The Story of Here Begins

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

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, รก 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.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Up Water Tower Hill

The climb to the top of Water Tower Hill, near my house, begins at the bottom of Elmwood Street in the neighborhood loosely known as Sherrelwood Estates. Though, to tell the truth, the words “climb” and “hill” overdo things a bit in this context. It is really just a walk up a steep street, followed by a few more steps on a path that is a little steeper. I like walking there as much as arriving, because I pass by a tangled Fangorn Forest of juniper bushes that conceal a whole village of amber and black foxes. They wander the streets at night, but always look out of place against a backdrop of trash cans and parked cars. Here, in a tiny pocket of accidental wildness, it is possible to convince myself that I am on their turf, not the other way round. If the time of day is right (early morning or late evening), I frequently catch glimpses of them catching glimpses of me.

When I’ve ascended the hill as far as I can, the path levels out on the “summit” and traces the shape of a doughnut around a large, tan, cylindrical water tank. A barbed wire-topped chain link fence (with motion sensors inside) bravely guards the sides of the tank from local graffiti artists, who have to settle for decorating neighborhood traffic signs and privacy fences instead. There is one small tree beside the path on top. It recently put on new growth again after a prolonged illness of unknown origin; loneliness, perhaps.

The huge tank more closely resembles an oil storage facility than the quaint Mayberry image of a proper tower on legs, with the name of the town painted on the side, along with the high school football team mascot, and “Class of (whoever is next in line to graduate)”. That tower belongs in a real community. This one is a foreign object. I’m pretty sure it actually stores water, though there are no visible pipes above ground to offer clues, so that’s just an assumption. It’s one of many assumptions I routinely make about things in my environment—complicated power relays; strange-looking antennas; cameras on top of traffic signal poles; random little non-descript buildings with gray metal doors and no windows. Who knows how these things work, or even what they really do, for that matter? (For all I know—really know—the water tank is actually a UFO exit ramp on a subterranean highway leading all the way to Area 51 in Nevada.)  Apart from a handful of technicians and people who store up esoteric facts for entertainment, very few of us could explain how our highly complex way of life works, much less fix it if it started to fail. It makes me wonder if techno-specialization really is a step up on the evolutionary scale, as most futurists insist, or a dizzy, death-defying experiment in collective tight rope walking without a net. I suspect society is poised to find out which. Shortly.

So, if this isn’t a climb, and it isn’t a hill, and it doesn’t really look like a water tower, what’s the point of naming this essay as I did? Because within the circle I drew on my map at home (with a radius of ten miles; enclosing 314 square miles) this is the closest thing we’ve got to a hill worth climbing—that I know of so far, anyway. Besides, Water Tower Hill has no other name that I can find, so I exercised my first-in-line right to make one up. It will do as well as any other. The knob probably had a better name for much of its brief contact with human beings, back when the Cheyenne were the party in power in these parts. Maybe it was something mystical suggested by the spirits who used to live here, and who might consider returning if we made them the right offer. Or maybe it was simply called, “Where-My-Horse-Went-Lame-That-Time Hill”. Who knows?

Nobody who lives here now, that’s for sure. Now it is just an unremarkable, unnoticed high spot among a bunch of mostly unremarkable, brick houses built when Eisenhower was president. Now it’s where teenagers go to smoke Camels, drink Pabst Blue Ribbon, talk trash about their parents, and make out. It’s a place to throw out a blanket on the Fourth of July and watch the fireworks displays over the city. The hill’s flank does make for some wicked fast sledding in winter. Oh, and it’s a pretty good place for wanderers like me to come and walk in circles around the tank and think about things.

Which is why I’ve climbed it today. That, and to take in the view—a 3-D panoramic picture window onto my world. There are the Fruited Plains to the east, Purple Mountain Majesty in the west, and the bar graph outline of downtown Denver to the south. Sixty miles farther south is legendary Pikes Peak (visible on clear days). North, well, the topography rises gently a few miles out obscuring what would otherwise be a clear shot to Wyoming and then all the way to the North Pole via Canada.

Truth is, this little hill is among the vanguard of the Continental Divide. This is where a blind person walking westward from Kansas would begin to get the idea that something different was about to happen. In many ways, I am that person and have stumbled blindly forward through my life to land here, forced at last to face the fact that something different—very different—is about to happen here. The plodding life we lived on the plains of prosperity all these years is coming to an end. All of us have arrived at a crossroads and a transition in human history of monumental magnitude—arguably the most significant we’ve ever faced. (Die hard “doomers” will object to such dainty descriptive words. They prefer “crash”, “collapse”, “the-end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it”. I can get there too, when I really start thinking about things. But, those words aren’t the ones evoked by the view from Water Tower Hill. Not just yet, anyway, so for now I’ll stick with less flammable ones.)

I’m in the right place, because this little spot on the planet is the very embodiment of transitions and crossroads. For instance, I am standing exactly between two world-class geographic features: the Great Plains, a vast continental ocean of flat farmland and prairie, and the Rocky Mountains, a range that stretches 3,000 miles from Canada to Mexico, with fifty-two peaks in excess of 14,000 feet in Colorado alone. This is where The American West truly begins, a topographic moment of truth where pioneers once smacked into the enormity of their decision to leave behind the well-behaved woods and farms of Colonial America in search of a new life. A new life awaited them, alright—if it didn’t kill them first.

Also, about three miles from here, I can see the crossroads of two great interstate highways: I-25 and I-70. The former lies south to north like an uncoiled rope, from Las Cruces, New Mexico (just a few miles north of Juarez, now the most dangerous city on earth, they say) past Albuquerque, and “chic” Santa Fe, over Raton Pass, along the western-most edge of the Great Plains through Colorado, all the way to bustling Buffalo, Wyoming, where it joins up with I-90 east of the Bighorn National Forest.  I-70 sprouts from the back streets of Baltimore on the Atlantic coast, ducks south of Pittsburgh, but then threads the needle of Columbus, Indianapolis, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Denver, before petering out in the Utah desert without so much as a lemonade stand present to witness its confluence with I-15.

These highways are like giant concrete wormholes tunneling through space and time, hurling goods and people across vast distances at hyperspeed, with little or no friction (interaction) with the surrounding countryside. And they intersect right here, within the boundaries of my circular, walkable world! What an honor for all who live here, really—to bear witness every day to a surging river of plastic, glass, rubber, and metal, shaped into cars and trucks of every ilk; buses; motor homes; Harley Davidsons and other two-wheelers running in packs; and, above all, eighteen-wheel tractor trailers hauling an unfathomable inventory of stuff from anywhere stuff is made to anywhere stuff is sold. They haul massive and indecipherable machinery-stuff from here to yonder and back again (more things no one understands). The constant noise of these Anthropocene river rapids washes up the sides of my hill, like a tide that only comes in, never goes out again. I hate to even consider the not-so-good-for-you fumes riding in on those waves as well. Let’s just say they are visible in the air on days when Pikes Peak is not.

But, of course, that line of thought leads directly to the Founder of the whole dystopian feast, without which this spot would still be a grassy hill where pronghorn antelope graze, instead of an earthen table top for an ugly water tank; without which I’d be looking at a woven cord of cottonwood trees along the meandering South Platte River, and short grass prairie beyond, instead of a vista only a Captain of Industry could truly appreciate; without which the human world would be still “made by hand”—by (fewer) people who never stopped travelling by foot—theirs or ones belonging to a helpful animal.

In “The Story of Here Begins” I asked myself the question: Setting aside the issues of the wide world for a second, who and what are right here under my nose? Well, from the top of Water Tower Hill, one answer is abundantly clear: My little ten-mile world is filled with cars. Lots and lots and lots—a god king hell of a lot—of cars. A large slice of the blame for a century’s worth of wrong turns can be laid at the feet of this one invention. More than any other single toy in the playroom of technology, it has enabled us to go completely crazy—and to get there in air conditioned comfort and style!

But as potent as this automotive crazy-maker is, it still isn’t the real spike in the punch. No, the enabler has an enabler of its own. I’m talking about Oil. Gasoline. Diesel. Cars have only managed to clog the arteries of my world because we’ve gorged ourselves on cheap, easy oil. We are greased up one side and slicked down the other. It is in everything we depend on for our really swell (non-negotiable) lifestyle. The list of products (including food) that owe their existence to a barrel of crude would go on for pages (and others have compiled it already). For now, let’s restrict our discussion to the oil devoted to moving people and stuff around. Most of what I can see from Water Tower Hill depends in one way or another on the energy stored in this magic carpet. If I could press a button and simultaneously combust all the liquid petroleum products stashed in all the gas tanks, gas stations, gas trucks, and gas cans presently within my sight, the force of the explosion might well alter the orbit of the earth around the sun. (Not really, all you physicists tempted to show me the error in my calculations. It’s hyperbole, to make a point.)

As if to underscore that point further, I look southeast, about four miles away, and have no trouble locating the Suncor Energy oil refinery. It’s a puny little thing compared to the sprawling monster refineries along the Gulf Coast, but, hey, it’s ours. Trains loaded with tanker cars deliver the crude at all hours. Alchemists turn the goo into gas, and then other locomotive drivers  pull in with other, empty, tanker cars and say “Fill ‘er up!” When I come here at night, I can easily spot the gas flares—towers that look like flame throwers pointed at heaven—disposing of unwanted methane by burning it. When the wind is just right (or wrong) I can smell the poisonous sulfur dioxide venting into the atmosphere. Today the sun glints off the incomprehensible tangle of tanks and conduits that looks to me like an unmelodious pipe organ built by extraterrestrials to remind them of home. All this—cars, pollution, noise, and eyesore refineries—so I can sit down, turn a key, and levitate (nearly for free!) to any destination I choose. Never have to walk again! Powerful magic, for sure.

But in this case it is literally black magic. Black gold. Texas Tea. It promised to free us, once and for all, from the straightjacket of physical limits to the good life. But science tells us that nothing is ever created out of thin air. E=mc2  means energy and matter simply rearrange themselves, changing from one to the other and back again, as needed. In other words, there is no such thing as a free magical lunch. You’ve got to pay for your adventures in Godhood. Every so-called advancement comes with a price tag pinned to its sleeve, payable in unintended consequences and hidden traps that grow tighter the higher you reach for more.

Today, I’m looking at one of those price tags—the bloated concrete and steel corpus of Hydrocarbon Man.

There is much more to see from Water Tower Hill, and I’ll be back again. I’m sure the ugliness is not the only thing I’ll find when I walk the land down there as humans were meant to do, one step at a time. Even mistakes as large as ours can be forgiven and put right when we make up our minds to back up and try again. I have the feeling there are people everywhere doing just that—creating sanity and beauty in the most unlikely places. But I’ve had enough for now. I head down the hill again (no sociable foxes today). Ten minutes later I arrive at the gate of New Leaf Gardens, the urban farm oasis belonging to my family.

I look across the half-acre of greenery and marvel at the sheer extravagance of it. There is more “green” contained in sunlight than any other color. And there is more unbridled, unconditional generosity in green things than any other creature on earth. Pick a green bean today, and tomorrow the plant will shower you with five more. Behead a broccoli? No hard feelings; try again in a few days. Eggplants balloon one after another, like deep purple soap bubbles. Tomatoes blush at the thought of loving hands, reaching, softly pressing, pulling them free, so ready to surrender their sweet, tangy flesh to you. (No wonder farmers can be such a lusty bunch!)

I can still hear the faint rush of traffic on nearby highways and streets; a distant police siren; a motorcycle in need of a muffler. I am comforted to think there are plentiful reasons to believe a quieter, less mobile season is upon us. And then the same thought makes me uneasy. How will we adjust? What new arrangements will we make for ourselves in a much smaller, walkable world? I don’t know. But I do know the answers are far more likely to be found in a garden—tucked under a cabbage leaf, or hiding among the cucumbers—than in places humans usually run to when faced with scary change: fear, conflict, crazed competition. For one thing, once peak oil has fully settled in and the hydrocarbon vault is functionally emptied (that is, what’s left is finally unaffordable or inaccessible), the plants—who live quite comfortably on a fixed solar income—can remind us how to stop writing bad checks, balance our energy budget, and live within our means again.

I can hear them now: “Have some dinner. Then we’ll talk.” 

Friday, August 13, 2010

Picking up friends for the trip

Well then! The very first post (available below) in my journey to tell The Story of Here has already attracted quite a few fellow travelers. Welcome!

First, Pete wrote to answer my question about how streets are named: “Why should Kipling and Wadsworth be followed by a street named for a general: Sheridan?”

“These are all names of great English authors.”

You got me, Pete. Richard Brinsley Sheridan: eighteenth century playwright and member of the British House of Commons. Buried in Westminster Abbey. (Maybe you can explain the next two streets in the sequence as well: Federal and Pecos.)

Paul Wayne, friend and fellow explorer wrote: “Your mission, your garden ... as usual my brother, you have a way of beginning that which needs to be begun. Would you be up for being cloned? The world could use several millions of ya.”

Well, that’s the idea—to use the DNA of words and ideas to create a new world.

My favorite response by far came from Kate in Bellingham, WA:

“I love your article on mapping!  I am part of Transition Whatcom and am starting a smaller Transition group in my neighborhood, and mapping it like you describe sounds like great fun!  I feel like a kid again- we were the true explorers. 
We knew where the creek went and where you could find the most tadpoles, who had a funny statue that peed into a little pond, who had a trampoline and when they were not home, we could sneak under shrubbery to find out who was rich and who drank beer out on their porch, we knew where the scary dogs were and how to go around them, which fence to climb to get wild blackberries, which old lady had adopted a one-eyed cat and gave out candies if you listened to her stories a while, and of course, where  the best sledding was.  
Yay!! My bike beckons!”

That’s the spirit!

Finally, I’d like to welcome all the readers who reach The Story of Here via Transition Boulder’s fabulous website I hope you enjoy the ride as much as I do.

More soon…


Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Story of Here Begins

The day’s work is done at New Leaf Gardens, the half-acre urban farm my family nurtures and tends in Colorado. We have worked since early morning, watering and weeding. The sun is nowhere near the horizon, but today is unusually hot; we’ll sit out the mid-afternoon heat indoors. It is early August and the harvest will crescendo soon—hitting a high, green note the plants will sustain through September; well into October, if we are lucky. At this altitude (5,400 feet) anything can happen after the equinox.
But, for now, an expectant gathering of green tomatoes grows heavy, tipping toward a cascade of red. Pole bean vines strain skyward, clothed in brand new white and yellow blossoms; slender, crisp beans are only a few days away. Cucumbers, peppers, squashes, cabbages, onions, carrots, beets, cantaloupes, pumpkins, eggplant, Brussel sprouts, potatoes—all are queued up for their turn, a dramatic entrance foreshadowed since Spring.
I close the gate behind me, tired and satisfied. Until this year, weeds and gravel had ruled this ordinary corner lot—though, on paper, the deed assigns ownership to the Valley Vista United Methodist Church. Through the years the space has been used as a part-time parking lot; makeshift baseball field for neighborhood kids; convenient turnaround and storage yard for county paving equipment when the streets needed maintenance; a shortcut for pedestrians headed for the library across the street, or to the post office two blocks away. It was a place to drive by or pass through, certainly nothing to look at.

Not anymore. Last November my wife and I sat around the dining table with our adult children to discuss a brave new family venture: Neighborhood Supported Agriculture. Outside, an early snow was falling; inside, winter had already begun to melt as we warmed to the possibilities of spring. For years we had grown an astonishing amount of food in our own yard. Now we felt ready to kick things up a notch. We tossed around ideas for asking the neighbors (none of whom we knew well) to let us plant in the unused corners of their property, in exchange for a share of the vegetables. As successful as that approach can be, all evening long an alternative image kept forming in my mind of the empty, disregarded little square of church land, just a block away from the kitchen where we’d gathered. Wouldn’t it be fun to put all that food in one place—in the open, where neighbors might be drawn to it? Could this be the elusive nucleus around which local community might form?
In December, I approached the leaders of the church with a proposal. In January we signed a three-year lease for a modest sum. In March we got to work—building a fence and creating raised beds on top of the less-than-suitable native soil. Sure enough, within a few days curious neighbors began stopping by to see what was up. In just weeks we went from knowing virtually no one nearby to forming friendships with a couple dozen people (and counting). The neighborhood that had once looked like an impenetrable wall of drawn shades and locked doors was filling up with smiling people, each with a story to tell, each enthusiastic about our project. They’ve offered us tools, labor, encouragement, grass clippings and kitchen scraps for the compost pile, even pitchers of lemonade on hot days. In a variety of small ways the project began to belong to all of us. Now, in steadily increasing numbers, these neighbors come and buy produce every Saturday morning at a stand we’ve set up just outside the fence. Many of them walk from home to shop for fresh organic vegetables—in America! For them, there is no mystery about where the food comes from, or how it is grown. The farm is an open book. Compared with petroleum-soaked industrial agriculture, the carbon footprint of this food would fit many times on the head of a pin.

Farming by hand can be a meditative occupation. If I allow it, my mind and body begin to synchronize with sun and earth time. Ordinarily, the wavelength of change in maturing plants is imperceptible to modern people raised on restlessness. In a garden, nothing discernable to human senses happens in an hour or a day, much less within our ever shrinking attention span.
That’s a shame, because the amplitude of this slow moving, verdant wave—that is, its capacity to carry creative energy and information—is enormous, practically limitless. To someone whose internal clock is set to Play Station time, this sounds ridiculous. Stand still in a garden; what do you see? Nothing much. The only motion comes from an occasional breeze; the only sound from drunken honey bees. Yet, to beets and onions slowly swelling beneath the soil, the human habit of measuring things in gigahertz—a cycle that completes itself a billion times a second—is pure science fiction. “Miles per hour” is an absurdity. All is here. Everything is now. No need for a high speed chase through existence. The attentive and willing farmer begins to know this too.

But, today I must reluctantly admit that my mind has been elsewhere. As I head for home on foot, I am aware of how preoccupied I’ve been with the usual scary events “out there”: Wall Street oligarchs and their ruthless power plays; environmental catastrophe; rumblings of war (and not just the “little” kind we’ve grown used to. Big, capital “W”, War). I have spent the day worrying about the fate of the Gulf of Mexico; the state of the Greek economy; the deployment of warships in the Persian Gulf; oil field depletion rates in Saudi Arabia and what they mean for the future of civilization. If thoughts were made of lead, these would be heavy enough to sink a battleship.
           I keep walking toward home, still thinking, still tired—and, with each step, growing more tired of thinking. Looking up, I notice for the first time the cumulonimbus cloud throwing its skirts up and out over the mountains in the west. The sky has grown dark enough to promise rain, but not so much as to threaten hail or tornadoes. The breeze quickens, cooler than it has been all day. I lift my hot and sweaty face and breathe deep. My step feels a little lighter.
I pass by Claudia and Vern’s house (two of my newfound farm friends) and it occurs to me that I haven’t seen Vern for three weeks now. They are past retirement age; an extended absence might well be bad news. Why didn’t I notice sooner? I make a mental note to drop by tomorrow. Just then a young boy, nine or ten years old, whom I’ve seen often since starting to make this daily walk to and from the farm, zooms past me on his black and red bicycle. He turns off the street into a driveway and, without slowing, runs his front tire into the weathered fence beside the house. “Yeah!” he says with gusto, after barely avoiding becoming a crash dummy. Clearly, a soul bent on adventure.
I am nearing the corner now, where I’ll cross another street to my house. Before I do, I see a young woman, mid-thirties perhaps, sitting on the concrete steps of her front porch, smoking a cigarette. She wears loose fitting gym shorts and a baggy T-shirt. Not that her clothes are far too big; she is too thin. Her shoulders sag forward as if she has run out of reasons to sit upright. She suddenly speaks, her voice a weary drone, and I realize she is cradling a cell phone under her limp blonde hair. I just got back from the hospital, she says. My husband’s leg is infected. They told us he has severe diabetes. It’s bad.
By the time I reach my front door, the tectonic plates in my mind have begun to shift. I remember an anecdote I once heard describing this idea: Whatever we concentrate our attention upon is what we will see—is all we will see, no matter what else is present. In the illustration, a man is driving a car through paradise, surrounded by magnificent landscapes.  He is nevertheless convinced the world is a dangerous and dirty place—all because his eyes are fixed, not on the breathtaking beauty beyond the glass, but on the car’s dusty and bug-stained windshield. He is focused on things that, though they may be equally “real” (bug guts, road grime, and other global issues), they are not equally important to local life. They are two-dimensional and inert, signifying nothing about life where he actually is. Here’s the lesson for me: If the world appears hopelessly flawed, maybe it is only an illusion, created when global problems too large to grasp are superimposed over local life. Perception trumps reality. In the here and now, real trouble (usually) comes in more manageable, less overwhelming sizes.

Compared to the average American, I am well informed. I have spent a lot of time educating myself about current affairs. I know what mortgage backed securities and credit default swaps are, and why they spell big economic trouble for the foreseeable future (no matter what anyone says about “green shoots”). I understand what geologist M. King Hubbert predicted in the 1950s about the inevitable decline of world oil production, and can cite plenty of current evidence to suggest he was absolutely right. I can talk geopolitics with you long into the night. I am well versed in the science of climate change. I know that Arctic sea ice is shrinking; the oceans’ phytoplankton are disappearing; methane is outgassing by the ton from melting permafrost. I am generally aware of humanitarian conditions in the Gaza strip; Sudan; Congo. I know how much Bill Clinton is planning to spend on Chelsea’s wedding cake (though I wish I didn’t).
What I don’t know is the name of the obviously frightened woman who lives a stone’s throw from my house, or what her family needs to survive her husband’s illness. I know a lot about “foreclosures” in America, but nothing about the “foreclosed” who live (or who used to live) nearby. I can tell you about the effects of globalization on Ethiopian coffee farmers, but I have no idea who or what was here before this place was “developed” in the 1950s and joined to that amorphous geographic entity called the “suburbs”. I know Mexico is melting under the withering heat of drug violence and economic stress, but I can’t tell you my next door neighbors’ story—except that his name is Juan and he speaks little or no English.
In other words, for all my work as a community activist, helping to create New Leaf Gardens and bring affordable, locally grown, organic food to my neck of the woods, at heart I’ve been a “windshield” kind of guy. How disappointing. Something’s got to change

But wait. All those seemingly distant global problems are real. They truly are likely to erupt like stirring volcanoes and to dramatically alter the landscape of our lives. Ignorance of the world is never a wise strategy. To be informed is a prerequisite to good citizenship. Some of the informed argue that the signs “out there” point to a fast crash of life as we have known it. Vulnerability to sudden catastrophe, they argue, is hardwired into complex systems, an inevitable price of technological advancement. Others believe that entropy—the tendency of all things, civilizations included, to move toward disorder and lower states of energy—drags on complexity like friction, assuring us of a slow and grinding deceleration, what author James Howard Kunstler calls “The Long Emergency”. I’ve spent a lot of my adult life swinging between these two poles, trying to discern the truth of the matter.
Today, I realize something new and startling: It doesn’t really matter. Why? Because when the dust of the fast crash settles, or the grind of steady decline has finally reached a standstill—either way—my world will have shrunk radically and irrevocably. “Collapse”, it turns out, is an apt word, because it implies that what was large and expansive (globalized) will soon be small and immediate (localized). In any scenario you care to spin up, the end result is the same: The frontier of daily life moves much, much closer to home. Food, water, politics, security, health care, even information and entertainment—all of the basics of life—will come from places nearby, or not at all. Not only will riots in Paris have no power to help or harm anyone in my neighborhood, we may well lose our ability to know they ever even happened.
Here is the stark truth of it: In a “powered down” future—the one almost certain to follow the end of the era of “Hydrocarbon Man”—the practical size of my collapsed world (and yours) could well be defined like this: How far can we walk away from home and back again in a single day?
My own answer? About ten miles. And that’s optimistic.

With this thought in mind, I go into my office, take out a map of Denver and tack it to the wall. I stare a long time at the tangle of abstract lines and the shapes they form. Areas administered by the county I live in are white. Municipalities are blue, pink, yellow, and tan. Numbered streets run east and west; boulevards with other names, north and south. I search for patterns in the naming, but am usually stymied: Why should Kipling and Wadsworth be followed by a street named for a general: Sheridan? Symbols logically pinpoint schools, churches, fire stations—but why cemeteries? Where are the gardens? Where are the shops still owned by people who live here? Where do the geese nest in spring? Where is the best hill for sledding in winter? Where are the subversive poets gathering tonight?
I look for meaning in the map, for an answer to the questions growing larger in my mind by the minute: Where in the world am I? What and who shares this place with me, right here, right now? Of course, for this purpose the map is useless. If you need to know how to get “there” a map is just the thing. If you want to know what’s there that is worth getting to, you are on your own. I am on my own.

So be it. I put a pin in the precise location of New Leaf Gardens. From now on it will mark the center of the world. I draw a circle, centered on the pin, with a radius of ten miles—the new size of my world. Territories beyond still exist, of course. But I will now give their goings on the same attention I presently devote to the current cost of coffee in Constantinople.
So much for the easy part.
Now comes the real work, the true turning point in the drama. This is the pivotal moment when the story of my life officially becomes the story of this place. I’m astonished to realize what a large area my circle encloses (roughly 314 square miles). I’ve driven through some of it, flown over it once or twice. But after living here six years, it is shocking to discover how little of it I truly know. Now, like a nineteenth century anthropologist, I will set out to explore this terra incognita—and to do it, as much as possible, on foot. What I seek will never be found out the window of speeding car.
The purpose of this chronicle is to report back what I find—people; places; Earth, Air, Fire, Water—and the fifth element, Spirit; plain sight ugliness and hidden beauty (and vice versa); the artist and the artless; angels and demons; what works, what doesn’t; yesterday’s waste and tomorrow’s raw material; backrooms where God has left His fingerprints on everything, and others where He hasn’t been seen for a while.
What do you know? I don’t feel tired anymore. Outside, a gentle rain has started to fall, refreshing the air and watering the earth. Inside, I’m all charged up, ready to get going. Purpose will revive you like nothing else can. Here’s mine: to find and tell The Story of Here: Mapping the Geography of Home. Join me.
Next week I’ll climb “water tower hill” near my house and survey the lay of the land before us.