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 »


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


12 02 2010

Long ago, in a reality that now seems very far away, I lived in Plainfield, Vermont, where, amid a host of part-time jobs I referred to as “the trapeze act,” I occasionally worked  for a local organic farmer, and spent some time hanging out with a friendly guy who lived in the renovated part of the farmer’s barn.  Dude had just written a book about a movement that he, as well as I,  was active in–the bioregional movement, and its then-newborn child, the Green Party of the United States.  The German Greens were kind of rock stars at the time.  Petra Kelley, Rudolf Bahro and their cohorts were changing the face of their country’s politics, creating another dimension of discourse, yanking Germany out of the rut of right-left ideological headbutting and, like Dr. Seuss’s Lorax, speaking for the trees.

Back then, it was “morning in America,” and the Democrats’ feeble answers to the Reagan/Bush I counter-revolution–corporate liberal milquetoasts like Mondale and Dukakis–were sure losers even before being shot down in the high noon of the ’84 and ’88 elections.  Could we shake up America’s moribund politics in the same way the German, and other European, Green Parties were breathing fresh air into the legislative halls of Europe?  It just might be possible, we thought.

So…the dude who lived in the barn–his name, by the way, was Brian Tokar–gave me a copy of his book, entitled “The Green Alternative:   Creating an Ecological Future.”  I read it at the time, and it helped enthuse me to stay connected with the bioregional movement and, ultimately, connect with the Green Party after I moved back to Tennessee.  Brian’s little book has been travelling around with me now for nearly twenty years, and when it resurfaced a few months ago, I decided to reread it, as a message from  my life twenty years ago to my life today.

In some ways, as I said, it seems like a very long time since the late 1980’s, but “The Green Alternative” shows that some of us, at least, have stayed on message.  The chapter headings start with “What Does It Mean to Be Green?,” “We Are All Part of Nature” and “Where Did We Go Wrong?”– two questions and  an affirmation that all remain vitally relevant.

Brian’s answer to the question of “What does it mean to be ‘Green’?” clearly rejects what has since become known as “greenwashing”; he tells us:

The Greens in West Germany have come to be known by their four pillars:  ecology, social responsibility, democracy and nonviolence.  Greens in the United States have generally expanded this list to include an explicit emphasis on decentralization–the need to reorient both politics and economics toward the local community level.  There is often a strong link to the feminist vision of a society that guarantees equal rights to all and embodies the need for personal as well as political transformation.  Many Greens also emphasize the search for a new ethical and spiritual orientation, one that reaffirms the place of human cultures within the natural world and seeks to heal the cultural rift between people and the earth that our civilization has imposed…..

Another important factor that distinguishes Greens from other political tendencies is the search for an alternative to the economics of growth.  Most political leaders in the world today…accept the belief that continued industrial expansion is necessary if we are to feed the hungry and raise people’s standard of living.  For Greens, this is a dangerous myth.

Greens see that unchecked industrial expansion has brought the world to the brink of ecological collapse……

Long before peak oil, long before most of us realized that carbon emissions from our two-century fossil fuel binge are about to simultaneously bring the sky down on our heads and yank the  floor from beneath our feet, we Greens smelled a rat in the industrial miracle.  In 1987, Brian is already noting that “a marked increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide” threatens the earth’s ability to sustain life.

Brian answers the “Where did we go wrong?” question with a concise but well-crafted 26-page history of civilization, showing how one little thing after another took us further and further from our original union with the natural world, until “Nature” had become an “other” to be feared, conquered and exploited.

And so the next section is titled “Healing the Wounds,” and again we are treated to a recap of history–a few decades this time, starting with the stifling, Commie-hating, grey flannel 1950s and the reaction they spawned, from Rosa Parks to Allen Ginsberg to rock n’roll, and then the quantum leaps through Martin Luther King, Black Power, the hippies, the antiwar and anti nuclear movements, the womens’ movement, organic farming, ecological living, the Bioregional movement…it was as if a Pandora’s box full of good spirits opened to counteract the insanity that had become enshrined in Western Civilization.  And, if none of these hydra heads has yet vanquished the demon that is eating the world, neither have they succumbed to it.

This hydra-headedness, this diversity,  is the strength of the Green movement, as Brian goes on to point out in the balance of the book, which is based on the German Greens’ four pillars of ecology, social responsibiility, democracy and nonviolence.  While some pieces of the puzzle have changed since 1987, most notably the end of so-called Communism and the cold war, with the consequent de-escalation of nuclear danger, the Green program is largely the same now as it was then–localize, decentralize, democratize, socialize–this last word in both its meanings–as in community ownership of infrastructure, and in the importance of people relating to each other face to face.

It’s been twenty years since Brian wrote his visionary book.  Petra Kelley and Rudolf Bahro are both dead, but the German Green Party  holds a respectable number of parliamentary seats and has participated in coalition governments, and the union of European Green Parties is a significant voice in the EU’s parliament.

Here in the US, while the Green movement as a social phenomenon continues its neck-and-neck race with the corporate vampire state,but Green electoral success has been less than stellar.  A few local races here and there, some responsibility for sending Bernie Sanders up the ladder, and that’s about it.  The US’s winner-take-all system doesn’t allow room for more than two at the table, and the two parties who enjoy the benefits of this system are unlikely to spoil their good thing.  The looming future seems to demand creative, innovative solutions, solutions that recognize that the power structure in America cannot solve our problems because our power structure is a big part of the problem.  Even without the flood of corporate political influence the Supreme Court has just unleashed, the odds for a sane, Green solution in this country were not good.  But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.  What other option is there for a person of conscience?

music:  Eliza Gilkyson, “Emerald Street


3 02 2008

Not just thinking locally, but acting locally:

We’re also currently looking at 130 acres of prime agricultural land on which food could be grown in a manner similar to Intervale. Intervale, by the way, produces 10% of Burlington, Vermont’s food. On this land we can not only raise food for Rutland but also incubate farmers. On the edge of this plot of land is a large grocery store owned by a giant food chain that could possibly be the new home of the co-op, but many people, on the other hand would like to keep the co-op in the downtown area.

We’d also like to approach local institutions like high schools and colleges and get them on board with using locally-grown food. In addition, RAFFL has been trying to brand locally-grown products as coming from “Rutland, the heart of Vermont agriculture.” We can create a year-round source of vegetables, and we can create markets for farmers all over the state. Through partnerships with funders, we can acquire the resources to make this project succeed. We dare not miss these opportunities.



10 11 2007

I just returned from a two-week swing through New England, and overall it was a very encouraging experience. I lived in Vermont for several years in the nineties, and in many ways felt as if I had left the US for a saner country. It was very refreshing to visit again and find a place where sanity and counterculture have spread and grown, rather than eroding and fragmenting as they seem to have done here in the south. And no, it wasn’t ”like I’d died and gone to heaven.” There were plenty of problems still to solve, both personal and political, everywhere I went. But it felt like there was the will and intelligence and infrastructure to do it. Let me give you some examples.

There are nearly 600 organic farmers in Vermont, according to the state’s organic growers’ association. Considering the small size of Vermont, this means that organic farmers are pretty ubiquitous. Not quite as ubiquitous as dairy farms—there are about 1400 of those left, down from a 1947 peak of 11,000. But gee, that’s one organic farmer for every thousand Vermonters, and about one dairy farm for every four hundred and thirty people. If we had a similar proportion here in Tennessee, there would be about five hundred organic farms and over a thousand dairy farms just in the Nashville area alone. That sure would be a different Nashville, wouldn’t it?

These aren’t just fruit and vegetable farms. There are meat and field crop producers, as well as some overlap between the organic farm numbers and the dairy farm numbers, so we are talking about the possibility of a whole diet from locally grownorganic food—yes, even homegrown sweets, because there are honey producers and maple tappers aplenty up in the northeast woods. And there are cafes and co-op grocery stores in the small towns, vibrant little community centers where people eat and shop and meet their neighbors and talk and argue and plan and create.

Not all of this food gets consumed locally. In fact, most of it gets shipped down to Boswash, the Boston-Washington urban conglomerate, where the money is. But the Vermonters would like to keep more of their produce at home, and they are working on ways to keep it local, and benefit their communities as they do. The organic farmers have teamed up with a food-policy think tank called Foodworks and Shelburne Farms, an environmental education center, to create FEED, “Food Education Every Day,” an organization which works to get local school and other institutional cafeterias to use as much local food as possible, and to educate schoolkids about the many advantages to locally grown food. They have gotten the state legislature on board, and so there are grants and incentive programs, but the program practically sells itself. I should add that it’s not a ”top down” affair; each school district, in a council of teachers, administrators, farmers, and cooks, determines its own priorities.

They have had to add one step to make it work better, but that step adds value for everyone. In Vermont, the garden season and the school season barely overlap, and everyone involved quickly realized that having a way to process and preserve food would make it more available. So, voila! Small-scale canning and processing has become part of the mix, adding value and local employment. Tomatoes and peppers become salsa or tomato sauce; carrots are made into carrot sticks, bagged, and stored; apples are sliced by the bushel—don’t ask me why, but they found out that most kids will eat more apples if they are sliced first! Processing also enables them to use produce that is not aesthetically pleasing enough to sell fresh.

And then there are the in-school educational programs—soup making contests, with the kids as judges; farm visits where kids get to pick their own carrots, blueberries, apples, or whatever; school cafeteria staff, long the subject of bad jokes, get to do something creative, nutritious, local, and tasty. It’s a win/win situation, and it’s growing. Vermonters did not seem overly worried about political, economic, or even ecological collapse.

I’m glad to know they’re up there and doing so well. I hope their inspiration spreads. We could use some of that energy down here, where locally grown food, organic or not, is still a novelty, and the organic food stores depend on trucks from California and Florida to stock not just their produce, meat, and dairy departments, but all the other grocery shelves as well. Five hundred organic producers in the Nashville area? What have we got now, about five?

What would it take to start growing our growers to the point where we might imagine local farmers providing a measurable share of the food that is eaten in middle Tennessee? First of all, we have to look at our tax codes and land valuation and zoning policies, which make it much more profitable to subdivide land and sell it than to grow food on it. Zoning has to recognize that small-scale food production is a legitimate use of one’s home, although I think there should be some common-sense limits to this! Then there are infrastructure questions—how to help people get into farming, I think the way to do this is to find people who can take on a backyard garden with a fork and a hoe and feed their neighborhood, then help them graduate to a half-acre or an acre and feed their community with occasional help from teenagers, retirees, or people who want some healthy exercise after sitting at a desk all week. And of course there are weather questions. We don’t yet know if last year’s stunning heat and drought was a terrible anomaly, or the beginning of a new pattern. Growers will have to learn to be flexible; we do live in a climate in which, with a little simple protection, salad vegetables and leafy greens will produce all winter, and that’s likely to keep on being the case, no matter what our summers become.

Meanwhile, oil is pushing a hundred dollars a barrel, and there’s no telling where the price will jump the next time there’s a catastrophe to intensify the growing scarcity. Imported food, whether from California or across the ocean, is just going to get more expensive. The sooner we start providing for ourselves, the better off we’ll be.

music: Kristina Michelson, “Hippies in the Hills”

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