Originally, I planned two major posts summing up in detail the history of our species. Unfortunately, it turned into a big slog. I left the project a few years back, unfinished, and it would require several months of dogged research now. My life is too unsettled at the moment to allow that. But at the same time, it is impossible to sally forth into deeper explorations of early agriculture and social complexities without at least sketching a map of our “true history” — true, in this case, meaning a clear focus on the full span of our time as the species H. sapiens, not more, and not less.

Somebody ought to write a beautiful coffee table book, showing vividly the utter awesomeness of the Paleolithic world where megafauna roamed free, humans were just one species among many, and elephants were the “lords of creation” and doing an excellent job of it! An eye-opening and radicalizing bit of time travel it has been for me. So, here is a quickie, to share what I’ve discovered. Caveat: this is my own synthesis; others may disagree with some of the details; there is little in deep history that is not contested…

  • Curtain opens at about 200,000 years ago, as the world is heading into another ice age. Sapiens in lower Africa; Neanderthals in Europe and northern Asia, and several other descendants of erectus in southeast Asia. Humans talk, use fire, hunt, cook, make rafts, fire-hardened spears and simple stone tools.
  • Sapiens love to inhabit caves near rivers or the ocean; a number of them have been excavated and described in southern parts of Africa. Humans thrive in small egalitarian bands of 20 to 40 people; very local trade exists between bands.
  • Ice age comes to an end around 130,000 years ago, and for a while it’s quite hot. The vast majority of human artifacts from this interglacial come from the Neanderthals. Artifacts get more interesting. Humans love ochre and other pretty rocks. They invent fancy glue, make composite tools (wood and bone), fish hooks, bury their dead.
  • The climate cools again toward another ice age. The massive Toba eruption (c. 71,000 ya) causes a 6 year winter and sapiens barely escape extinction.
  • Temperature_Interglacials

  • About 60,000 years ago, descendants of erectus float or sail to Australia. And sapiens humans start moving out of Africa.
  • 50,000 years ago… many more tools, much improved; something is happening to sapiens brain, enabling a cultural shift into greater complexity of both language and artifacts. Art becomes common. Flutes. Sewn clothing. Conscience emerges.
  • Sapiens are coexisting and occasionally mating with Neanderthals in Europe, until 25,000 years ago. Pockets of humans survive the ice age at higher latitudes in refugia where megafauna is particularly plentiful. In these spots, culture flowers, tools are finessed, caves are painted, rituals are performed. First child-dog bond in evidence some 33,000 years ago. America discovered and begins to be settled.
  • R.I.P. our Neanderthal cousin

    R.I.P. our Neanderthal cousin

  • Ice age maximum reached at 20,000 years ago. The cold drought kills perhaps 90% of humans in Australia. Abrupt warming fosters flourishing sapiens cultures in Europe and the near East; horses and reindeer actively cared for and seeds sown. Pigs domesticated by Anatolian foragers around 13,000 ya. Inequalities begin to emerge in some bands. Resurgence of ice during the Younger Dryas period (13,300 ya to 11,800 ya). The construction of monumental Göbekli Tepe begins.
  • 10,000 years ago, a warm moist world of plenty; in a few areas, humans begin to settle down and build more permanent shelters and walls; cultivation of plants and animals intensifies, populations grow. Some human groups transition from egalitarian to Big Man (transegalitarian) social structures. First towns emerge in the Near East; people flock there voluntarily; peace and relative equality reigns. First regional environmental collapses resulting from human activity experienced toward the end of the Neolithic.
  • 6,000 years ago, first transitions to advanced metallurgy, bronze weapons, domination, and war. The very first incarnation of “this civilization” emerges in Sumer. Women are actively marginalized, social stratification increases, and health and longevity deteriorate for those lower on the pecking order. Non-civilized tribes begin to be pushed out. Wholesale slaughter of regional megafauna emerges as a status sport. Amazing art and devious cruelty advance apace.
  • First brutal empires (Akkadia, Babylonia and Assyria) emerge about 4,000 years ago. War and standing armies assume a menacing presence in a few places. But most areas of the globe continue to be settled by egalitarian or transegalitarian tribes (and on until recently). Sahara forms (without human help).
  • By 2,000 years ago, many societies continue to intensify and great religions emerge and manage to modify somewhat the brutality of the age of empires. Civilized humans preen as rational beings and lords of creation and begin to take over everything they can reach. Writing spreads. So do plagues. Mathematics, science and frequent technological breakthroughs start to make a difference in the human condition. Oceania settled by intrepid explorers in outrigger canoes.
  • 250 years ago, industrial civilization’s “Satanic mills” move into “mow down the living planet” mode, encourage out of control human reproduction, and filthify everything. Last autonomous tribes on the way out. Planet increasingly devastated. At the same time, some humans reap unprecedented benefits — including longer life-spans — from advancing understandings of science and technology. Ideology of progress and sharing the pie quells unrest. Then, within the space of a few decades, this civilization begins to show serious cracks. Elites keep their heads firmly wedged, er, in sand. Humans are, overall, increasingly well-connected, educated, stumped, and suffering from multiple addictions. Will they survive?

prehistory

Predatory attacks would stampede the grazers; the stampede would open up the soil, the herd’s droppings would act as fertilizer. Well, it all worked well enough in prehistory!
— a commenter

Been thinking how to grow a prairie. I am facing a steep learning curve. There are people who know, and the Prairie Ecologist‘s blog is a very good place to start. And Gabe Brown, a farmer in North Dakota, sows “prairie mimics” of 10 or more different species, eventually harvesting the seeds and letting the grassy, leguminous understory turn the field to pasture.

While I was reflecting on the role of the large herbivores in prairies’ ongoing fertility, it brought to mind something from my post on the wonders of stable humus. Writing it, I had learned that
* for soil to grow, it must be alive;
* for it to stay alive, it must be covered;
* for it to stay covered, it must be disturbed.

Who “disturbs” the soils of the prairies? Small rodents like prairie dogs and meadow voles and mice. Rabbits. Various tiny soil critters. Weather and fire. And last but not least, the large ungulates like deer, elk/wapiti, pronghorn and bison. How exactly do these large mammals “disturb”? I took a look at their hooves.

The coevolution of hooves and grasslands

When scientists talk about this topic, they tell us that those odd horny appendages large herbivores walk on evolved because grasslands opened up new opportunities for fast running, and the ground was hard. But isn’t that only one part of the story?

I am thinking in terms of cooperative evolution. Insects coevolved with flowering plants; the flowers feed them nectar and pollen while the insects return the favor by pollinating. Squirrels eat acorns; in turn, they bury many and forget some, planting new oaks. Grasslands evolved increasingly more nutritious forage for the bison; in turn, the bison evolved appendages whose shape and heft provided the right kind of disturbance for the prairie to thrive.

bison hoof

bison hoof

bison

buffalo

Looking at the various hooves and their imprints, it struck me that they resemble chisels. They cut into the soil, churn it up, break up crusts and clumps, create pockets to hold moisture, trample old vegetation into the ground. What do humans call such work? Tilling. Cultivation.

Interesting, regarding chisels: the Rodale Institute has developed a crimper-roller that’s designed to trample green manures and old stalks into the ground. The tines work like chisels. Vineyards have available to them a smaller, even more chisel-like adjustable “eco-roll.” And Ames Lab at Iowa State University has produced an imprinter-roller that tries to imitate the hoofprints of passing buffalo, to be used in Colorado prairie restoration. Tries.

hoof imprinter

Too bad they made it as heavy as 8 buffalo — were they thinking they’d be stacked on top of each other, like a circus act? :/ Which brings me to the question of weight.

Say, how heavy was the aurochs?

The buffalo is the biggest herbivore of the North American grasslands. The more massive ones can weigh about a metric ton (2,200 lbs). The fabled aurochs that roamed the mixed forests and savannahs of the Near East, venerated and hunted by the town-building foragers at Çatal Hüyük, is said to have weighed around a ton as well.

aurochs

man, aurochs

If modern farmers had paid closer attention to what works for nature, they could have stayed within that weight and avoided the nasty soil compaction problems plaguing so many mechanized farms. (They have chisel plows 2 ft deep nowadays, desperate to break up the deep subsoil hardpan… what will they do next, dig up the whole field with a backhoe!?!)

allis
The widely popular Allis-Chalmers Model B tractor that came out in 1937 weighed 2060 lbs, just under a metric ton. But the “biggering” meme did its evil work, so that today we have the Big Bud, a monster of a tractor weighing over 100,000 lbs (45 metric tons). And everything in between. Now that is beyond insane. big bud

I took a peek at various county extension and land college sites; surely they would preach a return to smaller machines for compaction problems? Don’t hold your breath. They advocate “traffic management” despite knowing that the first pass of a heavy tractor over the land does the most damage.

compaction1
And so it occurred to me that they are caught between the rock and the hard place. If they urged lighter machines, they would be biting the hand that feeds them — all those who profit by selling these huge tractors and implements and give out grants. But worse yet, they would be admitting that the whole biggering paradigm of the last 50 years has been mistaken, and terribly detrimental to soil. In addition, moving to smaller machines would mean moving to smaller farms; only megamachines make megafarms possible. Which in turn would open a giant can of worms: having to address the political economy of food which is biased against smaller producers, and the necessity for land reform. Ouch.

compaction-2

subsoil compaction


Arding

ard
If nature tills the soil (and by the way, in forested environments the wild pig is nothing if not a super tiller), then those much maligned neolithic farmers were not doing anything nature does not do in disturbing the ground to grow plants. The ard (aka scratch plow, basically a pointed stick embellished over time), creates a shallow disturbance where seeds can be sowed.

The benighted moldboard plow was not invented until about 300 BC in China, and 1,000 AD in Europe. So perhaps it was not the disturbance per se that damaged/ruined the soil of the Near East, but something else… and that made me wonder if the whole emphasis on no-till among organic gardeners and farmers has been misbegotten. Given the fact that I turned parts of my Colorado garden soil into a hardpan within a couple of years of no-till despite all the organic matter and mulch I applied, this has been an exciting thought. Gasp. Was Ruth Stout wrong?!

No-till deception

I used to swear by no-till, cringing whenever I had to fluff the soil to put the seeds in, and depriving myself of the joy of burying my hands in the dark crumb. Feeling increasingly hoodwinked, I turned to one of my favorite farmers for enlightenment. Gene Logsdon has written eloquently about his problems with no-till here, here, here and here; you gotta read it to understand the pain. And one does not have to look far on the web to see the extent of the cover up.

As it turns out, no-till farming is not quite no-till. Not only has the chemical industry jumped on the bandwagon, inducing farmers to douse fields with herbicide, but no-till farmers till aplenty — they twist the words, and have invested in all manner of huge machines that churn the land over and over, deeper and deeper, during the growing season, while not being, you know, technically speaking, moldboard plows.

Neolithic soil murder — whodunnit?

So the question offers itself: if intermittent, lightweight, shallow surface tilling is in principle beneficial to the land, imitating the good work of the ungulates, then what killed those Near East soils? Well, deforestation, and in lower Mesopotamia, salinization ruined a lot. But in the grasslands, it was not soil disturbance per se but too much of it. As nature jumped in to cover those bare fields with “weeds,” the farmers fought back with more and more tilling, resulting in more and more bare, carbon-depleted soil, until the soil died and blew away.

Doink. I fell for the all or nothing fallacy, again. If much tilling harms the soil, then no tilling AT ALL must be the answer, right? Wrong.

Last missing piece

All the same, I wondered what might counteract soil erosion in the tween times when even modest tilling renders soil temporarily bare. The answers came readily. Untilled buffer zones such as hedges moderate run-off. But the key to keeping soil in place are soil glues. These are sticky substances that only recently began to receive attention. It is the glues that keep soil crumbly. The crumb in turn forms spaces that readily receive rain, letting it pass into the subsoil and the aquifer. And it’s the glues that hold the soil together in the face of water and wind. (That’s an amazing short video!) And glues abound in living soils.

Earth, water, air, fire

Churning the top layer of the soil invites the alchemical marriage of the four elements — earth, water, air, sun’s fire — and in uniting the above and the below, green life comes forth in profusion.

Anyone can see this in a potted plant. After a while, the soil compacts, water is slow to be absorbed, and the plant — if sturdy — survives in a lackluster sort of fashion. But take a chopstick and dig around a bit, add a few spoonfuls of fresh soil. Water will quickly sink into the fluffed soil bringing with it needed oxygen and other gases, the soil will warm and dry quicker, avoiding water-logging, and the aeration and sunlight will neutralize molds. The plant will spring to life.

Here’s how nature does it:
* for soil to grow, it must be alive;
* for it to stay alive, it must be covered by plants;
* for it to stay covered by plants, it must be tilled.

The Earth is a garden after all. Where are your hoof shoes? Come dance on the land!

god pan

Pan

You teach people how to treat you by what you allow, what you stop, and what you reinforce.
— Tony Gaskins

As I wrap up the long-running series on patterns of community, I want to tackle a difficult subject: protecting communities from disruptive behaviors. How do communities set the boundaries that define and protect their shared space? After all, growing a whole new story to be in requires safe nests for the fledgling memes and lifeways!

The obvious place to begin is the membership process. At Earthaven, people who showed up at the gate were thought to be the right people, and current members are still paying the price for past lack of discernment. At Dancing Rabbit, the sifting has been much more elaborate: first you tell in writing what draws you there and come for 2-3 weeks to learn and work in the community. Only then can you apply for residency. A letter of intention leads to an interview. If accepted, an 8-month residency is a prerequisite for membership.

Ownership and legal arrangements greatly influence community’s ability to censure persistent troublemaking. Earthaven’s 99-year leases and the need to buy out any built real estate got in the way of effective action. At Dancing Rabbit, month-to-month land leases create no debt and anyone can leave at any time, putting their improvements up for sale. And each newcomer must sign a commitment to undergo mediation conducted by a committee that exists for that purpose, if poor relations with another member begin to affect the rest. In addition, every community needs a legally thought out, ethically and financially acceptable process for expelling a member as a last resort.

Another line of defense is the integration of newbies into SLGs (small living groups), the way Twin Oaks does it. Everyone there is a member of a group house, and people get to know each other intimately. Any significant issues quickly come to the fore. Dancing Rabbits tend to cluster around the various kitchens, but a newbie can fall through the cracks if they don’t join any of them.

These three relatively easy-to-implement strategies will protect communities from the influx of people heavily burdened by dysfunction or mental illness, in addition to assuring that there is a reasonably good fit between the new person’s and the community’s aims and values. It is much harder to deal with disruptive behavior that occurs ongoingly among the established members of a community.

Times of conflict can exacerbate this problem, make it more painful, visible, acute. Some of the conflict at Earthaven, for example, has its roots in the clash of the original vision of the founders, and the new visions and livelihoods brought in by the otherwise-welcome younger crowd. Having children or pets was originally heavily frowned upon, and there was a specific eco-protective vision of the settlement as a forest garden that has not stood the test of time. At Dancing Rabbit, there’s been conflict over the planned large community center (a huge and possibly misconceived project, meant to serve DR as it turns into a town some day); the projected change from consensual self-governance to elected town council is also bound to be a source of ongoing friction. Then there are the innumerable and inevitable issues people have with each other as they attempt to live their cherished values in close proximity and co-governance with others.

But conflict itself is not the problem. Disagreeing with people’s opinions is not the problem. After all, conflict is the stuff of life, making everyday existence more interesting and lively, often sparking changes for the better. The core issue is how we treat one another under pressure. Disruptive behaviors pop up as people attempt to deal with life’s challenges by less than optimal means. Many of us grew up with nagging, badgering, angry pushing, authoritarian crackdowns, and underhanded tactics. Our first impulse, when we left the family of origin, was to repeat the pattern, thus perpetuating the rage of generations. And when we join a community, we bring that baggage along. Life in community greatly amplifies old habits of pushing one’s agenda in less than savory manner, as well as any lack of skills in setting effective — yet peaceable — boundaries.

The purpose of boundaries is to protect and care for ourselves. We need to be able to tell other people when they are acting in ways that are not acceptable to us. In doing so, we take responsibility for how we allow others to treat us. And setting boundaries requires discernment. People often worry about being judgmental. But we do need to weigh people’s behaviors, and discern those which are compatible with our way in the world, and those which are not. All humans have equal value as human beings; boundary setting does not in any way condone judging a person’s essential self as bad or defective. But human behavior is not of equal value; chronic lying is not equal in value to chronic honesty.

Let me restate that even more strongly: All humans have equal value as human beings. I would go as far as to say, with the Quakers, that there is “that of God” in everyone, and to label people’s essential selves as somehow deficient or broken is a dead-end street. I see a difficulty arising in the alternative and therapeutic cultures when this basic and sound assumption about human ‘being’ is extended into the area of human ‘doing.’ People want to believe, in the face of evidence to the contrary, that all human intentions are good and honorable. This belief in turn undermines their efforts to deal with problem behaviors, thus endangering the whole community.

Psychologist Mariane Caplan once published in the Communities Magazine [#98] her anguished thoughts about persistent behaviors she subsumed under the “petty tyrant” label. She says: “We become compassionate when we realize that the petty tyrant is acting in the way that she acts because she is in pain. Period. Her harsh words and actions are stemming directly from her own suffering, and whether it comes out in the form of anger, self-pity, or trouble-making, its source is personal pain. When somebody behaves aggressively and hurtfully towards us, that person suffers the greatest pain. That is why she behaves as she does.” Beware. Ms. Caplan makes Mother Culture’s usual pitch for mind-reading. We can never really know why another person does what they do. Attempts at mind-reading facilitate ‘enabling.’ They distract people from keeping their attention on the problem behavior and on taking protective, healing steps.

We all harbor a mix of intentions, some good and some malign, others poorly understood even by ourselves. It’s a form of self-sabotage to try to figure out what sort of intentions lie behind problem behaviors. When dealing with difficult people — which we all are at one time or another — intentions are irrelevant. What is crucial is that the group successfully protect their social ecology from damage while giving the involved parties useful feedback and plenty of chances to modify their approach. Isn’t that the truly compassionate choice?

Some tools have emerged to help. Intentional communities generally take good care to train its members in NVC (nonviolent communication), and of late, also in restorative circles which are witnessed one-on-one conversations helping the parties take turns to listen closely and so work through to another place in their relationship. What is still missing completely from this picture are skills that have to do with navigating the treacherous ground of bullying, manipulation, and other forms of power abuse.

Are you ready to see human behaviors clearly for the motley crew they are, and learn the boundary-setting aikido moves that protect what you love? Once we master these crucial skills, we can begin to extend them to the larger social spheres that surround us. Only then do we stand a chance to counter the pernicious mainstream patterns of failure to set effective limits on those who harm the commons and the commonwealth.

Open garden gate with roses

While thinking about tribal structures, and at the same time arguing against the patronizing, patriarchal vision of the future some novelists irritate and intimidate women with, it occurred to me that those of us learning neo-tribal living patterns should pay attention to how tribes dealt with key gender issues: division of work, and power.

That in turn led me to muse over how modernity has assiduously promoted “everything coed.” Until relatively recently, even within western cultures, separate men’s and women’s worlds still existed. Then, an avalanche of pressure came from all those modernizers relentlessly pushing coeducation and comingling of the sexes in work, play, and everywhere. Anything less than enforced heterosociality — constant male-female interaction in virtually all spheres of life — was decreed hopelessly old-fashioned and outmoded, even unfair. I’ve decided to give it another look.

In tribal situations women’s society and men’s society tend to remain distinct. Sometimes, there is also older children’s society as well, and room for other-gendered people. Women work and talk together, do their own rituals together, and are steeped in the lore and wisdom that women have shared from time immemorial. Their power in society derives in large part from the very fact that they have a separate vibrant culture of their own. A tribal version of “sisterhood is powerful,” if you will.

Among the Iroquois, for example, the men were hunters, warriors, and chiefs. The women were farmers, anti-social behavior watchers, allocators of common resources, and the makers and unmakers of chiefs. Each gender had its own sphere, but neither’s work was devalued, and neither was out of luck politically.

What strikes me as really important is that the insistent co-mingling of the sexes in our society has fed the gender wars — neither sex has a sphere where women can hang easy with other women, or men with men. And men and women must compete against each other economically in the increasingly vicious workaday world. No wonder we get on each other’s nerves! We’ve got to find a way to end the gender conflicts, because the resource constrained world of the future will see those come ahead who are part of effective alliances, and able to duck the efforts of the elites to “divide and conquer.” Learning from tribal knowledge that enabled women and men to live at peace with each other, cooperating successfully in times good and bad, may be crucial.

While I don’t expect that people will flock to living in matrilineal longhouses, I see a trend returning to the tribal affinity clusters of friends (both kith and kin). Blood/marriage families are unsafe for women trapped in abusive relationships and ongoing power struggles; many men are conditioned by the culture they grow up in to expect entitlements from “their” women they never would dare insist on with others. Moreover, blood families are unequal by definition; younger people are expected to defer to the authority of age, eldership, experience, convention, and property. But groups of friends are groups of equals. When groups of equals form the self-organizing foundation of society, then the larger social formations — bands, clans, tribes, as well as villages, small towns, neighborhoods — tend toward equality. If I were 20 again, this is the pattern I would choose. Husbands come and go, but good friends remain.

Women’s and men’s cultures have staged a small comeback with women’s and men’s therapy and support groups, women’s moon lodges, and men’s gatherings such as the ManKind Project. Once, there was a flurry of women’s communities, but that did not last. Perhaps militant separatism does not stand the test of time. I have followed with interest reports on a Brazilian village where the men work in distant towns during the week, and the women have formed a cooperative and run the place according to their rules. Apparently, this is a something of a trend in many rural settlements in Brazil, as government payments and land transfers go mainly to women. (The story surfaced as the crassest click-bait, the worst I have seen, of a “women-only” community looking for men. Lurid come-hither pictures taken out of context.) This village of 300 has existed as an unconventional community for over 100 years. Perhaps it gives us another model to work with… women run things in place — not the home; the entire community! — while men go out to hunt down the money. It allows for the creation of a strong women’s culture, yet also brings men and women together in a way worth celebrating.

Which brings back to mind a memorable book, Sherri Tepper’s The Gate to Women’s Country. In this utopia/dystopia the women and their gentle men friends have pulled off a big one. Outwitting the warriors, they contained them and gained power of life and death over them. Yes, the means are underhanded and the results are tainted by the means. That part rubs many of us wrong way. But it is one of the very few realistic fictional takes on what it may require to turn society back to one that is run by “reasonable” people, after we’ve been hijacked by warmongering, egomaniacal bullies for thousands of years. Like the baboons, we must find a way to reset. We need to grow a powerful women’s culture, far more imbued with solidarity than is the case today. And we need a strong alliance of gentle(r) people of both genders, and a way to give the warriors scope for who they are while constraining their ambitions to some extent so that they stop wreaking such havoc with the planet and our human world.

Here is how one society has done it. Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to present the Mosuo of China, a matrilineal, agricultural, tribal ethnic group of Yunnan high country, bordering Tibet.

The Mosuo language has no words for murder, war, rape, or jealousy, and the Mosuo have no jails and no unemployment. Although the Mosuo culture is most frequently described as a matriarchal culture; it’s more accurate to refer to it as “matrilineal”. Accurately speaking Mosuo have aspects of matriarchal culture, in that women are the head of the house, property is passed through the female line, and women tend to make the business decisions. Political power, however, remains in the hands of males, creating a gender-balanced society. Mosuo women carry on the family name and run the households, which are usually made up of several families, with one woman elected as the head. The head matriarchs of each village govern the region by committee.

Probably the most famous – and most misunderstood – aspect of Mosuo culture is their practice of “walking marriages” (or “zou hun” in Chinese), so called because the men will walk to the house of their partner at night, but return to their own home, within their own tribal family, in the morning. The man will never go to live with the woman’s family, or vice versa. He will continue to live with and be responsible to his family, and the children of his sisters and nieces; she will continue to live with and be responsible to her family. There will be no sharing of property.

Among the Mosuo, since neither male nor female children will ever leave home [to marry], there is no particular preference for one gender over the other. The focus instead tends to be on maintaining some degree of gender balance, having roughly the same proportion of male to female within a household. In situations where this becomes unbalanced, it is not uncommon for Mosuo to adopt children of the appropriate gender (or even for two households to ‘swap’ male/female children).

According to patriarchal macho Argentinean writer Ricardo Coler who decided to find out what it was like to live in a non-patriarchal culture, and spent two months with the Mosuo in southern China: “Men live better where women are in charge.”

mosuo

a Mosuo woman in festive garb

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, Alex 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 New York 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

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