I cannae not mention Scotland as it nears its incredible referendum tomorrow. Will the Scots secede from Great Britain?

I have been watching the politics unfolding through various blogs over a couple of years. I have seen the push for indy go from a tiny hope to a massive groundswell. A grassroots political campaign, a passionate, everybody-is-talking-about-it, whoosh of energy kind of political campaign — who would have thunk it possible?! The young, all fired up! It gives me goosebumps.

No matter who “wins” tomorrow, Great Britain will never be the same. Scotland will never be the same. Because what’s been happening is politics-as-culture, politics-as-fun, politics that rises from the people. After the massive betrayal of Scottish mainstream press, of whom all the dailies supported the fear-mongering from Westminster, after the absurd lies put out by the “impartial” BBC… how could the ‘status quo’ ever recover its status?

What lies? For example, when the Glaswegians staged a massive, exuberant “pouring into the streets” — I would not call it a demonstration, it was a joyful huge party! — the BBC news gave it a few seconds, finagling to downplay the impact. When a demonstration gathered outside the BBC building in protest of its coverage, they did not report it at all on news that night. Someone — BBC web site? — claimed there were hundreds of police protecting the BBC building, all lies. Even the police are now protesting against the wave of biased coverage. When a BBC reporter claimed the Scottish First Minister, Alec Salmond, refused to answer his pointy question, hundreds of thousands had already watched the clip on the internet, where Salmond gave the reporter a run for his money. The negatives just kept on coming. “Project Fear,” the indy blogs called it. Pathetic, pathetic, pathetic and venal. (By the way, the two major politicos in Scotland in support of indy are named, improbably, Salmon(d) and Sturgeon. Surely, this is as good an omen as the fact that Scotland’s animal is the unicorn! :-)

When Czechoslovakia came to an end, I did not support the separation. Perhaps because, like the English, I was part of the dominant majority. It felt like a loss; it still does. But I could see that the Slovaks were tired of all the mean jokes, tired of playing second fiddle, first to the Hungarians, then to the Czechs. Wanting to have a go at self-governance.

Now, with Scotland (and Catalonia), I am a big fan of independence. Because I’d like to know what the Scots can do on their own. Because I am for local autonomy and bioregional cultures everywhere. Because, like they, I am sick of the gray politics of “nothing ever really changes,” of watching the beast of power-hungry centralization creep and lurch on. Because the incessant disinformation of the last year, particularly against Russia and pro-Kiev, has grown so shrill and shameless that all I can feel is fury at America’s Powers that Be who have shed all pretense of political fair play and opted for naked, clumsy, brutish propaganda.

Saor Alba! Free Scotland!

saor alba

Governance activities are organized in multiple layers of nested enterprises.
— Elinor Ostrom

It was Elinor Ostrom who began to speak of nestedness as one of the key components of a successful co-governance of the commons. But tribal societies had long been organized along these lines. A regional tribal alliance nested within it several tribes, which each nested several bands, and those nested several affinity clusters, composed of individual human beings. This way of organizing has an organic feel to it; our own bodies are “nested enterprises.”

holarchy2

 

It’s a curious thing. Human (tribal) organization units — affinity clusters, bands, tribes, tribal confederacies — don’t scale up. They don’t grow by proportional increase. What happens if an affinity group is pushed to grow past its natural limit? Ill will rises amongst the members. The strengths of the group — intimacy, trust, spontaneous conversations, easy problem solving — begin to fade. The group turns dysfunctional. People leave. When it reaches some 20-25 members, the size of a small band, it begins to function again, as facilitation, talking sticks, councils, committees and other formal devices are implemented to manage group process. It looks like a band, but is it? The previous formation out of which it has grown has been destroyed. The resulting “band” is just a growing collection of individuals, no longer anchored in smaller units, and vulnerable to the misuse of power. This is the violence of “biggering” that this civilization brings into everything it touches. As hamlets grow into small towns, and towns into cities, the person’s political clout vanishes, and anonymity and deracination take their toll.

holarchyinfinite

Why don’t we learn from the growth of entities that are not known for ravaging the inheritance they have been given? A healthy cell does not grow unchecked. It divides. The divided cells form clusters, which form tissues, which form organs, and eventually, an organism arises, all without anyone dictating the development. That is how nestedness works. Some call it holarchy. They say it’s a type of hierarchy, but it seems to me the inverse of a hierarchy: there is no top or bottom, and there are no bosses. As this diagram shows, there are always more potential levels each way, as atoms give way to subatomic particles, and organisms rise together to form societies, ecosystems, and beyond.

Holarchy: a meta-system of irreducible wholes that are themselves part of larger wholes, ultimately comprising all life on earth from a single cell to the entire planetary ecosphere.

holdom

What if we were to grow communities via natural self-organization? Individuals spontaneously form affinity groups. Some flourish more than others, and divide. Out of several, a band emerges. Out of a few bands, a tribe emerges. (It would take only 7 layers starting with groups of a dozen to include every human on the face of the earth!) Note that this sort of growth does not do violence to the prior, more local, smaller groupings. They keep on flourishing, part and parcel of the logic of that particular social organism.

Holarchy

holarchic schema of a tribe

What is the advantage of this way of growth and organization, besides imitating the success of Mother Nature? Governance can take place appropriately; the smaller, earlier units largely retain their autonomy; the broader, more encompassing later units like bands and tribes deal with broader matters that pertain to bands and tribes. Easy conversations, intimacy and trust are undiminished. At the same time, the larger, later units bring with their emergence novel advantages: coordination, attention to larger parts of the commons, diversified talent pools, and clout. And the organization that remains anchored in small groups of trusted associates has a leg up on the problem of free riding. It is easy to see what other people are doing within your group; easy to apply peer pressure if needed. The genius of successful commons management summarized in Ostrom’s eight principles rests on trust which is impossible without people knowing one another well over time.

Nested systems are self-organizing, emergent, bottom-up systems. They preserve direct involvement of each member. They are polycentric, having many semi-autonomous decision nodes rather than one. This makes them robust, adaptable, and resilient. Rules too are crafted from the bottom up, and are adjustable by the members with a focus on creating a structure of incentives favorable to both trust-building and maintaining a diverse environment favorable to discovering better solutions to problems. To paraphrase Ostrom, “when large systems fail, there are smaller systems to call upon — and vice versa.” Each smaller, earlier level is influenced by, and itself influences, the broader, later levels. Each cluster, each band, each tribe is an entity unto itself, and a part of an entity larger than itself. Allowing decisions to be made as close to the scene of events and the actors involved as possible, each affinity cluster, each band is a self-regulating, open system that displays both the autonomous properties of wholes and the dependent properties of parts.

So. What’s stopping us?

There are no female characters in “The Wind in the Willows,” and male friendship is exalted above all other forms of human interaction.
— Gary Kamiya

I was asked by a friend to review James Howard Kunstler’s third novel in the World Made by Hand series, with a focus on his portrayal of women in post-collapse America. Other reviewers have capably covered A History of the Future from other angles (see, for example, here and here). Considering that many women criticized Mr. Kunstler’s take after the first book came out, I was curious to see how (or whether) his thinking and attitudes evolved.

There are four new major characters appearing in the book, two men and two women. They are as follows:

  • Daniel Earle, son of Robert Earle, returned from seeing the world
  • Andrew Pendergast, 37, successful prepper and Renaissance Man
  • Loving Morrow, 51, prominent southern leader
  • Mandy Stokes, who goes berserk, kills her son and husband at the beginning of the book, and whose confinement and disposition weave the narratives together

Daniel’s long travelogue occupies much of the book. He comes across, at age 20, as mature, very resourceful and adaptable, hardy, strong, sober, sensible, and loyal.

Andrew is perhaps the only endearing character to have emerged so far in Union Grove (I have not read the second book). He saw the writing on the wall, invested wisely, gathered up supplies, skills and lovely old china before the crash, and thrives in this new world where good tools and locally useful competencies are what matters. He is the model resilient city-culture escapee and all-round decent person.

President Loving Morrow holds her breakaway republic in thrall with the help of religious gibberish, southern bonhomie, and revival of rabid racism. She is the come-to-life “cornpone Nazi,” a personage whose eventual emergence to American leadership Mr. Kunstler has been forecasting for a number of years, and seems to be modeled after Dolly Parton. Say… didn’t the feisty Miss Dolly star in a film that featured an alliance of three uppity women taking their piggish male chauvinist, lying creep of a boss down a few pegs? Praise her!

Mandy, 32, commits horrible murders while her mind is deranged by illness; she is frequently referred to thereafter as “poor girl” or just “girl.” It may be of interest that she got her master’s in Women’s Studies, the epitome of uselessness, just before the crash. Even though she and her husband succeed in getting out of the city to a friend’s farm, she manages to unravel her life anyway, and pathos is her only discernible virtue.

As the curtain rises on the larger post-collapse new order, in the American northeast, women have been silenced and somehow forced to retreat to that old Prussian/Nazi ideal, Kinder-Küche-Kirche. On the Great Lakes, the feds barely hang on. In the south, racists have gone rampant.

Women continue to play no political, commercial or other notable roles in the community of Union Grove. Men are in charge, and the book moves, by and large, from one male-dominated scene to another. Women are deferential, quiet and soft-spoken, flutter in and out, and their endowments are duly oggled. Their voices mostly come through shadowy, unreal, unimportant to the scenes where the real action is. This is the world of women as helpmeets, not partners. That, and the huge contrast between the new slate of characters above tells a lot about the author’s agenda and the resentments he may be burdened by and/or caters to.

Mr. Kunstler is not the only doomer to have gone awry, from a woman’s point of view. I watched with dismay last year as the otherwise perspicacious and witty Mr. Orlov unraveled into vindictive misogyny following — gasp! — some criticism from women after his 2013 Age of Limits presentation. To this day he holds grudges, censors women on his blog, and throws poisoned darts. The shocks I sustained by the first World Made by Hand and the Orlov spectacle pushed me to reflect on the reasons many of us lean toward the collapsitarian worldview. The soul-sickness engendered by modernity and the longing to see this increasingly fast-forward horror to end, even to our personal detriment, certainly informs my own life. Perhaps as a consequence, I drink deep and often from the well of nostalgia for bygone days when life made more sense and when the natural world was still relatively whole. But I’ve been forced to conclude that this same nostalgia plays into the hands of bigots of all stripes who want to see their old-fashioned privileges restored. It’s depressing to see Mr. Kunstler come down hard on one kind of bigotry while promoting another.

He has argued that these, er, changes, in the status of women are inevitable, given the logic of post-collapse world. I am not much of a fan of “historical inevitability.” JHK seems unable or unwilling to distinguish between gender-based division of work (much of which does make sense, and is supported by anthropological data), and gender-based power imbalance and domination. He does say, though, that he realizes people don’t give up political gains without a fight. Why then doesn’t he weave that fight into his trilogy? In what way was this massive shift accomplished in less than a generation? And surely it would be remembered and retold by those who survived the aftermath of the Great Unraveling — if anybody listened to the women, that is.

One of the problems addressed in this particular series of events is the threat of waning legal knowledge in the community, and the unlikelihood of replacing the aging former lawyers with new blood fresh from law school. I tried to imagine what this gentlemen’s club that runs Union Grove would have done if a woman lawyer turned up, living in the vicinity. Would they: a) pretend she did not exist, b) try to wink, wink, nudge, nudge her into irrelevance, c) discredit her credentials, or d) tell her, falsely, that her expertise was not needed? Does anyone see an honorable and sane option here?

Is Mr. Kunstler so lacking in imagination that the best he can do is foresee a society run by “good ol’ boys,” a society of masters and servants, squires and farmhands, and women put in their place, as some have suggested? Not likely. My best guess is that his main fan base consists of male doomers, luddite dreamers, anti-modernists, preppers, and prepper wannabes who fantasize about being real players in the post-collapse world, and who — to one extent or another — wear the cloak of gender-relations enlightenment but lightly on their shoulders. If so, then Mr. Kunstler is not likely to change his mind no matter how many people criticize, or how ably, the logic behind the world he created. His income depends on his not understanding.

I won’t be revisiting Union Grove any time soon. I will be looking forward to someone conjuring up a vivid and believable post-collapse world that sings to women as well as to men who are repelled by paternalistic, neo-feudalist reveries. It could make all the difference to the future whose history we are writing with our lives. In any case, with rewilded Senecas already sighted just over the horizon in this particular world made by hand, can it be more than a generation hence when a new Iroquois Confederacy rises and shows the denizens of upstate NY a thing or two about equitable self-governance?

iroquois woman

an Iroquois woman

Democracy is born in conversation.
— John Dewey

I was wrong. The band is not the fundamental natural unit of the human species. And neither is the family, as we are enculturated to believe. The affinity cluster is. Gang kids call it the fam. Workplaces use work groups or committees. Revolutionaries convene cells. Small therapy groups form among people growing out of old wounds. There are study circles, book clubs, and hobby groups… the list goes on, even in the post-tribal human world.

A band is too large to give people the experience of intimacy and close connection we crave. Anthropologists have often documented how bands break up into small groups of close companions. The Delaware Indians, for example, would wander off in the summer, the time of plenty, to enjoy foraging with a small group of friends, some of whom may have been relatives. Similar data have been reported the world over.

Anthropologist Nurit Bird-David describes a south India hill tribe she studied. This valley was inhabited by a band of 69 people (adults and children) who lived in tiny groupings of one to three huts separated by 2-10 kilometers. The band was part of a larger tribe called Nayaka. Blood relations were of course common, but people had little interest in genealogies. Bird-David argues that kinship means something quite different to the foragers. “‘To relate’ in a pragmatic sense is something one does when one shares a place and cooperates with others.” This sort of ‘relating’ is what makes relatives!

People from the various clusters visited all the time, for varying periods. They all lived in easily constructed bamboo shelters, and so it was simple for visitors to add their own space onto what existed if the visit turned into a stay. Some moved away to another band; newcomers came into the valley and were integrated into the “kinship” stories. The Nayaka band used what anthropologists call “universal kinship” — all children were called sons or daughters, elders were senior mothers and fathers, the younger adults were junior mothers and fathers, sisterhood and brotherhood was similarly fluid. Even names changed often. She gives a picture of a society in constant sociable motion.

Britannica’s article on tribes and bands tells us: “The [Sioux] Sisseton, Sicangu, Yankton, and other independent “bands” in turn comprised numbers of smaller entities, each consisting of several households that lived and worked together. Membership was at this smallest level very fluid and typically coalesced around the bonds of kinship and friendship. Flexibility of residence provided an excellent way to access social support and to cope with the vagaries of a foraging economy.”

I speculate that blood families only came together as a firm social unit when foragers, first in the Near East, began to build permanent dwellings, forming towns. It was then that lineages, relatives’ burials in the floors, skulls on display, and mythical genealogies began to assume importance. After all, housing that lasted many generations needed uncontested inheritance customs. This pattern was reinforced when, later, families appropriated certain parts of the commons as gardens and fields.

How large would such a cluster of friends ideally be? Christopher Allen’s blog Life with Alacrity has a treasure trove of posts on “community by the numbers.” Here is my favorite one, explaining not only affinity clusters but also the limits of larger groups. Two or three people seem perfect as study dyads and triads. “Where two or three gather in my name…” — the first Christians began their house churches this way. A committee consists typically of 5 to 9 people. It has enough resources for effective decision-making, yet is small enough to keep conversation flowing easily. Everybody gets their say. I was once part of a wonderful women’s therapy group that was capped at 10. It worked best when 2 or 3 people did not show on a particular night; when we were full up, I fretted I might not get enough input into my own issues. At Twin Oaks Community, everybody is part of a small living group (SLG); one or two SLGs inhabit a group house.

If, as I believe, sociopolitical self-organization begins with conversations, then effective social units must begin with groups small enough to converse freely, leisurely, in-depth, without the encumbrance of rules and agendas attendant larger gatherings. Such informal conversation then prepare the ground for all-band or all-village decisions. Robert Wolff, in his remarkable book Original Wisdom, relates a story about a tribal village in Malaysia that lost its chief. Instead of organizing a decision-making body, they engaged in small group conversations for a full two years, at which point everybody knew who the next chief was; he at some point began to act the role. No vote was ever taken, and if a council was convened, it was to validate the choice the village had already made.

Jan Martin Bang notes in his book Ecovillages:

From my experience in community and with people, it seems to me that for most households it would probably be best to live in a group around a dozen. We all can gather around the table and have a conversation over a meal. When the table grows to fifteen or more, conversations tend to split into subgroups and the noise level grows, often uncomfortably. It’s crowded.

So here are some characteristics of affinity clusters that come to mind:

  • they are composed of people who like one another, enjoy each other’s company, work well together
  • they tend to stay within a dozen or fewer
  • the exact size is given by the purpose of the group, and can be adjusted up and down based on how well the group functions
  • they are small enough for easy-going, informal conversations
  • in a small group, simple consensus is usually easy and natural
  • odd-numbered groups may work best because the “odd man out” can moderate polarized views

Interestingly, psychologist George Miller had decades ago studied the connection between numbers and our neural capacities, as did Robin Dunbar much later in another context. But Miller focused on small numbers. In his paper The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information, he hypothesized that we discern and remember best in clusters of sevens. I have a feeling it may provide a clue to affinity cluster size as well. I enjoyed his whimsical closing:

And finally, what about the magical number seven? What about the seven wonders of the world, the seven seas, the seven deadly sins, the seven daughters of Atlas in the Pleiades, the seven ages of man, the seven levels of hell, the seven primary colors, the seven notes of the musical scale, and the seven days of the week? What about the seven-point rating scale, the seven categories for absolute judgment, the seven objects in the span of attention, and the seven digits in the span of immediate memory? For the present I propose to withhold judgment. Perhaps there is something deep and profound behind all these sevens, something just calling out for us to discover it. But I suspect that it is only a pernicious, Pythagorean coincidence.

An aside: George Miller also formulated Miller’s Law which states: “To understand what another person is saying, you must assume that it is true and try to imagine what it could be true of.” One of my personal major eye-openers.

Well then. If you show up worrying whether you’ll have a chance to express yourself, your group is too big. If you have to wait for permission to speak, your group is too big. If you’ve passed the dozen, your group is too big.

Beware the Judas Number! ;-)

It takes a tremendous amount of ongoing work to disrupt the tendency of the land in the Plains to try to become a prairie, or the land in the Northeast to become a forest. Ecosystem succession is a force of nature to contend with, and it requires huge amounts of energy to disrupt it with the plow or the herbicide tank. Then it takes even more energy to substitute for the ecosystem services that got disrupted…
— Tim Crews, The Land Institute

On my recent cross-country trip east, I finally made it to the Land Institute. What took me so long? It’s just a smidgen south of Salina, Kansas. A lovely way to break up a tedious journey. Salina, with its 20 inches of precipitation per year, tips into the more humid, green, fertile part of Kansas. Here a fascinating experiment has been unfolding for some thirty years, hitting its stride only recently. On the surface, these dedicated folks are breeding perennial grains. But their heart’s desire is to re-think and re-do food agriculture altogether. I kept hearing of the project for years. I expected to find monocultures of perennial crops that could end the frequent plowing associated with annuals. But joy, I found a whole new paradigm.

What was once a tiny homestead with a dream has bloomed into some 200 acres with a small but impressive research facility. And what was once a “crazy idea” has moved into the mainstream: a number of universities are well into perennial grain projects, here and in Canada. Land Institute’s first grain, kernza, which is mostly a wild grass with some wheat genes brought in the old-fashioned way, is now grown on significant acreage at the University of Minnesota, and will be developed into “sustainable foods” under the auspices of Yvon Chouinard’s Patagonia company. The Land Institute is focusing at present on four perennial crops: kernza (Thinopyrum intermedium), wheat, cold-hardy sorghum, and a couple of species of sunflowers. Other institutions have been crossing maize back to ancestral teosinte, and perennializing other grains (notably rice).

Perennial grain research has a long history of frustration and failure, not even counting those talented ancient breeders from whom we’ve inherited most of the annual crops that feed us. The Soviets abandoned their decades long breeding program in the 60s. Others too threw in the towel. The main obstacle to developing perennial grains is the conflict between perenniality and seed production. An annual plant throws its all into the seeds and dies. So it becomes easy to breed for bigger seeds. But a perennial plant throws itself into establishing deep roots meant to overwinter the plant and allow repeated survival. Therefore, its seed production is lackluster compared to annuals. Those plants that do survive have lower yields, while those that give higher yields die. A conundrum. In the old days, yield was everything, and that was the final nail in the coffin of all those early projects. But now that we know about soil and habitat loss, and the loss of carbon and nitrogen from the soil in the wake of the plow, the yield numbers look quite a bit more favorable.

I must report that kernza is wonderfully tasty, and its flour can be obtained at the Institute’s yearly celebration — the Prairie Festival — at the end of September, along with plenty of goodies made from it, of course. The word is that small farmers and gardeners will be brought into the kernza project in the coming years to help test the new grain in a variety of conditions and climates. The Institute is collecting a list of interested folks.

The first thing my tour guide did was to walk out to the land to show me a stand of old prairie. I was more interested in the experimental field of kernza in the distance. Only later, as I worked through all the information and Wes Jackson’s early book, New Roots for Agriculture, did my paradigm go pop! They are not aiming to grow monoculture fields of perennials. Their vision is to grow an edible prairie.

Imagine! An edible prairie where grains, legumes, oil seed plants and other forbs coexist for years without replanting. The harvest is timed in such a way that most of the seeds can be plucked together, then mechanically sorted. Just as a food forest is a fusion of garden, orchard and woodland, so the food prairie is a fusion of garden, field, and grassland. This is the sort of plant community that can feed humans sustainably in places where nature herself prefers open grasslands of one kind or another.

Take a good look. These “amber waves of grain” were grown by Mother Nature in South Dakota.

dakota prairie

Springtime at the Coyne Prairie in Missouri… ah.

coyne prairie

And Indian paintbrushes feeding a hummingbird along the grasses of a Wisconsin prairie. I just could not resist.

piantbrushes

Shocking, isn’t it, to contemplate a vast expanse of ripening grasses that thrive, year in and year out, century in and century out, without outside inputs, without fertilizers, and pesticides, without weeding, and without human “management.” And build soil in the process!

While food forests were utilized by subsistence farmers in Amazonia, Oceania and southeastern North America, there is no record of ancient food prairies that I am aware of. Perhaps those neolithic farmer/breeders took the easy way out. Breeding grassy/herby perennials and combining them into complex communities, then harvesting them successfully presents so many obstacles even today that Wes Jackson’s crew has had to endure disbelief for years. And indeed, the Land Institute does not have many of the answers even now. In order to learn grow an edible prairie, first you must have the plants to do it with.

kernza

kernza

Yet… I have this tickly feeling that when the prairies were plowed up and blown away, we all lost more than good deep soil and critter habitat. Would it be so far out of the range of possibility to think that the Sioux — who had been farmers, growing maize, beans, squash, melons and tobacco, leaving that livelihood behind with the coming of the horse — did not abandon their plant selection and modification skills as they followed the buffalo? Most of the time, it was the prairie that fed them, not the big animals. Surely they tended the land just like the tribes in California (described so vividly in Tending the Wild). Did they sprinkle their favorite grass seeds in the way of the buffalo to be trampled in? Did they replant nutritious tubers and nurture and spread patches of their favorite berries? Did they encourage lamb’s quarters with particularly big seeds? Certainly they lit fires that set back the annuals and encouraged new growth. Applying their skills toward making the prairie around them even more edible, even more abundant, they may have left an inheritance that would simply not have been noticed by European observers. After all, westerners caught on to the role Amazonian tribes played in the creation of that fecund jungle just a few years ago. Such gentle, mutually enhancing coexistence with the surrounding biome comes to us as a surprise.

There seems to be enough evidence that modestly-well yielding and tasty perennial grasses, oil seed plants and legumes that also survive for several years are not too distant a goal. But I see a temptation to take the most promising of these and grow them in monocultures. Why? Because that is what the first farmers involved in the project are already doing, right now. Even for organic farmers, the jump to perennials and polycultures might be too big to make. On the other hand, for permaculture-oriented folk, it’s the natural step, because we are rooted in the polyculture vision to begin with. An alliance of perennial plant breeders, those with prairie restoration experience, and permaculturists is needed to guide this project on the next leg of its ambitious, far-seeing journey.

roots

Down there we have a plant that grows out in the woods and the fields, looks somethin’ like a turnip green.
Everybody calls it Polk salad. Polk salad.
Used to know a girl that lived down there and
she’d go out in the evenings and pick a mess of it…
Carry it home and cook it for supper, ’cause that’s about all they had to eat. But they did all right.
— Elvis

Had I only received the gift of poke alone during my sojourn at Earthaven, it would have been enough. I have been an herbalist and an alternative medicine user for many many years. And still, I missed out on a plant that has quickly become an integral part of my herbal medicine chest. Pokeweed has been surrounded by Appalachian lore going back to the native Indians, then embraced by the hill and hollow folk. To this day, much fearful misinformation is spread by more official channels, but the ranks of poke friends and admirers is growing. Permit me to introduce you to Phytolacca americana, also known as inkberry, pokeberry, pocan, and many other names.

Poke is nothing if not flamboyant. Massive convoluted roots shoot up tall, thick reddish stems by late spring, singly or in thickets. White pendulous flower clusters follow quickly, and from midsummer to frost, the plants are weighed down by a profusion of dark purple berries. It dies back in late fall.

poke1

poke2

Squish a handful of berries and you’ve just created unparalleled body paint of iridescent purple. When Earthaven celebrated the anniversary of its founding last September, a jolly procession of pokejuice-enhanced humans walked from the Gateway Barn to the Village Green while longtime residents recalled the history of landmarks along the way. Poke obliges by easily washing out with soap and water. (Some fiber artisans are using it as a natural dye; it needs a mordant to set the color.)

poke purple

pokeyarn

Using vinegar for mordant, a rich red dye is produced

Before proceeding further, I want to acquaint you with my off-the-cuff classification of plants and fungi in relation to their safety.

Category A: beneficial, easy to recognize, edible (e.g.: chamomile, chanterelle)

Category B: beneficial, modest caution recommended in recognition and/or use (e.g.: cannabis, champignon mushroom)

Category C: beneficial, with significant toxicities, use knowledgeably with care (e.g.: lobelia, comfrey)

Category D: poisonous, often lethal or leaves permanent damage, not for lay use (e.g.: hemlock — no, not the tree!, white snakeroot, death angel amanita)

The noble poke falls in Category C. Some parts of the plant can make a person briefly, intensely ill. The internet reports a death of a small child from crunching on the seeds. (To put this in perspective: the tomato plant has caused several deaths of people eating the leaves.) The plant has not been carefully researched yet; as a result, the sources report its ready use as salad, wine, and the remedy for a variety of ailments on one end, and warn in dire tones against its use on the other end of the spectrum.

A brief overview:
pokesallet2
Spring shoots are commonly eaten in the South as poke salad or sallet; be sure of your identification as confusion with other plants can be hazardous. Parboil twice and throw the water away before cooking for the table.

poke wine

The berries have been commonly eaten in Appalachia as an arthritis preventive (one berry a day is commonly recommended but some people on the web have reported eating many more, swallowing the berry whole). The taste is sweet but a bit peculiar. Old timers often made pokeberry wine and jelly; in Europe the berries have been used as wine coloring. It is unclear if any toxicities are connected with the berries. I have tasted them without any effects. Some people think the berries are not toxic at all, others think that cooking neutralizes the toxic substances. The seeds are said to be quite toxic, but are filtered out in the processing. (Contrariwise, some adults on the internet have reported crunching some seeds by mistake, without ill effects. It may be a matter of quantity.)

The root is the remedy most commonly used. Various sources list the primary effects as anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, anti-viral, lymphatic cleanser, immune system booster, anti-inflammatory, emetic, cathartic and alterative.

For folks wishing to peruse a few detailed articles, here are some links:
Henriette’s Herbal Homepage
Corinna Wood’s account
A medical case study of yew and poke in lymphoma
A lay compilation of many studies and other information on poke

Both root tincture and salve are available on the internet. So far, I have not seen any commercial berry-based preparations.



Shortly after coming to Earthaven, I had a lovely conversation with one of the herbalists there. We shared our favorite remedies, as well as medical errors we’ve endured, and information about chronic medical issues that are not curable within the mainstream medical model. For me, that would be lymphoma. When my new acquaintance heard about it, she immediately suggested I look into poke. There has been a remarkable full recovery reported on the internet (the original article I read is no longer available, but an abbreviated version still exists). This story was confirmed by another herbalist at EH who knows the woman personally, and if need be, can get me in touch with her. I looked up the woman’s intriguing tale, did some research, and determined to enter into a relationship with the poke plant and to begin — what fun! — experimenting.

My first experiment with the berries was on my skin. I did not find it useful against dyshidrotic eczema. But as I was suffering at the time from post-herpetic neuralgia (a chronic annoyance years past the outbreak of shingles) I tried rubbing the juice into the tiny burny-itchy bumps. It acted fast, and is the best remedy I have ever found for this condition (and I had tried several). Poke is the most powerful antiviral in my herbal medicine chest.

Then I bought a root tincture and began to use it very cautiously as recommended: one drop in water per day, then two drops, working up to maybe 10-15 drops and cycling down. I noticed that the swollen glands in my neck, probably related to some mild infection, went down. Intriguingly, I noticed that my body temperature seemed to have gone up — I am chronically cold because of hypothyroidism. Later, I found that poke is reputed to boost the function of the thyroid gland. At these doses, I experienced no untoward symptoms. I grew impatient. I had also heard that possibly, fresh poke root is the most potent.

poke4

Subsequently the spirit of poke led me toward a few heroic doses. The root is best harvested at the end of the season, after first hard frost, and when the time came, lacking a juicer, I cut off a 1/4 inch piece of the root, chewed it and swallowed the juice. (It tastes strong, unpleasant, acrid, and kills the taste buds for a few days.) About two hours later, the vomits started, as well as the diarrhea and the chills, and continued for 2-3 hours. It was a fairly miserable experience, but by morning, I felt great, and a slight swelling I had in my groin (yes, that would be the lymphoma) seemed to have alleviated. I gained energy and strength as well.

I doubled the dose a month later. The experience was much the same, except I felt sicker, and the malaise lingered into the next day. I felt I reached the limit of my heroic dose, and would try lower doses in the future. I do not recommend chewing on the root at all. The woman in the story juiced the root with carrots, and that would certainly help with the taste issues. Root tincture is easy to make: slice up a piece of the root in the fall, let sit in 80 proof vodka for several weeks, shaking occasionally, filter through a jelly bag and store in a dark glass bottle.

I also made poke vinegar from the berries in order to preserve their healing properties past their season. (Drying is not a good option.) The red vinegar (made by soaking the berries for three weeks in apple cider vinegar and filtering through a jelly bag) has stood me in good stead whenever I still experience the neuralgia, and I plan to test whether with more sustained use, it will go away for good. It certainly comes far less frequently now.

I am planning to experiment with using the berries for an arthritis remedy, in the form of vinegar prepared with greater care for internal use. And I want to mention that a woman neighbor at EH heard of my experimentation with poke, and tried the root tincture for her venous eczema (itchy, dry, discolored skin around the ankle area that frequently plagues the elder population). She told me with a smile that it largely cleared up.

When I saw my oncologist this spring, I was treated to the news of full remission. I had been very close before, but in the year and a half since my last ct scan, the areas in question shrank even more, and remarkably, so did my liver that had had a lesion in it once, but more recently kept showing up on the scans as “unremarkable.” I had not used any alternative (or mainstream) treatment against the lymphoma during this time, and I am encouraged that poke has played a positive role in my further healing. I have not felt this well in many many years, and I am tremendously grateful to my new plant teacher I met so felicitously at Earthaven.

Hail the good poke, a weed for all seasons!

poke3

The world is divided into two categories of people: those who shit in drinking water and those who don’t.
— Joe Jenkins

I failed. I failed abysmally, ignominiously, and thoroughly. I went to Earthaven to finally — finally! — become one of the people who no longer piss and shit in drinking water. And I failed.

When I first showed up at da Shed, my landlord handed me a pint yogurt jar and said, you can pee anywhere outside, or you can just throw it down the sink. I did both. One day, I lost my balance, tipped backwards, and crushed that yogurt jar full of mellow yellow. My ire was provoked: been nearly 20 years and this community hasn’t figured out a pleasant way to pee indoors to teach newbies? What happened to those comfy old-fashioned chamber pots?

chamber pot

The internet is full of antiques, but not even Lehman’s, the quintessential Amish store, carries them. You can still buy nice new chamber pots in the Czech Republic and UK, bless’em, but importing or paying antique prices seemed like overkill.

I tried my stainless steel soup pot with rounded edges. Not bad, and uncrushable, but heavy and hard to wash in my miniscule sink. I finally settled for a sturdy squarish plastic storage container, 5½ x 5½ x 4 inches. Easy to grab, easy to empty, crush-resistant, and ample for one female bladder. Taller, though, would be better, 6 inches being ideal.

Later on, when the whiffs of stale urine accosted my nose of an evening, I discovered that the plumbing leading from the sink ended in mid-air just past da Shed. What? Not even a minimalist gravel pit in this wet climate, a few yards from the creek? And what happened to the idea of using urine as a phosphorus-rich fertilizer? When I visited EH in 2006, there were collection bottles attached to the shitters — simple outhouses collecting humanure in 55-gallon drums — everywhere. Now even many of the shitters are near defunct.

5-Gallon-bucket-toilet-seat

For the brown stuff, I was provided a 5-gallon bucket sporting a molded plastic seat with lid, the kind sold to campers. Do the deed, throw in some sawdust. Easy enough? The flimsy seat proved barely adequate to sit on. But I quickly discovered another drawback; in this humid climate, the lid held down not only odors (there weren’t any, all true!) but also acted as a collector for the condensation from below. When I opened the lid and sat down, the wet lid glommed onto my bare behind. Ick! But wait, it gets grosser. A few weeks in, I opened the lid and a bazillion of little flies flew in my face. Eew! MAGGOTS!!!

My landlord graciously offered to show me where and how to clean out the bucket. The poop, amazingly, had by now disappeared, leaving behind nice decaying sawdust. But… maggots! The bucket had to be scrubbed hard to get rid of their remains. Worse yet, I was told they’d be back. When the toilet was replaced in the shed part of da Shed, I vowed never to use it again. And never did.

As a consequence, when nature called, I trooped — sphincter firmly clenched — the half mile to the Council Hall’s bathroom. Only one problem: the Council Hall has, mercy me, a flush toilet! And this flush toilet uses the cleanest, most drinkable water at Earthaven to flush poop. Reality bites.

So, you might well ask… huh? I did. Got back a shrug. Earthaven faces a dilemma. In order to build to code, a septic system must be put in. The county is not opposed to composting toilets but insists on a septic tank for greywater. And it takes special dedication and extra resources to put in a composting toilet after all that hassle and expense. So much easier to slap in a porcelain throne and be done with it while listening to that familiar siren song… “out of sight, out of mind.”

On the other hand… Earthaven depends for its existence on a steady stream of pilgrims, and its mystique must be maintained. So it happens that some tour guides have been heard to say to visitors at Council Hall: “This is the only flush toilet you will see at Earthaven.” Technically, it’s true, because there is very little chance said visitors will have access to any of the water-closeted houses. But only technically. To my count, there are 5 other conventional flush toilets at EH, and if the trend to build to code grows, there will be others. Unless.

Unless the eco aspect of the community receives greater emphasis in the years ahead, and with it a firm commitment to the reconnection of the broken nutrient cycle so typical of Babylon.

humanureintact1

Intact Nutrient Cycle

humanure

Here’s my question: couldn’t a pleasant, well-functioning humanure system be provided for all EH homes, including rentals? It doesn’t take much to build one of those simple toilets with a comfortable seat Joe Jenkins’s been popularizing for many years in his Humanure Handbook. But then again… there are the maggots. Aw, crap.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.
— Confucius

Anyone coming to Earthaven to live — whether as a guest, an intern, a work-exchanger, or long term resident — must pay certain monthly fees. Some of those fees (for me, $45 included nominal membership, facility fee, and car fee) are payable in dollars, while others are payable in local currency called “leaps.” Each leap is worth an hour of work and is roughly equivalent to $10.

leap

Most of us newer folks owed 16 leaps per month. I had a sheet on the wall where I recorded the work I did for the community. Occasionally, I worked for a private person and was paid in paper leaps. Both types of leaps were acceptable for fulfilling the 16 leap requirement. Falling short meant having to work more hours next month. This was my fate in the early months, when I quickly fell behind because I didn’t understand the system. Later, I usually banked extra leaps for the next month, and when I left, I cashed out with 12 leaps in my wallet. I’ll likely keep one as a souvenir, and spend or gift the rest when I visit EH again.

Apart from paying part of one’s fees to Earthaven, there is not a whole lot one can do with the leaps. Occasionally, someone will offer a service like a massage payable partly in leaps. And established members often pay newbies in leaps to work for them. Based on my conversation with one of the people at EH who helps run the system, the leaps undergird the community labor system. They are not a full-fledged alternative currency, and play a minor role in the overall economy of Earthaven. There is hope of extending this role in the years ahead. Because EH does not have a commitment to redeem all the leaps it issues, many end up languishing in people’s shoe boxes rather than circulating and doing work for the community.

How does one know what sort of work qualifies? I learned as I went. At first, the only job I knew of was clearing pathways of weeds and poison ivy. Then I began to do some clean up work at the Council Hall since I spent a fair amount of time there, and was quickly offered a leap-worthy position a couple of times a week. I drove one of the elder members shopping, made airport runs, did kid-sitting. When cold weather came, I signed up to feed the voracious Taylor stove one, then two days a week. I love playing with fire. Helping with archives and taking minutes for one of the committees added up, as did my work with the Council Hall replastering crew. Once I got the hang of it and understood what was leapable, it was a breeze. Plus I liked the feeling that I was contributing to the community every week. I began to reflect on what skills I might have that would be of use to the community and to make a list of skills I’d like to cultivate in the future in order to become a real player in the local economy.

taylor

Ho hum, you say? This is where it gets good. I’d been using leaps for 5 months when I ducked out of EH to visit family for Christmas. After getting over my astonishment tinged with consternation each time I saw unlimited hot water gush out of a wall, my brain looked for something else to do. I began wondering. What IS money? And what role can local currencies optimally play in small communities?

I wasn’t completely clueless when it came to alternative currencies. I had worked through a couple of interesting and disturbing books by Margrit Kennedy and Bernard Lietaer, but in the end, I had concluded that local currencies are a novelty and accomplish very little for all the volunteer work they entail. If they ever did get somewhere, they would be shut down by the PTB overnight. Besides, none of the explanations of what money is and how it’s created made sense. So I gave up.

Using leaps piqued my interest afresh. And having hands-on experience opened a new window of understanding. I delved into Graeber’s Debt, and Tom Greco’s New Money for Healthy Communities. I scouted the internet for others like me trying to figure things out from another angle (not the one taught in econ textbooks). Let me share a few insights.

Money is an ingenious human invention that allows us to exchange disparate goods and services with ease, asynchronously. Not only the proverbial apples for oranges, but also chickens for copper wiring, shoes for massages, and houses for train rides.

barter

Here are folks offering bicycles, books, muffins and shoes. Without money, they’d be stuck with barter (which almost nobody ever did, points out Graeber). Instead, insert trusted IOUs.

barter2

And now the exchanges can proceed immediately. When the person who sold muffins finds the person offering copper wiring, she’ll have the IOUs all ready to pay with. The IOUs — which can range from printed pieces of paper, to metal tokens, to marks in a ledger — make the magic happen.

Whee! Then how do we create these trusted IOUs?! And do I really mean to say that “we” — any of us — can do it? Yup, that’s what I have discovered. I will describe how in a soonish post.

Money has been shaped over the course of this civilization into a vicious economic weapon. It’s a sword that cuts most of us off from access to most of the wealth of the world. So why don’t we transform this stupendous cutlass into ploughshares and pruning hooks? Becoming local money creators is the place to start. Creating money is one of the most empowering things an escapee from the prison of Babylon can do. Must do, on the way to freedom.

Doing alternative currencies enables us to deeply understand the true nature of money. Only then can we create local economies where money is used for the common good.

money tree

Earthaven lays claim to 320 acres in the middle of a high watershed. There are several abundant springs, some creeks originate there, and others come from not far above. When the land was first settled by European colonists, there were some Scots-Irish families eking out a living via subsistence agriculture, and catering to a stagecoach route with a store and a post office. Clearing the steep slopes caused erosion, and the topsoil is thin in most places, except in the small alluvial meadows near the creeks. But the Founders were not looking for ag land in 1994. They dreamed of land that was remote and spectacular; its raw and rare beauty would hit you in the solar plexus and change you forever.

view above EH

The night skies are almost as dark as in Colorado, and apart from the occasional car, plane, or chain saw, the quiet is amazing and so healing. The land had all gone to forest after the damage of early agriculture. Now there are many clearings, and several small farms, and people cultivate chickens, pigs, sheep, and a couple of milk cows. A few folks have vegetable gardens.

Earthaven’s neighborhoods are far flung over the land; some have several houses, others only one or two, and one is yet to be populated. Houses are experimental in a whole variety of ways, from straw bale to clay slip to cob; a few are made of wood. Natural plasters are very common. I want to describe what I perceive as the essential pieces of the community, those that make it run. And to provide a context for future posts.

council hall2

Council Hall
This temple to consensual group process was built as load-bearing straw bale in a roughly circular design. It’s got a lovely granite mosaic on the periphery of the inside space, and heated round parquetry in the middle where meetings take place. Huge windows admit lots of sun and keep the building bright and cheerful. Originally, a community building was planned nearby, but has not yet been built, and its lack is keenly felt. That means that the Council Hall has had to serve for nearly all infrastructure needs. An office was built inside where paid staff and volunteers answer phones and keep EH organized. A small kitchen and half-bath was added on the side. There is an internet lounge, a DVD library, a free phone, and a toy area. (Sometimes, it’s too much, esp. since the space bounces sound around.) Nearby, a playing field beckons, and a canvas-covered area shelters summer potlucks; in the winter, they move inside the Hall.

council hall inside

Communication
EH’s phone system is at the heart of its connectivity. People do communicate via emails and online forums, but the bulk of the communication happens via telephone. A constantly updated “phone book” sits by the free phone in the Council Hall, and the entire Taylor Creek Watershed uses it to communicate, not just Earthaveners. Just before I left, I noticed an enhancement, where a whole conversation on a topic was embedded into the messaging system. Each member has their own voice box (I was provided access by a kind neighbor). By the way, I think this system has an advantage over putting all communication on the internet as Dancing Rabbit had done. It is easier, quicker and less stressful to listen to a series of voice messages than to wade through many emails. And it is fully accessible to those members who are not particularly wired.

EH of course has systems in cyberspace as well: one forum for the whole valley, mostly used for announcements, one for members only, and a blog (“the Hive”) with restricted access where documents are being stored. Most documents have also been archived in hard copy in voluminous folders accessible to anyone in the Council Hall but this may now be changing.

A simple schedule board in the Council Hall keeps folks updated and events coordinated. But now that a scheduler also posts online, lines do get crossed sometimes.

And let’s not forget the most basic communication tool of all: walking around the community, serendipitously running into neighbors, and striking up impromptu conversations. My favorite.

Food venues
The White Owl restaurant, sadly, opens only sporadically. The rents make it hard for anyone to succeed. Potlucks happen like clockwork every Tuesday night, and while the food tends to be uneven, the socializing is good. At the conclusion of each, joys, concerns and announcements are shared with the community, and visitors are welcomed. Afterwards, WordUp aficionados duke it out at a nearby table. Fish fry takes place on many Fridays in the warmer seasons.

coffee1

Every Tuesday morning sees a Coffee and Trade market where folks from the area as well as nearby farmers offer their wares: eggs, milk, veggies, hummus, canned goods, muffins, bread, honey, flour, what have you.

Special feasts are organized around major Celtic holy days and Thanksgiving. And a buying club for bulk foods just got underway. There used to be a little store offering basics but it’s gone defunct.

Local currency
Earthaven has had its own currency for a number of years now; it plays a muted yet important role, and I will describe it in another post. Some of the community fees are payable in this scrip.

Governance
Councils meet every other Sunday for 4+ hours. There is an agenda committee that sets and publicizes the agenda ahead of time. Each Council has a trained facilitator, and minutes are always taken. Important decisions must be made in Council. Sociocracy is used yearly to select the Weavers (four people responsible for the overall functioning of the community), while slightly modified consensus (I would describe it as unanimity with a loophole) is used for everything else. There seems to be a feeling in the community that moving in the direction of sociocracy makes sense, provided it is done with sensitivity to the current decision-making culture. Only full members may participate in the council, with rare exceptions. Visitors and guests may observe from outside the circle.

The four Weavers (finance; documentation, membership and promotion; legal and well-being; and infrastructure) meet as a group, and each area also has a number of committees with varying levels of activity. One member has the job of caring for Earthaven as a whole in hands-on terms: wood-cutting, clearing paths, making repairs, gathering volunteers for work parties, and so on. This is one of the few paid positions.

theater

Events
There is an organization run by several members that brings cultural events to Earthaven, and markets events presented by Earthaveners. Many interesting venues come to EH on account of their efforts. Last year, a horse-drawn theater came to EH for one night to the delight of all. But Earthaveners who want to organize events on their initiative do so as well. Or simply put their own happening on the schedule. Learning, story telling and fun activities abound.

Kids’ learning place
No, I won’t utter the S word. This cute little cob house becomes available after 3 to anyone wanting to give private lessons.

Free store
An old log cabin has been converted into a place where old things find new life. Clothes upstairs, everything else downstairs. Good to visit.

Land tenure and property ownership
Earthaven organized itself as a Homeowners Association that holds the land in common, and made long term leases to those who became full members and looked for a homestead of their own. Homesteads came in two sizes: a 2-person, and a 4-person one. This process is now on hold.

Because the early EH pioneers paid insufficient attention to North Carolina requirements and zoning regulations, the community is now refashioning its land-tenure structures into something that fits well with outside regulations and preserves the commons and EH’s sharing values, yet gives each neighborhood more autonomy. It looks like the creation of “pods” out of the current neighborhoods is the wave of the future: each pod will form a housing coop and administer the 10+ acre holding under its care: the rest of the commons will still be managed by the HOA or its successor. A land trust for part of the land may or may not be in the offing.

Wholeness centers
Christopher Alexander talks about special spots on the land that need to be preserved and enhanced. Many such places are cherished at EH — a labyrinth, several altars, a peace garden at the confluence of two major creeks, and a fire circle up Hidden Valley, a special and remote area in itself. Off-land but walking distance is a lovely small zendo whose gong resounds across the land. And of course, the Council Hall is a wholeness center as well.

[Here is a quick summary of the theory of centers: a center is a region of more intense physical and experiential order that provides for the relatedness of things, people, situations, and events. In this sense, the strongest centers gather all the parts into a relationship of belonging].

Ways to make a living
Useful Plants Nursery employs several people every year. There used to be an herb tinctures and ointments manufacturing business, Red Moon Herbs, but it’s been sold and moved to Asheville. People often earn money working for more established residents, esp. doing gardening, repairs, or building. Some folks have small individual businesses, like offering massage or giving workshops. But often people who are neither retired nor have independent income must commute to town. Heavy debt is not uncommon.



What’s missing?

Speakers’ corner
When I got to EH, the community was deep into a dysfunctional slough of despair, and folks were not talking. While there are now some big efforts to turn things around, it basically still was true when I was leaving that there was much talking about talking, but the actual talking rarely happened. Free-wheeling discussions are not suitable for the tightly managed space within the Council; nor is the Council inclusive. I would have liked to see a regularly scheduled series of discussions, ongoingly, open to all, and not under the control of any particular official body or person. One notable discussion happened last fall around the fire; a mood of good will prevailed throughout.

Couple of other things were done that helped: inviting some grad students who are spreading a process called WorldWork, and organizing (I was told) a world cafe. Still, a regular forum for speaking your mind would seem like a good idea. For example, one Sunday a month when the council is not in session could remain as an open invitation on the calendar, with the content up to the people who show up. But I may be putting the cart before the horse: if trust is lacking, people won’t be inclined to speak up publicly.

Ombudsperson
A designated person to turn to with problems one has noticed or is experiencing would have been a godsend.

Boundaries
A way to deal with (and potentially exclude) members who have been harming the community, long term, is sorely lacking. EH has been struggling with this one for a very long time; it is seen as a desirable thing but they have not yet figured out how to be both fair and effective.

jigsaw-puzzle

It’s been two months since I left Earthaven. It was time to leave the hardships behind, and clear my head. So I headed west… into the heavy snow in the Cumberland Hills of Tennessee, into the ice storm that shut down everything in eastern Arkansas, and into a whiteout blizzard on Colorado’s Front Range as I was nearing home.

Apparently I packed the hardships along for the ride! The ice storm that hit Arkansas was not as bad as the one that hit Slovenia in February but it sure put a kink in my knickers. Clear roads in western Tennessee did not prepare me for what followed. Half-way across the Mississippi the bridge suddenly sprung half a foot of snow and ice. I hastily took the first and barely navigable exit out, and smacked up my car in some casino’s parking lot amid a rising feeling of panic, surrounded by dark, surreal landscape peppered by stuck cars and bundled humans trying to dig out.

ice storm slovenia

Only persistence and sheer luck got me what must have been the last motel room east of Little Rock. We holed up for two days, me and my kitties, then finally got out by following the locals’ advice to bypass the stuck portion of the highway on side roads (which, sadly, had yet to see a plow). The thing is… when Arkansans saw it coming, they briefly reflected on their dearth of plows and snow shovels, and simply gave up. Crossing the parking lot at the motel meant navigating heaving frozen waves of an ancient ocean and gingerly stepping up to the rooms on stairs padded with three inches of granular snow.

But the real heartbreak was all the fallen, broken up trees along the road — heavy with opening buds, they could not withstand the weight of ice that clung to them for days. I will never forget one red maple — still young, so full of spring joy, clothed in the red glory of its flowers — lying fallen at the edge of the forest. May it grow forever in paradise.

flowering red maple

Well, enough about the hardships visited upon the American midwest the year Siberia enlarged its domain within the northern hemisphere. Let us now speak of the hardships of Earthaven, the idyllic dell high above Black Mountain, North Carolina. In summer, its lovely warbling creeks bring not only life to the watershed, but also smothering humidity amidst the heat, aiding and abetting the vast armies of the Mold Kingdom. People pack their winter clothes in plastic bags and chase the mold on all surfaces with vinegar and peroxide. Forget about bringing pictures with you to enliven the walls — the damp will ruin them, as I learned the hard way.

Just after I showed up, the torrential rains that made last summer the wettest in 53 years in that part of Carolina came down with no let up, affecting people’s sanity, ruining the third successive plantings of area farmers, and swelling the creeks with muddy runoff.

Then, the bugs. Ah, yes. The bugs. People say if you live there long enough, the itch gets less itchy. I am not sure I believe it. Chiggers, skeeters, fleas, gnats, who knew them all? I went to bed dabbing iodine all over me, and woke up scratching. One night, I woke with my arm afire. A spider? But a happy exception amidst the itchy carnage — EH is an oasis amidst the Lyme plague-ridden lands of the eastern seaboard. There are occasional dog ticks, but no deer ticks. A true blessing.

And there were the ant invasions. Storing food inside my hut — da Shed, I called it, as it is in fact a modified shed — became impossible. I had no refrigeration and so stored food in the car, and ended up eating a fair amount of non-perishable crap-foods which I rarely do in Babylon. Feeding the cats outside on the porch, however, precipitated one of the conflicts of EH’s perennial pet wars.

Autumn was clement and dry enough to permit several delightful gatherings around the fire. Then, winter set in. I tried sleeping in my clothes. No go. Only when a neighbor lent me a fluffy feather duvet was I able to warm up. And then I discovered that it was not lack of coverings that made my nights so miserable, but rather the fact that my mattress and the space underneath were sucking heat from my body. Once I laid down insulating layers over the mattress, the misery finally abated.

The deep freeze of the polar vortex reached down like the finger of Satan all along the Appalachian ridge, my boots sprung leaks, the snows came, the water froze, and I was running to town every couple of weeks to refill the propane bottle that fueled my little stove so the hut could stay nominally warm. By day, I survived in the Council Hall whose Taylor stove, fed prodigious quantities of wood, capably warmed the building via its floor heating system. At night, I bundled into bed, cranked the heater for a couple of hours, and tried to sleep. Sometimes with success. The old timers told us it was the coldest winter in 130+ years.

A strenuous life on the edge invites accidents. I fell down the steep, minimalist stairs from my loft one day. Then, I burned my hand while feeding the Taylor stove. Only a few days later, a neighbor burned her hand on her wood stove so badly she ended up at ER. When you body gets sluggish from the cold or fatigue, a momentary inattention can lead to harm. I fell, many times. I cut my hand… stopped counting the smaller insults to my body. But the cold damage to my joints was the worst. The jury is out whether it will heal yet, or whether it will give me a good dose of arthritis in the years ahead. The cold of the Appalachians is not like Colorado cold — this is damp, insidious cold that creeps into the marrow of your bones and refuses to leave.

My hut had running cold water for washing up which froze for much of the winter. It had a two-burner Coleman stove which was unusable because an attempt at cooking produced copious quantities of condensation and subsequent mold chasing. Still, though, the place was clean if spare.

The water in da Shed came from a spring reputed to harbor some tiny critters frowned upon by the health department, so a betook myself to the Council Hall every couple of days with a gallon jug to bring well-water home. Cleanliness? Well, our neighborhood had a greenhouse with a hot shower. Ok in the warm part of the year. Come late fall, many of us went dirty much of the time, and the joys of peeing outside sans toilet paper lost some of their luster. A few times, I bummed a tub bath from kind neighbors; the rest of the time I felt right at home when people began to crack jokes that began “when was the last time you took a shower?”

Even the young people at EH feel the harshness of life there acutely. Earthaven is lacking in infrastructure, and frequent runs into town on a half hour worth of switchbacks becomes a necessity for food, laundry, supplies, library, and contact with the outside world. And much of the housing is, well, er, what mainstreamers opaquely call substandard. But who cares about mainstream standards? It’s what I politely call inadequate.

But not all of this was a downer in the end. I threw myself into a demanding way of life that involved a lot of walking everyday, work for the community, participating in various events and activities, seeking out neighbors, hiking around the lovely hills and hollows, and making the steady effort it took to survive. It changed me. I went from a near-recluse who had gotten way too sedentary over the last years of my life to someone who is active again, back to her youthful weight, and fit. And remarkably stress-resistant. This newfound vigor has stayed with me as I enjoy for the moment the luxuries of the outside world. I am grateful to Earthaven for this unexpected gift.

brr

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