The music…..and a Thanksgiving prayer from Gary Snyder

24 11 2012

Terry Allen, “Big Ol’ White Boys”

Buffy Ste. Marie   “Immigrante”

Sacred Spirit   “Celebrate Wild Rice”

Gratitude to Mother Earth, sailing through night and day—
and to her soil: rich, rare and sweet
in our minds so be it.

Gratitude to Plants, the sun-facing, light-changing leaf
and fine root-hairs; standing still through wind
and rain; their dance is in the flowering spiral grain
in our minds so be it.

Gratitude to Air, bearing the soaring Swift and silent
Owl at dawn. Breath of our song
clear spirit breeze
in our minds so be it.

Gratitude to Wild Beings, our brothers, teaching secrets,
freedoms, and ways; who share with us their milk;
self-complete, brave and aware
in our minds so be it.

Gratitude to Water: clouds, lakes, rivers, glaciers;
holding or releasing; streaming through all
our bodies salty seas
in our minds so be it.

Gratitude to the Sun: blinding pulsing light through
trunks of trees, through mists, warming caves where
bears and snakes sleep— he who wakes us—
in our minds so be it.

Gratitude to the Great Sky
who holds billions of stars— and goes yet beyond that—
beyond all powers, and thoughts
and yet is within us—
Grandfather Space.
The Mind is his Wife.
so be it

Gary Snyder, after a Mohawk prayer

(thanks to Carolyn Baker) for passing this my way!)

Buffy Ste. Marie, “Soldier Blue”

Robbie Robertson, “Ghost Dance

Joanne Shenandoah, “Peace and Power”

Buffy Ste. Marie, “Now That the Buffalo’s Gone”

James McMurtry, “Holiday


11 12 2010


As Margaret Mead famously said,

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

The potluck didn’t happen due to the weather…a bit ironic to have a “transition” potluck cancelled because of extreme weather, eh?

This coming Monday, December 13, there will be a gathering of thoughtful, committed citizens, and you, dear reader, are invited.  The event will be a potluck dinner, so bring a dish or drink that is, or could be, grown or raised here in middle Tennessee.  Please note:  while I am a vegetarian, this is not necessarily a “vegetarian” event.  Cheese, eggs, turkey, beef, venison–if it’s your thing and it’s at least theoretically local, bring it.  Sorry, no pineapples, avocados, or tuna casseroles!  Catfish?  Of course!  Me, I’m bringing a bean dish.  I’ve seen truckloads of Tennessee-grown beans, and I ain’t just talking soy.

The dinner will take place from 6:30 pm until 9:00 pm at West Nashville United Methodist Church (4710 Charlotte Avenue), at the corner of 48th Avenue North and Charlotte Avenue.  Parking is across the street in front of Richland Library. Enter the Fellowship Hall next to McDonalds.  (McDonald’s! Oh, the irony!)

For more details, check out Transition Nashville’s site, or the Cumberland-Green River Bioregional Council’s site.

Nashville is a big city, and I think that ultimately it will take a great many neighborhood transition councils to really change the way we do things around here, but I’m not gonna hold my breath waiting for a mass movement.  I’m just gonna do my best to get something started, and trust that we will inspire people who are more talented at community organizing and politicking than I am–and, believe me, that’s not a high bar to set–to take this idea and run with it.

As far as I can tell, one of my gifts, such as it is, seems to be an ability to grasp and communicate the big picture–so what follows is the big picture, past and future, of the transition movement.  To the extent that I can translate that into specific examples, I’ll give you those as well.

It was twenty years ago today, you could say, that Tennessee’s two prize Alberts, Bates and Gore, first struck up the band on the subject of human-caused climate change and imminent resource depletion. Bates’ book, Climate in Crisis, published in 1990 with a forward by Gore, attracted notice mostly in the counterculture, although Gore did give a copy of it to every member of Congress.  (It would be interesting to know how many actually read it!)  Gore’s book, Earth in the Balance, which came out a couple of years later, became the first book by a US Senator since John Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage to make the New York York Times Bestseller list.

Unfortunately, Gore’s early effort, like his follow-up, An Inconvenient Truth, failed to inspire a working majority of either the politicians or the people of America to get up and dance to his tune. The reasons for that are legion, but the bottom line is this: due to our collective failure to sufficiently change our ways, we are beginning to feel the effects of climate change, not to mention resource depletion, AKA “Peak Oil,”and for the rest of our lives, we will have to deal with an increasingly erratic but overall warmer climate, while at the same time  the financial and material options available to us to cope with this change will  narrow and diminish. Climate scientists have published reams of statistics and “big picture” predictions. What I am going to explore here is what that may mean for our daily lives.

Let’s start in the garden. It’s a good place to start, because we’re probably all going to be spending a lot more time there in the future.  Our winters are overall going to be milder, but with the ice off the Arctic Ocean, there will be an increased possibility of heavy snow and extreme cold waves. At first glance, it may seem counterintuitive that a warmer Arctic will make our winters colder, but here’s the reason:  open water evaporates more readily than ice, and so, if the Arctic Ocean isn’t frozen, it will generate stronger storms that will push further south and east.  We’re seeing that now in the cold weather that is striking here, as well as northern Europe.  Last summer, we were all hot and dry.  Russia’s wheat crop burned in the fields, remember?  First time ever.

Here in Tennessee, we are on the boundary between the “polar continental” climate region, where weather is driven by  that Arctic pattern I was just talking about,  and the Gulf region, where the weather is sub-tropical, generated by evaporation from the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean, Pacific,and the South Atlantic Oceans.  As the planet heats up, they, too, are evaporating more, and all the water that goes up, comes down, in the form of tropical storms and hurricanes. Being on this boundary makes our weather in Tennessee especially difficult to predict, according to a NOAA meteorologist I once met.

This much is for certain: we can expect our summers to be hotter, with more erratic rainfall, and our winters, too, will be milder, but with more erratic cold snaps, like the one we’re currently riding out.  Hotter summers may shut down some traditional summer garden crops like tomatoes and peppers, which won’t set fruit if it’s too hot. We may find ourselves planting these as spring and fall crops. More tropical species like okra, black eyed peas, and sweet potatoes should continue to thrive. Did you know that sweet potato leaves can be cooked and eaten?  Overall warmer winters will make it easier to keep cool weather crops like spinach, kale, collards, and the many delicious types of oriental greens through the winter, especially with the aid of simple cold frames and hoop houses.

Our fruit tree menu may have to change somewhat. We are already near the southern boundary for successful apple growing, but pears, especially the oriental types, should continue to do well in Tennessee. Peaches, which bloom early, are likely to be even more chancy as our later winter/early spring weather becomes more erratic. Late freezes could be a problem for all perennial fruit crops. On the plus side, rabbiteye blueberries, which are native to north Florida, should continue to thrive, and if winter temperatures start to consistently stay above the 10 degree Fahrenheit mark, we will be able to add local  figs, oriental persimmons, jujubes, and pomegranates to our diet.  Yum!

More erratic weather patterns will not just be a hardship for local gardeners, however. As we saw in Russia and Pakistan last summer, entire countries may see their agriculture burned out or washed away. Here in America, we have not yet begun to feel the strain of food shortage, but I think that home gardeners would be wise to expand their production from “just” vegetables to staple crops—lots of winter squash, white and sweet potatoes, beans, and even grains. Field corn is fairly easy to grow, harvest, and grind. Diversifying your gardening efforts is probably the best way to insure that, whatever the weather, your garden will provide you with something to eat.

OK, that’s kind of “the good news.”  Let’s factor in a couple of other likelihoods:  a much-diminished economy, and increasing scarcity of oil-related products, which includes everything from gasoline to electronic devices to plastics and pharmaceuticals.

Our economy in this country is largely funded by money we borrow from China and the oil Sheikdoms of the Middle East.  They loan us money so we can keep buying oil and manufactured goods from them, but they are growing increasingly uncomfortable with this arrangement, and we may wake up one morning to find they have decided to quit financing the American way of life and world domination.  As I commented last month, even mainstream, middle-of-the road politicians like our Governor, Phil Bredesen, recognize this, although Bredesen and his interviewer didn’t explore its full significance.  Here’s my short take on it:

It all revolves around one simple statistic. We Americans, about 5% of the world’s population, consume about 25% of the world’s resources. That’s five times our fair share, and we are buying it on credit.  When we can no longer get that credit, the result will be an “adjustment”–a more equitable distribution of resources.  To be blunt,we will probably be (barely!) able to afford only our 5% fair share of the world’s resources.That’s an 80% reduction in the average American standard of living. If those to whom we owe money push hard to collect on our debts to them and take possession of chunks of our infrastructure, real estate, and remaining resources in lieu of cash payment, we will have even less.  For the wealthy few, it will not be so onerous, but for most of us it will be pretty severe, albeit hard to imagine from this side of the “adjustment.”

“The American Way of Life” will be over.  It has been sacrosanct, declared non-negotiable by every President since Ronald Reagan booted Jimmy Carter out for the cardinal sin of proposing to negotiate it.  (“The moral equivalent of war,” as Mr. Carter said.)  Oops….We have all but lost the war to maintain American hegemony.  It’s too late for negotiation, and it turns out the only alternative is unconditional surrender.

“Welcome to the third world, America!”

Ah, hubris…..must be time for a music break.

music:  Steve Earle, “Ashes to Ashes”

Okay, enough with the current situation already.  Looking in my crystal ball, what kind of future do I see?

I see that we are going to have to learn to get along better with each other, because we are likely to be living in larger groups and tighter quarters.  With less income and higher costs to heat and light houses, people will increasingly move in with friends and family because their only other option is homelessness. As Robert Frost wrote,

Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in.”

We will have to re-learn co-operation, and not just to grow our gardens and feed our faces.  We will need to co-operate to create or obtain the goods we need for our every-day lives, because we won’t be able to buy Chinese goods from big-box stores any more.  We will need to co-operate to educate our children and each other–because a whole lot of us are going to have to learn a broad spectrum of new/old skills, the house-holding and homesteading skills we lost when our cultural norm became going out and working for money and buying things instead of staying home and making do.  And we will need to co-operate to take care of the ill and elderly, because hospitals  and “assisted living,” along with most other medical care, will be out of reach of all but the very wealthy.

The good news is, more of us will be born at home, and more of us will die at home, and more of us will attain the maturity that comes from familiarity with birth and death.  The bad news is, more of us will die earlier, from conditions that, currently, are rarely fatal.

We’re not going to have–and indeed, are already in the process of losing–universal access to private cars and the fuel, whether gasoline or electricity, to run them.  Cities and states will increasingly lose the ability to maintain public transportation, highways, sewers, water and gas lines, and police forces.   Warm weather and drought may curtail power plant operations–both nuclear and conventional electric generating stations require plenty of cool water to operate, and if they can’t get it,  your electric stove, your air conditioner, your lights, and your computer will become increasingly unreliable. My lights, computer, and electric stove and water heater won’t work either.  This troubles my sleep.

As I write these words, our government is watering down the value of our currency.  They call it “quantitative easing.”  This is just one of the things that is alienating the countries we borrow money from. If the U.S.’s credit rating and currency value drop much further, other countries will be able to outbid us for oil.   If our economy loses access to the level of oil we are dependent on, America will come undone so fast it will take your breath away.   Walking and bicycling will be increasingly important modes of transportation, but, to paraphrase Gary Snyder,  the most appropriate thing for most of us will be staying home as much as possible, making do with what’s at hand and enjoying the company of our house-mates and neighbors.

Have some more blueberries!

Boy, that neighbor kid sure can play the guitar!  He’s right proud of that guitar of his–weeded the woodworker’s garden all summer to pay it off.

First step in staying warm next winter–sharpen up the ax and the crosscut saw.

I’m gonna take this bundle of rags to the paper maker.  Sure am glad we’ve got a neighborhood mule to tote ’em for us.

Internet? Telephones?  The U.S. mail?  I remember when we used to  have those!  Man, we was living high on the hog in those days!

A pound of sugar?  Wow, how’d you come up with that?

I hope I haven’t scared you half to death with this little rant, but it should be nothing new to my regular listeners and readers.  “Transition” people are, understandably, a bit skittish about disclosing what it is we are transitioning into.  It was Chellis Glendinning who wrote about needing a twelve-step program to break peoples’ addiction to consumer culture.  One of the basic maxims of the twelve-step approach is “one day at a time,” and in this essay I have perhaps violated that precept.

Some may question what this kind of “doomerism”  has to do with politics in general or the Green Party in specific.  Here’s my response:

The Republicans and Democrats are completely unwilling to face these issues.  Somebody’s got to point out that not just the Emperor, but the Empire, has no clothes, and that dirty but necessary job has fallen by default to the Green Party.  Although we are still pretty much locked out of national or even state politics, we are slowly increasing our influence at the local level, which is where a great deal of what actually needs to happen to facilitate transition gets decided.

But you don’t have to sign up for the Green Party to join the Transition movement, which, among other things, involves a transition out of politics as we have always known it–along with the rest of the familiar, if deeply alienated, reality that we have become, however comfortably or uncomfortably, accustomed to.

One day at a time.  Today, all you “thoughtful, committed citizens” who can make it are invited to a potluck dinner.  That potluck dinner is Monday, December 13, at West Nashville United Methodist Church (4710 Charlotte Avenue), at the corner of 48th Avenue North and Charlotte Avenue.  Parking is across the street in front of Richland Library. Enter the Fellowship Hall next to McDonalds.   (Mc Donald’s–remember them?  They used to be everywhere.)

For more details, check out Transition Nashville’s site, or the Cumberland-Green River Bioregional Council’s site.

If you can’t make our potluck, maybe you can get together with your friends and neighbors and start your own ball rolling.  That would be great.  It’s gonna take a lot of balls to pull off a smooth transition.  (Ladies, please don’t let my little joke put you off!)  There’s a lot of insight, skill, and vision in this city, and sharing them only increases their power.  It’s been twenty years since Al and Albert first raised a warning..  It’s time to let it grow.

music: The Beatles, “Sgt.Pepper>A Little Help From My Friends”


10 11 2007

I recently reread Turtle IslandGary Snyder’s 1975 Pulitzer-prize winning  book of poems and essays. Many of the poems are simple, short (but reflective) nature snap-shots, like this one, entitled, ”Pine Tree Tops”


in the blue night

frost haze, the sky glows

with the moon

pine tree tops

bend snow-blue, fade

into sky, frost, starlight,

the creak of boots.

rabbit tracks, deer tracks,

what do we know.

But Snyder also turns his Zen-trained eye to the wider world situation, as in this poem,”The Call of the Wild:”

The heavy old man in his bed at night

Hears the Coyote singing

in the back meadow.

All the years he ranched and mined and logged.

A Catholic,

A native Californian.

and the Coyotes howl in his

Eightieth year.

He will call the Government


Who uses iron leg-traps on Coyotes,


My sons will lose this

Music they have just started

To love.


The ex acid-heads from the cities

Converted to Guru or Swami,

Do penance with shiny

Dopey eyes, and quit eating meat.

In the forests of North America,

The land of Coyote and Eagle,

They dream of India, of

forever blissful sexless highs.

And sleep in oil-heated

Geodesic domes, that

Were stuck like warts

in the woods.

And the Coyote singing

is shut away

for they fear

the call

of the wild.

And they sold their virgin cedar trees,

the tallest trees in miles,

To a logger

Who told them

”Trees are full of bugs.”


The Government finally decided

To wage the war all-out. Defeat

is Un-American.

And they took to the air,

Their women beside them

in bouffant hairdos

putting nail polish on the

gunship cannon-buttons.

And they never came down,

for they found,

the ground

is pro-Communist. And dirty.

And the insects side with the Viet Cong.

So they bomb and they bomb

Day after day, across the planet

blinding sparrows

breaking the ear-drums of owls

splintering trunks of cherries

twining and looping

deer intestines

in the shaken, dusty, rocks.

All these Americans up in special cities in the sky

Dumping poisons and explosives

Across Asia first,

And next North America,

A war against earth.

When it’s done there’ll be

no place

A Coyote could hide


I would like to say

Coyote is forever

Inside you.

But it’s not true.

Snyder wrote these poems in the early seventies, when I was in my early twenties and he was in his early forties. It was a heady time. We in the counterculture were all elated with the optimism of youth; we equated starting our revolution with winning it. Snyder, at what now seems like a tender age, was one of our elders and mentors. With his twelve years in a Zen monastery, his love of wilderness and high country, and his prescient sense of the importance of deeply inhabiting a place, he pointed me and many of my co-conspirators to important practices and doctrines, to the importance of the long haul. One of his most prophetic poems in Turtle Island is the title poem from the section called, ”For the Children:”

The rising hills, the slopes,

of statistics

lie before us.

the steep climb

of everything, going up,

up, as we all

go down.

In the next century

or the one beyond that,

they say,

are valleys, pastures,

we can meet there in peace

if we make it.

To climb these coming crests

one word to you, to

you and your children:

stay together

learn the flowers

go light

I cry every time I read that. It brings together so much, and takes such a long perspective. It’s just the kind of grounding we need as the madness of a world gone wrong rises to a fever pitch all around us. ”We can meet there in peace/if we make it.”

But for me, the most impressive, most prophetic part of Turtle Island is a twelve-page prose section at the back of the book, written in 1969 and entitled ”Four Changes.” Like Martin Luther’s theses nailed to a church door, this slim manifesto is the foundation of a vast spectrum of political, social, and spiritual action that has come into being since. Very little of what Snyder proposes and predicts misses the mark, although he himself calls it “far from perfect and in some parts already outdated” in his 1974 introduction to it. His warning about the danger of ”a plutonium economy” is truer than ever now, as the Bush junta seeks to slip billions of dollars of subsidies for new nuclear power plants into alternate energy legislation.

The four changes he calls for are in the realms of population, pollution, consumption, and transformation, and each is divided into sections addressing large-scale political action, local community action, and ”our own heads,” which addresses the ways in which we as individuals help create obstacles to the better world we can envision in our clearest moments.

”Population” states that, although humanity is only a part of the web of life, we are now an inordinately large part of it—and this was in 1969, when the world population was nearly half of what it is now. Due to the intransigence of many governments and religious institutions, and despite the Chinese government’s strenuous efforts to limit the Chinese birth rate (one of the few qualifiedly good things it has done, in my opinion), there has effectively been no progress on this issue. I think this is in large part because the only option third world people have to insure that they will be cared for in their old age is to have as many children as they can, in hopes that at least one of them will be in a position to help them when the time comes. Governments, by and large, have shown no interest in ameliorating this situation, because it would involve taking money away from those who have it and giving it to those who don’t, and that is, as the Democrats are quick to say, a political impossibility. So, at this point, it’s starting to look like the human population of the planet will be limited by war, starvation, and pandemic, which will do little to slow what many biologists are now calling a planetary extinction event on the order of the disappearance of the dinosaurs. Will we humans ultimately be consumed by the wave of extinction we have unleashed? To the extent that they are capable of considering the question, I think the other species with which we share this rare spot in the universe wouldn’t mind if we did. We have ignored Snyder’s prescription at our own peril. We are going to have to work hard to re-establish ourselves as worthwhile neighbors on this small blue planet.

Much of Snyder’s section on pollution deals with DDT, use of which has largely been eliminated, although plenty of other chemicals have taken its place in the rush to foul our only nest. What Snyder says in the subheading ”our own heads” is worth repeating, because it looks at the attitude behind widespread pesticide use, not one specific chemical: ”there is something in Western culture that wants to totally wipe out creepy-crawlies, and feels repugnance for toadstools and snakes. This is fear of one’s own deepest natural inner-self wilderness areas, and the answer is: relax. Relax around bugs, snakes, and your own hairy dreams….” Truly, there can be no revolution in the world without a revolution in our own minds and hearts.

In the consumption section, he keys in on our overdependence on oil and overuse of water, decades before peak oil and drying continents became large-scale causes of concern. ”(M)ankind has become a locust-like blight on the planet,” he says, ”that will leave a bare cupboard for its own children—all the while in a kind of Addict’s Dream of affluence, comfort, eternal progress—using the great achievements of science to produce software and swill.” (Wow—I hadn’t even heard of ”software” in 1969!)

To combat this, he proposes, at the macro-level, that economics needs to be seen as a minor branch of ecology, that the criminal waste of war must be shown for what it is and ended. At the community level, he calls for sharing and creating, whether it’s skills or garden produce or clothing, for breaking the habit of unnecessary possessions, which leads to the internal work: ”To live lightly on the earth, to be aware and alive, to be free of egotism, to be in contact with plants and animals, starts with simple concrete acts. The inner principle is the insight that we are inter-dependent energy fields of great wisdom and compassion—expressed in each person as a superb mind, a handsome and complex body, and the almost magical capacity of language. To these potentials and capacities, ‘owning things’ can add nothing of authenticity. ‘Clad in the sky, with the earth for a pillow.”’

The fourth change is ”transformation,” regarding which Snyder says, ”We have it within our deepest powers not only to change our ‘selves’ but to change our culture. If man is to remain on earth he must transform the five-millenia-long urbanizing civilization tradition into a new ecologically-sensitive harmony-oriented wild-minded scientific-spiritual culture….What we envision is….a basic cultural outlook and social organization that inhibits power and property seeking while encouraging exploration and challenge in things like music, meditation, mathematics, mountaineering, magic, and all other authentic ways of being-in-the-world. Women totally free and equal. A new kind of family—responsible, but more festive and relaxed—is implicit.”

In the midst of this soaring vision, he inserted a 1974 footnote: ”More concretely, no transformation without our feet on the ground. Stewardship means, for most of us, find your place on the planet, dig in, and take responsibility from there—the tiresome but tangible work of school boards, county supervisors, local foresters—local politics. Even while holding in mind the largest scale of potential change. Get a sense of workable territory, learn about it, and start acting point by point. On all levels from national to local the need to move toward steady state economy—equilibrium, dynamic balance, inner-growth stressed—must be taught. Maturity/diversity/climax/creativity.”

There it is, Green Party politics in a nutshell. It’s not just about light bulbs, folks!! It’s amazing to reread a book I loved in my youth and realize that I have been living its directives ever since, along with many others, albeit, alas, not quite enough eco-lovers to actually change the direction of the country, yet. Hey, we have been saying this stuff for forty years now, constantly getting blown off and derided by the corporatists, while they dig all of us, including themselves, deeper into a mass grave. Can you hear me now?

Snyder finishes by addressing the possibility that the human experiment will come to naught with some classic Zen: ”Our own heads is where it starts. Knowing that we are the first human beings in history to have so much of man’s culture and previous experience available to our study, and being free enough of the weight of traditional cultures to seek out a larger identity; the first members of a civilized society since the Neolithic to wish to look clearly into the eyes of the wild and see our own self-hood, our family, there. We have these advantages to set off the obvious disadvantages of being as screwed up as we are—which gives us a fair chance to penetrate some of the riddles of ourselves and the universe, and to go beyond the idea of ‘man’s survival’ or ‘survival of the biosphere’ and to draw our strength from the realization that at the heart of things is some kind of serene and ecstatic process which is beyond qualities and beyond birth and death. ‘No need to survive!’ ‘In the fires that destroy the universe at the end of the kalpa, what survives?’–‘The iron tree blooms in the void!’

”Knowing that nothing need be done, is where we begin to move from.”

It’s all here in these twelve pages, fractally unfoldable into whole worlds of endeavor, garnished with the reminder that ”nothing needs to be done.” So, from that place of detachment, friends, let us draw inspiration from our elegant elder Gary Snyder and do all that we can, in a spirit of love, joy, and compassion. It’s the Green way.

music: Indigo Girls, “Wood Song

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