[part 3 of a series]

Two friends and long time residents of the small town of Lake Wobegon looked at each other nearly a year ago, and said, ok, it’s time to quit bitching. The town hall ain’t gonna do it. If we want our town to be resilient in the face of all that’s coming our way in the near future, we have to do it ourselves.

So they began to invite their neighbors and coworkers to movie showings and presentations with discussion afterwards. The group grew slowly at first, but 9 months later, they have about 25 people who are showing a high level of commitment and eagerness to get going. They want to make the leap from study to action. And they don’t want to wait past the time when the group grows too large to gather in one place and set the foundation.

They are all familiar with sociocracy as they recently took a two-day workshop. There is a strong feeling in the group in its favor. Plus, some people are already gathering into small groups following their interests: local food, water, and alt.energy. What’s our next step, they ask one another?

Their sociocracy trainer who has agreed to stay in touch and help them during the first year, suggests they form another small group for governance implementation. It is this group that puts on a “Resilient Lake Wobegon in one afternoon” extravaganza. A pleasant room is secured, munchies and drinks, and one afternoon in late winter, all 25 people pile into the room and lay down the foundation of their organization in one fell swoop.

They already know the consent process. All the 25 gather into a big circle, and consent to several foundational proposals that were prepared ahead of time by the organizers. One of them of course being about accepting sociocracy as their governance method, for how long (say a year) and setting the criteria for evaluation.

Then people break up into the four groups already informally established. Each group selects its log keeper, facilitator, and two linkers. Then each circle decides on its aim. Vision, mission, and main responsibilities are just sketched out, to be fine-tuned later.

The two linkers from each group come together in the center of the room, and the general circle is born. They too select their log keeper, and facilitator, and decide which of the eight people will be the ops-linkers which will represent the general circle in each specific circle. The remaining four linkers will be the rep-linkers, representing their specific circle within the general circle. With the rest of the group watching and contributing, they come up with a vision, mission, aim and domain of responsibility for their circle. But only the eight general circle members engage in the formal consent sequence.

To finalize the afternoon, the general circle walks one proposal through all the steps from start to finish, seeking to consent on how to welcome new members and prepare them to participate in the sociocratic process. Then the organizers draw a quick chart of the organization with double links.

lake wobegon

Done! Time for champagne and fireworks!

Sociocracy makes creative new solutions possible. There are many ways that this group of people could alter this particular pattern to customize it to their needs as those needs emerge.

Well then. Hm. It was a nice exercise for the anal part of me (here is a step by step list, yish!), but does a group of friends wanting to increase local resilience need a governance structure? When does a group need one, and when would it be better for the energy of the group just go and do stuff? And how about letting governance evolve rather than imposing it in one fell swoop?

It is dawning on me that sociocracy really is a culture. And a culture cannot be imposed; it can only be nurtured and evolved. And it can only be nurtured and evolved if it is internalized and embodied. I will be thinking about how sociocracy can be gently seeded among people seeking to share power within collaborative endeavors.

And my advice to our friends at Lake Wobegon? Gather into a small circle to do something that excites you. That’s your aim. Learn the consent process for making decisions. Then go implement them. Toggle back and forth between thinking and doing. Have fun. When you run into a possible sister group, double-link with them. Let it all grow from the grassroots.

moving to sociocracy

[part 2 of a series]

Sociocracy is governance by the socios: our colleagues and peers. It is also known as “collaborative governance”, and “dynamic governance.” The term ‘sociocracy’ is not ideal, but for the time being it seems the most practical for its clarity and brevity.

Interestingly, some people are thinking of sociocracy as part of permaculture because permaculture-like principles are embedded in the concepts and practices of sociocracy, and are beginning to include basic sociocracy training in permaculture courses. For those wishing to pursue this line of thought further, here are a couple of links:
Sociocracy: a permaculture approach to community evolution, by Rios
Mapping sociocracy to permaculture, by DecisionLab

I will attempt to flesh out the gist of sociocracy in one short post; a perilous undertaking. Please comment with corrections or requests for clarifications as needed. I hope to shed some light on the four key aspects of governance identified in the previous post.

Defining expectations means, first of all, achieving consent regarding whether the group will commit to sociocratic governance for the time being, and fleshing out the vision (what does the world need), mission (how will our group provide it), aim (what specifically will we do to provide it), and domain of responsibility for each circle.

Laying out the structures and patterns of interaction and power flows
: double-linked circles are the foundation of the organization. Power and information flow both ways between the circles. Everyone has a voice; all members consent to working and governing together. A message that cannot be ignored can be sent from any level of the organization. Each circle is a semi-autonomous entity that carries out both the ‘thinking’ aspect of working together (usually referred to as policy making) and the ‘doing’ aspect (referred to as “operations” in business). Here is a simple diagram of a sociocratic organization, in this case one implemented some time ago by the Lost Valley community in Oregon.

lost valley

Though Lost Valley had a board of directors at the time, this is not a requirement. The overall template of the sociocratic organization consists of several specific circles double-linked to a general circle which may choose — and double-link to — an advisory circle of outside experts. Specific circles may choose sub-specific circles to carry out even more specific tasks. Double-linking is achieved by selecting two linkers; one represents the more specific circle in the more general circle, and the other represents the general circle within the more specific circle. Each linker is a full member of both circles.

In business contexts, people speak of higher and lower circles. As sociocracy’s concepts get translated to egalitarian, communitarian, and other alternative communities’ ways of speaking, the descriptors will shift. We can think of power moving sideways, from more specific circles to more general, from short-term thinking to long-term thinking, or from more concrete to more abstract, and back. Circles typically designate top-down leaders for “doing” circles or work groups, to take advantage of the chain of command when it suits.

Decision-making is by consent of all members of a circle. No stand asides, no blocks, no stuckness. Magic? Almost. Consent-based decision-making is the heart of sociocracy. It is used to select people into roles, and to respond to issues.

A proposal is formed and its completeness is consented to. It is then presented to the circle for consideration. The facilitator asks for more information from each person in turn. Finally, during a consent round, objections are solicited. If there are none, the proposal is passed. If there are reasoned and paramount objections, the proposal is reconsidered and improved.

This is the barest outline of a sophisticated and subtle process that makes group decision-making a joy. Objections are actually sought out! They are gifts to the circle, and make better decisions possible. People don’t have to heartily approve of a decision. All they need to be is willing to try it out. As Diana puts it: “Good enough for now, safe enough to try.” Most decisions made now are easy to change later.

This link explains sociocratic decision-making in a cohousing community. And this one shows the details of selecting people for roles.

Performance monitoring is essential to the ongoing fine-tuning of “how we are doing”: of people’s actions, of solutions, of directions, and so on. Criteria for measuring performance are built into proposals and roles. Evaluation dates are set. And a pattern for giving useful feedback is outlined.


All policies and decisions are based on present knowledge; there is no need to craft perfect solutions that can bear up in all future contingencies. Sociocracy produces good-enough decisions for now, followed by continuous adaptations based on feedback.

When using sociocracy, people already know they might modify any future implemented proposal to adjust how it operates in day-to-day reality. Like creative engineers with a project on a drawing board, they know they have to try it under real-life conditions to see how it actually functions before they know it will work. — Diana Leafe Christian

Some people desirous of horizontal political structures where power cannot be hijacked speak of leaderless organizations. A sociocratic organization is not leaderless, but rather taps into the leadership abilities of each and every member, and leaders chosen for specific roles are fully supported. It can, however, be acephalous if its members so consent.

So… here it is; sociocracy in a nutshell.


One of my first ventures here at Earthaven has been to take Diana Leafe Christian’s two day workshop on sociocracy. I aim to turn my learning into several blog posts. What I say here is not a recap of Diana’s views, but rather my own effort at working through the material on my own terms, so I may successfully internalize it. Diana’s workshop was well attended, and was absolutely fabulous. I had read up on sociocracy, but only after taking this workshop did it become vivid in my mind: Diana’s many creative and experiential teaching methods made it all come together. Highly recommended for anyone wanting to learn this method of governance!

Why sociocracy?
I am not a long meeting lover; I like to come together with others to get things going; I remember endless processing as a bane of my Green days. Sociocracy avoids these pitfalls. It also appeals to my desire for a self-organizing, bottom-up governance system that gives voice to all.

The four elements
According to Diana, there are four key elements of healthy communities. Community glue is generated by enjoyable shared activities that engender gratitude, trust, and feelings of good will. Potlucks, singalongs, games, personal sharings, and many other activities are the glue that keeps community functioning well. Good process and communication results from community members acquiring the skills to speak, listen, and deal with conflicts in ways that build interhuman harmony. Non-violent communication and restorative circles are a few examples. Effective project management covers all those ongoing things — like keeping a community tidy, its paths free of poison ivy, visitors welcomed and showed around, and cash flow flowing both ways– that need doing to keep the community humming along. And good governance is at the heart of a well-functioning community, tying together the strands into a unified whole.

The word governance comes from the Greek for steering. It is the manner in which power is exercised among those involved in a collective endeavor. A quick foray into wiki and other sources identifies four main aspects of governance:

  • defining expectations (what are we hoping for? what are we responsible for?)
  • laying out the structures and patterns of interaction and power flows (what is the organization’s diagram? how does it work? who governs?)
  • decision-making (who will serve in this role? how do we deal with this issue?)
  • performance monitoring (how are we doing?)

Sociocracy, as a whole-system governance method, covers all these key aspects of governance. It was invented by a Dutch engineer in the 70s, wanting to run his small company in a way that would foster harmony in the workplace, while making sure everyone has a voice (equivalence), information flows freely (transparency), and the company succeeds in the marketplace (effectiveness). His thinking was influenced by Quaker-based consensus, cybernetics (feedback loops), and self-organizing systems.

More to come!


Sunday July 14th.

More rain.
Sheets of rain.
Waterfalls of rain.

After drought stricken Colorado, it first seemed like manna from heaven. But heavens have been fickle this year. While the rest of the country bakes, the Carolinas are getting swamped. And when the rest of the Carolinas are enjoying a respite, it still rains in these thar hills! The 80+ oldtimers swear this is the wettest year of their lifetimes. The swollen creeks run mud, EH’s first bridge is underwater — I had to wade through rushing water twice today — and molds are having a field day. My prized possessions (a few treasured paintings) are beginning to moulder and warp. I am beginning to moulder and warp. What a time to move to Earthaven!

I must say that EH lays much less social stress on an introvert like me, than Dancing Rabbit did. The houses and settlements are spread out, and when I go out walking, I meet very few people most days. Besides, folks drive, even from Earthaven to Earthaven. [Hm...] There is more traffic under my window than there was in my old neighborhood out west! But interaction is far more optional.

The farmers at EH are now producing eggs, milk and veggies, as well as some lamb and pork. The gateway field, clear-cut during my visit 6 years ago, is now a picturesque pasture with multicolored sheep, a few goats, and a sheepdog. There is a small farmers’ market one morning a week.

Potlucks, held once or twice a week, are informal. No circles and obligatory hand-holding. Everybody brings a small dish, grilled bits of meat or fish can be had for a couple of bucks, and people chow down and visit. Yesterday, one of the members staged a rare treat, a genuine Cajun crawfish boil, with critters imported on ice from Louisiana. All as a gift to the community.

crawfish boil

Huge swallowtail butterflies are everywhere. Flocks of them. Did you know they were carnivorous? They perch on road-flattened frogs sucking their juices. Wineberries are ripening into delicious roadside snacks despite chronic lack of sunshine. And cardinals warble from the trees, blessing all who hear them.


I ran into a herbalist the other day who got intrigued by my lymphoma history, and wondered if I’d be interested in trying poke root therapy. I may well be interested after some joint research. Serendipity? I’ve met more congenial people in the three weeks here than I had in the last three years in the mainstream.

My favorite Earthaven sight? A girl walking around followed by four tiny just-born goatlings. Tumbling behind like puppies…


I left the smoke and ash-shrouded SE “Colorado burning” in late June, and arrived at Earthaven into a deluge. Here are a few vignettes from the journey.

I found a motel in Limon, CO on that first night. I got there late, past 1 am, and nobody answered the bell. I finally walked out, looked back behind me, and through the window my eyes fell on a fine set of shepherd’s axes! These are my people, something said; I walked back in, the lady of the establishment showed up, and we talked up a storm about the old countries — she being, like me, a child of the Carpathians, but on the Polish side, from the Tatras.


In the morning, I discovered to my delight that these folks had created an oasis where in most motels you find a bare parking lot: a fruit tree orchard with berry bushes and a companionable fire pit in the middle, a small swimming pool, and a large vegetable garden on the other side. My kind of people, indeed. Stay at the Safari Inn if in Limon — the pics on the website don’t do it justice!

Passing through Kansas, I saw a sign for the “Czech capital of KS”, and needing gas, I dipped down to check out the town of Wilson. A dying downtown with a burnt out husk of what used to be the pride of the town — a fine stone Czech Opera House built in 1901 that could accommodate 500 for plays and movies, with meeting rooms for lodges and clubs and a gym downstairs. I asked the clerk at the quickie mart what happens at the Czech Fest. She said she’d never been, then turned to the young people in the back… equally clueless. She confided in me that the town hired some artist to paint shop windows with hokey, vaguely Slavic folk dancers, and put up lots of Vítáme vás (We welcome you) signs around town. The fest promises Czech heritage demonstrations (beer making? dumpling cooking?), polka, and suspiciously unspecified Czech food (koláče-flavored funnel cakes?). Another phony pseudoevent to draw a few bucks from the wallets of nearby bored townies, I figure. But the historic downtown with its many empty stores is still standing, so for those who aim to start a community in a small town in dire need of people, energy and ideas, Wilson may not be a bad place to do it.


I wanted a break from the endless roads of Kansas and decided to take a detour to Kanopolis State Park at a large lake where I thought perhaps to rent a cabin. It was not to be; but I realized why so many Americans call Obama a socialist. There are two kinds of socialism; I grew up under communist socialism, and it did not work very well. The version used by Scandinavians — democratic socialism — seems peachy. Anyways, it was shades of communist socialism I discovered at this recreational area: though there were a number of people who could have put me up in a cabin, and though most of the cabins were empty, and though the lowly clerk at the marina store extended herself on my behalf, I came up empty handed. People passed the buck from one to another, insisting that I should have registered online, and there was absolutely nothing they could or would do. Ah… I remembered the system well from my childhood: people’s focus is on building fiefdoms, ducking responsibility, and vigorously ignoring the customer. Or the citizen.


Stopping much later at a gas station near Frankfort, KY, I spied a car full of cute teenage girls who pulled up to the pump and proceeded to take photos of each other right there, next to a McDonalds, a few yards from the deafening racket of I-64. Mindboggling. Fraid I stared. And by the way, have you noticed how much noisier everything’s gotten as you drive east?

No rain on the whole journey until I reached the Tennessee border. It hasn’t quit since. Kitties weathered travel well, but they are bitchin’ about the wet. So are all the humans. The Carolina frogs, however, like it just fine.

cat friends

I will soon be moving to the Earthaven Ecovillage, and while I can bring my two kitties, my foundlings will have to find a new home. Perhaps, just perhaps, one of you readers of this blog will open your heart to a loving tom. Here they are.


This is Slinky, a gray tabby with chocolate overtones. He showed up in January 2012. At that time, he was not fixed, and fought all the time. I finally had his wounds cleaned out and him fixed. The vet said he was a year and a half then.

He’s now mellowed out, and put on a bit of weight. More exercise would be good for him. He loves to go for walks with me at night around the neighborhood. He is still somewhat territorial with the other cats — likes to patrol the porch where the food bowls are.

A very affectionate boy, a people cat. Loves to be scratched all over, and begs for more; he is always very careful with his claws. He likes to sleep in a tray with a towel in it that sits on a high counter in the kitchen so he can see what’s happening, and begs for pets when the human goes by. He often asks — he is a talker — to be inside at night as well. Does not roam. Slinky is a confident, alert and friendly cat. Likes to snuggle on my chest when I lie on the couch, and to come to bed at night for scritchies– but prefers to sleep in his tray.

He is incredibly hardy — early on, he would sometimes sleep on the porch next to the window in such cold weather that his fur was covered in hoarfrost! I think Slinky was abandoned by someone in the neighborhood who moved. He needs a loving home, best without any male cats in it, as he tends to challenge them. Likes children.



And here is Yellow. He is orange and pure white. He started living under my house during the big snows the winter before last. He was already fixed. I had him checked out, and the vet said he was then 2-3 years old.

Yellow is a shy cat. I think maybe he was abused because he flinches when a person moves abruptly trying to touch him. He is much calmer now. He gets along with other cats but remains wary.

He is affectionate, purrs readily, and loves to have his ears, chin and belly scratched. He likes to be outside a lot but stays close. At night, he lies out where he can see other people and cats and watches. He loves wet food. He is very easy to care for, and keeps his soft fur immaculately clean. He needs slow handling by a gentle person, and will make a lovely companion. A quiet household without other cats might be best.

Lately, Yellow has carved out the bathroom as his “safe room” and rushes in for pets when I am in there. He’s become quite the lap cat.


And now Yellow and Slinky have begun to play together! These sweet kitties each need a forever home. Might you be able to give such a gift?


The Americans of de Tocqueville’s time, when they wanted to make something happen, didn’t march around with placards or write their legislators demanding that the government do it. Instead, far more often than not, they simply put together a private association for the purpose, and did it themselves.
– John Michael Greer

When various transitioners and change makers seek to influence the politics, economy and future course of a small town, they first organize a civic association. There are many kinds, from churches and town beautification committees all the way to activist groups and guerrilla gardener clubs. Alexis de Tocqueville rightly saw such civic underpinnings as something essential, the very foundation of American democracy.

These civic groups in turn seek to influence the official power holders — the town hall and its minions. They serve as pressure groups while working on the particular projects they have undertaken, and so act to counterbalance the power gathered by local politicians and bureaucrats. Among Transition Towners in particular, there’s been much debate whether and how much one ought to work with the folks at town hall; in Europe, there seems to be more cooperation across that particular divide than here in the States.

There is, however, another power-wielding group in every town, and it rarely gets the consideration it deserves. Professor Domhoff has done a great deal of research on and written extensively about these people — the so-called “growth coalition.”

Local power structures are land-based growth coalitions. They seek to intensify land use. In economic terms, the “place entrepreneurs” at the center of the growth coalitions are trying to maximize “rents” from land and buildings, which is a little different than the goal of the corporate community — maximizing profits from the sale of goods and services.

Unlike the capitalist, the place entrepreneur’s goal is not profit from production, but rent from trapping human activity in place. Besides sale prices and regular payments made by tenants to landlords, we take rent to include, more broadly, outlays made to realtors, mortgage lenders, title companies, and so forth. The people who are involved in generating rent are the investors in land and buildings and the professionals who serve them. We think of them as a special class among the privileged, analogous to the classic “rentiers” of a former age in a modern urban form.

The most typical way of intensifying land use is growth, and this growth usually expresses itself in a constantly rising population. A successful local elite is one that is able to attract the corporate plants and offices, the defense contracts, the federal and state agencies, and/or the educational and research establishments that lead to an expanded work force. An expanded work force and its attendant purchasing power in turn lead to an expansion of retail and other commercial activity, extensive land and housing development, and increased financial activity. It is because this chain of events is at the core of any developed locality that the city is for all intents and purposes a “growth machine,” and those who dominate it are a “growth coalition.”

Although the growth coalition is based in land ownership, it includes all those interests that profit from the intensification of land use. Thus, executives from the local bank, the savings and loan, the telephone company, the gas and electric company, and the local department store are often quite prominent as well. As in the case of the corporate community, the underlying unity within the growth coalition is most visibly expressed in the intertwining boards of directors among local companies. And, as with the corporate community, the central meeting points are most often the banks, where executives from the utilities companies and the department stores meet with the largest landlords and developers. There is one other important component of the local growth coalition: the daily newspaper. The newspaper is deeply committed to local growth so that its circulation and, even more important, its pages of advertising, will continue to rise. [And] labor unions often join the developers as part of the pro-growth coalition.

Rather obviously, the primary role of government is to promote growth according to this view. It is not the only function, but it is the central one, and the one most often ignored by those who write about city government. City departments of planning and public works, among several, become allies of the growth coalition with the hope that their departments will grow and prosper. In addition, government often provides the funds for the boosterism that gives the city name recognition and an image of togetherness, which are considered important by the growth coalitions in attracting industry, and government officials are expected to be the growth coalition’s ambassadors to outside investors.

The growth coalitions also have a well-crafted set of rationales, created over the course of many decades, to justify their actions to the general public. Most of all, this ideology is based in the idea that growth is about jobs, not about profits.

It never fails to amaze me how little these people figure in the plans and schemes of those who wish to transform towns in the direction of greater livability, sustainability, prosperity and democracy. While the civic group contingent provides checks and balances for the powers-that-be at the town hall, who minds the ballast on the side opposite the growth coalition so the boat does not capsize?

opaque power2

Political powers assembled off the radar can wreak a great deal of damage unless they are checked by another powerful group, one not under their thumb. And we all know that, right? We are all suffering from a global system where governments function, more and more, as glorified gofers and talking heads for the new sultanate: the shadowy, transnational coalition of bankers and financiers whose doings escape scrutiny and accountability. Similarly, if a town’s citizens have over generations permitted the growth coalition to turn their town hall into a servant of profit rather than common good, isn’t it utterly naïve to think that the civic group contingent could possibly provide adequate checks and balances to this formidable unholy alliance?

John Michael Greer has been making hints for some time about the benefits of old-fashioned benevolent societies from Freemasons to Moose to the Odd Fellows. Not so long ago, they played an important role in America’s public life, a role that stretches all the way back to the early days of the republic. Providing a powerful social presence in each community, they were committed to improve local quality of life above all. Most of these groups fell on hard times in the 50s and 60s as the result of the government taking over the caregiving functions which once provided inexpensive health care and other welfare benefits to member families. But I suspect there is more to the loss of membership. The 50s and 60s were also times of relentless pro-science propaganda (Better life through chemistry!) and the promotion of sober secularism (God is dead! Religion will fade by the end of the century!). In this opinion climate, the once secret inner workings of the lodges acquired a whiff of embarrassment. What I think of as the “silly hats, mumbo jumbo and secret handshakes” routine has seen its better days, and the only folks I know who still hang onto that particular style of old timey mystique and pageantry without loss of membership are the Latter Day Saints.

There was a very good reason why Freemasonry was first feared and persecuted, then infiltrated by the rich and famous (both Mozart and emperor Joseph II belonged). It had become an important locus of power through the creation of a trustworthy and united brotherhood devoted to the betterment of the human world and shielded from the prying eyes of the other powers-that-be.

Humans love social games that shroud their companionate doings with a veil of secrecy and throw in a dab of useful magic. Long ago, there were the secret rituals among awe-inspiring paintings and eerie echoing music in deep caves. Much later, the early Christians celebrated their love feasts well away from public view, hid in the catacombs, and signaled to each other through graffiti of fishes and other symbols. Various “heretics” of the Middle Ages, like the Brethren of the Free Spirit and later Anabaptists, walked from town to town, hiding in the cracks of the system, opening minds. Then came Freemasons and took Europe and America by storm. And now we have millions-strong computer gamer brotherhoods like the World of Warcraft, where devoted virtual-warriors ally with and battle each other in the interest of some benevolent vision, through magic powers they acquire along the way. The might of discreet alliances with other trusted people is immeasurable. It can more than counterbalance the power of money and influence peddling, as long as it has the numbers, the vision, and the unity.

There was a time in late 19th century America when obscure rural lodges came quietly into being, first in west Texas pioneer country. Much later, they gained fame as the Populist movement. Their secret lodges had all the various customary trappings of magic and spectacle and grew like Topsy, creating wildly popular cooperative arrangements that favored the interests of small farmers and ranchers. This alliance eventually spread into many states, and provided the grassroots power that nearly came to tipping the balance not only in state politics, but nationwide.


Close, but no cigar. They made a huge mistake. Forgetting their place in the scheme of things, they “outed” themselves in the eager hope of grabbing political positions with their chosen candidates. In other words, they moved into the civic group square in the diagram, while also playing politics in the government square. Having abandoned the place that gave them power, they were coopted. The elites of the growth coalition — the large landed interests, along with the robber barons and their helpers — lacking effective counterbalance, won. Again.

Taking Greer’s advice makes sense. It’s time to learn from the lodges of old, build on their templates, and with the help of skilled young computer gamers create new ones so opaque to the powers-that-be, and so imbued with a deep kind of magic suited for the 21st century, that their power will discreetly begin to right the balance that has wronged our world for so long. Only trustworthy people grown united and fired up by the zeal to make lives good again for each other and those who come after, will be able to finally put public governance on a sound footing and stage the second American Revolution. Do you object to the secret agendas of the elites? Then let us create our own secret agendas, ones that befit a free people devoted to furthering our common weal!

christian symbols

We should all get the hell out of the way, with our bodies decently planted in the earth to nourish other forms of life — weeds, flowers, shrubs, trees, which support other forms of life, which support the ongoing human pageant — the lives of our children. That seems good enough to me.
– Edward Abbey

For most of human history, deceased human beings were left exposed, to feed carrion eaters and the soil critters underneath. About 100,000 years ago, first shallow graves appeared — the body enriched the topsoil while being protected from the beasties by a layer of soil and rock. And so it continued, until the Neolithic.

That’s when funerary customs took a bizarre turn. In the settlements transitioning from foraging to agriculture people began to bury the dead under the floor of their houses. Sometimes, they disinterred the cadaver and cut off its skull, to be plastered and painted for display. (Didn’t they mind the stench and gruesomeness?!)

As elites rose into power, all around the world they began to build elaborate tombs to house their mortal remains. In some places, the brisk business of embalming sold sure tickets to the next world. But whether the bodies were embalmed or not, the soil was denied its due as corpses rotted or mummified in stone chambers. Was this the first time the nutrient cycle was broken? As the lower orders aped their “betters,” the idea caught on. Flip the bird to Mother Nature: you can’t have my body back, you old hag! I am too fancy for the likes of you!

Fast forward to the present. In some parts of the world, scant remaining forests are denuded to burn corpses on a pyre so their ashes can be thrown into the river people drink from. Um. Sky burials sound reasonable until you find out that priests are engaged to dismember and deflesh the naked corpses high on the mountain. Did the vultures demand smaller pieces, or is it another example of priestly entrepreneurial zeal? Alas, western civ hasn’t done any better. Let us review the options on offer to the distraught relatives of our neighbors who have just shuffled off their mortal coil.

1. Burn the body, place the ashes in a metal or marble urn, and stash them away in a mausoleum where they will sit till the sun burns out. (Although, for a small fee a company will spread them out at sea, or the families can find a remote natural spot.) This method was cunningly designed to burn vast amounts of natural gas or propane, in addition to ensuring that we all end up breathing corpse particles along with mercury fillings, dioxin, hydrochloric acid, sulfur and carbon dioxide. Please note that in some crowded places on the planet (Japan, parts of China and western Europe), this is now the only option available. It gives new meaning to the image of Beijing shrouded in smog.

Data from the funeral industry are hard to come by; my back-of-the-envelope calculations tell me that my small house in Colorado could be heated by the propane used in one cremation for about a month.

2. Bury the body 6 feet under, in a large wooden coffin with brass handles encased in a concrete or metal vault, making sure the body decays as slowly as possible within a layer of soil with very few microorganisms, thus causing maximum groundwater pollution. Forests die so that fancy oaken or tropical wood coffins can be ostentatiously displayed. Embalming — a horrid process I mostly skipped over when reading informative Grave Matters, a book promoting greener funerals — makes sure that the groundwater is not only polluted with cadaver goo, but also with some 200 different types of toxic ick. The undertakers as a profession suffer from diseases caused by frequent exposure.

According to National Geographic, American funerals are responsible each year for the felling of 30 million board feet of casket wood (some of which comes from tropical hardwoods), 90,000 tons of steel, 1.6 million tons of concrete for burial vaults, and 800,000 gallons of embalming fluid. Even cremation is an environmental horror story, with the incineration process emitting many a noxious substance.

Way to go, folks! Way to go? No, thank you. Myself, I’d rather go quietly back to the earth that brought me forth, and skip the parts where my ol’ body burns up enough gas to heat a house in the winter, kills forests or pollutes air and watersheds. Neither am I one of those who would rather pretend they can evade the deep truth: “dust you are, and to dust you shall return.”

What, then, are my options?

Walking off to a remote place and letting the good beasties have me sounded swell until I realized that when I am dying, I probably won’t have the vim and vigor required for a long hike.

Promession is a Swedish process whereby the body is placed in a tub of liquid nitrogen, freeze-dried, then jostled and turned into powder which can then be buried in topsoil and will compost within the year. Alas, the inventor has promised more than she can deliver, and the whole thing sounds like vaporware.

Resomation (aka bio-cremation) puts the body in a steel tank containing water and lye, applies modest heat (about 350°F compared to 2000°F needed for incineration), and pressure. After several hours, the bone fragments are given to the family and the rest of the brew is unceremoniously flushed down the drain. Ah. New Hampshire and the Catholic Church have developed doubts about that bit. But several states and Saskatchewan do make resomation currently available, and indeed, it seems much greener than the popular choices, as long as your sewer pipes and waste water plant can handle it. Some universities use it to dispose of bodies in their donor programs. On the other hand, it externalizes the disposition of the cadaverous chemicals onto the public infrastructure, and ultimately the waterways.

Natural burial in green cemeteries appeals a great deal because it supports nature reserves that might otherwise fall to the developers’ axe. There are more than 200 such woodland or meadow cemeteries in the UK, and about 20 in the States, with more on the way. Green cemeteries ban embalming, fancy coffins and vaults, and implement shallow graves. And they are loveliness itself, a joy for grieving families and hikers, both.

Pyrolysium might some day dispose of bodies via pyrolysis, and turn our dearly departed into sacks of biochar that can be conveniently used as soil amendment.

Composting large road-kill like deer has been successfully implemented in several places around the country by laying the corpse on a bed of woodchips, then piling a whole lot of chips on top. The decomposition is completed within several months, and the bones ground up for bone meal fertilizer. Why not do that with humans? I would be happy to volunteer. It sounds like the cleanest, sanest, simplest, and cheapest alternative of all.

Unless, of course, you can bury your loved one on your own plot of land. It is not that difficult in most states, and the book Final Rights will help you navigate the legalities.

And don’t forget biodegradable, tree-sparing coffins and shrouds, ranging from cardboard boxes (lame), through soft winding sheets, all the way to beautiful willow basketry, felt cocoons, and papier-mache pods. About time.

Let’s all play “beat the reaper” and turn our used-up bodies into new life!

A properly socialized individual had a powerful sense that the wild world was feeding him, and he ought to be as grateful and as anxious to act decently as he would to any human who fed him out of sheer kindness.
– E.N. Anderson, Ecologies of the heart

People intuitively view agriculture as the root of domination because intensifying food economies made possible large surpluses which could then support elites and their servants. As indeed they did. But the link with agriculture is conditional.

Certain well-endowed economies (whether foraging, horti, field agriculture, or grazing) make large surpluses possible. But they do not make them inevitable. Food harvests– of any kind — do not lead to surplus unless the people in question decide to produce it. Given the fact that humans generally have better things to do with themselves than toil, they tend to work as little as necessary to cover their food needs and a little extra for the winter or an upcoming celebration. If they planted a field of rye, and it produced twice as much as they expected, they’d be likely to plant half next year, and spare themselves the extra work. If salmon or anchovies are particularly plentiful this year, why not kick back and enjoy the easy life?

And indeed, there is a great deal of evidence that “agriculture does not automatically create a food surplus. We know this because many agricultural people of the world produce no such surplus. Virtually all Amazonian Indians, for example, were agricultural, but in aboriginal times they did not produce a food surplus. That it was technically feasible for them to produce such a surplus is shown by the fact that, under the stimulus or European settlers’ desire for food, a number of tribes did raise manioc in amounts well above their own needs, for the purpose of trading.” These tribespeople went back to underproduction when their trading needs were satisfied.

Even the simplest foragers often produced some subsistence surplus. They were, however, not exercised much by planning ahead, and often blew through the entire cache at a midwinter feast, going hungry shortly thereafter, trusting that the world would provide. Many anthropologists noted that strictures against taking “more than you need” were extant in these societies.

Boreal Algonquians expected intermittent periods of hunger during the winter, and these fasts—and even the possible threat of death—were preferable to the planning and labor entailed by food storage. The definition of the resource situation was one in which animals were ordinarily available and hunger a predictable, endurable, and usually transient aspect of the winter round. It is precisely in this arbitrary weighting of risk aversion and optimism that the operation of the cultural logic of Cree labor is specifiable. The costs of the labor, always potentially superfluous, entailed in storage was reckoned disproportionate to the reliability ensured by the surplus. Before approximately 1900, boreal forest Algonquians often fasted and sometimes perished for lack of food. These tragedies would have occurred less frequently if more intensive food storage had been practiced. Experiencing long-term game shortages as though they were new instances of transient scarcity, the Algonquians continued, with some concessions, “to let tomorrow provide for itself.” The decision to store less and starve more (or, among Chipewyans, to store more and starve less) was not objectively determined by the Canadian Shield ecosystem, the limits of the technology, or caloric efficiency. The paradox of the starving Montagnais consuming all their preserved eels in autumn feasts is a particularly forceful example of the meaningful construction of utility, efficiency, and the entire structure of foraging labor and consumption. This skepticism toward advanced planning and reliability is not limited exclusively to foragers. Audrey Richards’s (1932) classic monograph on the Bemba is a detailed exposition of an agricultural society whose members preferred transient hunger to what they deemed excessive labor.

To broaden the areal focus, comparable practices existed even in a “delayed return” foraging society like the Alaskan Koyukons who occupied sedentary winter villages provisioned by preserved fish and caribou meat. According to Sullivan (1942), the Koyukons sometimes disposed of their stored foods during lavish feasts in late summer, midwinter, and early spring. The midwinter feasts, in particular, sometimes occasioned hardship if hunting was unsuccessful, but they continued into the present century. The Koyukon feasts pose the same paradox as the Montagnais: the surplus was accumulated and preserved but then consumed, precluding its use to level fluctuations in the long term. Murphy (1970:153) described among the Brazilian Munduruçu “the hunter’s glut, an abundance of meat that had to be consumed before it spoiled, and the men stayed at home because further hunting would have been a crime against the game and because they had to apply themselves steadily to the serious business of eating.”

These subsistence surpluses hedge the bets of survival a little; much of the time, though, simple (or “immediate return”) foragers only get enough to eat for the next several days. Surplus that goes beyond subsistence is a luxury good. Since it is above what the community needs, it can be traded, or given away, and no one is the worse off. It is not the little extra a community needs to weather a winter or to set aside seed for spring planting. That “little extra” is needed for survival and cannot be derailed toward optional undertakings. Luxury surplus is the kind that can support elites.

The extant records, like the ones quoted above, show that even the most basic subsistence surpluses were the result of choice. Only more so, then, can luxury surpluses be said to result from a choice (within either forager, horticultural, or agricultural economies). They cannot be the automatic result of the agricultural way of life. There will be no surplus, no matter how abundant the land, unless the people in question decide to override their culture’s disapproval, begin taking more than they need, and devote much more effort to storage techniques. And it appears that the first people who chose to produce luxury surpluses were very ancient complex (or “delayed-return“) foragers. Brian Hayden has this to say:

From all the indications that prehistorians have gathered, it appears that humans have existed for well over 2 million years in a state of relative equality. It is possible to perceive the glimmerings of some changes toward socioeconomic inequality around 50,000 years ago. These changes became more pronounced in some areas about 30,000 years ago, and then became especially dramatic and widespread after about 15,000 years ago.

The shift toward socioeconomic inequality is not tied to food production, but occurred well before agriculture emerged. At the end of the Pleistocene, these changes occurred independently in a number of different areas of the globe. Thus the emergence of significant inequality followed a pattern that is strikingly similar to the emergence of food production, but preceded it by many millennia. (Richman, Poorman, Beggarman, Chief, 2007)

There we have it. The root of domination lies in the Paleolithic, deep in forager world.

gravetian man

All of life is related — you and I and plants and wildlife are kin.
– California native saying

Actually, Jason Godesky is rather brilliant; his 30 Theses deserve a good look. He struggled mightily with defining horticulture and agriculture, did not quite get it right, but made a lot of good points. Can I do better? Or at least, can I come up with something that will enable us to communicate more clearly about these matters? With trepidation, I am giving it a shot. The purpose of this post is not to find the Right and Correct definition, but to untangle the definitional knots so that we can talk with one another and get somewhere.

On the basis of some baffling conversations I’ve had, it occurred to me the other day that there are three definitions of horticulture. As though two were not bad enough! Rereading Jason’s essay made me realize there are actually four. Muddy waters, anyone?

The first definition of course refers to gardening. Second and third definitions are anthropological, and the fourth is perhaps best termed permacultural. Together, they make it nigh impossible for us to make sense of each other’s point of view. According to definition #2, horticulture is simple cultivation aided by hoes, typically involving slash-and-burn and long fallow periods, defined by the anthropologists at Oregon State as “agricultural technology distinguished by the use of hand tools to grow domesticated plants; does not use draft animals, irrigation, or specially prepared fertilizers.”

In definition #3, anthropologists have shifted away from simply describing specific techniques of cultivation. Starting with an assumption of a “cultivation continuum of intensity,” horticulture is small scale cultivation using a variety of mixed crops, and augmentation of nearby forest or meadow with fruit and nut trees. It is “plant cultivation carried out with relatively simple tools and methods; nature is allowed to replace nutrients in the soil, in the absence of permanently cultivated fields.” Sustainable cultivation is seen as a problem of resources and of lowering their consumption, considering energy invested and energy reaped, and noting that moving in the direction of greater intensification means efficiency losses in terms of calories spent to calories gained. Agriculture in both these frameworks means “intensive cultivation — use of irrigation, draft animals, terracing, fertilizers, selective breeding, mechanization, etc., to grow more food.”

A combination of #2 and #3 is what I have assumed in the past. It got me into trouble with people who follow Godesky’s definition #4, which shifts the focus to ecological relationships. Jason criticizes definition #3 as a “view that carries with it the bias of the agricultural society it came from. We are still looking at cultivation solely in terms of production; we may have widened our view to consider the energy invested in cultivation as well as the food energy such cultivation provides, but there is still lacking from this perspective any consideration of how cultivation relates to the ecology it is based on.” He also inveighs against tilling, fields, monocropping, and abandoning foraging for part of one’s nutrition. Defining agriculture as cultivation that relies on suppressing succession, and horticulture as cultivation by means of succession, he insists on a purity that actual horticulturists rarely exhibited. (He backpedals in the comments.) Eventually, he goes out on a limb, insisting on a “yawning chasm” between agriculture and horticulture, and brands agriculture as “cultivation by means of catastrophe [plow tillage].” It ends up a confusing mish-mash along with some questionable claims. However, he makes an excellent point when he says: “what divides agriculture and horticulture is less a question of a particular technique or even the intensity of investment, but rather, the ecological effect of their strategies.” He lifts into prominence it deserves the careful consideration of how cultivation relates to the ecology within which it exists, and all the relationships involved.

We then encounter a problem: the Easter Islanders were horticulturists by definition #2, leaning toward agriculture according to definition #3 on account of their steady intensification, and agriculturists according to definition #4 since they clearly failed to encourage succession and regrowth of the forest canopy. And all this despite the fact that they neither irrigated, used the plow, wielded anything other than simple tools, and cultivated gardens, not fields! Are you confused yet? I can add to the confusion by pointing out that all forager/cultivators used the “catastrophe” of fire regularly to suppress succession. Or that the Tikopians might have been defined as agriculturists when they first colonized the island and rapidly, heedlessly intensified, and as horticulturists much later with their restrained and regenerative practices (killing the pigs, leveling their social structure, capping their population, and learning to grow forest gardens that gave the land a chance). Counter-intuitive, this. And where do pastures fit in? Then there is the whole issue of leaving foragers out of these dueling definitions: they too sometimes intensified to the detriment of the landbase, they too sometimes got too heavy-handed while imposing their will on the land, fraying ties with ‘all their relations.’

I am of a mind that all these definition carry a part of the truth. Nevertheless, in discussions with our allies it is important to pay attention to the definition each person uses. Only then can shared language be put to use in an effort to increase mutual understanding. And let me make a plea: if a person not given to flights of intellectual fancy uses the word ‘agriculture’ in a more general sense — such as “sustainable or regenerative agriculture” — or God forbid, while referring to horticulture or permaculture, let’s give them plenty of slack. After all, it’s shared values and commitments and good mutual relationships that will enable us to move ahead together on taking better care of the landbase.

I have learned something in this brief exploration. While I see ratcheting intensification of food production as the main factor that tips relatively benign foraging/cultivation practices towards the damaging end of the spectrum, the nurture of mutually beneficial relationships cannot be ignored, and indeed may buffer certain amounts of intensification. Restraint in the choice of tools and techniques, limits on how much human food can be removed from a given area with attention to regeneration, as well as the cultivation of “right relationships” with the living beings who feed us, all add up to an economy that endures.

In addition, selectively incorporating cycles of succession into our patterns of cultivation makes eminent sense. I rather like professor Kottak’s definition in his Cultural Anthropology textbook.

A baseline distinction between agriculture and horticulture is that horticulture requires regular fallowing whereas agriculture does not. Horticulture is non-intensive plant cultivation, based on the use of simple tools and cyclical, noncontinuous use of crop lands.

Godesky rejected this definition because it mentions fallowing, and fallowing was in wide use among medieval peasant farmers. But their fallowing gave the land no rest; it meant keeping the field out of grain production for a season or two while plowing it several times to gain an edge against pests. Perhaps he would approve now; true fallowing allows the land to follow the succession sequence of that particular ecology long enough for the land to reach its steady-state apex accompanied by soil regeneration. (There is another kind of fallow called ley fallow, where a field is converted into a leguminous pasture for a number of years, allowing it to recover. This type of fallow played a key role in the “agricultural revolution” of early modern Flanders and England, and on primarily forested land it provides an intermediary point between bare field fallow and succession fallow.)

Rose by any other name will smell as sweet. Ruinous cultivation by any other name still offends the senses. Behold the stinkers:

  • Reckless application of new tools and techniques without adequate consideration of their longer term consequences,
  • ratcheting intensification of human food production,
  • a broken nutrient cycle,
  • relentless fight against succession,
  • seeing the living beings that feed us as mere things and resources, to be used and abused at will,
  • and failure to grow new soil.

Hex them, each and every one of them! Now, and forever, amen.

amish hex


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