ag/food/soil


I have been rereading the comments that followed my post “No guarantees” – an amazing stream of good thoughts, theories, and hard-won advice. One of the topics that jumped out at me was the bitter claim that no matter what, if we harvest a garden or field, we are depleting fertility by definition.

Wildearthman wrote: “The only historical agriculture found that could be sustained more or less indefinitely occurred on river bottoms where fresh fertility was imported each year from distant mountains. Even with composting, cover crops, and green manures, fertility continues to decline. On my few acres in the Cascades, the topsoil was stripped in clear-cutting. The subsoil is a good quality loam, but I have to import a lot of fertility to make things grow here. How do you keep growing crops in the same old soil, drawing out nutrients with each crop, without at some point adding fertility from somewhere else?”

Jan countered: “The key to continued fertility is to close the nutrient cycle.”

I reasoned that if nature can go from lesser fertility to greater, so could we. Even in pristine forests or grasslands, animals harvest and take away. They leave their poop, true, but they carry away all the energy they need to grow and maintain themselves. That is not returned to the soil until the bird or elk or bison dies.

Osker suggested that a harvest should not be a subtraction from the ecosystem. Clearly, this is possible: a farmer thins the forest he planted 15 years ago, so that all the trees have greater access to the sun; win/win. Relying more on perennial crops – mainly nut trees — is part of Osker’s  strategy.

And so all this put a bee in my bonnet. Is it possible to garden in place without depleting fertility? Is it possible to work a field over generations without the soil sinking lower and lower, with the topsoil growing thinner and thinner?

Then I remembered John Jeavons. I took note of him way back when primarily for his effort to shrink the land needed to grow enough food for one person per year. Only now am I discovering his solution to the very question opened up by my friends on this blog.

To refresh folks’ memory, Jeavons runs a farm in coastal California where he decided to find out what is the minimum of land that will adequately feed a human with a vegetarian diet. He proposed 4,000 sq ft (8,000 with pathways etc.) and now has expanded those numbers to 10,000 in fertile situations and 16,000 in challenging situations. Over time, his experimentation developed into a whole system that has a number of components which are elucidated here.

I am not intending to evaluate his system. I will only alert you that his popular book How to Grow More Vegetables has a new edition coming out in July.

I do think that Jeavons has possibly resolved the puzzle of fertility maintenance or even – gasp – its increase. Jeavons – and this is stupendous – keeps only 40 % of his land for growing human food, and allots 60% of it to growing soil food. To feed the soil, he grows nitrogen fixers, carbon-rich crops, root-dense plants, and perennials with deep roots that bring up subsoil nutrients. (He is no slouch with humanure either). He carefully composts the lot, and adds buckets of it to the beds.

So here is my question. Is this the solution we have been looking for? I can see the face of an Amish farmer being told he has to plow up another 60% of his current fields, just to feed the soil. And why 60%? One of my annoyances with Jeavons is that he will make statements neither supported by an explanation nor by a reference to other sources. For example, he claims that vermicomposting is not suitable to his method because the worms make the nutrients too available. Who says?

Minor quibbling on my part. I walked a field this morning, 100 ft by 100 ft, and took in visually the area that would be dedicated to feeding soil. Huge! Feeding soil must precede feeding everybody else. What an idea! (I do believe that Jeavons does not strictly separate the soil feeding beds and the human feeding beds – for example, rye will give its grains to humans, but the bulk of the plant is pure carbon. And the decaying roots feed the soil directly.)

Feeding soil will not do you any good if you let it all run away in erosion. Crop rotation is a topic of its own, and so is minimal tillage. Rock dusts do not steal fertility elsewhere yet may help fertility in your garden (as they help the fertility of tropical islands lucky enough to lie within the plume of the volcanic dust). Wood ash enriches acidic soils, there are compost teas and plant brews, the word is still out on biochar (which can be easily obtained by burning some brush). Try throwing a little in your chicken coop along with some corn to encourage scratching, and soon the coop will have no dust, no smell, and no poop stalagmites. Later apply the bedding to your garden. No chickens? Here is a recipe: a bit of biochar, some worm castings, a bit of corn meal or flour, bit of pee and a bit of rock dust. Mix well, and let ripen a few days. Voilà!

This of course does not apply to those who sell their produce. They have to import fertility. But getting municipal compost or certain horse manures seems not so much like stealing, but recycling. Nah? Another thought… the ancient practice of letting land lie fallow (as long as it’s covered by vegetation, and grazed occasionally) can be thought of as a nascent glimmer of understanding that the soil needs to be fed.

But back to the main topic. Will the magic application of 60% soil food keep your-mine-our garden’s and field’s fertility increasing? Is this the solution we have been looking for 7,000 years?

Ecology Action garden

Over on Hipcrime Vocab, a new awesome summary of the trip from egalitarian tribes to civ.

I have a few comments. We need a better understanding than Harris offered regarding the move from a society committed to leveling, and the rise of the Big Men. As escapefromWisconsin puts it, “in such societies, aggrandizing members … encourage the production of surpluses by which they throw lavish feasts to enhance their prestige and status.” Yes, but a society based on the values of ‘vigilant sharing’ would not allow striving for prestige and status in the first place.

I disagree that slavery emerged because the agrarian lifestyle is backbreaking. There is plenty of evidence that foragers/horticulturists lived very well; they had some surplus, they still had the leisure. Slavery turned into a necessity only after top-heavy elites made mincemeat out of the economic patterns linked to sharing. It’s the overhead, stupid! 🙂

And finally, the progression from egalitarian band to despotism already happened within the egalitarian bands themselves. There is a creepy account of a Greenland Inuit group that fell prey to a despotic shaman who murdered people and stole women. The band became so terrified they were unable, at the time this early account was written, to strike back. We don’t know if they finally managed to assassinate him, or whether they all snuck off in the middle of the night. In other words, it is possible to hoard power and become a despot without first taking the entrepreneurial path of Big Men.

Welcome, commenters!

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

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

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

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

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

chamber pot

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

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

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

5-Gallon-bucket-toilet-seat

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

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

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

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

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

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

humanureintact1

Intact Nutrient Cycle

humanure

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

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Sunday July 14th.

Rain.
Rain.
More rain.
Drizzles.
Sheets of rain.
Waterfalls of rain.

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

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

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

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

crawfish boil

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

wineberries

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

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

earthaven

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What, then, are my options?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

amish hex

When was the last time you expressed gratitude for gravity?
— Ethan Hughes

In early September, before I went to Dancing Rabbit, I spent two weeks at Possibility Alliance, or as they are now calling the farm itself, the Still Waters Sanctuary. Possibility Alliance is more of a name for the entire project which includes the farm, the Superheroes Rides, the new permaculture school next door, and a support network of similar communities elsewhere.

The farm is located in north-central Missouri, about 3 miles from the nearest small town with a train station (and 40 minutes’ ride from Dancing Rabbit). The college town of Kirksville is only 13 miles north. The land itself is slightly rolling, mostly deciduous woods and old exhausted pastures, a couple of ponds. This is an agricultural area and many of the neighbors are Amish. It all began with an 80 acre farm and a rundown Amish house which has been partially renovated.

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There is an outdoor kitchen made of cob, a large barn, and a nearly finished tiny cob house for the founders, Sarah and Ethan Hughes, and their two small daughters. Another house, a straw-bale duplex built on durable osage orange stilts, is about midway in development. More land has been added since. Friends of Possibility Alliance have also been buying land and building in the neighborhood.

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Along with me, three other visitors came: soft-spoken Nathan from Chicago, a musician and shaman in training, irrepressible Danny from Florida on a train tour of communities, and Corey, a raconteur and jack of all trades from St. Louis who showed up unannounced in his 1951 truck. Six adult residents were living on the farm: Sarah and Ethan, Ariel, Mark, Dan and Phoenix; many day visitors dropped in all the time. There is a large flock of chickens and several ducks and geese. A small herd of goats provides milk for the delectable goat cheese we were lucky to nibble on almost every day. A cow with a calf was being milked as well, and two draft horses helped with the big chores. A couple of barn cats and a working dog complete the picture.

corey's truck

Gardens are fenced and the chickens run free. First impression is a farming idyll: happy scratching hens, ducks in the pond, many fruit trees and grapevines surrounding the house, and a friendly bustle as everyone goes about their farm chores. The day begins at 6 am with the ringing of the bell (luckily, I slept the sleep of the exhausted and I never heard it except once). The first bell calls people to sit in silence; yoga follows. Breakfast bell rings at 7:45, a quick check-in after breakfast divvies up the chores, then work until another bell rings. Lunch, a bit of a siesta (or a consensus meeting, or a discussion) and more work until the dinner bell. Some chores don’t go by the clock, and those who care for the animals are often out till dark. Several times during the day, the ‘bell of mindfulness’ peals slowly, calling everyone to stop work, become aware of the surroundings, and bring one’s consciousness into the now. ‘Noble silence’ reigns in the house on Thursday nights. Mayhap this is a version of the new monasticism?

The farm runs on the gift economy. Only about $9,000 per year covers all expenses. A 20% portion of incoming donations are passed on to other communities. They only have three monthly bills to pay (phone, water and bulk food), and minimal yearly property taxes. No visitor is charged for the stay. All workshops — even permaculture classes — are offered on donation basis; no one is turned away. Each person who joins the community is expected to give all their assets away. One builds social capital instead of financial capital, while “looking for a way to live so that all life can thrive.” The detailed vision (more here) is inspired by Gandhi and Lanza del Vasto.

There is no electricity; I kept groping for light switches the first week I was there. Home-made beeswax tapers light the inside of the house. Running water, provided by the county, is supplemented by stored roof run-off. No cell phones or fossil fuels are allowed on the farm, and people who wish to smoke or drink can take it out on the road. Computer use is discouraged even off-farm. The otherwise peaceful and dark nights are marred by trains passing less than half a mile away at all hours, shaking the earth and honking like mad; as one train disappears over the sonic horizon, another one rumbles in. Bicycles are the main conveyance; no one owns a car.

candle making

My day started with fowl liberation. I got up before 7 to open the door of the chicken coop, and stood there transfixed with astonishment and delight as the feathery avalanche poured out, running, flying, and squawking. A new day, woo-hoo! Enough infectious joy to turn this night owl into a morning person. And for a few days I also went with Phoenix to assist with evening milking, tucking the goats in with some night fodder. The days are intense, and everyone works very hard. When chores are done, there are meetings and workshops to attend, or events to host. That Friday, we had visitors from a nearby old folks home and put on a show for them. The following day was Harvest Festival. It started as a country-craft show — candle dipping, bread baking, cider pressing, bicycle-powered flour grinding, bow making — and evolved into a pleasant neighborly hangout. Kids having fun, helping with crafts or running off to explore. Grown-ups standing around, chatting, making leisurely connections, reluctant to leave. Over a hundred people attended. The other Saturday was filled with workshops: morning and evening devoted to the study of coherence counseling, and that afternoon Ethan gave a spirited presentation on beekeeping to about 10 people who had signed up. On Sunday mornings, the farm hosts a Quaker meeting.

horse rides

flour grinding

The food was very good, and plentiful. Though one of the gardens died this year because of the drought, the remaining four gardens provided much of our food, and sadly, we also ate one of the ducks, and a rooster. Diet’s omnivorous, though heavy on the side of fresh produce. Some of the meals were extra yummy and downright creative. Ariel’s eggplant zakuski (a garlicky chutney) was out of this world, and so were Mark’s fresh breads and Dan’s fluffy eggy frittata! One notable dinner included a sumptuous lasagna, goat cheese with lime liqueur, and old fashioned apple pie. Our hosts took turns cooking in the outdoor kitchen equipped with three rocket stoves, 3 solar ovens, and an earth oven. A summer kitchen is essential in this climate. It was — with the exception of one day — hellaciously hot, and frequent leaps into the nearby pond let me live another day. (My little LED alarm clock melted in the heat.)

solar racks

As you can see, there is much to admire here, and much to love. Being part of a subsistence farm again after a lifetime away was, for me, a dream come true. I learned so much! Cheese and candle making, cooking on rocket stoves, solar apple drying, chicken care… and last not least restorative circles, wellbeing meetings and gratitude rituals. The parting ceremony, where each person leaving stands inside the circle while the others take turns showering them with appreciation, truly touched my heart. Internal organization runs smoothly, and unlike in most intentional communities, there is an emphasis on external politics: protests attended, bike coops and school gardens started. Service to the larger community — such as their give-away plant nursery in the spring — is an ongoing practice. You want radical? This place is radical.

coop door

Hygiene was atrocious. Thick, maddening swarms of flies were everywhere, on the food as it was being made, as it was being served. And this with the stinky composting privy a stone’s throw away. Dirty rags are used to wipe kitchen surfaces with vinegar water, people don’t necessarily wash hands, er, when they should, I saw food served after getting dropped on the ground, water for washing dishes came off the roof, and at Friday night shabbat dinners people drink from the same wine cup and feed each other bits of bread, regardless of their own state of health. During the first week, several people came down with vomity queazies. My bad turn came the following week when I caught a nasty intestinal bug — or should I say, an E. coli caught me? — that refused to leave even after I went home, would not respond to any home remedies, and finally necessitated a course of two antibiotics. And I brought Corey’s cold home with me as well.

But it wouldn’t be accurate just to say I came down with the runs. What happened? Well, ten days into my stay I collapsed. My sickness was one part of it, and so was exhaustion from unaccustomed work and the heat. What bore down the heaviest, though, was the relentlessness of the life. Relentless physical work. Relentless commitments. Relentless socialization. Relentless overscheduling (even music nights were scheduled!). Relentless gregariousness, relentless ‘people everywhere,’ all the time. The life of the PA farm is one long self-imposed crisis — a crisis caused by too few people, with too few resources, running a working farm, hosting hordes of visitors (some 1,500 a year) and trying to fulfill a vastly ambitious and demanding vision that never quits. It was like being on a treadmill, albeit different from the one we know in Babylon. One of the younger residents was suffering from severe fatigue and debilitating body pains, after two years of this onslaught. The misery of no solitude, no privacy. The stress of always running according to the bell. Never a chance to reflect. All bread labor, no head labor; ouch!

And there was another increasing burden weighing me down: cognitive dissonance. The vision, and the reality on the ground were, in some instances, pretty far apart. Feedback, so prominently stressed in our welcoming tour, was actually not welcome. People were exhausted and overwhelmed and last thing they wanted was us visitors speaking up and adding to their heavy load. Our initiative was not appreciated, and was sometimes flat-out shot down. As far as I could ascertain, there was no financial transparency and overall accountability. The place is in private ownership, not a land trust; the other members are not vested and in effect work for room and board. And permaculture is about working smart, not hard, right? Yet with so few people and such a hectic pace, living beings inevitably suffer, and not just humans. Many of the farm’s young trees and bushes were distressed or dying from neglect, lacking mulch and extra care in a dry year.

I came to find out, specifically, how an IC farm might be successfully run while each person chooses freely, out of affinity and love, their own daily occupations. I had so resonated with that part of the vision which stresses self-chosen activities that bring joy! Much is made of this in Ethan’s talk; he tells of some young people on a day visit who chose to fish instead of working. When they later gloated over getting off so easy, they were praised for feeding the community. Alas, reality tells another story. When my work diverged even a tiny bit from the assigned tasks, I was reprimanded in no uncertain terms.

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Watching Ethan go about his business took me back in my mind’s eye to the days of tribal Big Men, those high-energy, gregarious, expansive, driven, attention-seeking, talented, hard-working, visionary movers and shakers. Ethan is all that and more; an amazing person to know. He could talk an auctioneer under the table, loves to perform for an audience, gives highly articulate and inspiring speeches and presentations, and wields the knack of persuading people to make radical life changes. A consummate alliance builder, his presence is felt everywhere on the farm and among those drawn to closer affiliation with the Experiment.

But Big Men are also dangerous people whose larger-than-life downsides can threaten the long-term well being of the community they serve. Their overweening ambition, domineering and intimidating presence, power-hogging, stealing other people’s limelight, hype-mongering exaggerations, and relentless people-driving will alienate people and damage the very values they profess to uphold. They too easily slip into letting their ambition override their caring for the mundane needs of the community. Their quest for tight control and their compulsion to dominate every group event dampens spontaneity and blocks felicitous emergence.

The people at the farm live in far harsher conditions than are necessitated by their chosen subsistence lifestyle. I believe this is because pursuing PR-worthy outside goals has been more important than paying attention to everyday human needs. For example, the wash is done in a tub of water with a bar of soap and a washboard. Please. You might as well dig a posthole with a spoon. There are well designed and effective Amish washers available; one of them would have made a nice addition when the second baby was born last spring. It seems to me that sending money to the poor of St. Louis while ignoring the needs of the Poor Clares and Francises on the farm is a misallocation of resources, and something Diana Leafe Christian once called ‘visionary abuse’: “when dynamic, energetic, visionary founders, burning with a spiritual, environmental, or social-justice mission, work grueling hours in primitive, cramped, uncomfortable, or health-risking conditions, and happily expect all members, interns, and apprentices to do the same.

amish washing machine with wringer

The Possibility Alliance farm is exploring the edges of the ‘known world’ not only while bravely and cheerfully inventing an experimental, low-impact neo-Amish lifestyle, but also regarding power. Will the other members rise into greater power themselves to counterbalance the excesses of their leading man? Can they find a good mix of checks and balances regarding someone so clearly gifted and valuable, yet so equally clearly out of control? Next year, the farm community is finally taking a sabbatical from the extreme busyness and visitor overwhelm of the past five seasons. Whether they succeed in slowing down and reorienting will be of much interest beyond the boundaries of the farm. I am certain that the issue of the right balance of leeway/restraint of dominant individuals is something highly applicable to other intentional communities as well as to mainstream society. And so Possibility Alliance may yet pioneer a reconnection with an ancient path our ancestors lost in the far reaches of the Neolithic.

PA (from another site)

Direct action is when you just go and dig your own well [when water is privatized]. Direct action is a matter of acting as if you were already free.
— David Graeber

After describing the Dancing Rabbit community as it appeared to us visitors, I offer a few additional observations and musings. (Floating your mouse over pictures will show the descriptive text.)

Using the body as it’s meant to be used

I loved being physical, always walking and outside every day, all the time. People are in motion; it is impossible to be sedentary. Everything takes more effort at DR; I was noticing how even small differences require more “work” — like peeing outside. It adds up to greater fitness, a more limber body, one motion at a time. When did Babylon switch from helping us past some drudgery to pushing us toward exertion-free life? The two are very different; one is helpful, the other… not so much.

State of the land

pond from afar

It was only after living at DR that I finally grokked the scope of land damage in the Midwest. The reason that their county provides tapwater to all residents is that water — in this humid part of the country! — is hard to find and of poor quality. Rains are lost to runoff instead of soaking into the topsoil and staying there — because little topsoil is left. The USDA program pays farmers to keep the land fallow, but that only prevents further major degradation through plowing; it neither stops the erosion nor does it help the land regenerate.

DR has been trying for years to restore several acres of tall grass prairie. They have repeatedly burned and reseeded the area; Jack from Red Earth was critical of this approach. Regenerating prairie without the grazers may be a tedious exercise in never-ending human management.

Fruit trees in DR are thriving. They have a tree committee that cares for them, and lets the people know when fruit is ready to pick, and how much each person can take. But the seedling trees that had been planted far out on the land have suffered from the drought, and many are dead despite the mulch and plastic shields for protection from the elements.

DR land

Old fashioned resilience

One day, as I was coming back home, I saw my “landlords” butchering roosters next to the cob house. It did me good to see April — a young woman of lovely delicate features whom I can easily see in my mind’s eye surrounded by the blandishments of Babylon — running around covered in blood and guts, showing the DIY spirit of recapturing the old skills that permeates DR. I tried to talk them into cooking the chicken feet too — no luck there yet (I keep trying).

Haley, a budding farmer from Montana, kept a couple of sheep this past summer, and after the Mennonites came from Rutledge to butcher them on the land, she proceeded to stretch the skins on a wooden frame, and to tan them with brains and egg yolks. I felt then like I was witnessing another American revolution: people falling in love with the old self-reliant ways, and throwing themselves enthusiastically into relearning them.

Creep of the loud, the lit, and the oblivious

While DR is still mostly dark, there is progressive evidence of more and more outdoor lights. The Rabbits seem particularly fond of strings of Christmas lights which they happily festoon here and there, on houses or inside. While Babylon wages war on the night, in DR it is rather a slow creep, where light trespass from big windows goes unheeded, electricity use no longer has to be restrained, and outside flood lights are making their appearance. On the level of noise, it is still a peaceful place — except for the trains which rumble and honk not too far away at all hours. The small wind turbines create a constant, soft hum overhead.

There is concern among the Rabbits that now the community is on the grid, the former hard-wired limits — like having to attend to electricity usage — are disappearing, and there seems to be a slippery slope in the direction of more gadgetry, inching toward the mainstream. It occurs to me that the big problem with running water and electricity is not that we have it, but that the mode of delivery allows us — even encourages us — to be oblivious not only to wastage, but also to the overcomplex, hidden, vulnerable and damaging cycles that make such delivery possible, and to the subtle effects of all this on the community.

Politics

Most of the focus at DR naturally goes toward internal politics: learning about consensus, practicing it, and running the community via the 6-monthly planning process, the monthly plenaries and the committee structure that supports them. External politics does exist but not in a regional sense; the Rabbits see themselves as playing an important role of enlightening outsiders and showing that more energy-sustainable communities do not have to be “primitive” but can have all sorts of modern amenities and even luxuries. There are some connections to the tiny town of Rutledge and to the area Mennonites, but it does not seem to be important enough to work it into the governance structure of DR. Surely creating a larger, regional alliance will turn out to be crucial once economic localization kicks in earnest?

As of late, metapolitics has been given prominence by a campaign of some members who have pushed for greater power-equalization. Several workshops with outside facilitation have been organized to deal with “power dynamics” and people reported to me they feel it’s already helping. We visitors were not allowed into the power dynamics workshop going on one weekend, so I have no details as yet. But my sense is that the Rabbits are ahead of many communities by giving this issue the attention it surely deserves, and growing the skills needed.

Hygiene

The DR settlement is really one huge construction site, but there is quite a bit of an effort to keep things reasonably tidy. And every Sunday morning, people pitch in with cleaning the community house. Hygiene? Well, I came to DR already sick with an obstinate intestinal bug I had caught at Possibility Alliance, so I was pretty sensitive to the passage of germs. I had also caught a cold at PA which I had taken home with me, and that actually turned out to be a good thing, because that same virus was making its rounds at DR when I got there, and I was blissfully immune. The truth is, a community of people living with so much contact with one another is one big party for the germs. And holding hands before eating does not help. I countered with lots of handwashing but that means little if you are forced to hold hands even when an infection is passing through the community, and the utensils are handled by everyone as people line up for food.

When we visited Sandhill for a two-community potluck, one of the people there was just at that blubbering and zizzing height of his cold; this did not keep him from mingling with the large group, nor from holding hands in the circle and sneezing around the food-laden table. That night, I reached my limit: gross-out! As for cleanliness, there was a real effort, but with so many people using the facilities, and life being so indoor/outdoor permeable, it’s a struggle to keep things clean. Don’t expect the kind of clean to which we are accustomed in the outside world. Overall, though, cleanliness was not a major problem for me at DR. It might be for someone who is a real neatnik.

Sandhill

One afternoon we walked to the Sandhill community, three miles away. The land there has a different feel; plenty of woods, almost park-like in places, and real orchards; extensive gardens and well cared for fields are covered by sorghum straw in the fall. Sustainability at Sandhill has not focused on the use of fossil fuels; the main effort has gone into eking out a good living out of the land. They have a large motorized set-up for extracting and boiling down sorghum syrup, and sell it to the other communities in the area, as well as to the outside market. It turns out that sorghum production in Missouri has dwindled as small farms have dwindled; Sandhill serves the market for old-fashioned organic foods.

This peaceful community houses 7 permanent residents in three different buildings. Work exchangers come in the summer, many volunteers come during the sorghum season. They also grow potatoes, wheat, corn and soybeans in quantity. Residents share their income; two people work off the farm intermittently, and the rest of the income comes from produce. In addition, they run the Federation of Egalitarian Communities. Sandhill’s woods provide some building material for DR, and wild persimmons add exotic flavor to tasty pies. Sandhill has a strong commitment to the land, and the signs of it are everywhere. A lovely well-run place.

sandhill

harvesting sorgum at sandhill

Red Earth

Red Earth Farms, a direct neighbor of DR, split the land into 7 homesteads; one of them is still available. I was told that the Red Earth people broke off from DR because they wanted to run homesteads without having to go to meetings all the time.

red earth

I recall most the establishment of our excellent tour guide, Jack, whose family until recently lived in a very large tent, and who is still finishing the house. It was obvious that he had started with the commitment to make a living off the land, and he is familiar with running livestock over the pastures to improve the soil. He showed us an electric-fenced paddock where most of the animals were, clustered together with two dogs to protect them at all times. They were nibbling down a very overgrown and neglected area next to a wash; once they were done — the goats eating poison ivy and creepers, the pig rooting out weed roots, and the rest grazing down the overgrowth so that fresh grasses can grow — he would move them over to the next area to be regenerated. The undulating, green land was a pleasure to behold. The difference between carefully grazed land and ungrazed at Red Earth (or DR) stands in stark relief: green, lush grasses vs dead weeds with grass clumps trying to poke through.

red earth2

Village design

The Rabbits say that they are modeled on the European village. This is only accurate in the sense that the dwellings are all clustered together. I think it would be truer to say they are modeled on early 20th century American suburbia. Small houses close by, a shed, and a bit of land to play with, walkable and community-minded; it reminded me of the “garden city” utopias of that time. Originally, the idea was to have themed neighborhoods, but this would have encouraged sprawl on the land and so was abandoned. I very much regretted this; I wondered aloud if a more primitivist (low gadget) neighborhood would be welcome, and was told this is not really doable. There is a trend, however, toward clusters of small houses around a courtyard, with a shared kitchen and dietary preferences.

The community of Red Earth Farms was created next door by dissidents of this vision — they wanted to permaculture-farm according to personal initiative, without having to wait for endless meetings to ok every step. So they sliced the land up, American style, into several disjointed parcels. Each lessee presents a proposal to the community which is then attached to the lease, and after that, each family does its own thing.

In contrast, the European villages I know begin not with the dream of a house, but with the commitment to make a living from the land. A village starts with the ‘homesteading mind’ — with commitment to soil and landbase and critters, integrating humans into the land’s ecology. The early settlers created adjacent homesteads with the houses very close together, while each holding stretches back in a narrow strip where the utility buildings, gardens and orchards are located. Small fields separated by hedges and grassy margins follow. There are two patterns that predominate in central Europe: the ribbon pattern, and the circular ray pattern.

ribbon village

radial village

I wonder: if the settlers of Red Earth Farms had been aware of the radial pattern, would they have been interested in creating a hamlet centered roughly in the middle, with each homestead raying out? When we did the Red Earth tour, Jack was stumped by my question as to why they did not build close together. My impression was that they were simply unacquainted with the possibility, and so did what Americans do. One of my fellow visitors commented that perhaps they wanted more privacy from each other. I just don’t know, and see it as an opportunity missed: they could have had the neighborliness of a hamlet along with homestead independence.

The DR land use planning committee has a design for the town, and future road loops for more neighborhoods. A new community house, much larger, will be at the center, plus a game field. They expect to accommodate maybe 300 people on the current land. If growth continues, more land will be bought. The development surrounding the community house will be dense, with shops, and people living upstairs above them.

Early design flaws?

Several chicken flocks live contained in small (fairly cramped) chicken-tractor type of coops. People’s house gardens are unprotected; complaints have blocked free ranging chickens. You either have to confine the chickens, or fence in the gardens; an issue that is difficult to correct later on. In European villages, chickens range freely on each fenced homestead; being close to living quarters and stables — as well as being within the village proper — protects them from predators. (Free ranging chickens on isolated homesteads are far more vulnerable.)

Early DR settlers were drawn there primarily for the natural building experience. And natural building itself was motivated by the desire to provide highly affordable shelter accessible to anyone, using site and nearby materials. This vision seems to be fading at DR, as tiny cheap houses are largely non-existent, and overpriced houses proliferate. Not only does this seem to counter the original vision, but it also buttresses the stratification of DR society: the division into those who can afford fairly fancy buildings, and those who can’t, and end up tenting it or living in very uncomfortable conditions in other makeshift shelters. The situation is complicated by the skilled builders’ pressure to make “good wages.” This might be a “type 1 design error”; bringing Babylon’s economic system with you wherever you go.

A few customs

DR has very sensible pet rules, where one cat or dog can be added to the community per so many people. Cats need to be kept indoors during the nesting season. Everyone shows kindness to the few dogs and cats running around.

Men cook. All the time. Yey!

The Rabbits are heavily invested in promoting good relationships. A conflict resolution committee has the power to insist on mediation when a conflict develops and begins to affect the community at large. Reflective listening is taught (listening without putting your own story on it). The other tools they use are as follows: restorative circles, NVC, and doing your own personal work which can take many forms and is aided through workshops, support groups and private practitioners offering their services.

Holidays? Halloween is big at DR, with a procession going from house to house, and each house they visit does a skit or a ride or some other surprise. Thanksgiving means a huge community meal. Solstice is celebrated by some, privately. Christmas is ignored.

The people at DR are friendly and helpful. Part of the reason for the friendliness is that visitors are wooed, seen as the source of future growth. And partly, it is truly a neighborly place, where everyone walks everywhere, children run in kidpacks, safe and off to their kid adventures, and everybody makes frequent contact with others. We were of course cautioned to respect people’s privacy and not to assume they necessarily want to talk to us at that particular time, or have their pics taken.

DR does not have any community work requirements, apart from being expected to serve on at least one committee. Large community-wide projects needing people’s time are announced as needed, and people get paid for the hours given.

Sharon’s and Dennis’ house

I will close by telling you about a magical house being built by an older couple at DR. The house’s “bones” are made of round logs and wood & peg joinery, and large chunks of urbanite serve as the foundation. The roof, covered by a plastic membrane, will some day sprout a vegetable garden. Walls of straw bale and plaster will complete the structure. My amazement came from the way they are building — it reminded me of the way cathedrals were once built, one large stone, one massive beam at a time, with hand tools and lots of patience. A timeless way of building; each piece placed just right is a joy. When I first saw it, I was thinking “true dedication,” but those are not the right words. This is more than a building philosophy; it is a certain way of life embodied. Craftsmen unhurried in the flow of generations. I stood before that rising house humbled and awed.

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.

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