Archive for the ‘Work’ Category

Yearning for the Abstract   46 comments

Monday, I went to Soapstone Lake, hiked around, startled a couple elk having an afternoon drink, laid down in the moss and shade, trees above me and a fern dangling inches from my face, and briefly napped. I sat by the lake and finished Dave Eggers’ A Hologram For The King, which is a beautiful and sad novel. On the way to work Tuesday, I saw two deer off in the distance fording the Miami River and then shortly after that a bird began to fly diagonally toward and away from my car, somewhat mesmerizing me as I very slowly grew closer and closer to it—at a high speed—before it disappeared from my view, only to reappear a few moments later in my rear view mirror, tumbling in the road and surely dead or dying. I didn’t mean to hit it; I hardly even thought about it as it was happening. The moment hypnotized me.

I’ve been trying to hold onto this magic the last few days, as the human world hasn’t quite been so lovely or magical, though it’s had a sadness I was thinking of even as I accidentally killed that bird. The days keep being beautiful and my work outside invigorates me even while I fight melancholy in my quieter, less engaged moments. At some point nearly every day of late, I feel overwhelmed, seemingly always in different ways.

I need to be writing stories.

— ∞ —

I wrote the above almost two weeks ago. I meant it to be part of an entry here on the blog, but it’s only now making it to this venue. As I imagine most of my regular readers have noticed by now, I’ve been missing for about a month. As you might also have inferred, it’s as much as anything because of the subject of my previous post: the current busyness of my life. I already catalogued much of that, so I won’t recount the details. Suffice it to say, I haven’t managed to set up a system for myself to get my writing done despite my work. Hence the quiet around here.

However, there’s a bit more to it than that, and it’s something I realized a couple weeks ago while working out in the garden. It’s a realization summed up in the last sentence of the above writing. While I’ve been so busy this summer with the actual work of growing and raising and selling food, I’ve become more interested in focusing on and writing about the abstract during my down time. I’ve been reading fiction rather than nonfiction and have felt a strong urge to write fiction rather than essays.

Throughout the winter, I rambled on and on here about homesteading and voluntary poverty and simplistic living and connections to nature. Now that much of those ramblings have manifested themselves in the messy, imperfect ways that the real world tends to deal in, and now that these manifestations are taking up a good deal of my time, I find myself not particularly motivated to continue to explore them in my writing. I honestly want to deal more in the abstract in that part of my life. It’s not that I’m not still thinking of all these things, of course—it’s that I’m a bit sick of constantly thinking of them in concrete terms and am interested in trying to hash out some of the emotional reality of all this floating under the surface. And I want to do it in an under the surface sort of way.

I feel the need for some metaphors, in other words.

That’s why I wrote that I need to be writing stories above. Writing stories is therapy for me. I could use a little therapy at the moment, and I could stand to tackle some of these issues from a different direction.

— ∞ —

Thus, much as I took a hiatus last August after starting this blog to get through the busy season, I’m taking something of a hiatus again. I hate to do it, but it’s simply what I need. I want to keep writing, but I don’t want to, for the moment, do the sort of writing I’ve been doing here.

Earlier this week, in fact, as I pondered a complete rewrite of a short story I wrote years ago, something more ambitious and perhaps nearing the state of a novel came to mind, and I’m excited to dive into writing that. So that’s where my writing energy is going to be going for at least the next few months. However, I also hope to write some smaller pieces, perhaps some flash fiction even, and to just dabble with whatever comes to me.

With that in mind, I’ve been considering how to handle this hiatus. I may not post much of anything here until the fall, but that’s not what I’d prefer. I hate to shut the blog down completely. So, rather than going entirely quiet, I’ll look to perhaps post some small writings like what I wrote at the beginning of this post. I may put some kind of flash fiction up, or just some small recounting of something that happened to me written in a bit more of a literary style. I don’t know if any of my readers are really interested in that; please feel free to chime in in the comments, and don’t hesitate to let me know if you’re not interested.

It’s entirely possible, too, that none of those plans will manifest here on the blog and that I won’t really start writing again until after the summer passes. Either way, you can expect much less frequent postings here than was common before the last month.

I do plan to get back to the blog’s regular tone once the fall and winter roll back around. I have little doubt that I’ll find myself quite preoccupied with this blog’s themes in the quiet dark of the winter season, and I imagine I’ll be a bit recharged and refreshed in that regard. I’m hoping not to lose what readers I do have, so please don’t never come back. If you want, you can always sign up on the left hand side of the page to get emailed new posts as they’re published.

— ∞ —

I’ll end this with a small garden update.

There’s one red Stupice tomato just about fully ripe in the hoop house; many other tomatoes—a wide variety—will follow on its heels. The squash, summer and winter alike, is suddenly growing like crazy. A deer got into the garden about a week ago, but the beans and peas it munched on seem to have survived and are coming back. The deer ate selectively, so really it just provided me a bit of unexpected succession planting. I can’t be too unhappy. The potatoes are in bloom, eggplant and peppers are coming on, the summer salad mix is about ready for a harvest and soon I’m going to have far more kale than I know what to do with. My first broccoli head is almost ready and I have a few hundred fall crops seeded in trays, just starting to sprout. The work is never ending, but it’s also a nice level of casual—I can find time for other things if I need it. And I will—for writing, for play, for sanity, for contemplation. But it’s the work that keeps me going, that keeps each day moving into the next.

I hope it’s much the same for everyone else here. No matter how much I find myself yearning for the abstract of late, it’s the work that creates that yearning. It’s the base. It’s the sustenance. I try always to keep that in mind.

That’s the update. I hope everyone is having a more or less good summer. (As for you, Chris—and any other southern hemisphere readers—I hope you’re having a fine winter.) I’d love some updates in the comments. Don’t take my hiatus as a lack of interest. Without the small community that’s formed here, I may have run out of steam long ago.

— ∞ —

In other words, thank you.

Posted July 20, 2012 by Joel Caris in Farm Life, Meta, Work

Tagged with , , , , , , ,

Work Calls   21 comments

It’s amazing what the summer brings. Over the last couple weeks, I’ve found myself without a single day that I haven’t been doing at least some work for one of my two farmhand jobs or working on the garden. That doesn’t mean life has been crushing or brutal—some of those days have only involved a bit of work and others have involved quite a bit of gardening that proved enjoyable and invigorating as much as anything. But it has kept me busy and pretty consistently feeling in service of a never ending to do list, even in the moments when I’m not working on one of the tasks.

On that to do list for awhile now has been to write a new blog post. As I imagine is obvious, that keeps slipping further down the list. I’ll hope that most of my readers understand that sort of prioritizing. My jobs take precedent over the blog and my garden screams a bit more loudly than this blog does. When I’m looking to get some seeding done before the end of the day to hopefully have some home grown salad on the table in a few weeks or taking advantage of cool and cloudy weather to trellis tomatoes in the hoop house, I have to prioritize the actual work of this life over the writing about the work of this life.

Furthermore, when a long day of work is followed up by some evening gardening, dinner and zoning out (or reading, or getting to bed early) is much easier than writing a blog post. Simply put, I’ve been a bit too fried of late to get a good post written. I’ve sat down with the intent to write just such a post a few times, but it hasn’t quite come together. The inspiration has been lost in exhaustion.

So here I am writing something easier, so that I can get something written and posted and let you all know that I haven’t entirely disappeared or lost myself in more basketball (though I am watching the NBA Finals.) This is my meta update. And there are updates to my life, beyond what I’ve just written.

Aside from the work I’m doing—or as an element of all this work—is the fact that two WWOOFers, Lily and Kayleigh, are now living with me and helping out on the farm and with my garden. They worked at Ginger’s place—the farm I interned on last year—for six weeks and decided they didn’t want to leave the Oregon coast. So they’re staying the rest of the summer. After a bit of checking around, talking, debating, thinking about it, and making arrangements, it worked out for them to move into the house I’m living in now—staying in the second bedroom I hadn’t been using. So now I have helpers, roommates, friends, companions, dare I even say students. They play a wide variety of roles and so far it’s been a great arrangement.

One of the consequences of their arrival, though, has been an increased workload. It’s ironic that help can add to the work, but so be it. I’m not complaining about that; the workload has increased because I’m now getting more done with the motivation of having others around to help out. I even am attempting to teach a bit, though I still feel a far way from being a truly knowledgeable teacher. The garden keeps expanding, though it also still seems so far from complete. The hoop house is getting filled out with tomatoes and eggplants and peppers. New beds are being worked up and seeded outside and I’m seeding trays and pots to eventually be transplanted. There’s a lot going on and if much of this comes through, I’ll eventually be swimming in more food than the three of us likely can eat.

Not a bad problem to have.

I also have been working more for the farm here, both in helping to lead Lily and Kayleigh when they’re working and also in doing other tasks without them that seem to be cropping up as the season wears on. I’m now working two full days for Lance and Tammi, in addition, and this week I start working a second farmer’s market on Thursdays. So that leaves me working full days for Lance and Tammi on Tuesday and Friday, working markets on Thursday and Sunday, and fitting in other work here around the farm and gardening on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday. And I try to get in some socializing and down time, as well. The season is in full swing indeed.

This isn’t to complain, I want to be clear. It’s been really inspiring having such purpose and feeling so in service to a wide variety of people, animals, land, and personal goals. After my stretch of distraction and lack of accomplishment, I feel like I’m making up for that down time with a flurry of activity and good work. But it’s also been tiring and I’m still trying to find my feet; to find a pace that’s effective and sustainable. I think it’s going to take a bit more thought and experimentation.

I feel, though, that all this is moving me toward something. I have vague thoughts and ideas and schemings about what that may be. Suddenly living and working with two women who I also am, in a few small ways, teaching and leading has helped to affirm for me that I could manage and lead WWOOFers in other capacities. Gardening and growing my own food is helping to affirm that I could run some kind of farm or homestead of my own. Figuring out what tasks need to be done, prioritizing and accomplishing those tasks, and just generally being in the mode of management is also helping to affirm that I could manage my own place. None of it would be easy—and we’ll see where I am with all this in a few months—but all this good work is reminding me that I’m capable and that there are opportunities out there, so long as I’m open to them, willing to be creative and flexible, and willing to take a few risks.

I’m not sure exactly where all this is leading, but it feels like it may be somewhere good. The future suddenly feels a bit more close to the present.

We’ll see. In the meantime, forgive me my lingering silences and know that this blog still is important and still remains on my to do list. It’s just that there are plants and animals and people depending on me and they have to take a bit more priority at the moment, while the sun’s (occasionally) shining and the days are (somewhat) warm. Sometimes the season calls for contemplation and sometimes it calls for work. It’s calling for work at the moment. The contemplation will be back, and I’ll no doubt manage to sneak it in, at times, amongst the work over the next couple months, but for now the work calls a bit more insistently.

I hope to get something up later this week. We’ll see if the garden and my sanity allows it.

Posted June 18, 2012 by Joel Caris in Farm Life, Gardening, Meta, Work

Tagged with , , , ,

The Soil’s Gifts   24 comments

There’s a bacteria in soil that has been shown to make humans happy by triggering serotonin production in the brain.

But there must be more to it.

— ∞ —

The garden has made me happy. I’ve spent a good number of hours working out there, on the days I’m not working as a farm hand elsewhere. I don’t work fast in my garden, but the leisure of digging in the soil is invigorating. I string out a bed and start raking it, removing clumps of sod, shaking out the dirt and tossing them aside. Occasionally I wear gloves, but mostly I don’t. The soil is good against my skin, caking itself into my hands’ tiny crevices, bits of the earth settling into my Life Line. As my hands turn black, my spirit becomes light, bolstered by the cultivation of life, the nourishment of future food.

Most of the garden to date has come from friends. Tomato starts and a multitude of seed from Ginger—from the farm I worked on last year—and a mixed tray of starts from Linda, who introduced me to farming. Appropriately, I use a mix of techniques from both farms—the 3-tooth cultivator Ginger relied on so heavily and the digging fork so prized by Linda. The Hori-Hori Linda gave me as a going away present is indispensable and always on my hip, ready for so many tasks.

— ∞ —

I can’t deny this took me partly by surprise. I’ve interned at vegetable CSAs for the last three years, yet every summer eventually brought me to the question of if I really would want this as my life. I loved being outside, the changing seasons and rhythm of the work, the soil, the incredible communities built, the care and love so evident day in and day out. I disliked the stress, the pace that could become so insane, the constant financial pressure obvious even to me, who wasn’t paying the bills.

Did I really want that constant sense of being on the verge? Did I want the stress of just barely getting by, day after day? And the work itself, or at least the pace of the work: it didn’t fit me, or the way I experienced the world when allowed to do so at my own natural rate and rhythm. It too often didn’t make me happy when happiness was the point of farming.

But by the time the season ended and winter rolled around, I always found myself ready to farm again, looking forward to the next season. An odd cycle.

— ∞ —

I wondered, too, if I would even be a successful farmer. Could I actually grow these vegetables if I were left to my own devices? I was relatively good at following direction—at being given tasks to carry out and accomplishing them. But I so often set myself on autopilot and allowed the rote process of finishing a task to take precedence over understanding what was actually being accomplished by that task. Even after three seasons of farming, the idea of being in charge of an operation of my own and successfully producing large amounts of food struck me as daunting, almost impossible. I doubted I had a green thumb and didn’t even trust in my ability to fake it, even after many cumulative months of assisting with the work of others with unquestionable green thumbs.

— ∞ —

The “garden” I tried to grow in 2010 didn’t help. I put in too little effort, in a poor gardening plot, and allowed budding philosophical beliefs to cloud an important truth in growing vegetables: that most cultivated vegetables are not nearly so hardy as weeds, and thus need some pampering.

I didn’t pamper them. I damn near abused them. And, worse, I at least partly took this as a condemnation of my abilities, when in reality it was just a lesson that I needed to provide more attention to the work I was doing—that I needed to actually take the steps I had learned needed to be taken.

I didn’t obsess over this garden and its failures, but it’s sad specter at times haunted my already-established self doubts.

— ∞ —

Then came this year’s garden plot. The beautiful soil, dark and rich and deep. The promise it held and its small whispers of the future.

It helped to get a small break from vegetable farming. Transitioning into animals and facing my first summer in three years devoid of the promise of the stress of vegetable farming, and all the doubts and insecurities that stress could inspire, left me better able to focus on the intense joys of growing food. The potential fulfillment offered by that plot came with almost no strings attached. It would be for me, no others dependent on this bit of earth (aside from the innumerable critters living in it, of course.) I could do it right, or at least to the best of my ability. And even if it yielded far less than hoped for, I would let it be learned wisdom rather than condemnation.

This was mine; I could do it as I wanted, at the pace I wanted. I owned this.

— ∞ —

It’s amazing the difference ownership makes. Of course, I don’t actually own the land. But I own what’s going to happen in that plot for the foreseeable future. I own whatever successes come of it, whatever failures, whatever lessons learned and joys experienced. I own the surprises and revelations. And my involvement will be intimate and complete.

It’s incredible how often during my three seasons vegetable farming that I would walk by a bed and not know what was planted in it, often times even when it was already up. Now, I know. Everything went in by my hands. I own it. I planned it. I guided and built it, then handed it off to all the creatures and natural processes that will ultimately do the vast majority of work. But I’m the instigator, and thus I know what’s intended to happen.

I’ve already realized how big a piece this is. I always suspected, when I questioned whether I would really want to have my own farm, that actual ownership would change the equation. The early results suggest just that. Doing this on my own—it changes so much.

— ∞ —

But what am I actually talking about here? What have I done on my own? Much of what’s in the ground and growing are starts from two of the farms I interned for. I’ve direct seeded, as well, and some of that is coming up. Some of it remains to be seen.

Also, though, what I’ve done so far is so small, and the pace so slow and leisurely. How could I not be enjoying it? How could I not be invigorated by it? Sure, it’s easy to enjoy it at such a simple pace, when the pressures of feeding other people and making a living aren’t bearing down on me.

Yet, I can’t help but think my happiness is the most important point so far. I find this joyful. I find this invigorating. Digging in the soil has proved a renewal for me, a source of life. Despite three seasons of prior farming and plenty of happiness in it, I didn’t trust that gardening would make me as happy as it’s proving to make me. I didn’t trust that it was the love I hoped it was.

But it is. And that opens up the future.

— ∞ —

The question now is one of possibility. It’s one of pace and scale. It’s whether or not this love can be a bigger part of my life. It’s what it would take, what work would need to be done.

I’ve been scheming the last week. Thinking about possibilities and wondering what kind of situation I might be able to devise. Thinking of how I could make this more of my life, of who I am and what I do. How can I expand this joy without losing it?

I think small, intimate, reasonable—yet even those thoughts are big. What could I do with a small bit of earth, my hands, perhaps one other helper, a steady pace, and little cash? How could I make it a bigger part of my life yet but not depend on it? Not force it to make my entire living? Not morph it into the disquiet of stress and constant worry?

I don’t have the answers to these question, but I have the tentative thoughts of possibilities. Possibilities that may be gone by next week or next month, granted, but possibilities nonetheless. What’s truly amazing to me is that it seems possible at all. It never felt like something potentially imminent before, in the last three years. It always felt necessarily farther away. Yet now it does seem possible, perhaps in the near future, even with the realization that this potential future could disappear at any time.

There’s something shocking and heartening about that.

— ∞ —

The soil gives life and possibility. It invigorates. It’s magic, what it can do.

What it can inspire.

The Cult of the Expert   17 comments

An entry in The Household Economy

— ∞ —

“A system of specialization requires the abdication to specialists of various competences and responsibilities that were once personal and universal. Thus, the average—one is tempted to say ideal—American citizen now consigns the problem of food production to agriculturalists and ‘agribusinessmen,’ the problem of health to doctors and sanitation experts, the problems of education to school teachers and educators, the problems of conservation to conservationists, and so on. This supposedly fortunate citizen is therefore left with only two concerns: making money and entertaining himself. He earns money, typically as a specialist, working an eight-hour day at a job for the quality or consequences of which somebody else—or, perhaps more typically, nobody else—will be responsible. And not surprisingly, since he can do so little else for himself, he is even unable to entertain himself, for there exists an enormous industry of exorbitantly expensive specialists whose purpose is to entertain him.”

— ∞ —

I suppose specialization is a feature, and not a bug, of the modern, industrial economy. To run such a complex and industrial infrastructure as we have come to rely upon, we need millions of people carrying out very specific and specialized tasks. This infrastructure is made up of uncountable widgets and devices and roles that all have their own particularity and that, thus, require their own particular machines or trained humans to be run and maintained. Broad classifications of generalized and necessary economic activity have been broken apart and splintered into much more specific niches, and then have been absorbed as a fraction into a far more sprawling beast we might refer to as the discretionary economy. In today’s industrial economy, the necessities of life—food, water, shelter, a clean and functioning environment, community—are now almost an afterthought to the vast and consuming industry of non-necessity: distraction, destruction, profit-driven specialization, a massaging of and attentiveness to human ego both impressive and horrifying. We have discovered an infinite number of economic niches driven not by the particularities of place and community—which would be the basis of niches in a functioning and sane economy—but on the basis of catering to the human ego by creating an infinite number of variations on conformity so that we might convince everyone that, no matter how much they immerse and then lose themselves in the base homogeneity of our culture, they truly are a unique human being, as proven by their particular combination of iPhone apps, or which of the many Nabisco snacks they prefer, or which Anheuser-Busch-owned beer they drink.

Of course, as we’ve created this insanely complex yet oddly generic economy and industrial base, we’ve come to worship at the alter of specialization. We know that we need years upon years of education and training so that we may be successful in today’s high tech, globalized economy. We know that to seize the bright future that is rightfully ours, we must *insert cliche here* so that *tribal term here* may compete in today’s *overtly positive economic buzzword here*. And we know this because we’re told it again and again, each time with slightly varying terms, and always emerging from the mouth of a respected “leader” or, even better, a certified expert.

For in today’s world of hyper-specialization, we have a never ending supply of experts always streaming across our television screens and popping up on the internet, ready and willing to tell us something that we desperately need to know but that we don’t know because we lack the training and intelligence and bottom-of-the-screen label that this particular expert does. In a world, after all, in which specialization reigns supreme, it only makes sense that we have an expert for every conceivable situation—and that we rarely have more than one expert for any particular situation. By embracing the idea of specialization, defining the industrial economy as the greatest economy that has ever existed or will ever exist, and celebrating every new fragmentation of our lives as a matter of great progress, we’ve created the necessity for this multitude of experts. By proclaiming that the height of human ability is to be trained in one very specific task and to be the sole person capable of performing that task—or to be the very best at that task, even if other people fumble through their own inadequate attempts at said task—then we condemn ourselves to, at best, being extremely good at one or two things and very bad at everything else. Or, if not very bad, then at least inadequate—unable to stake our claim to that task with the sort of legitimacy that a real expert would.

— ∞ —

“The beneficiary of this regime of specialists ought to be the happiest of mortals—or so we are expected to believe. All of his vital concerns are in the hands of certified experts. He is a certified expert himself and as such he earns more money in a year than all his great-grandparents put together. Between stints at his job he has nothing to do but mow his lawn with a sit-down lawn mower, or watch other certified experts on television. At suppertime he may eat a tray of ready-prepared food, which he and his wife (also a certified expert) procure at the cost only of money, transportation, and the pushing of a button. For a few minutes between supper and sleep he may catch a glimpse of his children, who since breakfast have been in the care of education experts, basketball or marching-band experts, or perhaps legal experts.”

— ∞ —

Such a world of experts is the wet dream of the industrial cornucopian. We are told constantly that the mark of a great economy is efficiency. We must grow our citrus only where citrus grows best, our apples only where they grow best, mine our metals only where they are easiest to mine, derive all our energy from centralized power plants producing the most possible energy with the least amount of human labor, build our machines where the taxes are the lowest and the energy is cheapest and most abundant and the labor is low-cost and compliant, make our butter and cheese in vast factories where machines do the work and every bit of wasted energy can be cut out, then ship that cheese and butter all around the world. We must take every meaningful human activity, load it into a spread sheet, determine how to transfer the activity to machines, cut out as many humans as possible, destroy as much of its meaning as possible, commoditize it, cheapen it, degrade it, divvy it up, and declare success. We must find wholes and reduce them to pieces, mechanize them, specialize them, burrow down into their specific depths and obsess over the details and forget always any inherent or overarching meaning, forget anything that the pieces might make together. We must never see the forest; only the trees, and then only the value in cutting them down. We must eliminate God or any semblance of God at every turn, for God only confuses the issue. We must destroy any sense of the sacred. It clouds our vision. Lastly, we must declare science and economy our new God, make them sacred, and then proclaim our vision finally clear. With this clear vision, we will specialize everything, reduce all we can see, proclaim our knowledge and wisdom infinite, and worship experts—all for the unequivocal good of humanity.

But where is this good? A life in the hands of experts is supposed to be the perfect life. That’s why we have all these experts in the first place—so we can avoid mistakes and engage our lives only in the most effective of ways. And yet, we seem in many ways a miserable and perpetually unsatisfied people. Things never are perfect but we yearn to make them so. It’s a paradox—our cult of the expert should provide us constantly expert advice, which should provide us the means to live our lives perfectly. But there’s nothing paradoxical about this at all. It makes perfect sense that in a society that worships experts and the idea that all tasks should be carried out to perfection that we find ourselves constantly unsatisfied, always searching for the perfection we can’t seem to grasp. And that’s because, rather than attain any kind of perfection, we’ve simply altered the expectations of our society, creating desires that are unfulfillable.

Seeing perfection as a possibility, we yearn for it and sense that if we can attain it, we will be perfectly happy. In our efforts to attain it, we pay attention to the experts who are supposed to know how to attain perfection—who are supposedly practitioners of it. Yet there are two problems with this approach. First and foremost is that perfection tends to be an unattainable ideal. Or, more specifically, it’s an unattainable ideal for humans. It’s a much more attainable ideal for machines, and therein lies one of our problems. Since we have allowed our thinking to be distorted by our industrial economic base, we tend now to think in mechanistic terms rather than in the animalistic terms that are natural to us as human beings—as animals. Our ideas of perfection are rooted in mechanical notions. They’re based on reductionism, strictly-defined variables and controlled circumstances. By homogenizing and standardizing the scenario in which we attain perfection, we should be able to homogenize and standardize the perfection. We define the scenario, define the desired outcome, and then use those defined realities to create the steps we need to take from scenario to desired outcome. This often works in the realm of machines. If we have a human-made screw that needs to be screwed into a human-made panel, we can create a human-made machine that will work within strict parameters to screw that screw into that panel. Every element of the scenario is controlled by us, the outcome is defined by us, and thus we are able to create the fulfillment of that outcome.

But that’s not how human lives work, now is it? If we want to raise our children well, there’s not an expert in the world who can define the full breadth of the scenario of raising children, define a final goal (what does it mean to “raise our children well?”) and then provide us the steps to get there. It can’t be done because the scenario cannot be defined and controlled by humans, nor can the outcome be so controlled, at least not completely. There are far too many variables, far too many elements, far too many other creatures involved, far too much unpredictability and lack of control. Human lives do not unfold within the same paradigm as our mechanistic creations do, and so attempting to attain perfection as defined in mechanistic terms is doomed to failure.

There is, however, an even bigger problem with our attempts to attain perfection and thus be happy, which is that perfection doesn’t make us happy. I suspect some people might argue that point, and I imagine there are even a few exceptions out there to this rule. But I firmly believe that perfection would lead to human misery—utter boredom. Even if there was some way to define and then achieve perfection in the realm of human life, why would we want to do so? How could that produce happiness? The happiness we feel as humans stems out of the inherent messiness of life. We need our successes and failures, our joy and pain, our horrors and contentments. Without these contrasts and these back-and-forths, we can’t appreciate any of this life. It’s a terribly old idea, but you can’t appreciate light without dark. We can’t be happy if we don’t know sadness and misery. We can’t enjoy our successes if we’ve never known failure.

Imagine the happiest moments of your life and tell me whether or not you understand them without contrasting them against other moments of your life. I’m not saying you always think of dichotomies when you think of happiness, but I do think it’s lurking there in the back of your mind if it’s not in the forefront. When I think about the joy of waking up in the morning next to someone I love, then maybe having some coffee and a leisurely breakfast, I understand the joy of that in contrast of waking up alone on a cold morning, knowing I have to go to work. Now, that first scenario may not be perfect and that second one may not be horrible. Perhaps I like my work, even if I really don’t want to get out of bed and prefer the idea of sleeping in. Perhaps the breakfast with my significant other isn’t that satisfying or we get into a small argument, or there’s a clash of desires. But whatever form of perfection I might see in the first scenario, I need the second scenario to appreciate the first. This is simply the juxtaposition of comforts I’ve written about before. We need a wide breadth of experiences to better understand those experiences. We need to be able to compare and contrast, to work different sensations off each other so that we may better learn those sensations.

We’ve attempted to eliminate the messiness from human lives, but in so doing we only are making ourselves less happy. Our joy comes from that messiness, even if our misery does as well. It’s the point of being human. What could we possibly have to do here if we were here only to live a perfect life? Why even bother?

— ∞ —

“The fact is, however, that this is probably the most unhappy average citizen in the history of the world. He has not the power to provide himself with anything but money, and his money is inflating like a balloon and drifting away, subject to historical circumstance and the power of other people. From morning to night he does not touch anything that he has produced himself, in which he can take pride. For all his leisure and recreation, he feels bad, he looks bad, he is overweight, his health is poor. His air, water, and food are all known to contain poisons. There is a fair chance that he will die of suffocation. He suspects that his love life is not as fulfilling as other people’s. He wishes that he had been born sooner, or later. He does not know why his children are the way they are. He does not understand what they say. He does not care much and does not know why he does not care. He does not know what his wife wants or what he wants. Certain advertisements and pictures in magazines make him suspect that he is basically unattractive. He feels that all his possessions are under threat of pillage. He does not know what he would do if he lost his job, if the economy failed, if the utility companies failed, if the police went on strike, if the truckers went on strike, if his wife left him, if his children ran away, if he should be found to be incurably ill. And for these anxieties, of course, he consults certified experts, who in turn consult certified experts about their anxieties.

It is rarely considered that this average citizen is anxious because he ought to be—because he still has some gumption that he has not yet given up in deference to the experts. He ought to be anxious, because he is helpless. That he is dependent upon so many specialists, the beneficiary of so much expert help, can only mean that he is a captive, a potential victim.”

— Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America, (p. 19-21)

— ∞ —

The industrial, globalized economy is the attempt at perfection. It’s the height of our mechanistic dreams, our specializations, our worship of experts, our attempts at control. It’s us not figuring out how to live well within the messy realities of life, but our attempts to control and purify that life, to make it work well no matter what. It’s our attempt not to find our happiness and satisfaction from within, but to impose perfection upon ourselves from outside—to control our outer environment so that we don’t have to concern ourselves with our inner environment. As such, it is an outer economy. We go to work. We leave the home. We tap outside forces to guide and maintain that economy and then we insert ourselves into it, into our very controlled and defined niche.

The household economy is much more messy, at least in terms of how we think of messiness. The household economy necessitates that we deal with ourselves, that we work within the uncontrolled variables of life. We don’t go to work in the household economy. We live there. We don’t leave the home to engage in the household economy. We stay in the home. We don’t give control of the household economy to outside forces. We control it ourselves. We don’t standardize the household economy. We make it our own and each household economy exists only in one specific home.

Similarly, the household economy is a complete affront to the cult of the expert. We should not be making our own butter; a machine should be making it, and it should be strictly controlled. We should not be making our own cheese; a machine should be making it, or a master cheese artisan should be crafting the finest cheese. Our households are not efficient. In fact, the household economy is necessarily inefficient, at least in the insane way in which we define efficiency in the industrial economy. Rather than trusting our livelihoods to machines, the household economy is about bringing our livelihoods back into our homes and into our own hands. It’s about replacing machine labor with human labor and embracing all the messiness, variability and lack of control that entails. It’s about embracing that lack of industrial perfection in the pursuit of human perfection—in that animalistic mix of trial and error, of frustration and success, in the inherent joy of creating things with our hands, of making our own life and living with the contradictory results of that process. It’s about working with the outside world rather than controlling it, and instead finding our joy in the inner familiarity and satisfaction gained slowly through good work and a life well lived.

The household economy rejects perfection in favor of experience.

That’s not to say, however, that the household economy is devoid of craft, care or expertise. Indeed, I would say the household economy features care as a matter of course, very commonly features greater craft than the industrial economy, and will often, as a matter of course, feature expertise. It takes all of these elements as part of a broader experience, though, and is not afraid to mix and match. The household economy, again, is messy. In that messiness, it’s beautiful and it’s sacred and it’s fulfilling in a way that the industrial economy almost never is. The household economy, after all, is run by humans. The industrial economy is run by machines.

As I write and advocate for the household economy in this series of posts, one of the core values is going to be a rejection of the cult of the expert. This is necessary for the household economy. If we constantly seek the sort of mechanistic perfection advocated by this cult, then the household economy can never be successful. It functions only under different ideals, different pursuits, different goals. It functions only in the real world of human care and experience, not in the mechanistic world of industry. And so one of the foundations of this series is that we all get dirty without worry of perfection, that we all be willing to make mistakes, and that we all find joy in the experience as much as in the outcome—and that we find joy in the experience regardless of the outcome.

The projects won’t always be successful when defined strictly under the terms of the desired final outcome. But they’ll always be successful when taking into account experience, the pleasure of the work, and the sense of ownership that comes from an act of making one’s own living. And while I’ve dared to throw some religious terms in this post, I’ll say once more that they also will be successful in the sense of engaging in something sacred, however you define that term. Peter Berg, in an interview in Listening to the Land quoted a woman from Mexico City who said that “the kitchen is the place where you worship the earth.” I dare say much more good can be done in the kitchen than in a factory—and that God, in whatever form, can much more easily be found in the kitchen, as well.

In the household economy, we become generalists. We may occasional stumble upon something that makes us, in that particular instance, want to become a specialist, and there’s nothing wrong with that. If we find we love making cheese, we may want to delve deeper into that craft and work to become a craftsman cheese maker. But in general, the household economy is about working as a generalist and finding our love of the work and its outcomes not necessarily in the perfection of the final product, but in the perfection of the work, in the meaning of creation, and the satisfaction of each bit of self-reliance and personal care.

In that sense, each of us has the potential to be an honest expert—someone whose expertise is rooted not in ingraining pervasive dissatisfaction but in caring for ourselves and making our own small satisfactions and moments of true perfection, seen only in the inherent and sprawling messiness of our humanity. Someone whose expertise is rooted in work, not in theory. Someone whose expertise recognizes the folly of perfection and strives instead for joy, good work, and care.

Rest, Renewal, and an Honest Hope   28 comments

Regular readers may have noticed it’s been over a week since the last post, which is a longer wait between posts than normal here on this blog. I intended to have something up on Tuesday, then on Thursday, and then again yesterday night, but I kept pushing back the writing. Partly that was due to some of the usual distractions in my life and partly to being on the train for two days and then returning home to work for three straight days. But it’s also been a matter of spending a good chunk of the week mulling over new ideas but not quite teasing them out to a level of coherence ready for a full write up.

One of my goals with this blog of late is to write on more fully formed ideas, rather than write on new ideas that I haven’t had a chance to mull over for a bit. I make this a goal because I write higher quality posts under that ideal. There’s nothing surprising about that, of course, as taking the time to think through the various implications and pitfalls of a new idea can lead to a clarity and coherence that often is lacking in our discourse. I have multiple times had the strike of an insight from which I wanted to immediately write up a rhetoric-heavy essay to only, upon further consideration, realize that the insight is deficient, or incorrect, or simply incomplete—sometimes silly, sometimes promising, but in need of more thought either way.

Granted, I don’t always live up to this ideal, and most every post on this blog—some more than others—could have benefited from an extra couple days of marinating and a true second draft. I still treat this much as, I think, many people treat their blog: I write up a post, do a quick read through and edit, and then publish. I rarely let something sit for a couple days before posting it.

Since I kept thinking of new—or at least somewhat new—ideas this week, I kept getting excited about those ideas, thinking them through while shoveling pig shit into a wheelbarrow (the job during which much of my thinking happened this week) and then realizing they needed to stew in the back of my brain a bit more before I should write a post about them. It didn’t take many repetitions of this process before I found myself a week out from my last new post and still uncertain of what to write next.

In a roundabout way, I’m getting to the point of today’s post. It’s an idea that I’ve been thinking about for a couple years now, and that I’ve talked about with other people multiple times. It’s one, in fact, that I’ve been meaning to write about here. It’s the idea that one of the challenges facing us here in America (and probably in many other industrialized nations, though I don’t feel I know enough to speculate) is that so many of us don’t take the time to think about, on a slow and deep level, our lives and our ideas about those lives.

I think this reality comes out in the shallowness of so much of our discourse, both on the national and personal level. I know that, throughout much of my life, I’ve tended toward shallow and simple interpretations of ideas and failed too often to reflect well on my life and the world around me. I dare say that many other people in this country are in the same boat. We can see it in the dominance of memes, the conventionality of superficial “wisdom,” the ways in which our politicians and leaders speak in cliches and sound bites. We can see it in the aversion to challenges of our assumptions and in the escape into simple and safe topics like sports and celebrity culture. We can see it in the willful blindness to the environmental destruction and social injustices littering our lives and the world’s landscape. We can see it, day in and day out, in the desperate demagoguery of a nation whose ideas of itself are failing at an ever increasing rate.

We can see it also in the bad work we do. In fact, I think the bad work we do tends to perpetuate this lack of serious consideration. I base this assumption in large part on my own experiences in the world before I began to farm. In those days, I worked retail jobs. I found the work mostly devoid of meaning, outside of the occasional moment of helping someone with a particular problem, such as how to hook up a DVD player. Now, in itself, hooking up a DVD player’s not particularly meaningful work. But it did involve helping a fellow human being, and in that it was a moment of simple human connection in an otherwise inhumane job. It was a very shallow representation of community but, shallow or not, it provided a small bit of substance to my work.

Overall, though, the job mostly involved selling unnecessary products to people who didn’t need them. Working in the electronics department of a general retailer, I sold distraction and shallow satisfaction to people who wanted not to think too much about their lives. I can’t see much other reason for constant consumption of movies, music, television, the internet, video games and the purchase of a wide array of electronic gadgets—most intended to provide easier consumption of the aforementioned media. In fact, I experienced all of that myself. In those days, I consumed much the same media, and at a rate commensurate with most of my customers. I filled a good percentage of my non-working time with dulling media, electronic gadgetry, and flickering screens of all kinds.

All that media-based distraction worked on two levels. First of all, it directly seeded the dominant memes, themes and narratives of our very sick and dysfunctional culture into my brain, warping my thought patterns to fit those themes. Second, it kept me from engaging in the sort of deep thought and consideration that allows one to question and get away from those narratives, see the functioning of society with a clear-eyed observance, properly evaluate one’s own life, and understand one’s own behavior. These are all critical activities to engage in if we’re going to have a healthy society and culture, and they’re all behaviors that are dangerously scarce in our current society.

There’s another element to these distractions and to the reality of my job that plays into our disconnect from deep consideration of our lives, though, and that’s the lack of a true break from work and distraction. Most people have jobs that provide little to no break time. Most have a weekend, of course, but those tend to be filled with distractions and whatever necessary household work needs to be done that hasn’t been outsourced to machines or corporations. It is, in other words, not much of a break. Some of the luckier workers out there also have vacation time, but that’s generally only a couple weeks a year, and many people try to cram all kinds of desperate “fun” into that time, again leaving themselves not much of a true break.

The thing about deep thought and consideration is that it’s about impossible to do without a significant amount of time. I’m not talking about a couple hours or a couple days, but probably more along the lines of weeks or, ideally, months. If you’ve been working at a breakneck pace for a good chunk of the year, having a couple days off doesn’t give you a chance to really come down from that pace and reorient yourself to a new one. It especially doesn’t allow that if you’re anticipating your imminent return to work. Having a couple weeks off provides that a bit better, but again not if you spend a good chunk of that time worrying about your return to work, and not if you’re spending much of that time desperately trying to cram in a year’s worth of fun before you go back to the drudgery of your job. What it comes down to, ultimately, is that these time frames don’t work on a human scale. The weekend or two week vacation is not the natural time frame for a human’s annual rest.

The winter, on the other hand, seems to me a much more natural time frame for a significant break, providing true rest and renewal. And that’s something that I’ve come to understand over the last few years as I began to farm. My first two seasons of farming were followed by a winter without work, floating around in Portland, staying with family and friends, doing a bit of traveling on the cheap, reading a ridiculous amount, and engaging in a lot of thought and reflection. It wasn’t the greatest use of my winter in a financial sense, but it was a brilliant use of those winters from the standpoint of my health and humanity. What I found during those long periods of rest and renewal was that I was able to slow my mind and body, slip deep into my thoughts, evaluate the year that had passed, learn lessons that I couldn’t learn during the frenzy of the working year—the growing season—and make good plans for the next year.

It didn’t escape my notice, of course, that this humane pace coincided with natural cycles. This, then, is one of the beauties of farming and of engaging in other forms of work that are tied to the natural cycles of this planet: they help provide for natural cycles of thought, consideration, and personal growth. I think most of us desperately need to spend some time in these cycles, and have a period of rest and renewal much as the earth partakes in during winter. Far too much of our lives are spent rushing from one distraction to the next, or from one obligation to another. It never leaves us time to think and consider. It never leaves us time to learn from our mistakes, learn from our unhappiness, learn from our joy, learn from our successes and failures. We’re always on to the next thing, and the next thing always dominates our thought process.

I believe that’s one of the reasons we’ve been able to stray so far off course as a culture. We can only engage in the sort of environmental destruction, human-caused misery, and bad work that we engage in if we never give ourselves time to think about it, consider it, recognize these failings and commit to change and improvement for the future. By having diverted ourselves into work that mostly has divorced itself of the natural cycles, we’ve removed ourselves from our own natural cycles of work and reflection and have thus eliminated one of our most critical tools for growth and self-renewal. We can’t work and distract ourselves constantly, without break, indefinitely, without losing much of our capacity for personal growth. And if we lose our capacity for personal growth, we necessarily lose our capacity for societal and cultural growth.

The even greater danger of this reality is that it becomes a self-reinforcing loop. As we stray from natural cycles that promote our own personal growth and health, we grow less healthy and more stunted. This bleeds into the culture and society at large, increasing the likelihood of doing bad and destructive work. The more we engage in bad and destructive work, the more we must escape from that reality and deny its existence, simply to maintain our own sanity. This leads us to further distraction and the repetition of shallow but comforting memes and narratives. Wrapping ourselves in these memes and narratives, we shield ourselves from the important truths we’ve been ignoring, which makes it all the easier to do bad work and distract ourselves. We become ever more removed from the natural world, ever more removed from natural cycles, and ever more removed from our own humanity and the world around us.

The good news, though, is that we can break out of this loop. I did this a few years ago by beginning to farm. Granted, breaking free from that loop was more complicated than that and was a much longer process of allowing myself glimpses of my deeper reality even while trapped in a system of destruction, but I think it really kicked into high gear when I started to do work that was tied to the natural cycles of the earth. Once I made that transition, I actually put myself into another self-reinforcing loop, but one that was of a much more positive bent. By engaging in good work tied to the land, I tied myself to natural cycles. By tying myself to those cycles, I begin to slip back into the natural human cycles of work and rest, of action and reflection. This promoted deeper thought and consideration of my own life and of the society and culture around me, the revelations of which encouraged me to continue down the path of doing good work and tying myself to the natural cycles of the earth. Each season, that work and those cycles helped me to understand the world better, understand myself better, and to do yet better work and tie myself yet more to the earth. As I spent my time of rest reflecting on my own personal issues, my own behaviors and reactions, I begin to better understand them, to grow healthier, and to become more attuned with the world around me and more eager to engage in good work. I therefore reversed the cycle of bad work and turned it instead into a cycle of good work.

This reversal is one of my major sources of hope for the future. Having seen the way that a change in work provided me so many benefits and so much better a life, I have hope that it could do the same for others. And by many, many accounts I’ve read and heard, it can. It does. I think most of us take very well to this reversal because it begins to feed many of our natural thought processes and cycles. It feeds our humanity and ties into needs and desires that exist in us at a genetic level.

Granted, not everyone will take to such a change in work and lifestyle. But I believe many of us will when given the opportunity or simply forced into such a change. If the future plays out in a fashion similar to how I think it will, then many people who currently live lives divorced from the world’s natural cycles will be forced to live lives much more in tune with those cycles. And while that transition will no doubt prove challenging, it may also prove quite rewarding. For those who embrace the change, and who find themselves through that rough transition, they’ll likely settle into a positive feedback loop that will foster personal growth and improved health, as well as improved connections to the natural world and the ability to see our personal, societal, cultural and environmental interactions in a much more holistic manner.

I’ve experienced this change and I’ve met many others who have experienced it, as well. It’s real, and it strikes me as an honest hope for our future. That doesn’t mean I think we’ll all adjust to a very different future without trouble. It doesn’t mean that I think any of this will be easy. And it doesn’t mean that I think the future will be inherently better than the present. But it is a hope—a very real hope—and I’ll take whatever honest hope I can find.

When Money No Longer Gets Money   32 comments

An entry in the How To Be Poor series

Friday morning, I found myself sitting on the back patio of the town house my mother’s rented here in Sedona, Arizona, basking in a warm February sun with a good book and a hot cup of coffee. This proved quite the pleasure for me this time of year, being used to Oregon weather. Finding myself lucky enough to have access to that pleasure, I was taking full advantage, enjoying the easy comfort of a morning with nothing to do but read and think.

The good book in question was The Winter of Our Discontent, which is perhaps a subtle irony considering how contented I feel this winter. Early in the novel, the bank teller, Joey Morphy, tells the main character, Ethan Hawley, the one sentence that sums up everything he knows about business: “Money gets money.” The passage struck me as quite relevant to my discussion here of voluntary poverty and, I believe, gets at a deeper truth that helps to obstruct our responses to the future.

Money does get money in our society and I think most people understand this, consciously or not. Much of our economy these days is about money making money, using money to make investments which then return more money. This is a form of making money very removed from any actual physical goods or services. Think CDSs, derivatives, and the like.

Of course, this entire system of money getting money is dependent upon a growing economy. Money can’t get money in a steady state economy—it can only change hands or take different forms. The sharp observer will note that this correlates to the first law of thermodynamics. The sharp observer will further note the correlation between money and energy. The sharp observer will still further note that we’ve been mining and burning fossil fuels for the last few centuries, layering the energy from that on top of the sustainable flows of energy this planet has available to it, acting as though all that extra energy is permanent, and are right around now facing the peak and beginning of the decline of that extra energy. Due to the correlation between money (or economic activity) and available energy, that means we’re facing the end of economic growth and the beginning of economic contraction.

While that’s a simplistic summary of a complex reality, I do believe the general outline to be correct and that economic contraction is the near-term future we face. In such a future, money will no longer get money. This is true in a few different ways.

First, without economic growth as a widespread, standard reality, the system of credit and debt service we’ve come to think of as normal will no longer function. Debt won’t be able to be paid back with interest because people’s incomes won’t be growing. Rather, they’ll likely be shrinking. This presents an entirely new reality and is going to necessitate new forms of economic and financial activity.

Second is a deeper reality behind the idea that money gets money, and that’s rooted in the belief that money equals wealth, resources, and security. This is an assumption that most all of us in industrialized nations make. It’s the sense that you can always buy your survival so long as you have enough dollars in the bank. Money equals food, shelter, heat, clothing, water, everything. That’s the assumption, and it’s a fair one to make because it has tended, in recent and industrialized times, to be true.

Under this rubric, we could restate “money gets money” as “money gets security,” or “money gets comfort,” or “money gets your very life.” And this idea—so prevalent in our society—works very well to limit our response to the future. For those who can’t move past this idea and expect it to be permanently true, the goal continues to be to make a certain amount of money—and often, for that to be more money than they’re currently making. This is often done at the expense of building any kind of resiliency and alternate options into their lives. If they’re right about the future continuing on much as the present (or perhaps I should say the past, as the present isn’t a particularly good argument against economic chaos and a dysfunctional financial system) then their response is a sane and logical one. If they’re wrong, though, then their response is at best painful and at worse deadly, limiting their ability to respond to a dramatically different future.

My view, of course, is the one that says we face a future of economic chaos and a dysfunctional financial system. I feel comfortable in that view, based on the simple deductive reasoning that we are running our economic system on stores of energy that we’ll never get back; that we’ve hit the peak of those stores of energy; that those stores of energy will be declining in the future; that all the plans thus far conceived to replicate those stores of energy in a renewable fashion have had fatal flaws, with the most common one being a complete reliance on the stores of energy that are going away; and that economic contraction is, thus, almost certain to follow. How that plays out is not a prediction I’m willing to make. Economies are incredibly complex, and they often function in surprising manners. But in general, I imagine we’ll face a lot of chaos which all relates back to contraction and the end of growth. And that chaos is certain to make the money that we’ve come to think equals our very lives much less reliable and potentially worthless.

But because so many of us are locked into the idea that money gets money and that money gets security, even those of us who believe the future will be erratic and uncertain in economic terms still too often turn to ideas of how to lock in our money. So we look at buying gold, or investing in TreasuryDirect holdings, or buying ammo and freeze dried food, or buying farm land. But none of those things are guaranteed. We don’t know what’s going to happen to the value of gold and if we find ourselves going through a stretch in which economic chaos strips money of its value, gold may be considered largely useless, as well—at least in terms of our day-to-day survival. TreasuryDirect holdings could be seized by the government or the federal government could default. Ammo and freeze dried food only last a short while, and the future we face is not going to be about sticking out a couple bad months or finding your living through domination and violence. Even farm land is vulnerable, as valuable as it is. A floundering government could slip into authoritarian control or raise taxes to the point of being unpayable, and could then take your land. Alternately, your farm land is not particularly valuable if it isn’t surrounded by a coherent and resilient community. Now, granted, if I had money myself, I would happily look for some good land to buy, but I wouldn’t consider that any true guarantee for the future.

Of course, I don’t have any real money, so I don’t speak from complete experience here, but I can understand why those who do have a decent chunk of money saved would like to keep it from disappearing. That feels like security, and you want even more to hold onto it in the face of bad times. But the bad times likely coming are exactly the sort of times during which money may lose much of its function and utility. Again, how that plays out is anyone’s guess. Inflation, deflation, a combination of the two, national default, cratered confidence—it’s all on the table. But likely it will be some chaotic mixture of all these potential outcomes and the end result is that the money economy probably won’t guarantee you much of anything.

In other words, future security isn’t about money—it’s more likely about skill, flexibility, adaptability, the ability and desire to do real work, and community. Future security is not guaranteed under any circumstance. We’re facing a time of instability—the sooner we all get used to and accept that reality, the better we’ll be able to deal with our future realities.

There’s also a dirty little secret here that few want to talk about, but that I think is critical to address. Money shouldn’t get money—at least, not when money has been so divorced from good work, and not when cruelty and bad work so readily makes us money, as is the case today. We’ve created a corrupt and diseased system in which money tends not to go to those who do good work or make the world a better place or simply earn an honest and nondestructive living, but toward those who exploit and dominate, deal in violence, and act ruthlessly. That’s a godawful system to hand our livings over to, and we can readily see the effects of it all around us. The environmental devastation, social injustice, enslavement, murder and desperate miasma that so many wade through every day is partly a byproduct of the money system we have today. Its collapse, therefore, opens up new avenues to make ourselves a better world, even though the transition is likely to be painful.

That doesn’t mean, I want to make clear, that the collapse of our current money system will make for a better world. It simply will help clear some of the decrepit social infrastructure and institutions that help maintain the system of destruction. To make this a better world is going to involve a lot of hard work, contemplation, consideration, awareness and probably a good bit of luck. It, much like our future well being, is in no way guaranteed.

This, however, is the hope in voluntary poverty. If money will no longer guarantee your future, then voluntary poverty is a fine way to begin eliminating your dependence on and belief in money. It opens up new avenues for a better way of life, before the outside happenings of society, politics and the economy impose those new avenues on you, whether you’re ready for them or not. It also allows you to begin to explore better ways to live, and they are abundant. Stripping yourself of the trappings of wealth while you reacquaint yourself with the natural world around you, the enrichment of honest community, the deep satisfaction of good and healthy work well done, the time to think and relax, and the pleasure of clear-eyed observation makes for a particularly good life—and one that, after what can admittedly be a rough transition, proves radically reaffirming in our very disturbed world. Learning new skills and beginning the long process of taking back the responsibility of your own living provides a meaning and purpose that the industrialized, exploitative economy almost never offers.

Learning, in fact, that you are an actual, unique and beautiful, joyful, caring and thoughtful, talented and living and vital human being—someone who enriches this world and can provide so much to so many—and that you are a part of a broader world containing billions upon billions of other creatures that are as unique, as beautiful, as heartening and mystical and compelling as you; learning that all of us have the capacity to be something more than identical pegs to be slotted into identical slots to keep the machinery of wealth-via-destruction functioning—and that, goddamn it, this world that constantly exists and functions and breathes and beats with a pulse more powerful than any of us can comprehend is so filling and engrossing and substantial and nurturing, providing so much happiness and connection; learning that this world—our world—is there, waiting, and will fill us up if only we go outside and confront it honestly and let it in and begin the process of understanding it, and our true relationship with it, and all the ways in which we can break and betray that relationship, and all the ways in which we can stop that betrayal; well, learning all that provides the actual life that we so desperately try to purchase with money every single day.

And so you know what? It’s time that money no longer gets money. Not money as we know it today. It’s time that we transition to something very different, to a life that is built on skill and good work, community and friendship and the constant, honest evaluation of our place within and behavior toward our world. That’s a transition that’s coming, by necessity if nothing else. It may go bad. It hopefully will go right. Either way, there are no guarantees other than that the transition will be harsh and painful at times. But this world as we know it today is harsh and painful and to be afraid of walking away from it is not only an abdication of responsibility, but it’s a cruelty to ourselves. It’s a condemnation. And at this point, I don’t think we can afford any more condemnations.

A society and economy built on the work of uniquely skilled people, on caring community, even on the travails of being human in a challenging but joyful world, is better than one built on ill-gotten money. A society and economy with dramatically less material goods and comfort but with the predominance of good and necessary work, and the honesty of getting by and making do, is better than one brimming with luxuries bought with ill-gotten money. A society and economy built on skills that provide the means of life, physical labor, and the ability to work within the planet’s natural flows of energy and resources is better than one in which ill-gotten pieces of paper determine who lives well, who lives poor, and who dies or is murdered.

Voluntary poverty offers a way for those of us living in the very distorted world of industrialization to begin moving toward that better world. It’s a way for us to learn a new sum of our business knowledge—a sum that doesn’t state that “money gets money,” but states something very different, something much more humane, something much more caring and honest, and something that provides a good life which can’t be casually purchased but instead must be gained through good work and community.

A life, in other words, that must be gained not through money, but through our humanity.

A Matter of Responsibility   12 comments

I love snow. It’s something we don’t get very often here in the Northwest. When we do get it, it tends to be of the hit-the-ground-and-melt variety. An inch or two is significant for us—this isn’t the Midwest we’re talking about here. So it’s a special day when we get any sort of decent accumulation.

The last two days have seen some very decent accumulation, at least here on the farm. On Sunday, I awoke to two inches of snow blanketing the farm, bringing abundant joy upon its initial reveal. A bit more fell during the day, alternating between showers of snow and graupel, creating a picture-perfect view as I sat in the main house drinking coffee, reading, and attempting to write a blog post. Yesterday, I awoke to yet more snow, with a full five inches then covering the land. The trees drooped under the weight of all this snow, their branches low and burdened. The few hooped, plastic row covers had collapsed, crush beneath the deceptively heavy, fluffy whiteness. Everywhere, the snow lay mounded and heap, the farm’s various edges and angles softened, blunted, smoothed out. As I walked from my yurt to the main house, I glanced over at Onion Peak, beautiful and glorious, its craggy rise mottled white and gray—snow and stone—and a strip of snowy evergreens midway up the peak glowing golden in a brief reveal of morning sunlight. I stood a moment, and stared, and marveled at this beauty and the good fortune of my presence in it.

In the house, I made coffee and checked the radar. A band of snow was moving toward us. Not long after that it began to fall, light at first but growing heavier. Determined to take a walk in the snow, I put on a few layers, made a fresh cup of coffee, slipped on my boots and headed out into the storm.

It took me only a moment to realize where I should go. The farm is situated on a north-facing hillside and the land extends up onto a tall, forested ridge that stretches back from Brian’s house, running above the small creek that provides our water. An overgrown path leads up and along this ridge, eventually arriving at a high vantage point with the creek below on the south side and the farm’s main house and growing fields on the north side. This is where I went. Brian had shown me the path a few weeks before and I already had hiked up to this spot once for a short bit of meditation. Being up there while the snow fell heavy around me sounded transcendent.

I climbed the path slowly, keeping my coffee cup steady so as not to spill its contents, my head down and hood up to protect from falling clumps of snow. I pushed through the reaching branches of shrubs and scotch broom, brushed past sword ferns bowed with snow—spread wide and pushed low to the ground—and knocked the snow from low-hanging tree branches as I pushed through their barrier. The depth of the snow on the ground varied from a light dusting beneath thick sections of the forest canopy to multiple inches where the canopy cleared, or where the trees were deciduous and bare rather than needled evergreens. Where the snow clung thin and light, dark green moss more often than not showed through, its color yet more vibrant in the otherwise muted landscape.

The creek, unseen, flowed to my right, providing sound in what would otherwise have been a land silenced by the snow. The trees around me towered far into the sky. Many there are old growth, a mixture of fir, hemlock, cedar and other species. They are a marvel, not least of which because there is so little old growth left around here. Most of it has long since been cut, transported, milled and shipped. Now even the lower-quality trees are being cut and pulped or shipped to Asia as cheap building material. These here, though, stood tall and steady and powerful, providing a windbreak for the farm that protects us during brutal coastal storms and presiding over the land with a majesty that can’t be overstated.

Being on that ridge, amongst those towering old-growth trees and with the snow all around me—an inch or two on the ground and an inconceivable amount in the air—I couldn’t help but feel a deep joy at the beauty of that place. I stood on the ridge and looked out toward the creek, still sight unseen below me but clearly heard. Across the way was another hill and more forest—state land as-yet uncut. Large snowflakes whirled through the air and those trees served as a backdrop nearly whited out due to the abundance of flakes. The scene was so picturesque—a variety of trees everywhere, rising so high into the air, the sound of the creek below and the snow devouring it all, the branches of the evergreens mounded down, all of it so intensely pretty—and my place in it so small and so overcome with awe that I felt close to tears, heartened and humbled. In that moment the words came to me: There is a grace in this life.

I breathed deep. Turning, I walked to the other side of the ridge, stepping carefully on the cluttered forest floor. The heavy snow began to transition to something smaller and more icy, though just as abundant. These icier flakes hit my rain coat with quiet tinks, their small sound merging with the creek’s. I stood at the opposite edge of the ridge and looked out toward the farm, into the white air, the far tree line, the simple muteness of it all and—

There is a grace in this life.

The words repeated in my head, again and again as I stood on that ridge, drifting back and forth and looking out at the snow, at the distant trees, up at the near trees, the way they stretched forever above me, and down at the forest floor, at the jumbled mess of twigs and pine needles, fallen branches and moldering leaves and mossy coverings, downed logs and mounds of duff, all of it coated lightly in snow. Across the way, on the hillside above the creek, a winter-bare ash kept losing chunks of snow off its branches, the powdery ice drifting toward the ground in a disintegrating descent. I watched this happen over and over and—

There is a grace in this life.

In that grace, in that moment, I understood something more about work. Yes, it’s habit. But it’s also responsibility. My life is immensely blessed. To be able to stand on that ridge yesterday, in the transcendence of a snow storm, in one of the most beautiful places on this planet, is a matter of grace and blessing and good fortune that is nearly incomprehensible. And, really, I have done little to deserve or earn it. I have worked far less hard than most throughout the world. I have at times been selfish and ignorant and uncaring and oblivious to the harm that I and my lifestyle does. I don’t mean this as a condemnation of myself as I do think I’m a good person, but it is a reality. It is a simple truth I think it important to acknowledge. I live a life of grace and it has not been fully earned. It’s been earned only partly—and a very small part, at that.

To not do the best work I can do at this point would be an abdication of responsibility. I find myself here, the recipient of some incredible amount of good luck, immersed in a life that, while at times challenging, is good. It’s blessed. It’s more than I ever should have hoped for, and yet it somehow is my life. At the very least, I have to show appreciation for what I have through the doing of work as good as I am capable of doing it. To not, at this point, do the work that I believe is necessary and good and will prove a benefit to myself and my community would be not just an abdication of my responsibility to this world that provides me so much, but immoral. How could I experience such joy and beauty and not feel an absolute responsibility to protect, perpetuate and bring as many people as possible into equivalent joy and beauty? How could I take my day in the snow and not feel a debt to the world—a debt that only can be repaid through good, restorative work?

I spent a day in the snow, amongst the trees, immersed in joy, and it indebted me. This too, then, is my work. I must pay back this debt, and so many others that have yet to be paid. Paying it back will take habit, yes, to engage in the necessary work, but it will also take the sense of responsibility I felt so clearly up on that ridge. This is my work for a purpose, and that purpose yesterday lived up in the trees, lingered on the ridge, and fell in the snow. It graced me, and I will repay it.

Posted January 17, 2012 by Joel Caris in Hiking, Place, Work

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