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

[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.

fbloop

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.

powertopeople

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!

diana'schart

Sunday July 14th.

Rain.
Rain.
More rain.
Drizzles.
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.

wineberries

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…

earthaven

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