PLEASANTLY SURPRISED

7 11 2009

I was an early booster of  CBCX, the tenth Continental Bioregional Congress, which took place about a month ago down on the Farm in Summertown, Tennessee, but when my health fell apart, I dropped out of the planning process for the event.  Health, however, wasn’t my only reason for quitting.  As part of my effort to get involved with the larger bioregional movement on  this continent, I had joined the bioregional e-list, and one of my posts about the upcoming continental Congress prompted this response:

“How can you expect that a bunch of people who are dedicated to ‘living locally and lightly’ will find the time and resources to peel off at peak harvest time and cross the continent for a meeting about being local?”

I brushed it off at the time, but the remark planted a seed that kept growing in me…it sounded uncomfortably close to the old joke about how most people would prefer a lecture about enlightenment (or salvation, depending on your religion) to the real thing.

Then, as Summer began to cool into Fall, I volunteered for not one but two weeks away from our homestead, yes, right at the peak of “harvest season.”  Interesting, I thought, but noted that my excursion to a Buddhist retreat center in upstate New York  deepened relationships I already had going rather than launching me into new ones.  It also served to renew my relationship with my  spiritual practice, which is, after all, the wellspring of my politics.  To me, that seemed like a much more literally radical (as in, “to the root”) step.   Besides, I had our winter’s firewood supply pretty much in hand, and my wife had our garden under control, so I didn’t feel like I was leaving anything critical swinging in the autumn breeze.

After returning home, settling in a bit, and hearing of my local bioregional buddies’ enjoyable and stimulating experiences at the event, I decided to go check it out for myself, just in time to catch the final day.

I arrived at lunchtime, and felt immediately at home with the hundred-plus crowd of mostly new but somehow familiar faces.  It reminded me of the time in the early eighties when, for the first time since 1970, I ventured out of the woods to a Grateful Dead concert, and discovered that not only was I not the last freaky hippie in the world, I was not even very freaky compared to a lot of people.  Well, the magical kingdom of Shakedown Street has been swept away by the black-throated winds of DEA persecution and economic insecurity, but those of us with a deeper perspective on the planet have found other, subtler venues in which to meet, and CBCX was definitely one of them.

After lunch, I toured The Farm Ecovillage with the extraordinarily informative, insightful, and humorous Mr. Albert Bates and a goodly crowd of bioregionalists, commiserating and laughing with him about some of the simple, straightforward, common-sense things that Tennessee’s now-statewide building codes will not permit, and receiving a good brush-up session on alternative building techniques involving bamboo, straw, and earth, which I look forward to applying here at home.

Did I ever tell you that I consider myself an artist whose canvas is the land I live on?

Twilight found me sitting in a darkening room with eight other Congresspeople (I guess that’s what to call us!), reflecting on ecological despair.  All of us shared our experiences of starting back in the 60’s and 70’s with a great deal of optimism about what needed to be done and how simple it would be to accomplish it, and how, to one degree or another, all of us had found our faith in human sanity sorely tested by the venality of the political process, the  easy manipulability of the American body politic, the weakening resolve, changing priorities, and psycho-emotional hangups of ourselves and those whom we supposed were our best friends, and the interpersonal conflicts and chasms resulting therefrom.

Solutions?  Or at least coping strategies?  It seemed to boil down to the story of the Zen monk who fell over a cliff and found himself hanging on to one little sapling that was gradually pulling loose from the precipice as he clung to it.  Growing next to the sapling was a wild strawberry; he plucked it and ate it, finding that it was the best wild strawberry he had ever eaten, and in that moment attained enlightenment.

Yeah, we’re all in that situation, and would be whether the world was going to hell in a hand basket or not, but it seems especially pertinent to remember to enjoy what you can, when you can.  I believe it was Edward Abbey who suggested that those of us who are trying to save the natural world spend half our available time saving it and the other half savoring it, so we don’t lose touch with what’s really important in life.

After eating dinner with the ever-more familiar crowd, I attended an early evening session on Transition Towns, and was glad to see several of my fellow conspirators from Nashville there, soaking up ideas that in most cases are coming from and being applied to much smaller places.  Smaller political units, whether you’re talking about the state of Vermont or the city of Hohenwald, Tennessee, are much easier to deal with than cities the size of Nashville–where, according to one city council member, you pretty much have to be a millionaire to become mayor.  The odds are not good when you’re dealing with millionaires.  It’s much easier for a millionaire to be part of the problem than to be part of the solution, as Jesus pointed out two thousand years ago.

I think we need to apply the transition town model to Nashville a lot more aggressively than has been done so far.   Mayor Dean’s “Green Ribbon Commission” came up with a lot of window dressing.  There’s a “Sustainable Tennessee” movement that is a bit more down to earth, but all reports I have heard from them indicate that they do  a lot of wishful thinking along the lines that we will be able to maintain something like “business as usual” into the indefinite future.  Local food is a good beginning, but we also need to figure out how to  provide ourselves with something to cook it on, something to cook it in, and something to cook it with. An LEED-certified service economy just isn’t going to cut it.

I think we need to figure out where our shovels, shoe leather, and saw blades are going to come from, because none of these items are being produced in Tennessee any more, and it’s hard to have a civilization without them–not to mention paper, pens, and ink.  We have built a massive, highly specialized culture that is dependent on a steady supply of fuel and raw materials that shows every sign of drying up.  The sooner we begin to prepare for this transition, the easier it will be, for the simple reason that there will be fewer resources available the longer we wait.

I know, I always say that.  You want to know more about the Bioregional Congress.   Hey, there may or may not be another one–I have the sense that we are about to all be very, very busy on a very local level.

There were dozens of possible conversations awaiting me, but  I had had enough thinking and rational discourse for one day.  It had been a good day, and I was glad to discover that my concerns had been unfounded.  I unpacked my drum and saxophone, joined a group of old and new friends around a bonfire, opened up, and channeled ecstatic energy into the world for a couple of hours.   That’s what the revolution is for, right?

music:  Eliza Gilkyson, “The Great Correction








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