The Story of Here Begins

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

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 16, 2010

Why Words Matter-Part Two

In last week’s column, “Why words matter”, I encouraged readers to consider the power of mental images—and the words we choose to describe what we “see”—to define and limit (or expand) how we respond to the emerging crises of our time. In particular, I warned against seeing ourselves as headed “off a cliff”, in favor of the less paralyzing picture of standing at a “crossroads”.

Many people responded with a sigh of relief, happy to be reminded that fear is most often a matter of choice, not an inescapable force. They liked the idea that, by taking charge of the dark imagery our minds habitually offer up, we won’t necessarily alter the trajectory of the collapse heading our way—but we can fundamentally change our ability to act effectively in the face of it.

Others objected to the entire line of thinking. To them, the image of divergent paths in a green wood was far too serene, too safe. These thoughtful people have done their homework. Like structural engineers, they’ve run the numbers on this skyscraper called civilization, and have concluded it just won’t stand up much longer, no matter which path we take. They think it is time to start the evacuation, not hold hands and meditate. I seemed to be saying, “Hey, don’t let the end of the world as you know it get you down! Just think happy thoughts, put one foot in front of the other, and it will all work itself out.”

Clearly, I didn’t communicate as well as I should have, because I don’t believe anything of the sort. It is more proof that words matter—a lot. I really like Bobby McFerrin’s song, “Don’t worry, be happy”, but I don’t recommend it as a philosophy of life.

I had planned to move on this week in “The Story of Here” with a walk down to Clear Creek, the closest thing in my circular world to a wildlife refuge. (This is where I can see deer grazing under the overpass of an interstate highway, find raccoon tracks in the mud, spy great blue herons standing like feathered fence posts in the water, or pick wild rosehips and other plants for the medicine cabinet.)

But that trip can wait a week while I back up and take another stab at making myself clear. For starters, it’s important to acknowledge that, these days, looking the future square in the face, without the anesthetic of denial in its many forms, is traumatic. If peak oil alone hasn’t scared the pants off of you at some point, then you haven’t fully understood it. Period.

It is also true that waking up from the hypnosis of belief that tomorrow will always be better than today doesn’t happen just because Dr. Mesmer snaps his fingers. It is a process that proceeds at different rates for different people. The course it runs is best described by “the five stages of grief” laid out by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross in her book On Death and Dying. They are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. As others have pointed out, these don’t always occur in everyone, or in the sequence in which they appear on this list. Hell, I’ve been known to feel them all in a single day!

Here’s the point: Seeing the unvarnished truth of our present predicament is a lot like facing death. It is frightening and painful. If it makes you angry, you’re not alone. Depressed? Welcome to the club. You won’t catch me telling you to feel something other than what you feel. It is necessary to your forward progress. And, if you are in the stage where all you want to do is climb on your roof and scream bloody murder at your neighbors—to try and wake them up too—then you probably won’t appreciate someone who comes along and says, “Be careful. Words matter.” You might even share a few choice words of your own.

But…I stand by what I’ve said: Being mindful of the word-pictures we paint for ourselves is good thinking, no matter where you fall on the Kübler-Ross scale. To tell you why, I will leave the cliff vs. crossroads analogy for now, and turn to something I know a little bit about: martial arts.

Several years ago, as a brand new white belt karate student, I fully expected to get my butt kicked in the dojo. Getting a late start at age 48, I knew I would spend a lot of time looking up from the floor at younger, stronger, more agile students than myself. But I honestly didn’t think I would set a record for being especially dull and dense. Training in the early going felt like trying to plow a sun-baked field with my bare hands. It was hard. At the end of the night I’d be the only one in class dripping with sweat and covered with bruises.

Finally, the sensei took me aside. “I can tell you what you need in a single word,” he said. “Relax. You are getting beat up because your muscles are so tight.”

Relax? I thought this was supposed to be hand-to-hand combat training. Battle. Bruce Lee. What did he mean, relax? Besides, I begged to differ: I was getting beat up because everyone else was so much better than me. But, he was Sensei, so I would do my best to follow his instruction.

Over the coming weeks, “relax” became Sensei’s one word curriculum for me. But nothing I did helped. Even when I thought I was relaxed he’d shake his head. “Tight. And that makes you slow and extremely easy to off-balance.” (Think of the difference between trying to push over a hat stand, and a sheet hanging on a clothesline.)

And so it went—until one of the black belts in class took pity on me. (Actually, he told me later he was tired of working so hard to train with me. It turns out my tightness was making it difficult for everyone to learn drills that were meant to flow like water, not break down doors like a battering ram.)

One night during sparring he stopped me. “I can read your mind right now.”

“Really?” I said, grateful for the chance to catch my breath.

“It’s plain as day. You are saying to yourself, ‘I’m old. I’m slow. I don’t stand a chance.’ This is why you are so tight. You expect to go down, so you’re already flinching before I get anywhere near you. That makes it impossible for you to do the simple things that might give you an advantage.”

Suddenly the light went on. He was exactly right. When I stood across the mat from him, all I saw was his black belt and his years of experience. I assumed (told myself) that I had no tools that would work against him, and that I had no time to employ them even if they existed. He was too smart and too fast. I was too dumb and too slow.

“Try telling yourself you have all the time you need,” he went on. “Try visualizing yourself stepping easily out of the way of a punch. See yourself anticipating the kick and blocking it effortlessly. You know the technique, you just need to know you know it.”

Miracle of miracles, it worked. From that moment on I began to improve by leaps and bounds. I realized the most important element of defending myself is believing that I can. It doesn’t matter what I “know” if I let fear freeze me and rob me of the chance to put it into practice. Making sure that doesn’t happen takes conscious effort. It matters what I see and what I say.

The truth is, the future may be a dark alley we can’t avoid. The hardships we face may be like a gang of vicious thugs. But we are far better off if we relax and face them calmly, than if we go rigid with fear. In the first option (standing calmly at a crossroads of possibility), we have a chance of dodging as many hits as we take—because our heads and hands are up, our eyes are open, and all our tools are available.

In the latter case (teetering on the cliff of expected defeat), well, let’s just say panic is a lousy survival strategy.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Why Words Matter

Here’s something we’ve forgotten that poets, shamans, healers, and sorcerers (a healer’s dark opposite) have known for millennia: words matter. The power of a curse and a blessing—and the difference between the two—is contained in the words that transmit them. Words are the servants of vision, and vision is the essential ingredient in everything humans have ever created or accomplished, good or bad. It is impossible to build a bridge across a canyon, for instance, without first seeing it in your mind. Words are the machinery that move the picture from the realm of pure, solitary dream to objective reality. 

But words matter, not just because they help us describe specific ideas; words matter because they have the power to transfer entire belief systems to others. What you see, you say. What you say, they’ll see. Then they’ll say it too, again and again—and a new paradigm is born out of a single unexamined set of words. Once that happens, those words form a Great Wall of “Truth” beyond which we no longer bother to look. (This is the psychological technology behind modern public relations and propaganda.)

Need an example? Here’s one nearly everyone can agree on: “It’s impossible to live without money.”

There was a time when these were just words. For many indigenous people, tucked away in remote regions of the world, that time persisted well into the twentieth century, until “progress” caused their homes to cease being remote. Like all our ancestors, they refuted the above words by the simple act of subsistence. Now, however, this lie has been repeated so loudly and so often that we rarely, if ever, ask ourselves if it’s true. In modern times, it’s hard to live without money, no doubt. But it is a long, long way from impossible. Someone who does challenge the idea behind the words is quickly bombarded with more words: hippie, anarchist, drop-out, un-American—or best of all—just plain crazy.

Words matter. That’s why it is important to stop once in a while and pay attention to the sea of words you paddle around in every day. What pictures do they paint? What boundaries do they draw? What possibilities do they murder?

One particular sentence has been on my mind recently. Anyone who has tuned in to the conversation about humanity’s problematic future will recognize it immediately. If you’ve begun to educate yourself about peak oil, climate change, loss of biodiversity, deterioration of food resilience and security, perennial warfare, economic instability, and so on, then you’re guaranteed to have run across it yourself.

Here goes: “Civilization is headed off a cliff.” Off a cliff.

Don’t get me wrong. Some days, examining the evidence does give you that spinning, stomach-sucking feeling you get when leaning too far out a window twenty floors up.   It sometimes seems inevitable that, sooner or later, our next step will lead to a quick drop and a sudden stop—on the sharp rocks or pavement below.

But, aside from its epic, “doomy” entertainment value, I’ve concluded the image these words create isn’t doing anyone any good. For one thing, it implies only two possible outcomes (since the third, backing up, is unlikely): either gravity does its thing and life as we have known it is irrevocably over; or, somehow, after millennia of earthbound existence, we suddenly sprout wings and fly. (Sometimes we tell ourselves those wings will take the form of technological breakthroughs, and sometimes we hope for a spontaneous “shift” in consciousness to save us from suicide.) But, honestly, after lying awake all night, sweating in the dark, neither outcome sounds very plausible. The sun eventually comes up, the birds start jabbering about how good it is to be alive, and you put the whole thing on hold while your coffee drips and your bagel browns in the toaster. In other words, life has a habit of “going on”.

The fact is, so long as we see ourselves standing on a cliff’s edge, we’ll keep swinging unproductively between visions of full spectrum catastrophe and wishful thinking—a kind of circular paralysis—while real opportunity goes unnoticed. It feels a little like motion, but never gets us anywhere.

The alternative word-image I’ve stubbornly chosen for myself is not new or original at all. If anything, it’s even more cliché. But it is less dramatic, and less populated with doomsday forces and magical powers. By comparison to a life-and-death cliffhanger, it is almost boring—and, therefore, easy to dismiss as too tame to reflect the true urgency of our present predicament. Yet, when it comes to describing what happens when we take that next step forward—and the next, and the next—nothing beats the mental picture of standing at a crossroads.

“Civilization has come to a crossroads.”

Now, if you were attached to the “cliff” motif, but you’ve stayed with me this far, you may be inclined to imagine a Mad Max kind of crossroads—barren wasteland in every direction, zombies on wheels, gas gauge in your armored school bus on “E”, sun going down. Danger all around.

For the purpose of this discussion, may I humbly suggest something more in the Robert Frost genre? A green path that diverges in the woods, perhaps. I don’t mean to imply there aren’t dangers lurking in the forest, or that the choice before us isn’t momentous—far from it. No matter how you visualize it, we have all come to the turning point in the history of humanity, and the stakes couldn’t possibly be higher. But the “crossroads” picture confers some survival advantages (as an evolutionary biologist might put it) on those who adopt it. There is hope embedded in the imagery itself that can alleviate fear and even suggest solutions.

First, when you stand at a crossroads, whatever happens next will most likely unfold at walking speed. You have arrived here by taking single steps, one after the other, every day of your life. You’ll move on by single steps going forward. Lao Tzu wrote that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a solitary step. What he didn’t say was that it’s all single steps, every one as important as any other.

Second, even in the worst case scenario, you stand with both feet planted firmly on the ground, just like your forebears stretching back tens of thousands of years. The earth itself is your foundation. At the edge of a cliff, a stiff breeze or a moment of distraction can spell instant doom. Not so much on the road.

Third, though a hundred people may fall off a cliff at the same time, it can never be said they fell together. The image leaves no room for collective action or mutual support of any kind. But when you travel a road, you can always go in the company of others, each of you more secure, and less likely to panic when the wolves howl, than you would be if you went alone.

Finally, choosing one road or the other is usually not a do-or-die proposition. To get really lost takes dozens or hundreds of wrong turns. To find your way back again begins with the simple act of identifying the flaws in your decision-making process—and then choosing more wisely at the next crossroads. And the next, and so on.

At a crossroads, walking stick in hand, a pack on your back, in the company of fellow travelers, you are unlikely to fall to your doom, and you don’t need wings. All that’s required is one step, the next step. Then another. Each one is like an acorn: it contains a whole new forest of trees waiting to take root—and all the necessary momentum of great change.

This much is clear: we can’t go back. How we visualize—and verbalize—the way forward matters a lot. And don’t forget: the power of words to alter beliefs works both ways—to instill fear and despair, or hopeful determination . How you talk about the road ahead may well be the most world-changing thing you ever do.

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.