuesday was just one more data point amongst many that, despite suffering the consequences, we continue not to make the necessary and painful corrections, not to move away from our destructive use and toward a kindly use. Until we do, our culture will continue to crumble and collapse and our ritual blood sports will leave us nothing but further bloodied, further injured, and closer to death, no matter which side wins.

Posted November 12, 2012 by Joel Caris in Essays, Work

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