7 05 2011

By now, if you live in Nashville, you’ve probably heard about the Tennessee Department of Transportation’s bulldozing of essential components of Carver Food Park, and you probably have an opinion about it.  Hey, I do, and that’s some of why I’m talking about it.  But I don’t think it’s, you should pardon the expression, a “black and white issue.”

I have known Sizwe for about fifteen years, and I love the guy, but he, like me, and probably like you, is no saint, and when those of us who are not saints set out to do something good for the world, we invariably step on some people’s’ toes, misjudge situations, overestimate our own power and influence, and underestimate the possible negative consequences we could unleash in our effort to do the right thing.   If we are lucky, we may take six steps forward but only five steps back by the time we are done.

When it comes to Carver Park and its relationship with the gentrifying neighborhood around it, Sizwe has done all of those–as have I, in my own ways, which are not relevant to this story.  What he has yet to do is figure out that sixth step forward, but I believe that, after some processing, he will take it, whatever it may turn out to be, and maybe even a seventh and eighth step forward, so that not only he but the entire Nashville community garden movement will see great benefits from this initial setback.  Carver Park’s location at the edge of I-440 sure exposes it to a lot of exhaust fumes, and that can’t be healthy.

One evening not long after the raid, there was a gathering at the Quaker meeting-house, billed as a chance for people to a) vent and b) brainstorm on how to respond to this rather brazen offensive in the class war.

First came the venting.  I’m going to be self-centered and report what I said:  that this attack came out of the same mean-spirited, repressive selfishness that has attacked ACORN, Planned Parenthood, and National Public Radio, that doubts the reality of peak oil and climate change, trusts chemical agriculture and nuclear power  (gee, that includes lots of DEMOCRATS!), that wants to cut taxes on the rich and social services for the poor.  In the case of Carver Food Park, we saw people driven by a neurotic idea of neatness, cleanliness, and order, people whose world view is so profoundly distorted that they look at a compost pile and see “rotting garbage.”  These people were offended, not to say threatened, by the somewhat disorderly appearance of the garden, by the noise levels that occasionally emanated from it, and by the skin color of the people who gathered there to work and play.

Neurosis.  How else do you explain people who live across the street from a very busy interstate highway complaining about the smell of compost and occasional noise from gatherings at the garden?  If they were really looking for peace, quiet, and clean air, what were they doing buying property near the intersection of two very busy interstate highways?  Talk about selective perception!

music break:  James McMurtry, “Storekeeper

It’s difficult to penetrate the local politics of this situation, but I get the impression that there was not a lot of communication going on between those who disliked Carver Food Park and those who made use of it.   In spite of the fact that it was, at least in theory, an open-to-all community organization, it seems that little effort was made by the Park’s detractors to get involved and change it–but then again, how do you compromise with somebody who looks at a compost pile and sees “rotting garbage”? I think it’s a sad commentary on the cultural divisions and polarization in our society that what should have been a neighborhood matter ended up in the lap of the Codes department.  Hey, it happens.  When I was sick a few years ago, our neighbors called codes on us because I wasn’t mowing our lawn.  but I digress.

Back to the gathering at the Friends’ Meeting House.  Sizwe has an attorney and is doing what he can to go through legal channels about this and see what kind of satisfaction he can get.  After all, the state tore down a tool shed and took all the tools in it.  Confiscating those tools was probably illegal, but the legal proceedings are not something I’m privy to, so, egomaniac that I am, I’m going to tell you what I’ve been up to on this subject.

One of my suggestions at the meeting was that, since Nashville officials are much more open to influence by regular folks like us than our current, ideologically driven state government, we need to get Metro Nashville  to alter its code regulations so that individual or community gardeners cannot be cited for simple, low-tech greenhouses, tool sheds, picnic shelters, and compost piles.  After all, as a codes employee once told me, “We’re not too concerned about what people build for themselves; we figure they’ll do it right.”

One important step in lobbying local government, I pointed out, would be the formation of a “Nashville Federation of Community Gardens” that could speak to the city with one voice and the power that comes from unity.  Sizwe said he liked that idea and had the contact list to make it happen.

Once I got home from the meeting, it occurred to me that a letter-writing campaign might be a good place to start influencing the city, and, after some consultation with Sizwe, here’s the letter I wrote:

I am writing to you about the bulldozing of George Washington Carver Food Park, and what I think the city needs to do in order to prevent further incidents like this.  I  would like to see an investigation of this action. Sizwe Herring, as I understand it, was given a few hours to agree to TDOT’s terms (which would have made it virtually impossible for the garden to continue to operate). When he went to the office of Winston Gaffron, TDOT’s regional director, he was told to sign on to TDOT’s demands or be arrested for trespassing in Gaffron’s office. Gaffron’s behavior towards Mr. Herring reminds me of Hitler’s ultimatums to Czechoslovakia. (If that’s too extreme for you, consider the time Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett sent the TBI to investigate fair voting advocate Bernie Ellis as a terrorist.) Mr. Herring was also led to believe that he had a month to straighten out the problems codes was citing him for, but TDOT’s bulldozers, not unlike Hitler’s tanks, arrived the next morning, destroying a tool shed that had been built with the assistance of the Davidson County Sheriff’s Department, a stage that had been built with the explicit permission of TDOT, and a greenhouse and picnic shelter that had been in existence for years. All of these structures are important components of a community garden. In addition, TDOT took down the fence around the site, and removed the leaf composting project that was, in many ways, the heart of the garden.

Without all these features—fence, compost, greenhouse, tool shed (and all the tools that were in it), and picnic shelter—it will be difficult if not impossible to maintain the integrity of this twenty-year old community garden. TDOT’s blitzkrieg was apparently set in motion at the behest of a few politically connected neighbors who thought the food park was depressing the value of their homes. This is an outrage. TDOT’s plans had obviously been in the works for some time—you don’t just wake up in the morning, go to work, and decide to send heavy equipment and a prison labor contingent in on the spur of the moment. It seems as if somebody lied to Sizwe, telling him he had a month to work on or appeal the changes, so they could go in the next morning and do what they wanted. I, and a lot of other people in Nashville, would like to know what was going on behind the scenes.

I am also concerned that “codes violations” may be used as a pretext to destroy other community gardens in Nashville. To prevent this, and encourage the very positive step of increasing the number of community gardens in what Mayor Dean would like to be “the greenest city in the south” I think we need to look at rewriting Metro codes so that community gardens (and individual gardeners, as well) have the explicit right to create compost piles and erect simple greenhouses, tool sheds, and picnic shelters. I am sure that Mr. Herring and other members of the community gardening movement in Nashville would be happy to work with city officials on the nuts and bolts of this.

Recently, we celebrated  Earth Day here in Nashville. Please let me know that those of us in the community gardening movement have something to celebrate.

Thank you very much

In true 21st century fashion, I posted this letter, an invitation to send it to Metro officials, and the link to Metro’s “contact” page on Facebook, as well as posting it on the mid-Tennessee Green Party’s listserv and the local Bioregional Council’s mailing list.  I made no attempt to keep track of who followed through.  Some people did, but it didn’t, as they say, “go viral” and create an avalanche of email to our elected officials.  Oh, well.

I did receive three replies from city officials–one from the head of the codes department, who protested that since the city has no codes enforcement powers over state-owned land, he had merely passed the buck, I mean complaints, on to TDOT; a one-liner from an at-large Council member affirming his support for community gardens in a general sort of way, and a response from my own district rep, Lonnell Matthews, Jr..  That’s the one that mattered.  In a phone conversation, he  told me he had been talking with Council member Jerry Maynard and longtime local environmental activist Mack Pritchard about setting up a Metro Nashville “Community Gardens Commission” that would function similarly to the Metro Greenways Commission, and he asked me how to get in touch with Sizwe.  I gave him Sizwe’s phone number, but, as it happened, Matthews ran into Sizwe that same afternoon.  It’s cool when things click like that.

As a bit of an aside, I was touched to have Mr. Matthews contact me.  We had been on opposite sides of the Maytown issue, and I had been pretty hard on the guy.  I thanked him for reaching out to me on this issue.  But, after all, my disagreement with him was over policy, not personality.  We have to be able to work with people we aren’t necessarily in full agreement with, or it gets hard to get anything done.

What would a “Metro  Community Gardens Commission” look like?  What would it do?  How would it function?  There are differences between establishing a Greenway, which is a public trail, and a community garden, but let’s look at the Greenways Commission for some guidance.

Composition?  From the Greenways website:

The Metro Greenways Commission is a division of Metro Parks, a department of the Metropolitan Government of Nashville & Davidson County, and is charged with the planning and development of greenways throughout the county. The sixteen member Commission was established in 1992. It is comprised of seven Mayor-appointed citizens, four Metro Council members, and representatives of the Park Board, Planning Commission, Metropolitan Development & Housing Agency, and Public Works Department. The Commission is served by a staff of three.

The Greenways Commission works with a private, non-profit fund-raising outfit, “Greenways for Nashville.”  Between them, they identify potential Greenways locations, raise funds or solicit right-of-way donations to accomplish these aims, and are the first resort for dealing with any problems that may arise with neighbors, neighborhoods, and potential misuse of the greenways.

This actually translates fairly readily to a gardening model.  Composition of the Board is a possible sticking point–it would need to be well stocked with people involved in, or certainly sympathetic to, the community garden movement– but, given a friendly disposition, it’s easy to see that such a body would have been a helpful intermediary in the situation Earth Matters found itself in with TDOT, where a casual, friendly, unwritten, handshake agreement was suddenly axed at the whim of a new TDOT commissioner.

(Note to Sizwe:  next time, get it in writing!)

Having a branch of the city government dedicated to promoting urban gardening would be a major advance for Nashville as we transition into a time when locally supplied food moves from being a “niche market” into an increasingly important source of basic calories.  There are several locations in the city that, since the flood, are no longer considered appropriate zones for buildings; Lonnell Matthews pointed out that these would make excellent garden locations.  Mack Pritchard supplied the historical/agricultural information that the bottom lands along White’s Creek, between Ashland City Highway and Clarksville Highway, hold “the best agricultural soil in the Cumberland Basin,” and Mack opined that “you could feed everybody in Bordeaux out of those fields.”  Doubtless there is other land available around the city that, if not quite so prime, still has enormous productive potential.

Finding those places, and turning them from fallow land, or former building sites, into gardens, is a big project.  It will take a good deal of organization, investment, and infrastructure to bring such a vision into reality, but the reality would bring many benefits along with it.  It wouldn’t just be the local food.  It would provide healthy, hands-on, meaningful work.  It would provide a place where people could share knowledge and skills across cultures and across generations, a sharing that would empower and enrich both the givers and the recipients.  It’s part of the recipe for a revitalized, re-integrated community, something that puts the machinery of local government to its best possible use, and it just might happen.  Stay tuned.

music:Adrienne Young, “Plow to the End of the Row”


16 04 2011

We passed the equinox on the last full moon, replete with a once-every-twenty-years “super moon.” and my wife and I observed the occasion with our neighbor Ed Haggard and his posse of drummers, singers, and dancers, who are known around Nashville as “The Love Drums.”

The gathering was very sweet, if a little bizarre–it was held at a private hunting reserve about an hour and a half west of Nashville, in a well-appointed lodge decorated with stuffed animals, isolated in the middle of 2,000 hilly, wooded acres, very private and quite lovely.  I suspected, and our hostess confirmed, that this was unlike any other gathering the lodge had  ever  witnessed.  It felt like a tribe of barbarians partying in a Roman villa.

But there was nothing debauchy, raunchy, or even uncouth going on, just several dozen people celebrating life, the end of a long, cold winter, and the beginning of a wide-open spring, as we enter a time when it is increasingly obvious that unintended environmental effects are snowballing and there is no telling what once-in-a-thousand-years catastrophe will surprise us next.  In that situation, the best way to be prepared is to stay loose, and dancing and other forms of celebration are an important part of staying loose.

A huge, sturdy coffee table  the size of a small stage dominated the “dance floor,” and the first dancers on it were perhaps a half-dozen 7-8 year old children, gradually joined by adults.  This all-ages, inclusive vibe (there was plenty of silver hair present, too, and all ages in between) is one of the things I enjoy most about Ed’s “Whizbangs,” as he calls them, and one of the reasons I feel much happier dancing at a “Whizbang” than at a bar–and, believe me, I’ve done my share of dancing in establishments that sell alcohol.  (One of my favorite singer-songwriters, James McMurtry, says of himself, “I’m not a musician, I’m a beer salesman.”)

Ed and the central core of the Love Drummers were at one end of the room, but many “audience” members also drummed, adding their own flourishes to the music.  That’s one of the things I appreciate most about the Love Drums–the all-too-common separation into “audience” and “musicians” is blurred, if not erased.  This is not “entertainment,” in which a passive audience hopes to be impressed by the performers’ charisma.  This is a participatory  event, a–dare I say it?–communion.   Of course, rock n’ roll has long delighted in the energy that cuts loose when an audience gets up and dances.  That’s some of the magic of the Grateful Dead, just to name one band strongly affected by their audience.  In the Dead’s case, the scene outside the venue frequently turned into a heavily countercultural “temporary autonomous zone,”  and was as much a part of the show as the music.  At the Love Drums’ equinox gathering, I felt that same sense of community.

Here’s a story for you.  In the late summer of 1970, I went to a Grateful Dead show in San Francisco, and was dismayed to find most of the audience sitting on their asses, expecting to watch the Dead play.  I got yelled at by people behind me when I stood up to dance.  They were mad because they couldn’t see the band.  (There’s a word for people who like to look but not participate.  Not my kink, thanks.)

The Dead settled into “Lovelight,” and who popped out on stage to duet with Pigpen, but–Janis Joplin.  And what did she and Mr. McKernan do?  They chewed the audience up and down for not dancing, but to no avail.  I finally migrated to the back of the room where a few people were moving to the music and enjoyed the last half of the show, anyway.  Just a couple of weeks later, Janis was dead from a heroin overdose, a broken heart, and too much, too soon.

That was forty-one years ago.  Janis, Pigpen, and Jerry are all gone, but the Love Drums remain, and ya gotta work with whatcha got.  So there we were, one big happy family, dancing the night away.

Next day, when I opened myself up to news from the big bad world outside, I found out that Aashid Himons, best known as the focus of a band called “Afrikan Dreamland” here in Nashville back in the eighties, had died on that full moon day.  He had been ill for years and hadn’t played in public in a very long time, but in many ways he was the spiritual father of Ed and the Love Drums, and a great practitioner of informal, participatory music.

“African Dreamland” consisted of Aashid playing guitar or keyboard and singing, backed up only by a couple of drummers, for most of the history of the band.  This made for very simple but deeply moving music, music that benefited from, but did not depend on, the modern miracle of amplification.  Another dimension of their music was its subject matter. Aashid liked to say that he played “message music” rather than “mating and dating” music–not that a fair amount of mating and dating didn’t go on to the infectious grooves he laid down, but his music helped propagate his vision of a just and peaceful future, not just the continuation of the species.

Music: Afrikan Dreamland, “Apartheid”  (excerpt)

And that’s where we get to yet another core difference between music like The Love Drums, Aashid, and the Grateful Dead, and the music you are likely to hear in a bar on a Saturday night.  Most popular music is unreflectively about “mating and dating,” but some musicians are aware of the close link between music and magic, that songs are not just poems set to music, they are also incantations, spells that help create a certain state of mind, for better or for worse.  To me, it was not coincidental that Janis Joplin, for example, who sang so many songs about heartbreak, died young, or why somebody was killed at Altamont while Mick Jagger sang “Sympathy for the Devil.”  What you pay attention to, you get more of, as a teacher of mine used to like to say.

These qualities, conscious intention in  the music and conscious fusion between the musicians and the crowd, are, to me, defining qualities of the music of “the new paradigm.”  And, as I said, those of us who play and appreciate this new paradigm music are, in a sense, barbarians to America’s Roman Empire.

The Empire depends on people who are willing to be cogs in a vast machine.  We are not.

The Empire depends on people who will not challenge its authority and priorities.  We do.

The Empire depends on people being good consumers.  We realize that “consumption” is a fatal disease, and do not look for happiness through the accumulation of material goods.  Whoever dies with the most toys is not the winner.

The Empire depends on people accepting shallow, dysfunctional relationships and mediating their emotional pain with pharmaceuticals.  We insist on listening, expressing, and feeling deeply, and on giving people the room they need to go through their changes, even if it means they get a little weird for a while.

Differences such as these are very threatening to an empire whose established religion is, as I have said many times before, radical fundamentalist materialism.  The Empire fights back  by finding material ways to push  against the influx of barbarian sensibilities.  One way they do this is through building codes, such as the complaints that have just trashed Sizwe Herring’s Earth Matters community garden.  (More on that next month!) Another way the Empire fights back is through the war on some drugs.

Let’s face it.  The real reason our government is so unswervingly, unscientifically opposed to the legalization of marijuana, mushrooms, mescaline, ecstasy,and LSD is because these are the portals through which barbarians enter and undermine the Empire.  These substances unleash the unfettered inner barbarian in those who take them, and that is more terrifying  to the empire than bomb-toting Middle Easterners..

For instance, in the 80’s and 90’s, our government spent 10 years infiltrating a circle of chemists who were making LSD and ultimately sent them all to jail.  The government has not exhibited this kind of diligence against the alleged threat from Al-Qaeda.  If that had been the case, those airplanes would never have hit the twin towers. Similarly, the DEA massively infiltrated those “temporary autonomous  zones” at Grateful Dead concerts, sold people blotter paper with no LSD on it, and then arrested them for intending to buy an illegal substance.

The DEA’s entrapment of young, open-minded, overly trusting American youth sent tens of thousands to jail, where some of them remain to this day.  Even the ones who are no longer incarcerated remain scarred and scared, “rendered infamous,” often unable to vote or find employment because of their “criminal record,” their life paths thrown into disarray by the time and money sucked from them by the legal system.

Since “the war on some drugs” was declared, America’s prison population has quintupled, with nearly half a million prisoners incarcerated for drug related “crimes.”  We’re talking about 2.3 million people behind bars, with an additional five million on probation.  The US now has a higher percentage of its  population jailed than any other country in the world, although I suppose you could argue that some highly repressive societies, like China, North Korea, Burma, and Singapore have effectively incarcerated their entire populations.

I would like to submit that the many voices who urge an end to America’s Inquisition against the inquisitive because it has ruined so many people’s lives don’t understand the Empire’s logic.  The Empire wants to ruin the lives of the inquisitive, because it’s easier and cheaper to simply exclude people than it is to actively imprison them.  Just as China periodically “lets a thousand flowers bloom” in order to identify and silence dissident voices, so the Empire has a vested interest in using the “war on drugs” to identify and neutralize those who oppose its policies.  Even if someone who appreciates the virtues of marijuana manages to avoid legal strictures, he or she is effectively barred from running for public office because of the danger should an opponent uncover the candidate’s “dirty little secret.”

The Empire’s offensive against our barbarian invasion will, I believe, ultimately be in vain.  As radical fundamentalist materialists, the Empire’s minions don’t understand that the material substances they have outlawed are, in a way, merely catalysts, catalysts that have set a process in motion that cannot be stopped by even the most draconian enforcement of the drug laws.  (By the way, I have never seen or smelled any marijuana at a Love Drums Whizbang.)  Once it has been opened, a human mind is almost impossible to close, because the memory, the feeling, of openness persists, and never stops protesting any attempt to shut it down or close it off.  The “barbarian” mindset, I believe, is of a higher order of being than the anthill, cog-in-a-machine state of mind demanded by the Empire, whether in English or Chinese.  “Barbarianism”will out.

Now, many people will say, “This all sounds very noble, but you doped-out hippiedippies aren’t the real barbarians, you’re just play-acting, spoiled, naive, children of the Empire.  The real barbarians are in the slums of Mexico City, Rio, Lagos, Cairo, Kolkata, Beijing, and Capetown, and if they have half a chance they will eat your vegetarian lunch and then barbecue you for the meat course.  Face it, without that ‘Empire’ you love to hate, you’d be toast.”

I think that’s off-base in several directions.  The first thing we have to understand is the interplay and differences between “third world” and “fourth world.”  Fourth world people are tribal, and live in balance with nature.  There aren’t a lot of them left, but, in the best-case scenario, that’s what we barbarians will recreate here in the heart of the Empire.

Most traditional fourth-world people have been sucked out of the fourth world into the third world, which is the vast belt of urban and rural poverty that characterizes human life on those parts of Earth’s landmass that lie, roughly, between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn—that part of the world where you don’t need a well-insulated house to survive the winter, and are thus free to live in greater poverty than you can get away with in colder climates.

But, as so often happens, I am digressing.  Fourth world people don’t have much money, but don’t feel poor.  Third world people don’t have much money and do feel poor.  Many of these third-world people retain the social and survival skills of their fourth-world heritage.  Give them half a chance and they’ll go back to fourth-world life.  They all know they were happier that way. It’s just that the Empire, the first world, pushed them out of their sustainable lives by expropriating their tribal lands and forcing them into a money economy.  I believe that, if they were ever given the choice, the people of the third world would rather grow, hunt, or herd their own lunch than eat yours or mine.

What the Empire fears when it looks at the third world is not the people, but its own greed and suppressed guilty conscience.  When we who are undermining the Empire complete our mission, the Empire will release its hoarded and ill-gotten wealth and the people of the third world will be able to transition, in place, not backwards but forwards into a new, even more fully conscious, fourth world.

I wish I could say I think the process will be all rosy and peaceful, but there are so many people, and so many resources that have become so depleted, that I think widespread strife and loss of life will be part of the great readjustment.  I’m not happy about that.  Every human being is precious, unique, and capable of deep insight, and it is a tragedy when a life is extinguished, with or without those amazing capabilities being realized.

Does it seem as if we have wandered a long way from The Love Drums and the equinox, from Aashid and Earth Matters?  From a “Deep Green Perspective,” we haven’t moved an inch.  We’re just gazing in (hopefully!) wonder at the macrocosm that contains those microcosms.  You can’t look at it this way all the time, but it’s important to see it this way some of the time.

music:  Ed Haggard and the Love Drums–“Haitian Bolero”


12 12 2009

Last Saturday, I attended the Tennessee Alliance for Progress’s annual winter conference, whose theme this year was “Green Jobs.”  Now, I could use a job myself, or at least some income, and I have high standards about what I’ll do in exchange for money, and besides, I’ve also got strong  opinions about what kind of work is going to be important in our mid- to long-term future, so I definitely felt like I had something personal at stake.

Don’t get me wrong about being “out of work,” as they say.  I’m not “out of work”–I’ve got more to do at home than I can ever get done, and some of it involves real-world skills, not just running off at the mouth like I do here, but none of what I do ever seems to involve people giving me money for my time and effort.   They tell me that’s the wave of the future.  Tell it to the people I owe money to–but, I digress…already.

The first thing that was happening on Saturday morning was a little African drumming, dancing, and singing, led by Masankho Banda, “to help get us into our bodies,” as TAP organizer Nell Levin explained.  It was an enjoyable few minutes, once I got over the incongruity of boogieing in a former high school auditorium, but as I looked around, it seemed to me that the conference needed, not just for us attendees to get more into our bodies, but for more bodies to be present.  There were barely fifty (mostly silverhaired) people present, a fraction of the crowd that had been there the last time I attended, drawn by the bait of a talk by Jim Hightower, which, much as I love the man, sounded like a canned, one-size fits-all speech that he had polished a little too well…it didn’t relate to Nashville at all.  Ah, celebrity…

That was not a problem with this year’s opening talk, given by Ron Ruggiero of the Apollo Alliance, a West-coast based group advocating for–well, yes, “green jobs.”  They take their name from the original “Apollo project,” which was JFK’s push to put a man on the moon.  That’s the kind of intensity of focus, Ruggiero argues, that we need to maintain if we are going to transition into a sustainable economy and slow global warming.

Much of Ron’s speech was about, as he put it, “reframing the debate,” of getting out of the right-wing curmudgeon trap of equating environmentalism with job loss and curtailment of economic activity.  Green jobs, he argued, are a way to reunify the country, to regain our former global leadership in technology, and to reinvigorate the American middle class–he reminded us that , except for one year in the nineties, the median wage in this country has fallen every year since 1974.  He recalled the great transformation at the beginning of World War II, when the US snapped out of the last great depression and completely retooled many of our factories for armament production in just six months.  “Wouldn’t it be great to have a common purpose again in this country?” he asked.

The way to jump start this, he proposed, was through a bill now in the Senate, titled “The IMPACT Act,” an acronym for “Investments for Manufacturing Progress And Clean Technology,” which proposes to take $30B and loan it to small and mid-size manufacturing firms in this country to help them retool so that the US can once again manufacture things like electrical transformers, and stay competitive in the solar panel and wind turbine field, for example–guess who’s taking us to the cleaners on all three of these devices at the moment?  Well, he didn’t talk about that.  I’m going to try and just report the conference and then give you my opinion, but it ain’t easy.

“Do we have the political will to get this country back on the right track?”  He concluded.

Next up was Reuben Lazardo of PolicyLink, an outfit dedicated, as their website says, to

the creation of sustainable communities of opportunity that allow everyone to participate and prosper. Such communities offer access to quality jobs, affordable housing, good schools, transportation, and the benefits of healthy food and physical activity.

He was advocating a national policy, implemented locally, that would make it easier for low and moderate income families to weatherize and otherwise update their homes to make them more energy-efficient.  “We can’t solve climate change if the only people who retrofit their homes are the ones who can afford it upfront,” he observed, pumping for a revolving loan fund for homeowners like the manufacturing fund Ron Ruggiero had advocated.

This, he said, is where we can do the most to “green” our workforce and teach marketable skills to those who lack them–by hiring and training local people to work on each others’ homes.

Then it was workshop time.  I chose to attend the “Sustainability Innovations” session, since I knew all three presenters and feel that innovation is definitely needed.  Susan Shann of Earth Revolution was the first to speak.  She emphasized the importance of relocalizing our lives–obtaining our material needs from nearby sources and doing what we can to turn our neighborhoods into interdependent communities.  She talked about the Transition Town movement and the importance of “energy descent plans,” a change in tone from the featured speakers, who seemed to radiate the optimistic idea that all we have to do is get our fix from renewable sources, and we can go on shooting up energy like we always have….but I’m getting into my opinion again.  Back to narrative, dammit.

Shavaun Evans of Food Security Partners talked about her organization’s work.  They are endeavoring to bring more wholesome food into school cafeterias and “re-store” some of Nashville’s several “food deserts”–neighborhoods that do not have a large-scale grocery store within walking distance.  On a more immediate and basic level, they are also encouraging community gardens and creating farmers’ markets in these areas, where it is much easier to buy a beer, a bag of chips, a soda, a pack of cigarettes, or a candy bar than it is to find leafy green vegetables, fresh fruit, or even a piece of meat that isn’t soaked in salt, grease,  and nitrites. She observed that “faith-based communities” (i.e., churches) are already-formed communities that can be mobilized to organize around these issues.

Her mention of community gardening was a great lead-in for Sizwe Herring, of Earth Matters.  Sizwe has been creating urban gardens for years, and he was happy to talk about his work as creating both topsoil and community, as neighbors gather and work together in the way that we have organized ourselves ever since we became apes.  “Our goal is to get rid of lawns and create gardens,” he said.  He opined that many young people seem to panic at the thought of turning off their cell phones, ipods and gameboys, and stressed the the importance of teaching “unplugged” skills to childen, whch Earth Matters does both through its urban gardening programs and through “Kids to the Country,”  which gives a one-week immersion in simple country pleasures to inner-city kids.

There was time for a few questions, and I did my best to broaden the subject.  First, I asked Shavaun if there had been any discussion of using churches in Nashville’s food deserts as the basis for creating food co-ops, which would provide local control and help keep money in the neighborhoods, since chain grocery stores are, after all, designed to pump money out of the communities they “serve.” She told me the idea hadn’t come up, that they asked people what they wanted, and big chain grocery stores was the answer.  I was left wondering if ghetto folks even have the concept of a food-co-op, or worker-owned business…finding out what people want and doing your best to help them achieve it is the right idea, but maybe some education is called for, as well, so people can make intelligent choices.

In my stumbling, off-the cuff way, I brought up the change in culture that is called for when people quit buying package foods and start cooking with basic ingredients; the fact that we need starches and proteins, as well as fruit and vegetables, to survive, and the possibility that this, as well as providing the inputs and tools for large-scale gardening and cooking, was an excellent basis for job creation, but my effort to remind people of just how serious it’s going to get was mild compared to what another member of the audience, who introduced himself as “Earthman,” had to say.

“I live in Miami, and in Miami we get our drinking water from the Everglades, which, with only a one-foot rise in sea level, will change from being a freshwater swamp to being a tidal marsh.  When that happens, you are going to have five million people in south Florida whose homes and businesses will be completely worthless, and we are all going to need to move somewhere else.  A lot of us will be coming here.  I hope you’ll be ready for us when we come.”

That cheerfully delivered announcement may have been more reality than some people want to think about, but I really appreciated him putting the word on folks. It is going to get more serious than we can imagine, in ways we can’t imagine.

Next we broke for lunch, and after lunch we were treated to a recital of the poetry that had been created in the “youth workshop” while us older folks were getting the economic/political word laid on us.  I am grieved, but not surprised, to report that the kids are not alright.  Their natural childhood enthusiasm and excitement about assuming the duties, responsibilities, and pleasures of adulthood has been chilled by the realization that the world they are inheriting is depleted, unstable, and unfair.  Thanks, mom and dad, for this pile of crap that you are handing off to me….

Let’s take a little music break here, ourselves…

Eliza Gilkyson, “The Party’s Over

After lunch came another “plenary” session, again featuring speakers a generation younger than most of the people they were addressing. It’s good to see the torch being passed.

Julian McQueen, from Green For All,  was the first of them.  He spoke of growing up in California in the 80’s, splitting his time between the Oakland ghetto where his father lived and the deep woods and clear running streams of Humboldt County, where his mother made her home.  He didn’t talk about the main agricultural product of Humboldt County, (so I won’t, either), but he talked about how blessed he felt to have made the deep connection with nature that Humboldt County offered, and how he was brought up short when several of his city cousins, all teenagers, without prior arrest records, attempted to rob a jewelry store and all received long sentences in adult prisons.  They are still in jail, he informed us.  (We all know what happens to young boys in jail–isn’t a D.A.  putting a teenager behind bars with older men tantamount to child abuse?)  Julian’s social conscience was outraged.  After first putting his efforts into better treatment for young offenders, he decided that the thing to do was go upstream and work on preventing young people from getting in trouble with the law by teaching them real things to do and setting them to work doing them.

“We can’t afford to throw anybody away.” he said, and then continued, “Last year was about ‘Hope’  “This year is about ‘change’. Change is harder than hope.  Change is about nitty-gritty details.  Change pisses people off, because it requires them to–change.  But change is what is called for at this time in our history.”  (I may not have gotten it completely verbatim, but that’s the gist.)  He talked about how sure, they have had great success in Portland. Oregon with their program of establishing a revolving loan fund for home weatherization and training “disadvantaged” youth to do the work, but Portland, he reminded us, is a fairly unique city, and “there are a lot more Nashvilles in the US than there are Portlands.”  Something about its proximity to Humboldt County, I think….but I digress…McQueen closed with a quote from Albert Einstein:

“The world we have is a product of our thinking.  We can’t change the world without changing our thinking.”

Next up was somebody from the East Coast, for a change…Dan Leroy, of Green Opportunities, an Asheville, North Carolina-based organization that trains at-risk youth, as they say, in…weatherization and ecological construction….and yes, I know, Asheville is more like Portland, Oregon than about any place this side of New Mexico…but ya gotta start somewhere. Dan described how he had begun by getting just $7,000 in grant money and used it for some demonstration projects, which had been so successful that he had been able to raise $80,000 to keep going, and the project is now rolling along.  He brought several of his young trainees with him, and they looked every inch the “disadvantaged youth” part; except for their air of calm self-confidence, they could have been a police lineup.  Each of them introduced himself briefly (yes, they were all young men), and one of them put it in a nutshell when he said, “This is my way to change the world.”

There was another round of workshops on the schedule, but I felt talked out for the day, and took my leave, sporting a “Green Party” button from our table at the conference which the GP of Tennessee had, in a very small way, helped sponsor.

OK, that was the conference.  What’s my perspective on it?

Well, some of it was a little too based on hope, and a little of it was way out into hype, and some of it was genuinely hip.

As I couldn’t keep from mentioning earlier, I think that anybody who is looking to the federal government for a real solution to this is strung out on hope and a sucker for hype.  The Obama administration’s record, from climate change to health care to the economic meltdown to the maintenance of the American Empire abroad, has been simply appalling.  Sure, there have been a few nice crumbs here and there,  and a few great gestures, but Congress has shown little inclination to do anything but bail out them that already has, and Obama has consistently either lacked the balls to challenge them, or simply been complicit in the continued corporatization of America.  War criminal Henry Kissinger got a Nobel Peace Prize, too, let’s not forget.

And it’s not just that the feds are unlikely to do anything to provide genuine relief, it’s that the US government is teetering on the verge of bankruptcy, which is likely to seriously devalue the dollar, as well as dry up all kinds of domestic spending.  The government has committed itself to pouring our taxpayer dollars into the pockets of the wealthy, whether through bank bailouts, military spending, or forcing everyone to buy private insurance, and there ain’t no slack left for us po’ folks. 700 billion to line the pockets of Wall Street gamblers?   No problem.  30 bil to line the homes of the lower classes?   Sorry, can’t afford it….we got a war to fight…whattaya want to bet that’s how it comes down?

What was “hip” about this conference was, first, the introduction of “transition” and  “energy descent” into the dialogue.  What was hipper still was the notion of putting energy into teaching youth at loose ends real skills, and yes, conventional green home construction and gardening are very basic to that, but they are just the beginning.  Well, of course there’s all that cool solar stuff, but, in my curmudgeonly opinion, we are going to need to revive a lot of skills that have been nearly lost in the last two hundred years.  Metalworking–I think that blacksmithing is going to see a revival, especially the reworking of already manufactured metal into basic things like pins, nails, hoes, buckets, pots and pans, gears, bicycles, cookstoves–you get the idea.  Woodworking, likewise, needs to see a revival, and I think we need to learn to recreate the many uses water power enjoyed before steam engines and then electricity  displaced it.  Water power didn’t just grind grain into flour–it ran machine shops, cloth weaving factories, and all the other nascent industries of the eighteenth century.  On a more modern note, the skill of excavating dumps and reusing the various materials wehave entombed in them will come in handy on this depleted planet–and, as feeding ourselves locally becomes more of a necessity and less of a quirk, many of us will need to learn how to butcher animals and preserve meat–although we would do well to remember the hunter-gatherer adage, “The best place to store my surplus food is in my brother’s belly.”

I don’t think we’re going back to a hunter-gatherer culture.  It would be very traumatic to lose the percentage of our human population that would have to die for those who remain to succeed at it–but we are falling off a cliff and I don’t know how far it is to the bottom or how we will land or what we will find when we get there.  I’m old enough that I probably won’t still be around when things get stable again, but I do think that what we do now will make that landing either easier or harder, and thinking in terms of transition, energy descent, and teaching our youth how to cope and adapt will make it a whole lot easier.

Eliza Gilkyson–The Great Correction

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