The Story of Here Begins

To read the first post in this series, "The Story of Here Begins" click here.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

More Poems by Alan Wartes


Come closer to know a secret.
The frog you hear at sunset
Telling his story to
Cattails and red-winged blackbirds
In that innocent bicycle-bell voice
Is no mere amphibian,
No more than Mozart
Was merely a primate.

He is a spy, an agent provocateur
Hidden in the muddy grasses.
His mission? To disseminate
Dangerous misinformation,
To sweetly sing there’s more to life
Than malls and mortgages,
More than profit and loss,
More than ever and ever more.

Beware. He will hint each evening
That magic is alive and well,
Glowing on the tips of dragonfly wings
And in the soft feet of possums
On pebbles at the water’s edge.
At noon under gathering cumulonimbus,
He will smile like a Hindu sage
And whisper “Life is good,” in your ear.

                                Last Night’s Dinner Dishes

There is some beauty
In last night’s dinner dishes,
The way the spoons
Recline at the edge of
Soup bowls like women
On porch steps after
The children are asleep.

On a midnight blue salad plate
A smudge of dressing
Looks like the Milky Way.
“You are here, and all is well.”

This crust of buttered bread
Proves the alchemists were right
To believe in transformation,
While empty potato skins
Declare “We are what
We are – no more.”

The last sip of Burgundy
In that crystal glass
Is the color of conversation
And other precious jewels
We mined from deep shafts
Last night around
The noisy table.

                                                The Pulse Under My Fingers

I feel it here, on my belly
In the grass under willows,
Where peppermint stirs
Itself into the darkened
Scent of soil,
The forest’s memory of
Lost summers. I feel it
In the feet of bees
Dancing on the willing flesh
Of blue harebells dipping
Their heads in
Modest surrender, or in
The reckless beetle diving
Over twigs and
Last year’s yarrow stalks,
Oblivious beneath his
Blackened helmet.
It is a pulse under
My searching fingers,
The earthworm who shrugs
As questions too large
Pass through her
What else could it be
When the flicker
Taps a secret code on
Branches over my head and 
A treasure-filled vault
Opens in my chest?

Not dead and not lost,
As was reported in the
Victor’s history,
Magic is a wide river and
I am a reed
Bending in the current.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

A tale of two spoons

A man once asked God to shed some light on the mystery of heaven and hell. God said, “Why not? First I’ll show you hell.”
The man suddenly found himself in an elegant, well-lit dining room. Many people were seated around a table set with a mouthwatering feast. The man thought God had made a mistake. He must have meant to say this was heaven, not hell. Where was the fire and the tortured cries of the condemned? Surely hell would not resemble a five star restaurant. Then he noticed that, in spite of the abundance of food, everyone in attendance suffered from desperate hunger. Their pale skin hung on protruding bones like wet tissue paper. Eyes receded into their sockets, clouded with the faraway look of prolonged agony. The man turned to God with a confused expression on his face.
“Keep looking,” was all the Creator said.
Each person held a spoon with a handle long enough to reach any of the fabulous dishes spread out before them. However, since the handle was longer than their arms, they were unable to reach their mouths with any of the food. Now the man understood: People in hell were doomed to starve in the tormenting presence of enough food to last forever. Like the chain that Jacob Marley dragged into Ebenezer Scrooge’s bedroom in Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”, these people must have forged for themselves—by their deeds in life—the horrible and useless spoons that would torture them in death.
“Now I’ll show you heaven,” God said.
Upon arriving there, the man was more confused than ever, for he stood in a dining room that was identical to the one he’d just left behind in hell. The table was spread with the same food, fine crystal, and silver—and everyone held the same long-handled spoons. Yet, one detail was strikingly different: Here, each person was well-fed. Their faces were radiant with health and happiness. Whereas hell had been draped with an atmosphere of despair, heaven was full of lively laughter and conversation.
“I don’t understand,” the man said to God. “How can heaven and hell be the same and yet so different?”
“Simple,” God said. “It isn’t the length of the spoon that matters, but how one chooses to use it. Here, each guest feeds someone else, not himself.”

Christmas has always been a good time to acknowledge the cold and darkness of the Winter Solstice—but to remind ourselves of the far, far more powerful nature of light and love. You needn’t be a Christian to be touched by the story of hope in the form of a humble baby born to poor parents in troubled times. The message—Peace on Earth!—transcends every pretentious limit we would place on it. For our part, Christmastime is when we traditionally think about what is on someone else’s plate, or under someone else’s tree, not just our own.
That point of view has rarely—if ever—been more necessary than it is now. In modern times, you’d have to go all the way back to 1941 to find a Christmas season as darkened by world events as this one. That year, the shock of Pearl Harbor was barely two weeks old. It was truly a liminal moment in the lives of millions around the world, a threshold of sweeping upheaval, change, and death. The fact that all-out war was imminent and unavoidable was obvious to all but the most accomplished optimists.
Sixty-nine years later, Christmas once again arrives in the choppy wake of events that are at least equal in magnitude to the attack on Pearl Harbor. (Actually, it’s a simple matter to argue that today’s challenges exceed those of the “Greatest Generation” by a large margin.) These days it is self-evident to the informed that there are bombs ticking in every direction, but two of them in particular finally exploded in recent weeks.
First, the International Energy Agency released the World Energy Outlook 2010, an annual report that analyzes energy trends in the coming years. In a stunning (and unapologetic) reversal of itself, the agency not only affirmed the existence of peak oil, it stated flatly that the peak of conventional oil production has already happened—four years ago, in 2006. That means that, from now on, the supply of oil that is easy to find, extract, and move to market will steadily decline—while prices inevitably rise. It is impossible to overstate the gravity of this assessment from an organization that has consistently placed peak oil—if it existed at all—decades into the future. For a more detailed analysis see this and this.
Second, the Federal Reserve finally bowed to pressure from the courts, and from Congress, and released a limited accounting of how much taxpayer money has gone into bailing out the world’s banking system—and who got what portion of the pie. Never mind that it shouldn’t have been necessary to force the data out of them, and what it means about the state of the republic that it was necessary, here is the number they grudgingly provided: $12.6 trillion in direct hand-outs and “other arrangements.” Twelve. Point. Six. Trillion—12.6 x 1012 dollars. That is eighteen times the amount  that Congress debated and authorized ($700 billion). Much of this Noah’s flood of your money went to foreign banks. All of it is irretrievably gone.
Movie directors like to employ a camera trick that would come in handy right now to underscore this news. It is used to portray the wobbly-kneed vertigo a character feels when he or she suddenly realizes the jig is up, and the threat they face is orders of magnitude greater than previously feared. (Picture the demolitions expert called to defuse what he thinks is a homemade pipe bomb only to open the shoebox and find an encrypted ten-megaton warhead ticking down to zero.) On screen this is when the foreground races forward while the background recedes, and the world stretches sickeningly like spandex that is four sizes too small.
Unfortunately, in real life there is no director telling you by visual cues that you’ve reached a turning point in the drama. You have to figure it out for yourself, and few people have bothered to keep up with events well enough to do so. If America still functioned as advertised, the ink would have hit the fan by now, as journalists took off like greyhounds after the mechanical bunny at the race track.
Alas. That is not the world as it is. The main stream media have stridently ignored both of these detonations. So it is up to us to connect the dots. Here goes: a) Oil—the essential ingredient in all modern economic activity (including getting the family car to the grocery store and back)—is about to get much more expensive and difficult to come by; and b) any national treasure we might have spent to ease ourselves into these uncertain energy waters has been stolen in the night. Furthermore, the thieves have destroyed the dollar on their way out the door, making traditional recovery and replenishment on par with believing in pixie dust and perpetual bliss in Neverland.
Happy Holidays.

On Christmas Day, 1941, our grandparents couldn’t wish the Japanese bombs back into the air. A new reality presented itself that they had to face and act upon. Now it’s our turn. Like it or not, life, as we have grown accustomed to living it, is coming to a rapid end. Some things about our immediate future may be brutally hard no matter what we do. But, the truth is, the difference between full-blown hell ahead and shared hardship and mutual support will always be a matter of choice. As present day social arrangements collapse around us, we will be left with an economic infrastructure that functions about as well as an oversized spoon. Many who’ve recently lost jobs and homes, have already discovered this fact: This way of living doesn’t work. We can no longer feed (only) ourselves as we were taught to do.
When I am asked what steps I recommend to be ready for what lies ahead, I always begin with the obvious: food, water, shelter, etc. It does no good to neglect personal preparedness while you pursue high-minded global change. In other words, if you can’t heat your own house in the winter of a crisis, the fact that you lobbied your utility company to buy some of its power from “green” sources doesn’t mean very much. That’s blunt, I know, but true. Make a list of the things you personally depend on, then under each one write the question: “What would I do if…” Don’t stop until you have answers for each one.
Yet, sadly, many people mistakenly believe that this sort of nitty-gritty preparation is the whole journey, when it is, in fact, just the first step. Securing your own basic necessities is the very least you can do—must do—to prepare yourself for the coming Long Emergency.
No, there is much more to preparedness than that. Next, you must set about making sure you have something vital to offer your community—not the one presently defined by political boundaries or tax districts, but the much smaller circle of actual people you live with or near. As John F. Kennedy once suggested, don’t think in terms of what your community can do for you. Imagine having to justify your inclusion in a clan of people when the burning political question of the day is how to fairly divide up the hardship of scarcity. Why should you get a share? What do you bring to the table that the community values and needs? Here’s a hint: It had better be something with a direct and measurable positive impact on collective survival, under conditions more challenging than anything you’ve ever seen.
The key word here, of course, is “collective”—a badly discredited word after years of capitalist triumphalism. Nevertheless, by helping to feed (or clothe, or heal, or shelter) the people you live with, you will gain access to all that they can do for you as well, each of you leading the other away from hell, if not into heaven. Contrary to the fear mongering propaganda plastered all over the TV, most people want to contribute and belong to something larger than themselves , and would if shown a viable vision of how it can work.
Yes, there is serious trouble at our doorstep. Yes, society is undergoing dramatic convulsions of contraction and change—right now. But we will make things much worse on ourselves if we fail to factor into our calculations the welfare of others, not just our own. We are only as safe as the least secure of our neighbors--period. Some people respond to that idea by building deeper bunkers. What would happen if we reached out instead? Genuine community may not spring up overnight, but a single act of one-on-one kindness and inclusion can begin to undo years of isolation and fear. One gesture of hope and trust can inspire people to lower their weapons and tear down long-held defenses. From there we might discover that we’re all starving to death anyway, attempting to feed ourselves alone. What would it cost us to give cooperation a shot for a change?
This Christmas it is no longer good enough to mouth a few empty words about “goodwill toward men”. It is time to start living it on purpose and out loud, learning to love and care for each other like our lives depend on it—because they very well may. After all, that’s what the baby from Bethlehem grew up to say.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

A world made by hand needn't wait

The “growing season” is over at New Leaf Gardens. Considering our location on the eastern flank of the Rocky Mountains, at an elevation of nearly 6,000 feet, it is remarkable that temperatures have only just begun to occasionally dip below freezing. Most of the time we still enjoy lows in the 40s. But the few frosty nights we’ve had were enough to hang a closed sign on the last of the warm-loving plants. Fortunately we saw it coming and last week harvested the remaining zucchini, yellow squash, eggplant, green tomatoes, bell peppers, and jalapeños. The tough guys—broccoli, cabbage, carrots, spinach, and arugula—just shrugged off the cold. Fuhgeddaboutit.

Shorter days and less to do in autumn means more time for reading, and I just finished The Witch of Hebron, the wonderful sequel to James Howard Kunstler’s novel, World Made by Hand. The story is set in Union Grove, once a rural bedroom community in upstate New York that had fallen prey, like everywhere else, to the faux culture of “happy motoring” suburbanization: strip malls, tract housing, big box retail, lots and lots of cars, and the roads they drive on. But when Kunstler begins his tale--“Sometime in the not-distant future…”—times have changed, a lot.

And then again, not so much.

Not long from now, the inevitable breakdown of globalized civilization has occurred. Kunstler wisely wastes no time explaining exactly how. Who cares? Plausible triggers abound. Pick one and pull it—and the result is the same: The web of everyday life goes from stretching half way around the world, connecting us to Saudi oil fields and Chinese sweat shops, to having strands no longer than a few miles from home. The word “local” takes on new meaning, carrying connotations that would never have occurred to our ancestors, for whom the word “global” would have meant little.

Kunstler sets himself apart from other writers who’ve tried to imagine such a world—and who usually populate it with cannibals, evil zombies, and a sky that will never be blue again—by remembering the creed of all good novelists: Fiction is folks. In other words, it’s about the people, stupid. Kunstler manages to portray the collapse of everything we presently regard as indispensible, while somehow leaving us with the idea that not all change is bad and not all people are evil. People are just people. Some of them will take from you if they can, but most will surprise you every time by their willingness to give of themselves for what is right.

A true prophet is one who warns of possible, and even unavoidable, dangers ahead, but who prefers to talk about the hope and healing potential that always travel in the company of hardship. With these books, Kunstler has demonstrated that he writes from that tradition, and is more than a mere merchant of fear.

Sure, the people of Union Grove must deal with challenges that modern society had appeared to banish over the horizon: law and order, local governance, health care, religious tolerance, food production, and so on. But far from being a prison of constant fear or drudgery, the life Kunstler imagines also includes beauty, tenderness, compassion, camaraderie, regained connection to the natural world, and even to the mystical side of the universe. Life goes on, Kunstler says, and while it will certainly be different—and really hard at times—it is also very, very good.

As I turned the last page, I must admit to feeling a kind of weird, forward-looking nostalgia. Frankly, most days I’d rather take my chances with ordinary bandits, like the ones the people of Union Grove must face, than to deal with those stalking us now—billionaire debt barons who work at a distance and behind a weak façade of respectability, but who rob us blind nonetheless. I’d rather brave the elements and work directly with the earth for my food, than to remain in the clutches of Monsanto, et al. I’d rather learn the hyper-local politics of getting along with my neighbors, than to ever again enter another voting booth to “choose” which soulless politician will have the right to sell me to the highest bidder in the upcoming term. I want the unbearable noise of this machine culture to stop so we can get on with life that is hard, but good too.

Then it hit me: A world made by hand needn’t wait for the collapse of anything. It is not so much a state of world affairs as it is a state of the heart and the mind—backed up by the labor of my hands. It is the world I’m already helping to create in partnership with my family and neighbors. New Leaf Gardens—our half-acre urban farm—is not an agricultural anachronism —it is a prototype of things to come. By “mapping the geography of home” in these pages, I have already begun to settle in to the landscape here, to feel the rhythms under my feet, to bring the world here and now within reach of my hands to be made anew. We’ve begun to choose on purpose and (slightly) ahead of time, to let go of our belief in the “cult of growth” that Kunstler’s characters had ripped from them forcibly by distant events.

People who have caught on to the magnitude of the changes humanity faces in coming years typically describe their process of reaction as “preparation.” That is an adequate word, but incomplete, because it implies only a future focus. Preparation always looks forward, even when it takes appropriate action in the present. The danger is that this can lead to a life that is forever deferred, waiting for a signal from some external source that it’s time to actually have what you have prepared yourself for.

I resolve to be more mindful of the kind of life I want today. If I choose a world made by hand in the small moments of daily life, then when the future arrives I’ll be ready for it. Who knows? Maybe the people around me will be inspired to do the same—and we may not even remember what all those other novelists told us—that we’re supposed to be terrified and claw each other’s eyes out for survival.

That choice is likely to look quite ordinary--maybe something like this:

With the growing season behind us at the farm, now the “tucking in” season begins. Soon we’ll take the dried leaves, stalks, and vines from the ground where they’ve served so well and send them on the next leg of their journey: to the compost pile. There, we’ll turn things over to the silent alchemists who routinely turn a summer’s remains into gold—black gold. With the right mixture of manure begged from nearby horse owners, unused and rotting vegetables from the church food bank, bags and bags of raked up leaves the neighbors donate, the husks of this season’s garden, and an enthusiastic crew of recycling organisms, we will spend the dark winter by the fire, while the compost pile effortlessly grows food for our food.

Some of the above ingredients will go directly into our sleepy vegetable beds in the next few weeks, where they’ll lie under a cover of leaves and straw, composting in situ—which is a fancy way of saying, “where we want it, so we don’t have to move it again in the spring.” Oh, and it bears mentioning that we will do our best to work with a mindset of gratitude and love for the Unfathomable, the One who decreed that from the death of one season will arise nourishing food for the next—a living perpetual motion machine that takes your breath away when you stop to ponder the debt we owe to its workings.

Back in the kitchen, the “preserving season” is still going strong. My wife, Issa, Queen of the Realm, and Wise Woman of Food, labors each day to fill the shelves in the basement cold room with every imaginable store against the winter. In addition to putting up the last of the straggling veggies from the farm, she recently transformed 150 pounds of apples (that we picked from the trees of an elderly neighbor who can no longer deal with the harvest herself) into jars and jars of apples sauce, apple butter, canned apple pie filling, and dried apples.

In the process she has also done most of our Christmas shopping for the year. Six weeks from now, when others can’t find a parking place at the mall, we’ll be sitting at the dining table with a cup of mint tea listening to Amy Grant sing Emmanuel and  Breath of Heaven on the stereo and putting ribbons on jars and loaves of pumpkin or zucchini bread.

By hand, day by day, we’re discovering an alternative to sinking madness around us. What do you know? It’s not so hard after all.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Three poems

On Windy October Nights

On windy October nights
Composers refrain from
Rising blue-green crescendos.

They lay aside bright sound-shapes
Of water chasing itself to the sea,
Or thousand-voice choirs
In sunny meadows.

On the dark side of equinox
Flutes rest, and strings voice only
Cold wind on fence wire.

Now comes the percussionist:
Dry bones clacking in treetops,
Beggars’ fingers tugging at heaven
For one more day.

Forgotten fields shush in thrashing wind
Like sea waves returning to shore alone
To empty a widow’s heart of any hope
In spring’s return.

This is the music of los Muertos
Played with cold hands against
The breath-thin veil between worlds,
Tracing lost faces in shadow.

Rainbow Green Blessings

The skinny young woman on the bus
is talking softly on her phone.
She speaks in tones
that only foreshadow words,
whole notes of vaguely musical breath.

It is right to call her skinny.
Shoulder bones hold her jacket up
like slacking tent poles.
Something inside shies away from
skin and sinks toward a
vanishing point in her belly,
near her waiting womb.

There is still a trace of little girl left
in the way honeyed hair strays
from the clip at the back of her head—
faintly bright with weary exuberance.
Her hand wanders upward to
lazily tame it.

She sits with her legs drawn up and in,
the toes of her shoes
her only contact with the ground,
as if the world were covered in water
far too cold for a deep plunge.

I want to take her home,
to feed her a meal of handmade hope
then recline for hours by the fire
playing Go Fish, laughing and
pointing to the schools of
rainbow green blessings
darting around us still.


I know a man who thinks
Life is hard.
It is a hook he swallowed 
In school and now
He can't remember
What the still water 
Tastes like under roots
Near the lazy bank.
All day and all night he faces into
The swiftest current and feels
Sharp rocks on his belly,
Afraid to move, afraid to turn
And look into the black mouth
Behind him.
Life is hard, he thinks,
A prison of solitude and lack,
All fallen, man and earth.

Nearby, a fawn steps with reed legs
Into the singing river,
Lowers her head
And drinks.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Time travel on Clear Creek

I set out this morning to walk two miles south, to visit Clear Creek. These days it’s just another neglected urban waterway, but in the heyday of westward expansion, this little creek had everything: gold and silver boom towns, a railroad racing to beat rivals over the continental divide, outlaws and lawmen, Indians and the pioneer pilgrims who displaced them like water out of a tub. Today I’m headed for the stretch of Clear Creek that runs through an out-of-the-way county park called Twin Lakes.

On the e-map provided by Google, a slash of monochromatic blue (the creek) cuts through a swatch of empty grey (the park). Apparently there is nothing there worth mentioning, nothing as interesting as, say, the Swiss Tire Automotive Service Station that, according to the map, is conveniently located nearby at the corner of 70th and Broadway. Next door you’ll find Denver County Custom Choppers, a motorcycle shop where you can accessorize your obnoxious hog with endless variations on the black leather and chrome theme.

Across 70th to the north, lie acres of bathed and polished Toyotas waiting expectantly for new owners to give them a home. To the east, Mickey’s Top Sirloin serves a wicked steak and lots of Jack Daniels to wash it down with. After dinner you can visit a gone-to-seed building in the shadow of Interstate 25 with a neon “Psychic” sign in the window. Southbound Broadway is flanked by a strip center of light industrial and retail space. It obscures Twin Lakes Park entirely, leaving the impression there’s nothing more to see in any direction, so conduct your business and move on.

Go a couple hundred yards farther south and you will drive, or walk, (let’s face it, mostly drive) over Clear Creek. It takes three seconds flat. If you should happen to glance out the car window during that precious time, you’ll see what one Wikipedia article about Clear Creek calls, “largely an ignored urban stream, with an undeveloped flood plain. Part of the creek path forms a wooded park with bicycle/foot path.”

Excellent. That’s the part I’ve come to explore. Keep the bicycle path. I want to see the “ignored” and “undeveloped” part. I want to know if the creek has retained even the slightest trace of its former self, before it was Shanghaied, along with Sitting Bull, into Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Before the 1859 Gold Rush turned it into a yellow brick road leading fledgling capitalists to the Promised Land. Before arsenic-laced mine tailings overflowed their ill-suited holding ponds, poisoning the creek. Before loggers harvesting railroad ties denuded whole mountains, dumped the trees in the creek channel, and waited for spring runoff to carry them to market (a brutal bottle brush that scoured everything in its path). Before there were concrete plants, Interstate highways, storm water spiked with Roundup, heavy metals and motor oil, before Coors brewery straddled the creek up in Golden and began turning the water into something resembling beer.

Throughout deep time, before anyone was around to give Clear Creek a name, it told the story of here very well. It sighed and rested lazily in this place after its long tumble down the mountains to the west—over granite boulders and beaver dams. Plants clinging to these banks tasted high country snow and pines and blue columbines in the silt. Raccoons, beaver, skunks, coyotes, muskrats, deer and elk all drank water here touched with the scent of heavenly fish the color of rainbows. Great stands of cottonwoods faithfully followed the creek as it meandered across the plains, where it joined the South Platte River, seeking company for a long and leisurely trip to the sea.

Now, the water and sediment tell a new story to a demanding new crop of spectators bent on seeing themselves reflected back everywhere they go.

Today I walk past the “lakes”, which are really only pools of water gathered in an apron of freshly mown lawn. The water reflects blue sky, giving no hint of its own color. A handful of Canada geese waddle around the fringes, picking at the grass. The red-wing blackbirds have left already, looking for warmer times over the horizon. A sign declares “No swimming or boating. Surface ice is never safe.” Another warns me that coyotes are about, and that they are dangerously accustomed to the presence of humans. I should carry a stick, it says. And watch my pets. My kids too, I presume. The tuna sandwich I brought for lunch definitely isn’t safe.

A ditch filled with diverted creek water runs alongside the path. Somewhere downstream there is a landowner with “rights” to this water. If we are lucky he’s a farmer who will use it to grow organic vegetables, or to raise hay for his goats—and provide milk and meat for his kids (and maybe mine). If we are not lucky, this slice of Clear Creek is headed for a golf course surrounded by a gated community.

 I’m happy to see that the ditch is overgrown with dense grasses, wild roses, water hemlock, and horsetail—a shadow and a memory of what I came here to find. I stop to examine a plant I’ve never seen before, one with red berries dangling in a line along the stalk like Chinese lanterns. I reach for it and startle a garter snake lying beneath it—green, brown, and yellow along its back, blended like a watercolor landscape of wooded creek beds. It lurches forward only a few inches, leaving its tail exposed. I search for the other end, but lose the curvature of its body in the tangle of grass and stalks and leaves.

I walk on, keeping to the path a while, sharing it with bicyclists moving at high speed. I sympathize with their need for haste. Maybe they have to squeeze the ride into a lunch hour, or between sales calls offering cleaning products to Mickey’s and Swiss Tire. I also feel sorry for them, having missed out on the garter snake and the woodpecker now tapping out a woodland code on the enormous cottonwood trunks above our heads, perhaps calling back the long-gone buffalo herds that came here once upon a time.

The farther I walk, the more muted the city noises become. The wind blows in the trees and shushes the traffic to a whisper. Time to get off the trail, I think. The underbrush is thick here, but I choose my route carefully and descend onto the floodplain. I am instantly plunged into another dimension, like a priest of Avalon parting the mist and leaving the contemporary world behind. A distant train whistle blows, but suddenly the sound is only a rumor that filters in along with the sunlight, softened by the caress of many branches and leaves.

Just ahead the cattails are so thick and tall, I think I’ve entered a swamp and will have to turn back. The ground is a sponge of horsetail and moss, but firm. I press on through a tunnel in the brush, a game trail, I assume. Birds chatter all around. Soon I emerge in a thicket of willows taller than I am. Here, the going gets tougher. I must sound like a bull elephant cracking my way through the dead branches that interlace with more supple living ones. They grasp at my backpack and scratch my bare legs.

Finally I emerge on the bank of the Creek, just where a tiny tributary joins in. I’ve travelled barely a hundred yards from the path, but if the distance were measured in years, I’d say it was a century or so. I turn and look back the way I came. From this vantage point I can see no power lines, no rooftops, no billboards, no eighteen wheel trucks. I look up. Remarkably, there are presently no airplanes or jet trails in the sky. The wind has picked up so that I hear nothing but tree chatter and the “amen” of dry grasses. Oh yes, and katydids and cicadas clacking and humming along.

Most of the flowers are done for the season—except for a hardy purple daisy hanging on in the early fall. I see dry mullein stalks and wild asparagus, giant thistles that have already turned as brown as a paper bag. A pair of ether blue dragon flies skim the slow moving water. A few yards away a circular ripple appears on the surface, where a fish has risen to sip up a bug. I go looking for a glimpse of who is dining, expecting to see a frenetic fingerling of some kind.

But no. As my eyes adjust to the slightly murky depths, what comes into focus is a huge carp—nearly two feet long—patrolling the water, unhurried. Prehistoric, I think. This entire place is a time capsule preserved in the most unlikely of locations. I know there is a harsh urban world all around, but just now I find it increasingly difficult to believe in traffic signals and office buildings. Yet I also know I am not the discoverer of someplace unique and exotic. There are “ignored and undeveloped” spots in every neighborhood in nearly every city in America. These are the places we build around, rush past, overlook, and disdain, until they might as well not exist at all.

This is where I’d like to bring the college students who wear polar bear suits on downtown sidewalks, to cajole me into loving the earth by donating money to Greenpeace. I’d like to show them that “the earth”—truly in need of so much love—is not nearly as far away as we think. It is here, right under our busy little feet.

Suddenly the spell of my thoughts is broken by the sound of heavy machinery in the distance. Annoyed, I turn and look toward the south bank. In my state of awe I hadn’t noticed that the ridgeline above the creek in that direction is lined by a chain link fence. It is covered in a netting designed to block my view. But the late afternoon sunlight works against it and I can see what is on the other side in silhouette. I quickly realize it is a graveyard for worn out cars, where spare parts are cannibalized and sold. The jarring sound comes from a front end loader carrying the corpse of some late 80s sedan, from the look of it.

I laugh out loud. I sit down beside the creek and savor the image of a massive and contented carp—indeed, dozens of them—alive and well, against all odds, juxtaposed against that of a deceased automobile being carried unceremoniously to an ugly and forgotten “rusting” place. It is powerful and poetic; meaningful, like something in a lucid dream. Gaia versus Hydrocarbon Man. Not much of a match, really.

All this makes me wonder if I have made a mistake to come here looking for the past. The present is marvelous enough, for anyone willing to get off the trail and look for it. As for the future…who knows? Maybe this is it: a bunch of dead cars and life going on, wherever it can.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Short story: The Gravestone

Occasionally, I will share a bit of original short fiction or poetry in this space, instead of my regular column. I hope you enjoy it.


The Gravestone
Alan Wartes

Whenever we visited Grandma’s house she insisted on a trip to the cemetery, as if the sight of the living made her miss the dead more than ever. We’d barely have all the luggage stacked in her spare bedroom when she would tie a silky scarf around her thinning, beauty parlor hair and put on the same threadbare cardigan, with the same dusty wads of Kleenex in the pockets, that each year hung a little looser on her shoulders.
“I want to go see Mama,” she would say, as if her mother still lived in the run down duplex across town where she died just after I was born. I’d never seen her mama, except in black and white photographs that made it hard to tell if they were taken before or after she died. But her things were all over Grandma’s house: her hairbrush, her dust pan, her doilies under every lamp. Grandma was like the curator of one of those ragged little pioneer museums in western towns that the Interstate went around. New stuff we gave her every Christmas was still in the box under her bed. Waiting for us to die, I guess.
I didn’t mind trips to the cemetery, and I agreed with Grandma that Great Grandma’s ghost was still around. I felt her when I sat in the rocking chair in the hall, or when I stood at the back of the closet where some of her dresses hung. She was at the cemetery, too. Sometimes I thought she might be in her marble headstone, in the angular script that held her vast life like bookends: Ida Sue Leevey, AUG 1861-DEC 1955. Or maybe she lived in the dandelion puffs, or down the snake hole in the ditch across the fence, where I spent most of my time on those visits. Daddy once said if she was anywhere at all she was in the sticker patch at the edge of the dirt road where we parked the car.
This year Daddy told Grandma he wasn’t going to go the very minute he walked in the door after eight hours in the car from San Antonio. He was going to stretch his legs and eat a sandwich and be around alive people a bit first. Every time we visited he tried to get her to load some of the dead people’s stuff into the car and take it to Goodwill. He said we weren’t Japanese and didn’t need shrines to our ancestors in the bathroom medicine chest.
Besides, he said that day, there was a storm coming if she’d care to look out the window. Just then, as if every frontier ghost from every forgotten grave jumped out of the ground at once to punish him, a blast of sandy wind hit the house and shook it until it creaked and popped. The windows filled up with the red darkness of a scouring West Texas dust storm.
“Herman passed two years ago next week,” Grandma shouted, beginning to cry, which usually didn’t happen until we were within sight of the cemetery. Herman was Grandma’s third husband. The coins and key chain he took from his pockets the day he died were still on Grandma’s dresser top where he left them. Grandma took out a tattered tissue, found a corner big enough to wrap over her nose, and blew. I could hear it even over the gale outside. Then she picked up her shiny black purse and sat down in the arm chair by the door. My parents had fought for a lot of miles on the way back home after these trips about whether Daddy had any backbone when it came to standing up to Grandma.
“She’s worse than a kid,” Mama would say. “She plays you like a honky-tonk juke box.”
“Oh, and I suppose you think you’re any different,” Daddy usually replied. “Your high society folks come to visit and I don’t understand a single word you say for days.” He’d imitate the way Mama’s dad, a retired lawyer from Dallas, used fancy words just to say good morning, like he was making a speech for the jury. Mama usually sounded just like him by the end of the visit. Sometimes those arguments went on all the way to the Dairy Queen half way home, where we always ate lunch.
This time, though, Daddy was determined. He looked at Grandma sniffling into her Kleenex and said, “Two years, huh? Well, then, I guess he’s good and settled in. I expect he’ll still be there when we arrive.”
Daddy never liked Herman, a brooding barber who always smelled of Brill Cream and the blue sanitizer he soaked his scissors in. He spent all day talking to his customers about everything in creation, and by the time he got home at night, all he wanted to do was watch TV. I wouldn’t have minded that, except he only liked news and ball games; baseball, basketball, football, tennis, golf - anything with a ball in it. At least he brought me handfuls of bubble gum from the shop, the kind with comics inside. Once he did a magic trick where he pulled a half dollar piece out of my ear. I got to keep the half dollar.
The dust storm blew for more than an hour and then turned the reins over to lightning and thunder and a deafening downpour of rain that sounded like all the fans stomping their feet on the bleachers at a Friday night football game. I sat by the window and watched the parched yard turn into a swamp and the street into a hurried muddy river. A few times the flash and boom came holding hands and the window panes rattled. Grandma kept her scarf on and never let go of her purse, but she did move to the kitchen table where she could listen to the radio for news of tornadoes. Mama tried to distract her with questions about all the relatives, usually guaranteed to produce more conversation than you bargained for, but this time it was too one-sided, so Mama just flipped through magazines and clipped out recipes. Daddy took a nap in Herman’s fraying old La-Z-Boy, with a two-year old TV Guide still in the pocket on the side.
Then, suddenly, the rain stopped, and even before the little rivlets of water had finished draining off the window glass, the sun came out like the whole thing was just a big joke. But the river in the street had annexed the sidewalk and part of the yard.
“I want to see Herman,” Grandma said by the door, loudly enough to wake Daddy. He sat up slowly and pulled the handle to put the footrest back under the chair. His hair was sticking up in the back and his lips were tight, the same look he got whenever the car wouldn’t start, or when I’d borrowed one of his tools without putting it back.
“He passed on two years ago next week, and the least you can do is pay him a visit once a year when you can tear yourself away to come see us,” Grandma said, tightening her scarf.
“Us? Us?” Daddy said. “You got a roommate I don’t know about? Herman is dead, Mama. He’s dead. There ain’t no ‘us.’”
That’s when Grandma went and got in the car.
And that’s how we came to be driving under the big iron gate that spelled out “Rosewood Cemetery” in an arch. The road was low there so the water, which was the color of rusty hot chocolate, came almost to the tops of the tires on our car. Grandma sat beside me in the backseat dabbing tears out of her eyes like the funeral was today. The southern sky was filled with the rumpled backside of the storm, now orange and flame yellow in the early evening sun.
Rosewood was like most West Texas cemeteries where there wasn’t enough water or enough money to make them into English parks with bright green grass and shrubs and armless statues everywhere. There weren’t any marble benches where you could contemplate anything, just gravestones and barbed wire, which kept out the cows and tried to make the big emptiness hold more meaning than cotton fields could convey. Some of the gravestones stood higher than the fence posts, which practically made them Egyptian monoliths in country as flat as a chalk board. Others hunkered down low to the earth like everything else that still had a memory of buffalo hooves and bobcats.
“Oh! Oh! Oh!” Grandma began to wail as we turned down a muddy track that led to Herman’s grave. She leaned forward and pounded on Daddy’s shoulder as he stopped the car. “Oh, sweet Jesus, what have you done?” she cried.
“Okay, okay, it’ll be okay,” Daddy said, noticing whatever she saw long before I did.
“Ohhh!” she moaned and rocked in her seat, front to back. Daddy got out of the car and walked toward the grave. I opened my door to follow him.
“You stay here, Daniel” Mama said, as she reached back over the seat to take Grandma’s hand. But I pretended not to hear and ran after Daddy. Then I saw what the commotion was about. There, tucked in the corner of the fence, was Herman’s gravestone right where it always was, except this time it was leaning half over on its side, nearly submerged in sticky red mud. A big sink hole, more than a foot deep, had opened up right over where Herman’s chest would be, and extended all the way over into the spot where Grandma always said she expected to be buried before our next visit. Daddy walked around the mess a little, testing the ground with his weight, then went back to the car.
“It’s not so bad,” he said through Grandma’s window, which she had rolled down. “The ground’s more solid than it looks. Come on, I’ll help you.”
“I don’t want to go over there! Herman is all washed away! I’m all washed away, too!”
I was used to Grandma’s theatrical flair, but this was different. I saw real fear on her face as she strained to look past my dad to the ruined graves. Her eyes flashed all around us as if she expected to see Herman’s muddy body lying on the ground somewhere, or maybe like she felt him just behind her, reaching out to touch her shoulder.
“It’s just a little mud, Mama,” Daddy said. “The gravediggers’ll get out here tomorrow and fix it right up.”
“No, no, no!” she yelled. “I’m all washed away with Herman!”
“Oh for cryin’ out loud, Mama, Herman is gone,” Daddy shouted back with more emotion in his voice than I’d ever heard, even when he was at his maddest. “Your mama’s gone. They-” he swung is arm out wide around him. “They’re all gone. You are here, and I am here. Did you notice that Mama, huh, did you?” Daddy clutched the shirt on his chest and pulled it so hard I thought the buttons would pop. “Did you notice that I’m standing right in front of you?”
“Oh, dear, sweet Jesus!” Grandma sobbed and looked past him toward the listing gravestone.
He turned and kicked the nearest stone, which belonged to Felix Norwood, January 22, 1901-June 7, 1967. Grandma wailed.
“Stop dying, Mama,” Daddy said with the veins standing out on his forehead. “Stop it. The only thing that washed away today was a little good for nothin’ dirt. It’s clean out here, and alive!” He lifted his arms up over his head. I couldn’t tell whether he was surrendering or celebrating. He walked away from the car and went over to lean on the fence, breathing hard, looking far out toward the horizon. 
I noticed a snake near the fence, lying dead-still in the mud, and I thought Daddy was wrong about nothing getting washed out by the storm. I went to move its body over into the ditch where it had a chance to rest in peace. The green scales on its back shimmered in the setting sun like wind-waves in tall grass. Just as my fingers touched its cold head, it sprang forward, whipping away through the mud-stained weeds under the fence and into its hole. Before long the snake’s head reappeared, so deep in the darkness that I could only see little hints of sunlight in its black eyes and the ghostly shape of its head.
I stood there a long time, until Daddy started the car and honked the horn for me. I was thinking about things that live down holes too deep or too narrow for me to enter, and about what is really gone and what is not.

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Tao of Farming

I have officially given up on the green beans at New Leaf Gardens. This year it was their turn to remind me that farming is nearly always an exercise in letting go.

We like to think that modern life has been made entirely mathematical, reduced to a predictable algebraic equation. In Math World most functions are linear and most variables can be boiled down to a single letter of the alphabet. If you want a good harvest of X just plug in a value for Y and solve for Z. Simple. If you get the wrong answer it’s your own fault—probably something to do with the order of operations.

If this is indeed a rule (a questionable premise), then let’s just say that farming is an exception. Take our green beans for instance.

The vines came up, deep green and gorgeous, as they always do. They put on radiant, flirtatious blossoms, as hopeful as teenagers at a school dance. A handful of them did more than flirt, and they grew up overnight into respectable beans. I hoped the rest would follow along; but they are stubbornly content to tease and titter and wait till next year. They look good, but it seems that’s the only satisfaction we’re going to get.

Why? Who knows? A paucity of pollinators? Perhaps, but unlikely. Our own bee hives are a mere block away, and I know of several others in the neighborhood as well. Not enough water? Too much? Soil pH not to their liking? The porridge was too hot? Too cold? You can drive yourself crazy wondering where the sweet spot of “just right” lies from one year to the next. Taking too much responsibility is not only foolish, it’s arrogant.

Sometimes plants simply wake up on the wrong side of the bed, and nothing you can say or do will brighten their sulking mood. That’s not what the chemical sales rep or the county extension agent wants you to hear—but it’s the truth.

Sure, there is a science to farming that is important. You ignore the factors listed above at your peril. But there is also an art to it that is nothing short of mystical--Taoist, in fact. As Stephen Mitchell's translation of the Tao te Ching says, "Governing a country (or tending a farm) is like frying a small fish. You spoil it with too much poking." 

To let go of the outcome and avoid excessive "poking" requires us to accept that we don’t “manufacture” our food; we facilitate its arrival. As any good midwife will tell you, the best birth is one in which she does what is prudent—and then gets the hell out of the way. The baby is coming (or not), is healthy (or not) largely under its own steam. The outcome is not ours to “guarantee”—only to influence as best we can. For all our big-brained expertise, at the end of the day we are all carried along, just like every other creature on earth, by a great current of Invisible Mystery. It’s nothing personal—just the way things are.

This is the knowledge that awaits us as peak oil, and the financial contractions that inevitably follow, begins to take hold and to shrink our world: We aren’t in control. Some of the things we try, in an effort to re-localize our lives, will yield a bumper crop. Some will put on lots of leaves but no fruit. Others will refuse to germinate at all, no matter what we do.

That’s why diversity is so bloody important, mono-culturists be damned. This winter when I go to the root cellar I will mourn the lack of green beans on the shelf. Then I’ll shrug and reach for a jar of beets instead; or corn, cabbage, sauerkraut, black-eyed peas (yes, my roots are in the South), tomatoes, pickles, eggplant, chard, Brussel sprouts, squash, sweet peas, spinach, sweet potatoes, red potatoes, okra, onions, peppers. For every failure, there are usually a dozen successes, for those who bother to plant the seeds. That’s the mystery of it.

Had we planted nothing but beans, we’d be in big trouble now. Likewise, if we put all our time and resources into one version of “preparation” for the coming storms, we could get lucky, I suppose. But odds are better that we’d live to regret a lack of well-developed options. I learned a long time ago, navigating the back alley shops of Seoul, Korea, that there is no such thing as a “one-size-fits-all” shirt.

Having drawn a ten-mile circle around my home to define my world, I fervently hope there are many others like me out there getting to know their neighbors, resurrecting community, and working on the practical problems of doing for themselves. I also hope they aren’t carbon copies of each other. We need each other’s unique contributions like never before. 

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Resilience: A Way of Life

Today I am pruning tomatoes and attempting to give them some backbone—by re-tying the sagging, fruit-laden vines to their wooden stake. Tomatoes are undisciplined. Left to themselves they will sprawl everywhere like teenagers on the family sofa. It is tempting for the gardener to let them be, and, like a besieged parent, to go sit somewhere else. That’s a mistake. You only wind up with shaggy, unproductive offspring that now want the La-Z-Boy as well.

Training tomatoes is tedious and time consuming work. It requires patience and a soft touch. Pull a vine the wrong way and it will snap off—not so bad, I suppose. If you don’t mind fried green tomatoes. This measured, careful pace also means this is good work for thinking.

This morning I am pulling on the ends of two threads that have come loose in my mind. The first was suggested by Jim Kunstler in his blog this week. In typical incisive fashion (think incisors, as in teeth), Mr. Kunstler lamented what he sees as a dangerous drift in American politics. Specifically, he wondered how it ever came to be that Glenn Beck, of all people, could pass for a political leader, presuming to speak to and for large numbers of Americans; how eighty-seven thousand people could gather in the shadow of the Washington monument—on the anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr’s famous “I have a dream” speech, no less—to listen to “corn pone Nazis” like Beck and “badly educated, child-like, war-mongering” Sarah Palin.

Now, it is not my purpose here to take up that argument one way or another, though there is a ring of truth in Kunstler’s assessment:

Of course, what has allowed Beck to occupy center stage is the failure of rational political figures to articulate the terms of the convulsion that American society faces, brought about not by communists and other John Bircher hobgoblins but by the forces of history. The failure at the political center is a conscious one of nerve and will, of elected officials in both major parties playing desperately for advantage in defiance of the truth -- this truth being that the USA went broke trying to swindle itself into prosperity. Add to this the failure of the law to go after the swindlers, which has undermined the fundamental belief in the rule of law that enabled this society to function as well as it did previously.”
What really caught my eye, and sent me off to prune tomatoes with a splinter in my mind, came at the very end of the column:

“The bigger mystery in all this…is: what happened to reasonable, rational, educated people of purpose in this country to drive them into such burrow of cowardice that they can't speak the truth, or act decisively, or even defend themselves against such a host of vicious morons in a time of troubles?”
Not a bad question. But I’ll let it lie for a moment while we pick up the second nagging thread.

That is, the ongoing debate between two excellent “power down” thinkers, John Michael Greer, of The Archdruid Report, and Rob Hopkins, founder of the Transition Town movement. Without drowning the unsuspecting reader in detail, let me summarize the conflict like this: Is it better to prepare for the changes we see coming at a collective level, and in cooperation with local and regional government (Transition)? Or should we focus our efforts on finding individual solutions, to have them ready if and when the need for personal action goes mainstream (Greer’s “Green Wizard” approach)?

The obvious answer, of course, is “both”. Solutions that don’t work for real people, living in real neighborhoods, on real income levels, aren’t solutions at all. So having a cadre of people working out the kinks in things like local food production, alternative health care, post-oil transportation, etc., can’t possibly be a bad thing. On the other hand, some of those solutions might be suited to wider application, so long as somebody is willing to attend planning commission meetings and lobby local officials to enact them.

There is a practical side to the argument, however, which brings me back to my farm, where I am presently kneeling, pruning clippers in hand, trying to make a bunch of unruly romas behave. People on both sides tend to present their ideas as items in a bullet list of “things you can do.”

  • Grow some or all of your own food.
  • Get to know your neighbors.
  • Take responsibility for your own health care.
  • Walk as much as possible.
  • Barter.

It looks so tidy on paper. So easy. But the truth is, if you plan to do more than just play around at any one of those items, you’re in for a shock. Take it from me; these are not hobbies that you tack on to an otherwise pedal-to-the-metal lifestyle. These things are a lifestyle in themselves.  “Preparation” is a simple enough word, but is extremely messy and labor intensive in practice.

Sitting in meetings, making master plans, and getting the county commissioners to issue proclamations is excellent work. But sooner or later, those well-meaning activists had better be taking care of business at home. Therein lies the rub. When you commit to grow your own food, the pool of available time for day-long hearings inevitably dries up. You either let it do so, or it will be your vegetables that dry up, choke on weeds, go to seed, or enter the food chain in the stomach of a rabbit or squirrel. Getting to know your neighbors means being present when they knock to ask for a favor.

Earlier this week I was a member of a panel of local food-growers after an “eat local” film screening. Organized by Transition Boulder, it was a wonderful evening of discussion about what the word “organic” really means. My wife and I met new people and heard new ideas. We probably could have talked all night—about GMO seeds, unfair labor practices on farms that call themselves organic, the presence of feedlot poop in “organic” packaged compost, and so on. But after the sun went down, we had only one thing on our minds: Getting home to shut the chicken coop door before the skunks came out to play for the night. (Skunks will kill a chicken just for fun). Individual responsibility trumped collective brainstorming—and, for us, probably always will.

Which brings me to Jim Kunstler’s question: Where the hell are all the “reasonable, rational, educated people of purpose in this country”? Well, some of us are at home tending chickens and pruning tomatoes. Some of us have realized that we can’t be everywhere at once and have made a choice. We may not be making front page headlines in daring acts of activism; but having organized marches down main street in my time, I can tell you that nothing has ever brought my community together more effectively than putting a shovel in the ground and growing vegetables in plain sight.


There was a touch of fall in the air this morning. Overnight, it seems, the earth has tilted her head ever so slightly toward the coming winter, as if keeping an eye out for a visitor not due to arrive just yet. The sunlight is softer, with a bit more yellow in the mix. While we’ve been busy at the farm surviving summer heat—and an unusually hot season it has been—shadows have stretched out and lost their shape, like knitted sweaters hung out to dry on a clothesline.

The birds feel it too. Now the starlings travel exclusively in flocks, leaping in great black clouds from place to place. I imagine they’re brushing up on the close quarter drills they’ll use to get everyone safely south when the time comes. Robins stick closer together, as well, as if not daring to lose sight of each other for fear of being left behind. The bees in my backyard hives have taken to sleeping in longer each morning.

And, just like every year, it all seems so premature to me. After all, the harvest we’ve played midwife to since May is finally here in force. Sure, the ripening orange pumpkins already forecast Halloween, but there are plenty of the red, green, and yellow vegetables left to gather in first: tomatoes, pole beans, squashes, peppers, cucumbers, cabbages. Carrot tops are still vibrant and green. How can the equinox really be less than three weeks away?

Well, I suppose that’s just the way things work on a round planet, spinning around a round star, itself traveling a circular pathway through the galaxy. Nothing ever stands still. There are no discreet, linear beginnings and endings; we might as well get used to it. The stage curtain always rises a little before the players are all in place, and starts falling before the last act is over. Everything is done in transition to something else, something new, or even something old that has come round again.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

To Walk is Human

Some days all I really want to do is this: pull on my most comfortable shoes; change out of jeans into loose-fitting pants—made of linen, perhaps—that flow in a breeze like wind waves on a wheat field; put on my straw hat, seasoned over the years to the shape of my head; throw a handmade bag over my shoulder, with a bottle of water inside, something for lunch, and a notebook for writing in—and walk.

Just walk, that’s all.

Notice, I didn’t say “walk away”. This is not about escape. I have an improbably excellent life. It is excellent because I’m blessed with: a one of a kind wife, children, and other loving people; satisfying labor on the farm and at my writing desk; the will to help leave behind a better world than I found, and enough hope to sustain me when that work grows hard.

It is “improbable” because I routinely break the great social taboo of our time—that is, nothing about my excellent existence makes very much money. If the edge of an ordinary knife is a precarious place to balance a life, think of us as living on the high, thin ridge of an upturned scalpel. As a consequence, I’m not expected to describe my life in positive terms. I am supposed to feel poor and hang my head like a proper “failure” should. Going around like that for a while is supposed to motivate me to settle down and live responsibly. But, I might as well confess: it’s not going to happen. At 50, I’ve claim the right to borrow a line from the great American poet, Robert Bly: “This is my life, just shut up if you don’t understand it” (from “The Russian”, in Morning Poems). In fact, I’ve developed the annoying habit (from the point of view of people made uncomfortable by my choices) of being quite happy anyway, in spite of my financial disabilities.

For instance, to walk makes me happy. To walk my little circle of earth, here, now. This is how one dictionary defines it: “to move or travel on legs and feet, alternately putting one foot a comfortable distance in front of, or sometimes behind, the other, and usually proceeding at a moderate pace. When walking, as opposed to running, one of the feet is always in contact with the ground, the one being put down as or before the other is lifted.”

I love the simplicity and the hidden wisdom in this description:

To move or travel on legs and feet.” No machines needed. No license, no certification, or college degree. Walking doesn’t violate Thoreau’s warning to “beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.” It’s low-tech and low-budget. If you’ve got legs and feet, you’re ready to go.

“Putting one foot a comfortable distance in front of, or sometimes behind, the other, and usually proceeding at a moderate pace.” A comfortable, moderate pace. Anything more and you aren’t walking any longer, you are running. Walking is, by definition, counter-cultural, since speed in all things (food, sex, communication, entertainment, work) is the new normal.

“One of the feet is always in contact with the ground.” Grounded. In contact. Connected. Aware. Hmm. Sounds pretty good in a disintegrating world.


Among people who are aware of peak oil, climate change, and the myriad limits to perpetual “growth”, there is little disagreement that something’s got to give. We understand the need to “power down” our civilization thoughtfully and systematically, as Richard Heinberg suggests; and to “transition” to a saner way of living, á la Rob Hopkins. We know the stakes and appreciate the sense of urgency. What sometimes escapes us, however, especially those of us new to the conversation, is knowing where to start. What to do?

One typical response is to look where we’ve always looked in modern times—to the future, and to some new set of emerging ideas or technologies. I have no crystal ball, but I suspect that this particular treasure chest is all but empty. These days, every new innovation, however well conceived, is saddled with the sandbags of “peak everything” right out of the starting gate. That’s the very nature of our predicament. And, as Einstein said, we are unlikely to solve our problem using the same thinking that created it in the first place.

On the other hand, I’m not a big fan of Little House on the Prairie nostalgia, either. Anything we do to power down can be called “new” because, in all of history, nothing like it has ever been done before—has never been necessary before. What worked for our ancestors simply won’t do for us, if for no other reason than there are now nearly seven billion of us (and counting). And yet, it’s impossible for me to shake the feeling that there are answers for us in what is old about human life. Very old. Things so foundational that exploring them might constitute a reset button for the mind, a pathway back to a time before our thinking became so prone to creating more problems than we can solve.

Where to start? How about remembering the things that have been with us since we first stood up out of the African grasses and became human? How about learning how to walk again?


Of all the “first-time” milestones in a baby’s life—first tooth, first word, first haircut—there is only one with the power to instantly stop traffic and command our undivided attention. To witness it is a miracle; to miss it, a tragedy. Who knows how much money Kodak has made over the decades, and how many long distance minutes AT&T has racked up, helping young parents capture and celebrate this seminal moment in their child’s life: his or her first steps.

Even the startled toddler seems to know the importance of the landmark she’s just passed. Moving around on all fours, she has had more in common with the family dog than with her parents and siblings. Now, rising like a monarch on coronation day, she literally moves up in the world.  She enters society as a self-motivating member.  Her hands are free to discover (all the breakable things Mom hasn’t yet moved to safety), to create unique sounds (on kitchen pots and pans), and to reorder the world to her liking (by pulling all the books off the shelf in the living room). Crawling, she might as well have been in handcuffs. Walking—well, it’s a whole new world.

Let’s be honest: To walk is the essence of “human-ness”. It is what we do—or did, rather, prior to the 20th century. It’s what we are built for, and a big part of what distinguishes us from the rest of the primates. The motion of walking is circular, not linear, seen clearly in the movement of hands and feet. This establishes a rhythm to living that can’t be rushed or avoided, and one that is attuned to universal oscillations of sun and moon and stars. In times past, we’d put one foot in front of the other, at a comfortable, moderate pace, for our whole lives. If you wanted to get there, or return, you walked. And in the process, you took your place—and proved you belonged—in the dance of creation.

Now days, we take our first ecstatic steps and promptly sit back down. Parents clap and cheer and take a few snaps, then slap us in a car seat; a stroller; an airplane; a medieval torture device now known as a school desk; and of course, an easy chair in front of the TV or computer. It is a sitting, riding life now, one we no longer question—“just the way things are”. We don’t walk unless we have to, or it is a symptom of mental or emotional distress. Don’t believe me? Try this: casually announce to your friends and neighbors that you plan to walk farther than the distance to your mailbox. Watch how fast they offer you a ride, assuming—of course—the only logical explanation is that your car is in the shop. Refuse the ride, and watch how fast they start asking if everything is okay with you—the other options being marital difficulty, mental breakdown, midlife crisis, etc.


It has been said that all politics is local. This means, I suppose, that elections always boil down to single votes and the relative satisfaction of single voters. If you are a politician, hobnob with well-heeled lobbyists all you want, but in the end you’d better make sure you’ve taken care of the home crowd. The same could be said of all aspects of the coming descent and eventual collapse of our present way of life—it’s all local. We can stay up all night long, like would-be emperors engrossed in a high stakes game of Risk, debating the fate of nations, and why civilizations always seem to collapse at the peak of power. We can convene another Continental Congress to resuscitate the constitution with rhetoric of the highest caliber. But at the end of the day, if we don’t know our neighbors; if we don’t know where our food is coming from in a pinch; if water is something that just magically appears in the pipe; if we haven’t got a clue what is within walking distance of our homes—well, you get the idea. All that global thinking will be worth exactly nothing.

In other words, to prepare for a local collapse requires me to know what’s here in my local part of the world. The most reliable way to do that—here comes my point—is to get out of your car and walk your neighborhood from time to time. I’m not talking about a Gandhi-esque march to the sea. Just a commitment to put one foot in front of the other at a comfortable and moderate pace once in a while.

Think of it this way. If you drive down a street in your neighborhood, and then I ask you what is there, you’ll probably say, “A bunch of houses, some parked cars, a couple of kids blocking the street throwing a football.”

Try it again, on foot. This time (so long as you go with an attitude of curiosity and engagement) you will notice Richard watering his front-yard tomato plants. You admire them and find that he is eager to talk. He’s eighty-seven (but doesn’t look more than 75) and he’s lived in that house since it was built in 1956. He points to three other houses still occupied by original owners. He lost his wife to cancer and his son to a heart attack. But he still has his garden.

As you move on, one of the kids in the street overthrows a pass right into your arms. His name is Ernesto—and it was a hell of throw. He hopes to play quarterback in high school in a couple years, then, who knows what could happen? His friend, Daniel, would rather play football on the Wii, but his mom made him come outside. You toss the ball a few times and keep walking.

In an open garage you see a young woman with spiked hair and baggy pants. She is busy at work on an astonishing, large format painting of a tropical waterfall with a Technicolor parrot in the foreground—using ordinary spray paint cans. You stop in and ask how she learned to paint like that? “On the side of railroad cars,” she answers. But she doesn’t do that shit any more.

Betsy, a local librarian, is out walking her Pomeranian dogs. Several peach trees are almost ready to harvest. Some young kids have set a sprinkler on their trampoline, throwing water over half the street every time they bounce. A rabbit nibbles grass in the shade of a grape arbor.

Not in a thousand drive-bys would you see as much. Walking is how we belong to the world. It’s how we belong to each other. It’s how we see best what’s coming—for us, not for people half-way across the country or the world—and how we know what to do about it. It’s how we begin tuning ourselves to the frequency of a post-oil world.

There’s more to say, but it’s time to stop talking about it—and go take a walk.