INTERPERSONAL PERMACULTURE

9 04 2014

written by Martin

Twenty years ago, when I was living in Vermont, a friend of mine moved from there down to middle Tennessee to join a startup permaculture community that was going to be centered around one of the big names in permaculture–honestly, I forget just who.  She returned to Vermont a few months later, saying she had been unable to get along with the guy well enough to stay.  We’re not talking boyfriend/girlfriend here, just being members of the same team/community.  Apparently, she was not the only person who couldn’t make it work with this particular guy, whoever he was, because he is no longer here in middle Tennessee, nor is there a twenty-year old, permaculture-based community in this area, to the best of my knowledge.

While I would love to be proved wrong about this and have members of this community emerge from obscurity and say, “We are here, we have been here, and here are at all the amazing things we’ve done in 20 years,” this apparently failed community is only one of a number of examples I could cite.  It seems that the tricky part of manifesting the long-term vision that permaculture demands isn’t molding the landscape, but forming and keeping together a community of people who can forge a common vision and implement it.  The same holds true for the whole spectrum of groups committed to “paradigm shift,” including, to name the first few that come to mind, political/environmental activism, the Transition Town movement, and healing centers and intentional communities. I have seen such difficulties arise, and disrupt communities and movements, numerous times over the course of my life.  That’s what I’m going to be discussing in this blog post:  what I have learned from my 40+ year involvement with intentional communities.

In college, I joined Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and was one of those who burned his draft card in Central Park in the late 60’s.  I attended enough SDS meetings to become discouraged by its failure to address the egos and emotions of those with a neurotic urge towards leadership and/or martyrdom, and its failure to “be the change it wanted to see.”ghandi Later I moved to San Francisco and witnessed the unravelling of the Haight-Ashbury as a viable community.  (In retrospect, my own neediness and lack of social and material skills probably helped propel that downfall, although I’m sure it all would have come apart just fine without me!)  I joined a small group that aspired to the model Robert Heinlein created in the science fiction novel “Stranger in a Strange Land,” but that succumbed to the neuroses of its founders within a month.  I slept for one night and one night only at a Digger crash pad that had slid so far down the tubes that people were peeing in a sink full of dirty dishes, because the toilets had long ago stopped working.  (OK, that was actually on the Lower East Side of New York, but it was The Diggers.)  I attended what turned to be the last meeting of the San Francisco Diggers, where those who had been in the movement for a while bemoaned the fact that they didn’t own the buildings that they were trying to maintain as The Free Store and the Community Kitchen.  I met several times with a group of people who were getting together to buy land in southern Oregon. That disintegrated in the face of actually coming up with the cash necessary for the deal.  I hung out with the folks from the Harbinger Community, who had the use of a hot spring/resort hotel north of San Francisco.  They lasted a few months before dissolving in a cloud of bad drugs and irresponsible people. Read the rest of this entry »





HOW CAN WE CREATE A BETTER WORLD….if we can’t even get along with each other?

15 10 2011

Last Saturday,I was invited to speak, on behalf of the Cumberland-Green River Bioregional Council, on the topic of “How can we create a better world.”  Here’s the text of the invitation:

Still being planned. Educate people against corporatism and militarism. This will be held at the Belmont United Methodist Church. WE NEED VOLUNTEERS! If you want to be a speaker on any related topic, or create and staff a literature booth on any topic that is related even indirectly, or help in any other way, contact J. H.  (note: NOT Jason Holleman!)

It seemed to me that the Green Party was a natural to participate in this event, so I invited another Green Party member in town to get together a table for the event–but then we got the word back, that because the Green Party is a political organization, and this is being put on by two 501(c)3 organizations, they couldn’t have any political organizations represented. This seemed pretty bizarre to me, and I decided that I would bring Green Party material to the teach-in and mention the exclusion of the Green Party in my remarks.  Here’s what I said:

Good afternoon!  I’m here on behalf of the Cumberland-Green River Bioregional Council, an organization which has been encouraging people to think local, non-corporate, low-tech, and sustainable for the last twenty-eight years. We are loosely affiliated with the North American Bioregional Congress, which holds hemisphere-wide gatherings every few years. The most recent one was actually here in Tennessee.

But, before I go into our long and honorable history, and our continued relevance today, I want to speak up on behalf of an organization that was disinvited from this gathering–yes, told not to come–The Green Party.  We ( I say ‘we” because I am a member of the Green Party of Tennessee) were told that we are “a political organization” and that inviting us to this teach-in would violate the not-for-profit, charitable/educational status of both Belmont Church and the Peace and Justice Center.  I have also been told by the organizers that  they excluded a half-dozen Democratic Party tablers on the same grounds.  Now,  a half-dozen representatives from one of the parties that is generally held to be the cause of all this mess seems a bit much, but I think it would have been “fair and balanced” to allow one Democrat table and one Green Party table.   Republicans?  Maybe they could run a dunking tank–” See if you can dump Bill Ketron in the cold, cold water–3 throws for only two dollars!”

But seriously, as I understand the IRS’s rules, not allowing the Green Party–and the Democrats– to participate in this teach-in is a misunderstanding of IRS guidelines, which state:

“…the law prohibits political campaign activity by charities and churches by defining a 501(c)(3) organization as one “which does not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.”

There is no impending election (unless you’re a Republican Presidential candidate). The Green Party’s representative at this gathering would not be a “candidate for public office,” –nor, considering the current political climate in Tennessee, would the Democrats be likely to produce a candidate, either–or at least, not a viable one.

The IRS’s guidelines further state:

The presentation of public forums or debates is a recognized method of educating the public. … (nonprofit organization formed to conduct public forums at which lectures and debates on social, political, and international matters are presented qualifies for exemption from federal income tax under section 501(c)(3)). Providing a forum for candidates is not, in and of itself, prohibited political activity. Candidates may also appear or speak at organization events in a non-candidate capacity.

My understanding of what that means is that there is no legal reason why The Peace and Justice Center cannot have a representative of the Green Party at this teach-in, and a Democrat too.  But it seems to me that, if we are going to talk about how we can create a better world, it would be important to have the Green Party in on the discussion since it, unlike the Democrats and Republicans, is not in thrall to our corporatocracy.  If electoral politics have a role in our future–and sometimes i wonder how long that will continue to be the case–the Green Party has a very important role in this movement, and needs to be included.  Just for openers, the Green Party does not accept corporate contributions, period.  While we are best known for our national candidates, we has had the most success in local races, which brings us back to the Green Party’s bioregional roots.  The Green Party in the United States, and here in Tennessee, was started by bioregional activists who wanted to bring bioregionalism’s local, ecological focus into the political arena.

OK, enough about the Green Party–back to the Cumberland-Green River Bioregional Council.  Nearly thirty years ago, when the Bioregional movement first took shape, peak oil and financial, political, and ecological breakdown were barely a whisper on the horizon, but when I look at what we were envisioning, it seems that perhaps we were intuiting a future in which human social organization would once again be highly decentralized and limited by how far a person could walk or drive a horse cart in a day.  Our message then, as now, is to dig in where you are, to get to know not just the people in your neighborhood, but the natural world you inhabit as well, and to base your decision-making not on short-term gain for human beings, but on the long-term benefits for the whole ecology.

“Know your watershed,” we have urged–know where your water comes from and where it goes, and make your watershed the basis of your political awareness. We view watersheds as embedded in “bioregions,” areas unified not just by proximity but by biotic community–similar forests, rocks, wild animals,  and weather.  Now, nearly thirty years on, this way of viewing the world seems more important than ever.  As global warming and other modes of increased human interference with the environment bring vast, unintended, and nearly unimaginable changes, more than  ever we need to cultivate a deep awareness of our local environment.  The odds are increasing on the likelihood that our watersheds, and not the global market economy, will be what provides us with food, shelter, medicine, household goods, and a social life in the future.  We had better learn the skills we will need to do this well, while we still have the leisure to do so.  A graceful future is still possible.  While it’s true that mere lifestyle changes aren’t enough to induce the transformation the world needs, without lifestyle changes the transformation won’t happen, either.  We need to pursue both the personal and the political.

I have a confession to make:  i don’t feel like I’m doing a very good job of getting connected with  my own neighbors.  My wife and I don’t seem to have a lot in common with them culturally, or counterculturally, and so we doubt that we would be very effective organizers. We don’t sit easy with that, and are looking for ways to cross the cultural divide without having to act like we are something we are not, or acting like we are not something we are..  We’re open to suggestions.

There’s another aspect of our experience in the Cumberland-Green River Bioregional Council that I can’t stress too much, and that’s the long-term relationship aspect.

In its earlier years, the Council was a kind of “Tennessee, North Alabama, and South-Central Kentucky Federation of Hippies, Anarchists, and Activists,” and in many ways, it still is.  Back then, however, our quarterly convocations at members’ country farms and communities were great tribal gatherings, with a hundred or more–sometimes many more– adults and children camping out, sharing practical knowledge during the day, and then having delightfully wild parties that, for some at least, lasted until dawn, and beyond.  We sang, played guitars and an assortment of other instruments, drummed, danced, and interacted deeply with each other.  Those of us who are still involved from those early days are bonded in ways that are rare and precious in the alienated culture in which we are all now enmeshed.

But not all of our early companions are still with us, and  I don’t mean because they have already died, although that is a seemingly inescapable part of life.  With deep interaction comes not only the possibility of deep bonding, but the possibility of deep wounding.  We have lost people from the Council due to betrayal, divorce, and disappointment, to name just a few of the separating circumstances.–not to mention the occasional participant who became so obnoxious when the energy was up that few others wanted to keep including them in our activities.  What led to this dispersal, to a certain extent, in my opinion, is that we lacked a common psycho-spiritual technology that might have enabled us to be more sensitive to each other, to listen to each other better, to let go of our own neuroses–you can’t make anybody else let go of theirs, all you can do is try to set a good example–to give each other the love and attention, not to mention the appropriate treatment, that might have kept our ranks strong and united. There are ways for groups of people to do that with each other, ways with names like  Nonviolent Communication, Active Listening, Empathic Listening, Mindful Listening.  I can’t say a lot about these, because I don’t practice any of them in a formal sense myself, but I like to think I’ve benefited from what exposure I’ve had to them, as well as other practices I have been involved in.

In summation, it’s easy to be in solidarity with people for a few weeks or months of struggle.  The tricky part is keeping the bonds of affection alive through years of changes,.  Sooner or later, we will show each other our worst, in spite of our best intentions . Can we keep looking each other in the eye through that?  The changes I see happening in the mid to long-term future are going to shrink the world each of us inhabits.  At some point, the internet will go down, and we will lose all our “Facebook Friends,” except for the ones who are actually part of our daily lives. To build a graceful future, we will need to really be friends with each other, and not withdraw from each other forever at the first sign of anger, selfishness, or foolishness.  It’s certainly not always easy; but I have seen the alternative, and it doesn’t work very well. The bioregional movement provides a coherent vision of a sane future, but it takes more than ideals to keep a movement together.  It takes the work of consistently caring about and connecting with other people.  That, in the end, is what will make or break our revolution.

That’s what I said, to an audience of about a dozen people, in a room whose acoustics were awful.  I’m not sure how much my audience actually heard.  One young woman apparently misheard my message and used up most of our discussion time accusing me of being a Luddite.  I’m not a Luddite–I love technology, I’m even dependent on it in more ways than I’d like to be, because I’m not sure how much longer we are going to be able to maintain this amazing, magical web of complexity.

The strongest energy at the teach-in came from the mostly young people who were there in association with Occupy Nashville.  Their main meeting at the teach in was held in the same acoustically-impaired room I had talked in, so I stayed there and, with some difficulty, observed the way they took care of business.  I was impressed–they seemed much more organized and balanced than the wild, passionate SDS meetings I remember from the 60’s.  It’s reassuring to have a sense that the younger generation is, in some ways, an improvement on the older one.  Here’s a music break, and then I’ll talk more about the “Occupy” movement.

music:  Steve Earle, “Amerika v.6.0″








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