HI, MY NAME IS MARTIN, AND I’M ADDICTED TO HOT SHOWERS

5 06 2013

I have been aware of the looming collapse of our ecosystem for over thirty years now.  In the early 80’s, my friends and I concluded that, at some point, humans would cause the extinction of some species that would later prove to have been vital for our own survival.  We’d heard of the Club of Rome, and thus were also aware of the possibility of peak resources and the “Limits to Growth” that they might dictate.  Nevertheless,it seemed to us that, unchecked, humanity would turn the planet into one vast, and ultimately starving, city.  In the late 80’s and early 90’s, climate change crept into our discourse, but at the time it seemed like something that our great-grandchildren would experience.  Well, we were wrong about that.  Things are happening at an increasing rate of speed, and the rate of increase is increasing, but not in quite the catastrophic way we expected.  Call it the collapse of a thousand cuts.

Some of them are certainly huge, catastrophic cuts, like Hurricanes Sandy or Katrina,  (not to mention the Pacific typhoons that have been devastating Southeast Asia, although we have heard little about them in the USA news bubble), or like the new breed of supersize tornadoes that have been bulldozing the American Middle West.  But every one of those mega-disasters is composed of thousands upon thousands of individual human stories:  homes, businesses, and neighborhoods destroyed, with every family and every person in them trying to find a way to cope and recover, far from the boundaries of their comfort zone.

My wife and I had long felt secure here in our hollow, with hills on all sides that protect us from strong winds, yet elevated enough to avoid flooding.  “No more water, the fire next time,” according to the old spiritual, and so it was for us.  Our home caught fire, possibly due to old, faulty, shoddy-to-begin-with aluminum wiring, an old, cracking, shoddy-to-begin-with chimney, or a gnawing rodent with a taste for insulation, or some combination of those, and substantially burned down on the night of April 16th.  A month and a half later, we are living out of a genuine, certified (albeit privately purchased) FEMA emergency trailer, clearing what’s left of our stuff out of what’s left of the house so it can be torn down and rebuilt, and slogging through the slow process of our suddenly dislocated and disorganized daily life…far from the boundaries of our comfort zone. Read the rest of this entry »





FARMER’S MARKUP

26 01 2013

There has been a flurry of concern in Nashville lately, in some circles, because the Nashville Farmers’ Market is not meeting its expenses, let alone returning a profit to the city, and so there has been some talk of “privatizing” it, in hopes that somebody will figure out a way to make running the market “profitable.”

This prompts two lines of thought for me.  One relates to the Farmers’ Market in specific, and the other is the much broader subject of government provision of public services being criticized for not being “profitable.”  Let’s look at the second one first, and then examine the specific case of the Nashville Farmers’ Market.

One prime example of a government agency (albeit now a semi-private agency) that is in big trouble because it is not “profitable” is the United States Post Office.  It is ironic to me that many people who style themselves “strict constructionists” also advocate privatization of the post office and criticize it for losing money, because establishment of a postal service is directly authorized by the U.S. Constitution, which says nothing about whether that service needs to turn a profit or not.  Good communication is essential to creating a cohesive political entity, and so “post offices and post roads” were high on our founders’ agenda–we’re talking Article One  of the Constitution here.  The Post Office was not some afterthought. Read the rest of this entry »





OCCUPY EVERYWHERE

15 10 2011

I have a cousin who used to work for the World Bank, back in the day when most people thought highly of that institution.  His specialty was bringing potable water into urban neighborhoods in Africa, which is a noble pursuit, in my opinion.  My cousin has a good understanding of “the big picture,” and thus it was that he asked me a question, thirty years ago, that still rings in my ears, because it seems more and more relevant.  We were talking about The Farm, which at the time was a bustling and vigorous community of 1500 dedicated spiritual and cultural revolutionaries and our children.  The question my cousin asked me was this:  “What are you doing to make sure the younger generation has ways to fit in and take responsibility?”  At the time, his query brought me up short–I didn’t know what to tell him.

The question about the Farm became moot in just a few short years as the community imploded, scattering most of its young–and old–members far and wide.  Reduced now to a much more manageable population of a couple of hundred (at 1500 residents, our population density, and ecological problems, were on a par with Bangladesh), the community seems to be making the transition from one generation to the next fairly gracefully.  But that’s not what I’m here to talk about right now.

What I’m here to talk about is that somebody should have asked my cousin’s question–“what’s in it for the next generation?”– to the vast array of politicians, business “leaders,” and Wall Street banksters who have systematically dismantled this country for their own benefit.  They have saddled young people with enormous debts for their education–debts which, for most, cannot be shed through bankruptcy–while at the same time they have eliminated the jobs that could have paid back those loans.

The election of Barack Obama–who has turned out to be a Trojan Horse for the banksters and  other forces of greed and repression in this country–served to destroy young peoples’ faith in the political process. The unemployed and unneeded are refusing to accept the Republican idea that it’s somehow their own fault that they have been dealt out of the economy, There is nothing left for them to do but take it  to the streets–they rightfully feel that they have nothing left to lose, but everything to gain.

And the banksters have good reason to be nervous.  Everybody knows they’ve ripped off everybody, including the police on whom they are depending for defense against the mob.  The army?  The army is full of young people who joined because they couldn’t find a job anywhere else.  They have plenty of grounds for sympathy with the protests–indeed, many veterans are joining the protests.  And everyone in the military is aware of the increasingly shoddy treatment of disabled veterans.  Even the army could get shaky.  Polls show that, unlike the “Tea Party,” a majority of Americans support the Occupiers.

The biggest complaint heard about this movement is that its demands are not clear–that the manifesto issued by Occupy Wall Street wanders all over the place.  In my opinion, the same charge could be leveled at America’s Declaration of Independence.  If i had time, I’d compare the two–maybe next month.  What is happening here is a truly populist, bottom-up driven movement that is still finding its voice, as it rises up against a system that may be too far gone for mere reform.

As an aging counterculturalist, I feel both happy and sad when I see what’s going on in America now.  I feel happy because the Occupy movement is so much more widespread and appreciated than the efforts of my generation.  We have been warning of the dangers of unfettered aggression, greed, and growth for decades, and we have been ridiculed, trivialized, or ignored, while things just got worse and worse.  I feel sad because the desire for rootedness and self-sufficiency that drove my generation to “occupy” the back country is not really an option for this wave of our movement, at this point.  In the East, the forests have been clearcut and the mountain tops removed, while the West has been despoiled by oil seekers and the vacation homes of the1%.  Land is too expensive, time is too short, and the social regulatory mechanisms are still too controlling for this new generation to take the rural, communal route to freedom that my generation traveled.   But the money and the regulations will fade away over the next decade or two, and the land will fall into the hands of those who can–occupy it.   Not only is a saner future possible, it seems to be a-borning.

music:  Gogol Bordello, “Rebellious Love





BUILDING BRIDGES

7 08 2010

I have long believed in the importance of talking with people with whom I disagree strongly, although I have not always been successful in creating the healing dialogues I long for.

Towards the end of the years I lived on the Farm when I  didn’t like the materialist direction in which things were going, my friends and I invited a lot of people to sweat lodges and full moon drum circles, hoping that sharing prayer and ecstatic experience would bond us and create a deeper basis on which to discuss the community’s direction.  The adults we wanted to commune with never showed up, but accused us of corrupting the youth when their kids did.  Socrates, I feel for ya. Eventually, pretty much all of us who held a “hippie/spiritual” vision of the community left, feeling like victims of subtle ethnic cleansing.

After that, I spent several years in Vermont, a place distant enough from The Farm that, if I said I was “from the Farm,” the most common response was, “which farm?”

Oddly enough, I did end up living at a place that everybody in the neighborhood referred to as “The Farm,” but that’s a digression….my experience with sweat lodges had left me curious about the sacramental role of tobacco in Native American ceremony, and so I planted a few rows of it in my garden, where, to my surprise and delight, it flourished, growing six feet tall, topped with huge clusters of white flowers that, unlike commercial cigarettes, smelled simply heavenly in the moonlight.

I dried my crop and found myself in possession of several pounds of organically grown tobacco leaves.  I have never been a cigarette smoker, but I crumbled up a little bit of dry leaf and stuffed it into a pipe.  The taste was not unpleasant, but the effects, if any, were pretty minimal.  Aware of the fact that I was messing with a plant that is not only highly addictive but also potentially lethal, I confined my tobacco use to rare, ceremonially appropriate occasions, and came up with an idea for political theater:  I would go to the Montpelier farmers’ market and offer tobacco in ounce and quarter-ounce baggies, as well as potted tobacco plants, for those who wanted to grow their own.  In this way, I hoped to start a dialog about tobacco, the sacramental use of herbs, the commercialization of sacramental herbs, addiction, and who knows what else.

First, I had to get it clear with the Farmers’ Market management, who were wary about being raided by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms for selling tobacco outside the normal channels.  I called the BATF, and a gentleman there assured me that, as long as I was selling simple air-dried tobacco leaves that had not been “cured” in any way, they had no jurisdiction over me.

I had a good time, sitting there at my table full of rolled-up baggies, offering samples from a small pipe, selling rolling papers,  and getting double-takes from all the pot smokers in the crowd.  I could actually make decent money at it, generally managing to gross $30-50 over the course of a morning.  But the hoped-for dialogues never happened.  I found I was basically “preaching to the choir,” talking to hippies who already dug what I was doing, while straight, square types with cigarettes in their mouths or packs in their pockets barely gave me a glance.

With the help of friends, I eventually expanded my business, selling incense, spiritual books, and imported batik clothing to benefit the Buddhist center with which I was affiliated.  It was fun selling beautiful clothes to beautiful women, but what I enjoyed most was the occasional deep conversation about a book or the spiritual essence of tobacco or the other (legal!) herbs I sold.    That business wound down in the late nineties as the music festival vending scene became overcrowded and overpriced, and my modus operandi for seeking dialogue on serious issues morphed again.

I wore a shirt that said, “WILL WORK FOR BUDDHA” to a job interview for the produce department at the new Wild Oats store that was opening in Nashville, and it just so happened that the guy who interviewed me had been a student of Baba  Ram Dass,  and had helped him start Naropa Institute, a Buddhist university, in Boulder, Colorado.  Ram Dass’s partner in starting Naropa, was, of course,the famous (or, in some quarters, notorious) Chogyam Trungpa, who has perhaps done more than any other Tibetan to transform the somewhat arcane practices of Tibetan Buddhism into something culturally understandable by Americans.    As so often happens, I’m digressing–the upshot is, he hired me.

Ten years ago, when this happened, Wild Oats’ motto was, “Where the Wild Things Are,” and store clerks were expected to be not mere faceless shelf-stockers, but dynamic, knowledgeable personalities who could educate customers on the virtues of the stores’ products.  As someone who had farmed for nearly twenty years, both conventionally and organically, and who feels passionate about the virtues of organic farming,  I was a natural for the produce department.

For several years, I enjoyed this position.  Sure, I wasn’t talking with people who disagreed about the advantages of healthy, organic food, but I was able to educate a lot of people who already knew a little and wanted to learn more.

But Wild Oats was changing.  Management squared up and expected us to do the same.  I found I was being harassed for the same behavior I had been hired for, and left the company, landing in another health food store where, in spite of it being smaller and more informal, I was talking less with customers than I had at Wild Oats, if only because there were fewer customers and my duties kept me behind the scenes more of the time.

In 2005, Radio Free Nashville went on the air. I began doing this radio show, and started the blog that records it.  “Another chance for dialogue,” I thought, but for years comments were sparse, and favorable.  I began to feel like I was still just preaching to the choir.  In the last few months, that has changed.  Let me tell you, I have had some dialogues that about made my head spin.

The first ones were not too promising.  In response to my “OBAMA THE SOCIALIST AND OTHER DELUSIONS” post, “Commieblaster” dropped me a link about how “Obama is more Marxist than socialist.”  Simple, and easy to counter.  But then somebody named  “Wouldee” sent me a longer love note that started,

obama is just as confused as you, libtard. You idiots are amazingly ignorant of reality. bye bye. You sealed the deal for the youngsters’ better judgment, showing how stupid you marxist-socailist (sic) asshats really are on the LEFT. You will hate what is coming at you for reward….

What the hell, I printed it, and responded, in part:

I’m sorry, sir, that you’re so angry and looking for some satisfaction in blaming me for Obama and Obama for the mess we’re in. I agree with you that Obama has contributed to the mess, but, again–I’ve been saying since day one that Obama is part of the problem, not part of the solution. If you’re not paying enough attention to tell me from him, you’re not paying enough attention to keep yourself from getting hurt long before you have the chance to do damage to anyone else. Please be careful!

The ice was broken.  “Clarance R” went several rounds with me on “SCIENCE-BASED MEDICINE” largely on the basis that plant medicines couldn’t possibly be as effective as synthesized, concentrated pharmaceuticals.  I’m not sure s/he ever did get the point that I think we need to look to the plants because the pharmaceuticals may not be widely available much longer, but the exchange evolved from an argument to a discussion, and left me feeling good about it.

Then I started hearing from “Jack,” who wrote in his opening response to “TEA PARTIES–BOSTON OR WONDERLAND?”

…in the past ten years I have moved to the right politically and by now the Tea Partiers make more sense to me than The Farm’s veterans…..

Reading your words I remember how I used to see the world a few decades ago and I realize how difficult it is to bridge the gap between, roughly, the right and the left, the red and the blue, the Tea Party and The Farm.

I don’t have a solution for that. The differences are real and they go pretty deep. The two sides talk but they don’t really hear each other because the words aren’t understood in the same way and they are connected to different sets of facts with different shadings of emphasis and different belief systems of how things fit together.

America is about as polarized now as in the sixties and seventies. I find it distressing but it seems like something we will just have to work through as best we can , with as much respect and love as we can manage, and that seems to be a tall order for everyone these days.

I responded, in part:

I share your concern about people not listening to each other, and not being able to hear/understand each other when they try. It will take some effort and commitment, but if we are as intelligent a species as we like to think we are, we can learn to do it. In fact, we had better.

In further exchanges, he pointed out that, if I’m really seeking dialogue, I might have more success without terms like “Repugs” and “deluded,” and I responded…anyway, with dialogue being a rare critter these days, I think it would be worth your time to go to the blog and check it out, just for a model of what Tea Party-Green dialogue can be.

there’s more.  “Rogerthesurf” doubted my claim that we are running out of oil (TRUTH IN STRANGE PLACES–LAMAR ALEXANDER):

You have to remember that we heard the same stories as you write above in the ’70′s and ’80′s.
Well the shortage then was manufactured by politicians, for example President Carter with his domestic oil price policy etc.

I came back with:

If we had taken Carter’s advice then instead of drinking Reagan’s Kool-Aid, we wouldn’t be in the mess we are in today, with the US running major deficits to import oil and major military missions (and consequent deficits) to secure oil supplies from Iraq because “the American way of life is not negotiable.” The oil companies wouldn’t be pressing to drill in dangerous, expensive places like a mile under the ocean or the far Arctic if they knew of “easy oil.”

And we were off!  It was quite a spirited debate, and about the last I heard from Roger was

Well Brother Martin, thanks for answering my questions so well.

I will leave you in peace.

However do you have any advice for the normal individual on how to prepare for the approaching holocaust?
For instance, are you taking any steps yourself?

And I answered,

cultivate a circle of friends of varied ages and aptitudes, and do things together that build your trust in each other. Learn and practice basic knowledge and skills–gardening, carpentry with hand tools, hand sewing, “barefoot doctor” medical skills, including herbal medicine and skin stitching, shoemaking, metal working, bow hunting, small animal raising, butchering, simple ways to preserve food–including meat. (I’m a vegetarian, but if I can’t raise enough beans and grains, I’m not going to starve for my principles! There’s more important things in life than what we eat.) Pay off all your debts. Make home improvements that improve the efficiency of your home. Cultivate good relations with your neighbors, even if they don’t end up being the people in your circle of close friends. Do your best to hip people to what you see coming–the greatest security is created by the maximum number of people being most prepared, not by who’s got the most guns and ammo.
Cultivate tolerance and humor, and do your best to be easy to get along with, caring and sharing.

As for what steps I/we are taking, that same list about covers it.

Hope that’s helpful to you. Happy trails!

A few days after that, “Sarah” left a note on the “TEA PARTIES” thread, saying

Maybe you should copy this thread as a post so more people will read it. Or post a condensed version.

Thanks for the suggestion, Sarah.  I’ve had to give a very condensed version, but hopefully it will inspire some of my readers and listeners to check out the conversation, and maybe even contribute something to it…meanwhile, I’m very happy to finally get to communicate with some people who challenge my views and make me think about why I think what I think.  Occasional rigorous examination of our own biases, opinions, and beliefs is as essential to a sane future as any material survival skill…as one of my favorite bumper stickers says, “DON’T BELIEVE EVERYTHING YOU THINK!”

Speaking of which, P.S. to Jack on the “McCHRYSTAL FOR PRESIDENT?” thread:  after reading Hansen, Jonah Goldberg, and a few other right-wing commentators, I see what you mean about it being unlikely that McChrystal will be the Republican presidential candidate…he bucked authority and that’s a big no-no….

music: The beatles, “Hey Bulldog





“SCIENCE-BASED MEDICINE”?

7 05 2010

I spent quite a bit of time last month doing something unusual for me–following the comment thread on a blog post.  The post was on a site called “Science-Based Medicine,” and its author (whose name I feel no need to repeat, as she is an avid self-promoter) seemed to be an M.D. version of Ann Coulter, full of venom about what she regarded as “unscientific” medicine and quick to make ad hominem attacks on anyone who disagreed with her.

The discussion she sparked was long and far-ranging, and so I kept reading to see if anybody had already made the points I felt were missing.  They were never addressed, but the acrimony grew so great that the blogger in question left the SBM site, and so there was no chance for me to contribute my observations in the context in which they arose.   I think they are very important considerations, and so I am presenting them here, in hopes that my point of view will be helpful to those who are in a better position than I to influence the future of medical practice in this country.

First, some disclosure: I have had a heart attack and a couple of strokes, been hospitalized for them, and am currently under an M.D.’s care and taking prescription medications.  I wish I could deal with my condition using only natural/non-prescription remedies, but my Andrew-Weil-style doctor encourages me to stay with my prescriptions, and I do.  So, while I am skeptical of mainstream medicine, I recognize that it has some value.  I might not be here without it.  In fact, the circumstances surrounding my birth, which was a C-section, make it absolutely clear that I would not be here without mainstream medicine.

Now for the critique.  I would like to begin by questioning whether our current medical model is best referred to as “science based.”  Science undoubtedly has a great deal to do with it, but I think perhaps the initials “SBM,” which the “Science-based medicine” blog uses as a kind of shorthand, should be replaced with “PBM,” with the “P” standing for pharmaceuticals, procedures, patents, profits–and petroleum.  Also, I think the “scientific” basis of modern medicine is perhaps too narrowly focussed, and a truly scientific medicine would include things currently considered “externalities,” to borrow a phrase from economics:  environmental effects, sustainability issues, and affordability.

As I read through other posts on the SBM website, I came to understand that the Ann Coulter clone had been a bit of an anomaly, and that the other bloggers on the site are much more level-headed, sincerely committed to combatting what they perceive as pseudoscience, but still lacking awareness of  my concerns about the future of medicine.

Let’s look at my first four “P’s”–pills, procedures, patents, and profits.  These are the economic foundations of modern medicine.  For-profit drug companies, whose primary obligation is a good return to their stockholders, are constantly on the lookout for new diseases to treat and new, patentable drugs to address these diseases.  Thus we have, for example,  the spectacular rise of psychiatric drugs, the widespread administration of antibiotics to farm animals, and the common use of concentrated female hormones as a method of birth control and a “treatment” for aging.

All these pharmaceutical uses were approved by the appropriate government agencies, who duly studied the scientific evidence for their efficacy and safety.  Unfortunately, we are now realizing that the studies did not go far enough.  There was no consideration of the consequences of  large amounts of these substances entering the environment–where, it turns out, they wreak havoc.  Male animals that live in estrogen-tainted water are becoming feminized; animals living in water that is a tea of mood-altering psychiatric drugs are losing their natural, and necessary, aggressive tendencies, and pervasive antibiotic use has–surprise!–led to the evolution of ever more stubbornly antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

But the expensive, extensive testing regimen that our government demands has had another unintended consequence–there is no profit in testing unpatentable herbs, and no profit in testing or promoting lifestyle counselling that will not only earn nothing for a drug company, but cost it sales as people  become less dependent on pharmaceuticals.  Insurance companies, for example, will gladly pay a doctor $1,000 or more for the minute or two it takes to insert a heart stent, but will balk at shelling out money for the time a doctor would spend helping a patient develop healthier living habits.

Admittedly,  such things are difficult to test scientifically.  People aren’t really all that much alike; fail to recognize an important variable, and test results may be meaningless.

Indeed, test results can apparently change over time.  When they were first introduced, drugs such as Prozac got high marks from double-blind tests; now, when those same tests are repeated, Prozac’s effectiveness in alleviating depression is about equal to placebo, with the ironic twist that the effects it does have sometimes lead to manic episodes that draw its users deeper into a tangled web of mental illness and psychiatric pharmaceuticals.

Can you say, “gateway drug,” boys and girls?

But the real 1,600 pound gorilla in the room with “science based medicine” is the 5th P–petroleum.  From lab research to production to promotion to distribution, mainstream medicine is deeply dependent on a substance which, according to a number of deeply concerned investigators, is about to be in much shorter supply–and increasingly shorter supply–than it has been.

As our access to petroleum diminishes, the plant-based remedies that the good doctors at SBM have so haughtily dismissed will be all that is affordable or available to most people.  The 35% C-section rate that they consider “acceptable” will, in the absence or unaffordability of hospital care, turn into a 35% death rate unless the “woo-woo,” as they call it, of the intimate bond between a midwife and a pregnant woman is thoroughly understood and appreciated.

Let me explain that a little more.  As some of you are aware, I was a participant in “The Farm” community during its heyday in the 70’s and early 80’s. Midwifery and home birthing were an integral part of our program.  The Farm’s midwives, dealing with a physically random selection of pregnant women, had a remarkably low C-section rate–1.8%.   Episiotimies were likewise rare. How did they do it?

The foundation of the Farm midwives’ birthing philosophy is “the same kind of energy that put the baby in there is the kind it takes to get the baby out.”  That doesn’t mean voluptuously erotic–just relaxed and open.  Women in labor were not hooked up to a battery of medical devices.  They were encouraged to get comfortable with their partner, if they had one. (The birthings I helped my wife through included hours of  delightful deep talk, cuddling and making out.) Nobody was in a hurry, but at the same time, the midwives were sensitive to the delivering woman’s state of mind, because doubt and fear, as much as physical discomfort, can keep a woman’s labor in check.  When psychological issues came up, there was enough trust and communication between the midwives, the mother-to-be, and if necessary, the father, to work through the blockages and get the baby moving again.

The thing about this is, that it can’t exist without the right attitude and level of sensitivity.  A “skeptic” can be incapable of perceiving what is obvious to those who are more open-minded, just as a colorblind person sees black and white where the rest of us see many colors.   There is a science to putting people at ease, but there is also an art involved, and art resists quantification.

The overall lesson, for me, from the Farm Midwives’ intense personalization of birthing, is that the relationship between the healer and the one in need of healing (although being pregnant is not in any way a “disease”) can be as important as the technique applied.  Sure, aspirin or antibiotics work no matter who gives them out, but not everything is simple.  In fact, most things aren’t simple.  We need both the science of knowing what to do and the art of knowing how to do it.

Meanwhile, our planetary gas tank is just about empty, and everything we have been doing that was based on having plenty of fuel is going to have to change.  So, if medicine is truly going to call itself “science-based,” it had best be looking to the future, and coming to a good understanding of how to transition into a post-peak oil medical practice that will know which plant-based medicines really work and be a lot more focused on lifestyle, prevention, and self-care than on thousand-dollar-a-month pills, million dollar machines,  and complex surgical procedures.  It’s not that I’m prejudiced against high-tech medicine–it’s just that it looks to me like what we know as mainstream medicine is going to become increasingly unaffordable if not downright unavailable as the cheap fuel/raw materials boom fades into history.

We are going to have to accept that medicine in the future will be much more about palliative care–that is, making people comfortable–than it will be about heroic, energy-intensive life-saving surgeries.  We are going to have to change our basic medical aim from the avoidance of death at any cost to supplying simple ways to ease suffering and teaching dignified acceptance of our inevitable exit from these fragile bodies.

Q.E.D?

music:  Grateful Dead, “Black Peter”





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





CONTINENTAL CONGRESS TO CONVENE IN TENNESSEE

8 05 2008

The North American Bioregional Congress is coming to Tennessee in 2009.  Its three hundred or so participants will arrive at The Farm, in Summertown, next September. They will spend a week in intensive interaction, and then journey back to their respective bioregions, inspired through communion at the Congress to ever more deeply reinhabit their home watersheds and bring their friends and neighbors back–or is it forward?–to Earth as well.

What in the world am I talking about?  BioregionsCommunion?  At a CongressReinhabit their watersheds?  Maybe I’m the one who needs to get “brought back to Earth”?

Well, thank you for your concern, but I feel pretty well grounded.  I am reinhabiting the place I live–staying home a lot, learning my local flora and fauna, water cycles, weather, dirt, and my human neighbors–though sometimes that seems like the hard part.   It’s the culture we live in that has come ungrounded.

Now, in the course of human events, it has become obvious that the political system we have built since 1776 no longer serves us, or most of the other inhabitants of the planet–human and otherwise–either.  We need to reimagine our relationship with our communities at all levels.  Politics is a function of culture, and to truly and deeply change our politics into something that will work in the coming centuries, we have to initiate a culture change, a psychological and spiritual change that starts with renewing and revisioning our felt connection with the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the plants and animals that make it possible, as well as the way we relate to our children, our mates, our families, and our friends. The North American Bioregional Congress is a safe space in which to join with like-minded people and do all that.

“Bioregonal”?  What’s “bioregional”?

A “bioregion” is, to quote from the North American Bioregional Congress’s website,

A geographical area whose boundaries are roughly determined by nature rather than human beings. One bioregion is distinguished from another by characteristics of flora, fauna, water, climate, rocks, soils, land forms, and the human settlements, cultures, and communities these characteristics have spawned. “Local community is the basic unit of human habitation. It is at this level that we can reach our fullest potential and best effect social change. Local communities need to network to empower our bioregional communities. Human communities are integral parts of the larger bioregional and planetary life communities. The empowerment of human communities is inseparable from the larger task of reinhabitation — learning to live sustainably and joyfully in place.”

and a “Congress,” in the Bioregional view, is

a way of holding a working meeting of fully-participating, well-informed, aware equals who see themselves in some sense as representatives—officially or unofficially, formally or informally—of groups, or organizations, or movements, or ideologies, or philosophies or of regions or watersheds, or of natural ecosystems, and plant and animal communities. It is an assembly of peers working consensually in a representational capacity. In this a congress is much different than what we commonly call a “conference”.

In order to allow this community of equals to fully form and maintain coherence, there are no “drop-ins” allowed.  Participants come for the whole thing, or not at all, and that includes the media.  Everyone helps with the cooking, the cleanup, and the childcare.  This is not a “conference.”

At a “conference,” attendees’ main duties are to show up for workshops and meals and have food and information poured into them.  At a “conference,” there are well-known outside speakers, big-name entertainment, and a set schedule of workshops.  A “conference” tries to draw in as many people as it can. This ain’t no stinking conference.  This is do-it-yourself, participatory, and by invitation–and, by the way, you are invited.

This temporary village is considered a “sacred space,” not in any narrow, sectarian sense, but in the broadest possible terms–that the gathering of this intentional community for the purpose of reconsidering everything from one’s most intimately personal thoughts and attitudes to the state of the planet is itself a holy purpose and that all participants are worthy of respect.  Rituals and blessings are shared and invented.  Lives get changed.

Bioregionalism goes far beyond mere “environmentalism.”  Here’s another quote from the website that explains it better than I could:

While environmentalism does much good work in consciousness raising, it is only a part of what must be done. Environmentalism fails to propose comprehensive and systemic change at all levels — based on ecology. Bioregionalism does, reaching for something far deeper and more holistic that must be manifested.

Bioregionalism is an all-inclusive way of life, embracing the whole range of human thought and endeavor. It advocates a full restructuring of systems within a given bioregion, orienting toward regeneration and sustainability of the whole life community. This inclusion of the nonhuman in the definition of community is vital. Indeed, one of the basic tenets of bioregionalism is the notion of “bio-centrism,” or “eco-centrism,” where reality is viewed from a life-centered or ecologically centered perspective, rather than from a human-centered focus (anthropocentrism).

Bioregionalism speaks to the heart of community. If we are to continue to live on Earth, the definition of community has to include all the living things in our ecosystem. Without the flowers, mammals, insects, trees, birds, grasses, and the living soil and waters in community with each other, we would not be here at all. Humans need other life forms in order to survive. Without a respectful, cooperative relationship with others, we are both physically and spiritually impoverished. Without their ecological teachings we are ignorant and cannot know how to live.

Elsewhere on the website, somebody comments, “If you think you’re an independent organism, try seeing how long you can hold your breath.”

The bioregional movement is a seed for a new human culture, one in which the proposals of the Green Party, so often a voice crying in the wilderness, would be as sensible and obvious and implemented as the next breath you take.  We need a new culture and a new politics, and we’re running out of time to get on the road there.  Got ideas?  Bring ’em to the North American Bioregional Congress.  We’ll listen.

music:  Kate Wolf:  “Medicine Wheel”








%d bloggers like this: