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.
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.