We can refuse to participate in a dead society gone shopping.
— Joe Bageant

Once we understand what feeds it, it becomes possible to think of stopping the Machine. I puzzled over this one for a long time, only to suddenly grok the obvious: the fodder for the Machine is our precious life energy!

Eeww… eewww

So then. Deny it its coveted fuel: your effort, your attention and interest, your money, your loyalty, your goodwill and your good ideas. Deny it your streams of energy, one by one. Direct them instead to the Lifeworld. And don’t shout it from the rooftops! Just blend discreetly into one of the various subcultures experimenting nowadays with a saner way of life; the minions and guardians of the Machine will never even notice you.

This is the crux. Any machine can withstand tinkering, but no machine can run without fuel. Like an old mill on a dry riverbed, it will become a relic of a past that’s done with, a useless hunk of debris. Our radical withdrawal will be the end of the Machine.

Here are some of the ways of seceding from Babylon:

  • Down-work, un-work

More work is the source of evils like resource depletion and stress and pointlessly complicated lives; the Earth needs us to stop working so hard! The less we work, the less we feed the Machine. Our work aids the plunder, our de-working slows and stops it, one person at a time. This is why Babylon has always reinforced the message that work is virtuous and important even as it was inventing pointless busywork, harmful work, useless work. Let’s celebrate “Freedom from Labor” Day! Working more is not the way to leisure. Leisure is the way to leisure. Find it before the Machine uses you up and spits you out.

Working less will give the earth a break and repatriate you from ratdom back to humanity. There is plenty of work out there for those who want to do real things, useful things that matter. Once we shed debts and provide ourselves with paid-for basics, money is a small part of the picture. Well-being is what matters, not cranking out a pittance while the planet is plundered more and more. What we need is a “less work ethic”! Less work, less planet being used, more life.

  • Unschool

Unschooling does not mean turning the parent into a traditional teacher, and stuffing the kids full of the same nonsense that the official curricula dictate. No! Let children learn as they did between that ages of birth and 5 or 6, when they acquired prodigious quantities of knowledge, all by their own efforts. Just help them along, and they will be far ahead of their institutionalized peers. Best learning happens in context, by learners who are busily exploring their environment. Spend time with your children sharing with them what you know and what you love. Create neighborhood co-op schools. Get tutors (elders in particular): kind, child-cherishing experts who can take the kids down paths you do not know. And make it possible for children to learn real things: basic medical care, care for animals, food growing and cooking, conversation, geography of travel, building. All those abstractions schools “teach” will either be learned in the course of their exploration, or will never be needed anyways. Honest: when was the last time you needed algebra?

  • Dis-identify with the hologram 

Exit the theater of the audience-nation! As Joe Bageant once ranted so well: “All Americans, regardless of caste, live in a culture woven of self-referential illusions. Like a holographic simulation, each part refers exclusively back to the whole, and the whole refers exclusively back to the parts. All else is excluded by this simulated reality, a simulated republic of eagles and big box stores, a good place to live so long as we never stray outside the hologram. The corporate simulacrum of life has penetrated us so deeply it now dominates the mind’s interior landscape with its celebrities and commercial images. Within the hologram sparkles the culture-generating industry, spinning out our unreality like cotton candy.”

The hologram and its spin meisters have been having themselves a veritable orgy of lies and propaganda dealing with the wreck that is Ukraine. This has been one part of the world I have followed with some alacrity over the last year. Nothing, nothing, nothing reported in the MSM was close to the reality on the ground. When the fated Malaysian plane was shot down, a relentless stream of deception sloshed out like long-stored toxic sludge that burst its containment. As Ilargi has recently pointed out on Automatic Earth, 2014 was the year when the bargeload of lies heading our way was no longer even disguised. It may be time for me to pull back even from the little “Babylon-watching” that I still do. Their self-referential faux-reality does not deserve the gift of anyone’s attention. My heart goes to all those trapped in Babylon’s perpetual wars, and my blessings.

  • Unplug from the Spectacle

Toss the damn stupid boob box. Why are you still watching all those hundreds of channels with nothing on? It sucks away your hours like a vampire. Give those hours to something that will give you joy. After all, your supply of lifetime hours is very limited. News? You will learn about the important events from other people. It is quite possible to stop reading the papers – skimming the headlines is more than enough. And you will spare yourself the crassness of commercials, ads, infomercials and disinformation. Computer news can be used far more selectively, and can supply news directly from other people like us, unfiltered by official channels. Find what works for you. Waking from the trance takes time and new habits.

But that’s not nearly enough. I have been amongst the TV-unplugged for 15 years now, and yet I too get sucked into the vortex of disastrous news. In the fall of 2008 I gaped with horror and disbelief as the evidence of stupendous plunder unfolded. I spent inordinate amount of my time trying to fathom it. But what good has it done me or my neighbors? All those fear-mongering stories – the true and the false – are just stories, repetitive and debilitating messages of scarcity and doom, bringing about a festering sense of anxiety, failure and helplessness so that people become ripe pickings for demagogues and con-men. We can choose not to play this game. We can tell stories that are of use, and disseminate them via our own channels. And while the thugs and thieves will keep on with their business, we can and will find a way to secede from their Kingdom of Spin, leaving them to their slime, moving on.

  • Un-shop

Buy only what you must. Economize. Go frugal. Share. Grow and make your own. Join a community that knows how. Support local merchants. Let the uglification of box stores mercifully fall into the understory of history. A healthy economy does not depend on buying up an avalanche of crap and working in pointless jobs to be able to afford it. It depends on people being genuinely productive and economical. It also depends on a healthy planet to feed us, and on social systems not based on theft so that we don’t have to run just to stay in one place, while others fatten themselves at our expense.

  • Un-debt

Get a debit card if you must, or do a cash economy. Pay off the debts. Do what it takes. Get out of the yoke too demeaning even for oxen.

  • Delegitimize

Judiciously unvote. The choices are really between really bad and “keep fingers crossed” less bad. Is that good enough? For how long? Let Babylon’s politics languish on the periphery of your attention. Ignore the inanities of the election races. Stop chasing after the liars. Refuse the system your loyalty and your goodwill.

  • Break the spell of Thingness

We’ve been taught for endless generations that it is stuff that really matters. Stuff is primary. Stuff gives security and happiness. After all, we are the descendants of the Neolithic cult of MORE. But material stuff is just a fraction of what really matters here on Earth, and we already have more than enough of it. Let us return to a larger vision: humans who break their addition to material wealth for the greater good. Humans as intelligent beings who cherish– not ruin — creation, humans as those who are wise enough to enlarge the chances of Life.

  • Down-specialize

Back off from single-minded pursuits and become a generalist. Every biochemist should know how to fix what breaks in the home. Every engineer should know how to start a fire. Every office worker should know how to do basic healing. Every one of us should know how to grow food. We all together hold the potential to be able to do most anything that really matters and our local communities require. Let’s look at the priorities, and put specialization in its valuable, but much smaller place.

  • Undomesticate

Domestication, like slavery, rebounds on the perpetrator. We must return to thinking of our fellow animals and plants as symbionts, and more, as devoted friends. Some of these friends feed us; they give the gift of their lives so that we may live on. Others maintain the atmosphere, the ecosphere, the soil. Why don’t we treat them accordingly? In return, we will reap a restoration of our own wild spirit now crushed under the weight of misery-spreading dependency, under the burden of everyday brutality that exists because of our own complicity. Babylon sweeps it under the rug, and then abuses the rebels who refuse to look the other way.

Dare I say it? Let’s rewild!

  • Repudiate usury

Babylon would like us to forget that usury, historically and biblically speaking, did not mean charging high interest. It meant not charging interest at all. Medieval economies flourished without interest. And it was interest that pushed the cancerous expansion of Western civilization. Interest is one of the most powerful ratcheting forces behind the vicious circle of “endless growth” and accompanying plunder. There are other ways to conceive of money and lending. Send some of your energy to the financial rebels who are disseminating them.

  • Disencumber

Remember those storage sheds full of crap you will never use again, the closets chock-full of stuff you haven’t seen in years? Time to “shed it” for good. Most places have second-hand stores happy to take some of it. Try craigslist or freecycle websites. Some communities have Free Stores or book kiosks too, or need to. I have had good luck with half.com and amazon for passing on books that I cared about but that I would never read again. Every time something, no matter how small, is passed on to the next user, life opens up new possibilities.

  • Divest

We cannot expect to shrink Babylon or leave it while giving it our money. These money systems are the dark heart of Babylon, and they are the ones that transform our living energy into the stuff that flows out. It is laughable to think that Babylon will allow significant reform so that community banking and money issuance could take hold. But thousands of hidden, small experiments growing like mushrooms everywhere? At a time of ongoing high-level crises Babylon must deal with first – that indeed would be a formidable challenge. Divesting deflated South Africa’s balloon. It will deflate Babylon’s zeppelin too. Let’s find ways to invest our money in the service of Life.

  • Phase out economic dependencies

Learning to supply one’s basic needs without the dependence on Babylon is the key to freedom. Follow the paths of food to learn how ridiculous, wasteful, unsafe, and downright revolting our system is. Find local sources for the basics from food and soap to pottery and clothes. Become one of the local sources for something. Be part of the local economy. Cook from scratch. Relearn frugality and old-time skills and teach others. Restore the free and the abundant. Earn local money into existence.

  • Lighten the overhead

Stop feeding the chiseling bridge-trolls. Go direct for all the goods that you cannot buy locally. Look where the skimming goes on in an economic transaction, and find ways to circumvent the middlemen. The maintenance of elites is a luxury the planet can ill afford. As soon as we refuse to produce the skim-surplus that finances them, they will vanish like mist over a morning swamp.

  • Decontaminate one’s self

There are plenty of noxious ideas and patterns of thinking out there, the sort that keep us tied to Babylon’s strings forever. We must become shrewd and discerning. As we disencumber materially, it makes sense to do spring cleaning inside our heads as well. Community is more important than “multiculturalism” or “cosmopolitanism.” Anomie is not something we must accept along with stainless steel and velcro. And good medical care need not be based on an overly high-tech, top-heavy, impersonal model. Dare to imagine — and come to visit — the lovely world outside Babylon’s box.

  • Un-victimize

We must learn to defend ourselves and our communities. A time may come when it becomes imperative. In any case, the police are expensive, and not really needed in communities run well by their citizens. The Amish have no need of the police.

And we must learn to ease off the grid, to rethink our vulnerabilities to centralized solutions from electricity to emergency services. There are many ways a small community can provide its own, and become far less vulnerable to sudden problems. Remember the hard winter 2008 out east and its long lapses in utility provision along with a run on generators and attendant theft?  None of that is necessary among people who have made reasonable provisions for unusual situations.

And finally, we must again play a key role in keeping our food supply safe. Becoming part of a network of trustworthy farmers, food processors and artisans is where it begins.

  • Down-compete

Competition, like fire, is a good servant but a terrible master. It works best when it’s contained within a larger collaborative world. Unfettered competition fails to promote common good, and often leads a race to the bottom. When the emphasis on competition makes people less cooperative, selfishness and free riding are promoted, contributions to public good are reduced, heavy stress takes a toll on health, and we all end up worse off. Take a good look around you at this world out of kilter. One Harvard professor did, and he began to penalize students for lack of teamwork, even at exams. What do American schools call such teamwork? Cheating! Cheat Babylon by playing fair: cooperate.

  • Un-waste

Waste too is part of the grid in Babylon. The system encourages it in a myriad ways, from free dumps to curbside unlimited pick up, from its hidden network of sewers to water treatment plants (which are free at a glance, and very expensive and poorly designed if you really look) and toxic dumping. Eeww indeed! Yet the solutions are already out there, from composting to grey water systems and water-purifying wetlands, from reusing to making do. Waste comes from feeding human and planetary energy to the maw of the Machine. Food into waste, life into death. Let us reverse the transformation and reestablish natural cycles.

  • Dis management

Letting go of the controlling, managerial paradigm and meddlesome interventionism will be key in regaining our sanity. Interventionism breeds more interventionism and has costs that Babylon hides by “cooking the books.” Remember… when it comes to the universe, we did not cause it, we cannot cure it, and we cannot control it. Let it run itself – it knows how. Ran Prieur once said, “I swear, if we had infinite technological power, at our present emotional level, we would destroy all the clouds, replace them with holograms of clouds, and have fleets of airships drop water, instead of just letting it rain.” Isn’t that modern mis-managerial hubris in a nutshell!? Enough already…

  • Down-tech

Individuals and communities can scrutinize technology and pick and choose carefully. Must you really have another kitchen gizmo? Do you want to spend your days staring at a smart-phone, with the Eye following you wherever you go? Do you really need electricity 24/7? Each new artifact has its price, and impacts the well-being of human communities and the natural world. Heed the wise Akela’s call: “Look well, look well, oh wolves. As befits a Free People.”

  • Detoxify

Detoxify relationships, that is. Have you noticed? Anti-bully programs in schools are all the rage now, but nobody ever points out that schools exist, in part, to inure kids to being bullied (by teachers, administrators, and curriculum planners), so that when they get absorbed into the workforce, they think it’s normal, just put up and shut up. Domination is the poison in the wellspring of Babylon. Don’t drink from it.

Easier said than done. Bossism in all its forms has contaminated almost everything. Domination is a dirty trick, and we are all tainted. We all play the domination/submission game. But another game is afoot. The partnership game. The more you learn to play it, the less beholden you will be to the con-games of Babylon.

See? You don’t have to leave the country to leave the culture.
 

unplug

The other day, I penned a small diatribe against utopians who — having power at their disposal — severely damaged our world. The essay echoed around the internet and found some surprising opposition among peer-to-peer systems proponents. When my riposte met with silence, I decided to piggyback onto that thread here.

Perhaps the rant came off my keyboard too hastily: I was fuming against all those people who, certain of their “vision” and having obtained access to the corridors of power, then proceed to impose it on us all, regardless of objections, regardless of feedback, regardless, indeed, of the reality they *actually* create.

I am all for literary utopias where speculation runs rampant and new vistas open up to human imagination. What I am against is taking that speculation and trying to hoist it upon the hapless humans that happen to be within the utopian’s power orbit. Often this takes the form of policies and laws forced upon people to change their behavior. It’s been called “social engineering” in some circles, and aptly so, since it essentially pushes and manipulates people in the direction the utopian wants them to go, and through top-down methods no less. That, my friends, is not autonomy. That’s not freedom, nor is it respect. That’s not the right algorithm for getting there.

How, then, do you grow a future that works? Christopher Alexander happens to have a few things to say about it in his Process of Creating Life.

The essence of successful unfolding is that form develops step by step, and that the building as a whole then emerges, coherent, organized. The success if this process depends, always, on sequence. A building design can unfold successfully only when its features “crystallize out” in a proper order.

Instead of using plans, design, and so on, I shall argue that we must instead use generative processes. Generative processes tell us what to do, what actions to take, step by step, to make buildings and building designs unfold beautifully, rather than detailed drawings which tell us what the end-result is supposed to be.

The step-by-step approach works. The all-or-nothing approach does not work. This is the secret of biological evolution. During the course of evolution, the adaptation of the thousands and millions of variables that must occur to make one successful organism happens step-by-step, essentially one gene at a time. That is what makes evolution possible. It would be impossible for nature to “design” a system as complex as any organism all at once.

What steps do you take, in what order? The most basic instruction I can give you as a guide for a living process, is that you move with certainty. That means, you take small steps, one at a time, deciding only what you know. You try never to take a step which is a guess or a “why don’t we try this?” Large scale trial-and-error, shots in the dark, simply do not work. Rather, you move by slow, small decisions, deciding one thing, getting sure about it, and then moving on.

The crux of every design process lies in finding the generative sequence for that design, and making sure that sequence is the right one for the job.

Generative sequences emerge from the doing. When I discovered them in Alexander’s writing, I thought he was referring to some template to follow, because he mentioned a song some Oceanic culture uses to pass on the sequence for building a canoe. It begins, “First, find the right tree,” and ends, “Carve the prow in the shape of a woman.”

Not so. Generative sequences emerge from the doing, when we begin where we are, and move organically from there. Sometimes, the generative sequence that emerges is of common use, when, for example, people often make canoes. Such a generative code (which might be turned into a song or a rhyme) becomes a cultural treasure, worth passing on to successive generations. Creating a sound agricultural terrace is another example. Or placing the windows in a room being built. But in unique or novel situations, the sequence itself emerges step by step.

Here’s the actual emergence of a generative sequence for household composting. When I came to the house where I lived for a number of years, I of course had an elaborate vision in my head of a large square compost heap, preferably made of nice wooden slats that were removable on one side. You’ve seen the pictures. So I chose a spot for it, and tried to figure out if I could build it. It seemed beyond me at that time. I considered using cinder blocks, but that would have made it too big and too ugly. Buying a nice wooden structure would have meant spending a lot of money ordering by mail, since local gardening shops had nothing like it. I was reluctant to turn this project into a shopping expedition. I also developed doubts about the location of the heap. I simply began to throw weeds and rotting refuse onto the spot. But it turned out too out of the way. At that point, I more or less gave up. Much later, I hit upon a generative sequence. It went like this:

  1. Need (“felt vision”): to stop throwing food bits into the garbage; to return them to the cycle of life. To walk my walk.
  2. So. If I don’t throw them away, where do I put them (as I am holding the potato peels)?
  3. Ah. Grab a plastic container, place by the sink, put peels in it.
  4. Next morning… ok, now, what do I do with these rotting peels? I have a big old plastic flower pot way back in the garden where I throw a bit of grass refuse and weeds; why don’t I throw the peels there? Done.
  5. Ick. I don’t like going way back there in bad weather. I need a place where I can empty the container if it snows, if I am barefoot or wearing only undies. I grab the flower pot and move it by the back door. Voila!
  6. Oops, we have a problem. I keep tossing the bits in the garbage anyway… keep forgetting. I need a way to change a lifelong habit. How about making a big squiggle on the side of the garbage bin with a sharpie pen? Yes, it works.
  7. Spring comes, and the pot is beginning to stink. What now? Toss some sawdust on it? Time to experiment.
  8. A bit of soil and warmer temps cure the problem.

And so it went. I did not spend a penny on the system. And since I evolved it stepwise from need to need, it is not surprising that it actually served my needs! One of these days, I will spring for a nice porcelain container with a lid to place by the sink. Now I know exactly the size and shape I need. And by the way, that spot I had originally picked for the heap? It would have been completely wrong on several counts. If I had used a plan, I would only have found out after implementation. Too late.

The emergence of new structures in nature is brought about, always, by a sequence of transformations which act on the whole, and in which each step emerges as a discernible and continuous result from the immediately preceding whole. New form comes into being. Morphogenesis occurs. New form that is, in almost every case, unpredictable from the initial state, appears smoothly via a sequence of tiny continuous changes. The sequences are not merely smooth. We have a sequence in which new structure grows organically, holistically, from the structure which is there already. One whole gives rise to another.

plant_embryogenesis

how nature generates a plant

 

You are lost in a the middle of a dark primeval forest. A moonless night breathes all around you; soft rain is falling. You long to be somewhere safe, warm, and dry. A tiny keychain flashlight illuminates the immediate space — the rest is near-impenetrable blackness. Bogs, logs and wild hogs wait to trip you up. How do you find your way?

Your senses on edge, you look, listen, sniff the breezes. A faint gurgling of a nearby brook gives you initial direction. You take a step, then examine what’s around and ahead. You take another step. It occurs to you to follow the creek downstream. The next few steps reveal an impassable steep bank. A detour leads into a huge rocky scree. “How do I get back to the water?” You peer into the darkness for the flicker of a fire or a lit window…

We too are lost in the universe. And more ominously, we are lost in a human world collectively bent on omnicide. Apart from death, we have no sure destinations. Some of us cling to the illusion of control — they think they know where we must go, and how to get there. But more and more of us have taken a good look at the disastrous centuries of ending up in the wrong places, and we finally call the quest for control a big fat lie. We gather ourselves up and resolve to abandon the control-freak led stampede to the edge of the cliff. Now we need a way to move ahead that is anchored both in the honest admission that we are not in control, and in the pattern all other creatures use as they walk the paths of their lives.

Control insists on linearity, but life is complex. Do we dare to surrender to a visionary co-adaptive journey where each step is an evolutionary state that takes its shape from steps taken before? The process I see in my mind’s eye is a dynamic dance continually responding to itself. Each step illuminates the next step. At each moment in time, new circumstances emerge. Every step brings new insights, surprises, and unforeseen consequences. Each step is part of the ongoing cycles of mutual responsiveness; it accepts feedback from the current whole and passes on feedback in its turn. One state flows into another.

Unplanning is a spiral, dynamic, unpredictable process that begins with a hunch, and evolves from there. Dreaming, doing and becoming form one seamless flow. The initial inkling of a vision does not remain static, but glows a bit stronger with each step taken. The tentative first steps merely begin the process; they do not determine it. Modifications and adjustments are made at any point, as the need becomes apparent. And each new experience undergone changes us as we come to embody the life of the path.

The unplanning process requires of us that we gradually become the kind of people who know how to inhabit this unfolding future, who are able to reach a desired place, where-ever it turns out to be. Visioning, walking, and self-changing go hand in hand; behold, a pilgrimage. Wisdom is in flux, mutually situated and actively embodied. We come to be more and more the people whose path harmonizes with that which we hope for, and that which we hope for evolves right along with our continuous becoming.

The process itself changes people — as all experiential, experimental journeys do — and people come to gradually embody that which draws them on. We don’t know where we’ll end up, trusting the process to emerge each particular end-state as a surprise.

No imaginary picture of the future controls our conception of what must be done. What must be done arises from the needs, problems and possibilities of the living present. The direction emerges gradually from the felt vision, the doing, the becoming, step by step by step.

In our profession of architecture there is no conception, yet, of process itself as a budding, as a flowering, as an unpredictable, unquenchable unfolding through which the future grows from the present in a way that is dominated by the goodness of the moment.
— C. Alexander, The Nature of Order: the process of creating life

evolve1

Dogs diverged genetically from wolves more than 100,000 years ago, during the previous warm interglacial. Did humans have anything to do with it? The oldest known dog skeletons are from 36 and 33,000 years ago, found in Belgium and Siberia. A child was exploring the Chauvet cave, using a torch to look at the artwork while a dog followed… 26,000 years ago, well before the Ice Age Maximum.

When the cold began to let up, some 17,000 years ago, the people of the Pyrenees living at the Isteritz cave took such good care of a reindeer with a broken leg, it survived for two years (viz Paul Bahn: Pre-neolithic control of animals, 1984, and his response to ongoing controversy). By 15,000 years ago, pictures of horses with rope halters appear in the Magdalenian cave art of SW France.

darudyhorse

Foragers created the first magnificent art. They built the first temples and the first high-density towns with thousands of inhabitants. They invented ovens and kilns, cookworthy pottery, wine and beer. They clearly domesticated the dog and probably tamed reindeer and horses.

So perhaps it’s not such a stretch to believe that they also domesticated the pigs, sheep and goats and a whole slew of plants, from grains to squash, gourds, and legumes, to delicacies like chocolate, vanilla, and chili peppers. Even more amazingly, it was rock-shelter dwelling, semi-nomadic foragers who spent hundreds of years patiently experimenting with the unpromising teosinte to bring about maize. Then they spent thousands of years more improving the new tiny-cobbed plant before settling down to grow it as a staple.

If a group of foragers plants a plot of squash near their favorite cave, then comes back in late summer to harvest their bounty, can they legitimately be called farmers? If another group of foragers raises some pigs while living off wild foods (and eating no cereals), can they be called farmers? If Egyptian foragers throw a bunch of traded domesticated wheat down into the rich alluvial mud on the banks of the Nile, perhaps to brew some beer, but otherwise live the hunting-fishing-gathering lifestyle, how are they any different from the Californian native foragers or the Aborigines who spread some favorite seeds and flooded them by diverting a creek’s spring runoff? Perhaps we need a new term, one that would reflect the foragers’ sophisticated plant manipulation skills that nevertheless did not, by themselves, lead to the predominantly farming life.

Archeologists have been, in my opinion, far too eager to brand cultures as farmers on flimsy evidence. It appears that farming is much younger than previously claimed. The first farming village was found in Egypt, dated to only 7,000 years ago. As Melinda A. Zeder, an archeobiologist, states:

This broad middle ground between wild and domestic, foraging and farming, hunting and herding makes it hard to draw clean lines of demarcation between any of these states. Perhaps this is the greatest change in our understanding of agricultural origins since 1995. The finer-resolution picture we are now able to draw of this process in the Near East (and, as seen in the other contributions to this volume, in other world areas) not only makes it impossible to identify any threshold moments when wild became domestic or hunting and gathering became agriculture but also shows that drawing such distinctions actually impedes rather than improves our understanding of this process. Instead of continuing to try to pigeonhole these concepts into tidy definitional categories, a more productive approach would be to embrace the ambiguity of this middle ground and continue to develop tools that allow us to watch unfolding developments within this neither-nor territory.

 

hunter-gatherers

Utopianism has, rightly, acquired an unsavory reputation. Since my preoccupations on this blog concern the creation of a place of refuge from Babylon, as well as the opening of a crack in the system where another world is born, I thought it prudent to shine a light on it. If only so I avoid falling into that abyss.

Utopianism is underlain, as I understand it, by the hankering for social perfection and the lure of ideal worlds. It typically involves four aspects:
* privileging of ideals over messy human realities, of future over the present, of pure geometries over wabi sabi, of ideas over nature
* imposition of top-down design
* refusal of responsibility and of paying close attention to untoward consequences; “ends justify means”
* social pressure or propaganda to induce people to “like” the results

Most of the people who’ve brought ruin to the modern world have been utopians, from Lenin to Mussolini to Pol Pot, from communists to neo-liberals, from early modern architects to Brutalists to more recent ego-excesses of the various Frank Gehrys. (I am not counting among them the literary creation of new worlds. Dreamers need to safely bat ideas around, and fantasy and sci-fi novels make that possible.)

Utopians delight in arm-chair design. They fall in love with their creations. When they try to implement them and other humans balk, things get ugly.

Utopian memes have misled people into thinking that top-down design of ideal societies is the right strategy for creating a better world. Even permaculture has been infected, imposing top-down landscaping designs upon the land with predictably disappointing results. I have called the opposite of top-down design “unplanning.” Unplanning imitates nature, envisioning and applying human processes that are rooted in adaptive, feedback-responsive steps.

I think in terms of “better.” A whole lot better than THIS. And while optimal is hard and ideal is impossible, better is often very doable. And when “better” seeds new “attractors” (vortices of energy) into being, a sudden phase shift into something quite different becomes possible.

The world I am dreaming into existence cannot come into being via utopian schemes. It evolves from small beginnings. It arises through a myriad of adaptations made by millions of people. There is a vision, but the vision itself co-evolves with each step each human takes. We make the path as we walk. Following in the footsteps of Candide, we cultivate our gardens. And invite others to join us there.

gehry

Frank Gehry: ruining the world, one building at a time

 

Reality and power are so mutually incrusted that even to raise the question of dissolving power is to step off the edge of reality.
— John Holloway

I started this blog with a longing familiar to many: stop the world, I wanna get off! I had a dream, a dream to find a way out of Babylon, this accelerating nightmare that has us addicted and horrified, both. The standard argument for the impossibility of an exit is simple and persuasive. Even if you move to the fringes, Babylon finds you, either to destroy, or to engulf and devour. Same thing, different time line. As we speak, the last unknown tribes are being chased out of the Amazon jungle to be wiped out. There is no place to go.

Except, I refused to believe it. My gut told me that escape is possible; we were not looking at the problem with sufficient snake-eyes. So I kept searching, imagining, looking for just the right crack in the edifice of this civilization. Here is what I found.

Hakim Bey fired up people’s imaginations with his Temporary Autonomous Zones. His T.A.Z. is a “liberated area of land, time or imagination where one can be for something, not just against, and where new ways of being human together can be explored and experimented with.” He documents many past escapes. I just came across evidence that rural intellectuals in ancient China talked about, and tried to build into, those so-called “cracks in the system.” It saddens me to think that we know nothing else of them. Their efforts faded very long ago, and the Machine kept on grinding. Note to self: the crack must be persistent, durable.

Explorations of Amish attitudes, beliefs and lifestyle framed my search for a while. Since the Machine is an apt metaphor for the workings of Babylon, I felt that getting away from machines would be a good general direction; my feelings were strengthened by an introvert’s detestation of the increasingly deafening noise indiscriminate use of machines inflicts on most of us. Full of admiration for the famous Amish community-minded restraint when it comes to adopting new technologies, I located and romanced a very old-fashioned Mennonite group that welcomes Babylon’s escapees. Concurrently, I joined an online Mennonite community where a modified-Plain lifestyle was a reality for many. But when I found that I could be a full-fledged, outspoken member of that community only because I was taken for a man, I sobered up. Note to self: getting away from machines is good, but not as good as getting away from being dominated.

Nevertheless, “being Amish” provided a useful metaphor for my aim. I realized I wanted to be “out” as much, at least, as the Amish are out. I long to be part of another world that is palpable in its otherness.

Familiarity with Daniel Quinn’s and Andy Schmookler’s argument (viz the Parable of the Tribes) impressed upon me that going to the fringes was indeed a strategy, at best, to delay the inevitable. Fringe existence exposes one to marginalization and its accompanying vulnerabilities. The crack must defy the problem of power. (Problem of power in a nutshell: become Babylon, or be destroyed. Those who step outside it lose. Viz Aldous Huxley’s Island.)

John Holloway has spoken about spaces where a prefiguration of another world can be grown. He is among those who believe that for the underdog to grab power-over leads to yet another version of power-over. Not a path that leads to a brand new world, only more of the same. Here is how he puts it: “You cannot build a society of non-power relations by conquering power. Once the logic of power is adopted, the struggle against power is already lost.” The crack must emerge from a new way of using power. Knocking off the old power hogs and installing our own brand new power hogs just won’t cut it.

In an interview, Holloway hints: “These cracks can be spatial (places where other social relations are generated), temporal (“Here, in this event, for the time that we are together, we are going to do things differently. We are going to open windows onto another world.”), or related to particular activities or resources (for example, cooperatives or activities that pursue a non-market logic with regard to water, software, education, etc.). The world, and each one of us, is full of these cracks.” And in a recent book, he states: “A crack is the perfectly ordinary creation of a space or moment in which we assert a different type of doing.” So ecovillages and monasteries, Burning Man or the Rainbow Gatherings, coops and land trusts, and many lesser alternative spaces provide refuge. But are they sufficiently and durably “outside”? Not in my experience.

My sense of them, despite all the clamor about degrowth, “new economies” and all the rest, is that they are not strong enough to be a countervailing force against the Machine. They are, to be sure, part of the answer, but by themselves, they will eventually be pushed to conform, just like most Christians or hippies were. The spaces opened up by them turned out not to be the radical and permanent exit they had once thought it was. They themselves carried Rome/Babylon with them wherever they went and infected all those spaces they newly inhabited. And the minions of the Machine have been many and well financed; they are sent out to co-opt or crush any alternative that shows significant success. One example is the so-called “sharable economy” which is turning into yet another way to monetize the remaining few assets of increasingly impoverished people (rent your home to passing strangers, spend your free time picking up passengers with your car, why dontcha). The space must robustly resist Babylonian contagion from seeping in. And it must be a realistic strategy to slow and stop the Machine: the new world we birth will share this “one and only planet” with Babylon, and so its runaway ruination must end.

James C. Scott talks about an important aspect of spaces successfully hidden for centuries from the depredations of empire: illegibility. When those in power cannot read you right, you are effectively hidden from view, obscured by being incomprehensible. The agents of empire always, always work hard to make newly encountered cultures legible: they send in missionaries, anthropologists and medical people to “study” and “help” these folks so they can be successfully dominated and exploited in due time. With new cultures within Babylon, the system sends friendly researchers, overeager NGOs offering to make you visible, and agents provocateurs. The crack must be hard to penetrate by and illegible to the PTB.

I tried eco-village living, and while I loved many aspects of it, especially the face-to-face, walkable community, I was shocked how “hijacked by Babylon” the relationships were. For all the efforts to clean up process, our process has not been cleaned up. A new kind of social relationship must be the molten core of the new world. Nevertheless, there is great relief one experiences in an ecovillage — or an old-fashioned village — out on the fringes, despite the fact that the Machine still intrudes from the distance and Babylon is never altogether absent within. Distance from Babylon, just like distance from machines, is part of the path to sanity, at least in my view of it.

From complexity thinking I learned about emergence from tiny local beginnings. So finally, the obvious: the way out must be in our power to find, not something to petition the power brokers to bring about (as though they could or would!). It must be doable from each person, from the grassroots, outward. A tall order, ey?

There is yet another space. Having glimpsed this terra incognita, I am on the cusp of walking away into the world that emerges when at least two people, who have each cultivated the attitudes, skills and forms of thinking that allow power sharing, come to connect. This space only comes into being when human beings relate in a new way — the power-sharing way — and form a new sort of relationship. It is born when two or more people are both willing and able to leave power games behind, and their radical communion opens up a portal into what Riane Eisler, somewhat ruefully, calls “partnership.”

Suddenly, we are in another world, a world of our co-making, emergent, brand new, uncolonized by any outside powers, yet to be explored, ready to be nurtured. Here is the ember of another reality, waiting to be stoked into flames. A world of mutuality where we together create customs and culture all our own, without the constant interference of power hoarders. And since the foundation, indeed the be all and end all, of Babylon — this particular civilization — is domination, once you step out of domination, you are out of Babylon.

 

two women

Recently, I put forth the idea that it would be a good thing if this civilization, with all its captured energy, could metamorphose into a civilized social grouping, whatever it might be called. I once called it a “civilized civilization.” Permacivilization might be another term. This drew some, er, cat calls from my treasured readership. Perhaps an elaboration is in order.

Is there any chance for This Ugly Civilization to metamorphose into something largely positive? Let’s look at our options. (I won’t dwell on die-off since I think it’s inevitable; its extent will be up to Gaia, not me.)

Future A: business as usual; the long decline, a la Rome, into small warring principalities and neofeudalism; much culture lost but patron-supported cultural refugia maintained for the privileged, akin to monasteries of old

Future B: reform; Lester Brown’s Plan B and Transition Towns; a sustainable civilization premised on structural reforms and various green technologies

Future C: rapid collapse and eventual reconstitution of human societies at the level of late stone age; most if not all of our culture and technology lost (a la the Mayan civilization); far-flung villages and nomadic groups eking out a living via foraging and low-tech cultivation plus scavenging civilization’s detritus

Future D: metamorphosis into another, less complex kind of civilization where a great deal of our cultural and technical knowledge is preserved; a world of medium and small towns and thriving countryside; emphasis on local self-determination, broad cooperation, and community

Well then. Are there any other possibilities? For me, option A is not something I wish to further. Option B is, in my view, not doable, because it requires massive elite involvement in restructuring everything toward peace, cooperation, sharing and frugality; besides, current high-tech green technologies are not that green but are created by highly destructive industrial processes. The elites have shown no intention to cut off the branch they are sitting on; their imperial predecessors have always driven their chariot off the cliff rather than reform the system to their personal disadvantage. And I have seen many lesser attempts at reform be readily coopted or sidetracked by the system. Future C may well end up happening; history supports such natural progression in the event of an abrupt and severe societal collapse. A stone age future is not unattractive; my only problem with that possibility is the loss of the cultural knowledge humanity has accumulated and paid such a high price for.

Future C means no glass and glasses, no electricity, no modern dentistry, no acute care in hospitals, no books or computers, no history, no phones, no plastics, no velcro, no bicycles, no transportation faster than a horse, no steel pressure cookers, no high quality tools. Survivable, even deeply enjoyable, but far from optimal. My preferred future would preserve a great deal of current knowledge for the generations to come, so that perhaps another kind of knowledge and technology, a biophilic kind, can piggyback on what we know today, and rise from the ashes of our suffering world. And it would counter, through its otherness, its appealing alternative cultural vortex, the push towards neofeudalism already on its way.

This, then, is why I throw my lot with the metamorphosis crowd rather than the primitivist crowd. The primitivist version is always the ultimate default; I would prefer something more… broadly inspiring, complex and preservationist. Something that would help us avoid losing this cultural wealth, enabling us instead to use it for the good of us and those coming after.

Is such a metamorphosis possible? To answer the question, one must first consider how Mother Nature does metamorphosis. It is a partially understood process that I have outlined in graphic detail here. To sum up, the high-embodied-energy caterpillar goes into a decline while hidden clusters of “imaginal cells” begin to grow and connect, using the nutrients the caterpillar had amassed for its radical transformation. After a time out of sight, protected within a cocoon or a chrysalis, the moth or butterfly emerges: a creature more delightful in its utter unlikeness to its caterpillar predecessor one could hardly imagine.

Here is my thinking: first, metamorphosis is real. It is a natural process that enables the creation of something utterly different; something no reform can accomplish. Second, cultural metamorphosis has been observed. It has been seen in a troop of baboons, who metamorphosed from a brutal, bully male-run domination culture into a largely non-violent, collaborative, female-vigilant culture. It has been observed indirectly in the social setting of a remote island, Tikopia (this remoteness may have provided the necessary cocoon). And finally, isn’t this our best option? However small its chances, why would I want to throw my support behind anything less?!

we have a choice to make

(not an endorsement, like the image; click to enlarge)

 

Before the book Deep Green Resistance came out and the organization of the same name formed, I was a big fan of Derrick Jensen. But not so much since. There are a variety of reasons why DGR lost me. I will mention three.

I just watched a video where DGR ally Stephanie McMillan reads a speech urging global fight against capitalism, while Derrick Jensen acts the interviewer. She makes many good points illustrated with her well-crafted cartoon strips. Her analysis makes a lot of sense. But when she gets to the part about “what to do,” she falls on DGR’s favorite line about “militant resistance” and on vacuous exhortations: we “must overcome the state apparatus” (and its lies, wealth and arms), we “must dismantle the system altogether and create an alternative”! On her site, she stresses (as she has for years): “Our collective strategy must be capable of smashing the entire global matrix of social relations — the economic, political, and ideological practices…” And so on. John Holloway has already very ably pointed out why this approach does not work. I really only have one more thing to say about it:

miracle_cartoon

In the book, Derrick answers a query he has received from his audience many times; “Daniel Quinn says we should walk away, what do you think?” Derrick says he’s got two problems with it; one is that there is nowhere to walk to (Arctic? middle of the ocean?) and the other is that those familiar with Quinn answer that this is supposed to be a mental state, that we are supposed to emotionally withdraw.

I have a problem with what Derrick says. Neither is true of what Daniel Quinn advocates. Quinn makes it pointedly clear that he does not mean it geographically, and he has spoken at length of what he does mean: socio-economic tribalism he calls “new tribalism, where people band together to make a living and a life.” He praises those who have been able to create such “business tribes” and hopes that even better ideas will follow. Either Derrick is shooting in the dark, or he is willfully misrepresenting Quinn’s ideas.

He follows the passage with this argument: if you know a friend is being tortured in a nearby basement, would you walk away? To which I answer, the torture of the planet is far more complex than that. What would you do, Derrick, when people and creatures were tortured in millions, billions of basements (as they indeed are, in a manner of speaking)? That is the situation we face, and that is what we need to deal with. Blowing up all those basements seems, well, not the ideal solution, shall we say? Walking away from the torture system itself and letting it collapse under its own weight may be our best option. And why interpret “walking away” as not caring, no longer doing anything for those who suffer? Quinn is our ally; trying to strawman him out of relevance is a hit below the belt.

Is this civilization redeemable, asks another person. Derrick argues that it is not. I too feel that this civilization is a lost cause, but not civilization in general. Babylon’s days are numbered, but it will try to take everyone down with it. I think that the image of global psychopaths hanging from lamp posts — as Orlov and Kunstler keep on about — is yet another soothing placebo. Things have changed since the days of the French and Russian revolutions. Nowadays, the global perps just change coats, rename things a bit, repaint the stage of the spectacle, change the props. That’s about it.

The question that occupies me is what I (we) can do to speed up the metamorphosis of this voracious caterpillar that is devouring the world into a “civilized civ” butterfly. I will write more about this when I talk about a way out of Babylon I have discovered, soonish. Meanwhile, things are bad enough; I am not interested in joining those out to vandalize the system that exists, trying to bring it down, feeding their precious energies into what they loathe, fueling yet another bitter conflict, yet another “war to end all wars.” Besides, compared to the banksters that are actively and effectively bringing the human world to the precipice, the DGR folks, they are just pikers.

If you crush the caterpillar, you destroy its chance to turn into a butterfly.

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 (and regional proto-civilizations) 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

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