ag/food/soil


Ecological restoration is a work of hope.
— George Monbiot

Monbiot’s Feral is an astonishing book. I have become something of a book skimmer, but his stories of daredevil fishing in the sea off Wales in a kayak drew me in. And then came the marvelous tales — of a young man and his friends regrowing a forest on the bleakest sheep-ravaged land high in the Welsh mountains; of returning beavers to the land; of stalking the wisent in the Polish wildlife reserve and fishing and kayaking in Slovenia’s regenerated forests and rewilded rivers. Another soggy but heartwarming chapter tells of Trees for Life, a group in Scotland attempting to rewild many miles of interconnected lands despite opposition from elite hunters who favor deer overpopulation.

Not all of the book gave me heart. His encounters with the lies and subterfuges of the bureaucrats with “other” agendas and built-in stupidity were dispiriting, as were his accounts of ocean damage. (I am not surprised that now Britain is poised to Brexit, there is talk of protecting its sovereign coastal waters where trawler over-fishing has ruined fishing village livelihoods.) Apart from living a more rugged life, Monbiot does not have many pointers on how humans can rewild. He seems unable to distinguish between gleeful psychopaths and stubbornly free mountainmen. He also suffers from the delusion that the primary purpose of rural politics in Britain and America seems to be to keep the farmers happy. If only! Small criticism, this – the book was well worth my time.

Let me use his writings to flesh out a coherent sense of rewilding. Here are a few pointers:

• Reinstating ecosystems in which man’s power to dominate is consciously withheld
• Becoming feral – becoming wild(er) after captivity or domestication
• Permeable landscapes through which animals can move once more
• Restoring predators and keystone species that begin to drive the dynamic ecological processes which permit so many other species to thrive
• Permitting the ecological processes inherent to the place to resume (rather than trying to recapture and restore some prior state)
• Restraining our push for privileging safety over experience
• Richer, rawer, more strenuous life for humans

He says: “Rewilding, unlike conservation, has no fixed objective: it is driven not by human management but by natural processes. There is no point at which it can be said to have arrived. Rewilding of the kind that interests me does not seek to control the natural world, to re-create a particular ecosystem or landscape, but – having brought back some of the missing species – to allow it to find its own way.”

“The scientific principle behind rewilding is restoring what ecologists call trophic diversity. Trophic means relating to food and feeding. Restoring trophic diversity means enhancing the opportunities for animals, plants and other creatures to feed on each other; to rebuild the broken strands in the web of life. It means expanding the web both vertically and horizontally, increasing the number of trophic levels (top predators, middle predators, plant eaters, plants, carrion and detritus feeders) and creating opportunities for the number and complexity of relationships at every level to rise.”

“Much of the richness and complexity – the trophic diversity – of these food webs was lost before it was recorded. We live in a shadowland, a dim, flattened relic of what there once was, of there could be again.”

Quoting the founder of Trees for Life: “Seeing the stumps in the peat and the remnant trees, I asked myself: what is the message in the land? What’s the story it’s telling us? My question was: What’s Nature seeking to do here? That is crucially different from the ethos of human domination. Rewilding is about humility, about stepping back.”

And now I would like to tell you why I reached for this book. I got the fanciful idea that farms and farming ought to be rewilded, and I am fishing for pointers. I imagine the farms of the future as places teeming with life, places where soil is grown at an astonishing rate and creatures large and small have once again repopulated the landscape. For me, it began with the realization that the permacultural ethic of “fair share” really means sharing with the critters who too have a claim on the fruits of the land. Our biomass, and the biomass of our domesticates, is crowding out everybody else – and then we grieve over species lost. Humans need to stop grieving and start shrinking, is my own thought. Not just births added are the problem, but pounds of human flesh! Not just pounds of human flesh, but pounds and bushels of human food we crank out like there is no tomorrow.

Once I had a garden upstate New York, and grew some pretty and much fussed over scarlet runner beans. And a delight they were. Then one day, I spied a creature with a big runner bean leaf in its mouth as it slunk off. Oh no, a woodchuck! Well, those of you having lived in North America’s eastern parts know that woodchucks are remorseless eating machines. And they climb fences. So my runner beans went the way of all flesh, and the woodchucks multiplied and multiplied until nature noticed and predators came out that-a-way. Back then, my thinking was, well, no more runner beans. I never even tried again. But now I think, why not grow runner beans and other veggies for the woodchucks? They certainly repaid me richly with the antics of the shortsighted babies staring me down a foot away, and the sight of them grazing the lawn in the early mist. And eventually, they fed the coyotes passing through, or the owls, or the red-tailed hawk family nesting by. Back then, despite myself, I felt possessive of the produce of my my my! garden. But now? My next garden will grow not just for me, but for the critters as well. And leave plenty of room where I neither trample nor gather; room of their own.

baby woodchuck

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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.

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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…

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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)

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