Thursday, September 20, 2012

Fairy Houses

Fairy House - builder unknown
Macworth Island, Maine

            I was first introduced to fairy houses in the Nichols Arboretum in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and then encountered them again while sightseeing in Maine on Mackworth Island.  Bark, sticks, stones, leaves, pine needles and (in Maine) shells were the construction materials.  A little online searching will reveal it’s a growing phenomenon.  Fairy houses are big!

            And small.  They’re cute little houses, and lovingly made.  Maybe that’s the reason I’m starting to think there’s more hope for the future in fairy houses than pretty much anything else I’m coming across these days.  Certainly there’s more hope in them than anything I’m seeing in politics.  The recipe is simple: Find a little place and love it.  The fact that the sticks and bark are real, things with smell and texture that came from the cycles of life and are still part of those cycles, well, that’s a bonus.  And, they’re free.  That’s a bonus, too.

            What’s most amazing to me is that, just a few years ago, such fairy house villages were largely unknown.  Now they’re popping up everywhere.  Secondarily, it amazes me that, in this age of digital multimedia glitz, people of all ages would see such beautiful worlds of creative possibility in forest litter.  So what happened? First, there was a model: somebody built a fairy house.  Then, as with the cairns that also seem to have sprouted in colonies across the landscape, so too do additional fairy houses spring up.

            Find a little place and love it: Presto! Something new under the sun.

Find a little place, and love it.

Because it’s not so much with sticks and moss that children young and old are building, but with love, with feelings, and with imagination.  The sticks were already there.  The leaves, the green mosses, the shining stones, they were waiting, they are waiting for new hands, new eyes, new heart.  The things of this world that people have built already are likewise at our disposal.  The great nations, the cities, the sheaves of legal wrapping paper that shroud the corporations, these are just moss and mineral crusted upon the earth, and fallen leaves.  We can make something of all of this.

Find a little place and love it. 

First, it becomes a mirror.  As we build with feelings, so our feelings become visible through our building.  Are we building barricades and fences for our fairy houses? What perils are we imagining? Do we really want to build this way again?  This is our world.  We can make it in our image.  In fact, we cannot do otherwise. 

This is our world. 
This is our world!  
This is our world!   
This is our World!

So we will build with awareness, with feelings, and with love.  The fairy houses we build attract attention, visitors, and emulation.  More spring up, all in different styles.  More visitors come.  Amazing how they all fit together!

Find a place and love it.  First it becomes a mirror.  Then it becomes a lens. 

We feel the intent of the builders, look into the works before us, and see the possibility of new worlds.  Same old stuff here, but with new possibilities inherent, new vision opening possibilities within the treasures and the trash.  Each example becomes a lens that brings new possibilities into focus, new ways of building, yes, but more importantly, the new feelings and sensibilities that built the buildings, even new ways of being that are implied by how things are being made.  And the world is different in the moment we are changed.

Find a little place even a moment in time and love into it.  First it becomes a mirror, then a lens.  Then, the world begins to bend around it, and be remade. 

Find a little place and love it; let it be a mountain or a stone, a river or a cup of water handed to a child, a handful of forest litter.  Let it be a business, a garden, a home, a corner of your desk, or a clear and intimate moment shared during the day.  We can build with moments as children build with sticks.  Everything and every moment holds a new world within it, bursting with anticipation, longing to expand with us.

Find a place and love it. First it becomes a mirror. Then it becomes a lens.  Then, the world begins to bend around it, and be remade. 




Thursday, June 21, 2012

Peak Oil and Climate Change: a Midsummer Night's Meditation

A lot of discussion in the Peak Oil/Climate Change community focuses on rational responses to these game-changing influences on modern societies. Along with these proposals comes much hand-wringing about how political or corporate leadership remains largely as intransigent as ever on the most pressing and most obvious of these responses, and the fact that most of them should have been implemented 30 or more years ago, or the very least, immediately. Public transportation, walkable communities, sustainable agricultural practices, renewable and reduced energy use…these are reasonable things. However, for a lot of reasons, then as now, the reasonable things didn’t happen, or haven’t happened at a scale needed to meaningfully affect the trajectory of onrushing events.

So at present it seems that with peak oil and climate change we have a collective problem without a collective response. Of course, it is true that while we may feel disappointment at failed international resolutions and the absurd theatrics of flailing governments, positive things are happening here and there. We see small victories: a city council passes a peak oil resolution, a Transition group forms, a Peak Oil conference takes place somewhere, someone starts a community garden. However, such events are mostly functioning as signs, and as every driver should be aware, an unheeded signal does not affect the motion of a motorcar. Further, it’s not clear that making the signal larger or clearer would have much effect. 

Given all of the foregoing, it is becoming increasingly clear that on the individual level at least, there is precisely no reasonable response to peak oil and climate change. This is an improv, a dance with emerging possibilities, and it is a dance within ourselves as well as between us and our changing world. What works for one person may not work at all for another. My suggestion here is that we must not take the fact that there is no reasonable response to be a cause for despair. It is simply an invitation to get in touch with something that is deeper than reason and capable of reforming it, difficult as that may be to describe in reasonable terms.

For example, much talk is devoted to the subject of the economic side of Peak Oil. Unless the petroleum-powered economy keeps expanding with the pace of money creation, money loaned into existence with interest cannot be repaid. A kind of generalized bankruptcy follows, in which inflation or deflation exhaust the symbol of money by attacking the roots of its capacity to signify. The symbolic medium that we have worked for, fought over, connived to get, stolen, and inherited loses meaning within our human experience as the system that supported it breaks down. What follows from the loss of a symbol of this centrality is the failure of culture: erosion and breakdown on all levels, from our inner lives, feelings and thought processes to shuttered factories, empty strip malls, and decaying concrete roads. The inability to pay a debt is but the beginning of a cascade of expectations breaking down, taking with them many other social forms and significances. It is also accompanied by the loss of the material capacities with which it was linked in our collective mindset through our social institutions and physical infrastructure.

The exigencies of climate change, on the other hand, are rightfully thought to be of a different order than those of the symbol system of world finance in a losing battle with emerging realities. However, whether we're experiencing the rains that don’t come or the paycheck that evaporated, on a personal level it amounts to an encounter with an abyss. Every hockey-sticking graph we’re looking at represents an abyss, but to encounter it personally is something else again. This is the thing, the thingless thing at the heart of our experience, the place where our inner chaos is drawn to the surface by the growing chaos around us. This is where our waking thoughts merge into the dream to which we awaken in our sleep. When peak oil messengers tell us to “start our collapse now,” there’s no better place to start than here, on the inside, where words break down into sounds, and the inner reverberations of those sounds reveal realities that were formerly invisible, showing us what was really inside of those words all along.

Given that our culture took the technology of combustion so far as to alter the climate of the planet in the pursuit of our dreams, it seems the poetry of burning and the power of the infinite that lies hidden in every flame should be quite familiar to us. But typically it isn’t, even as the drama plays out and we see that the very contents our minds are catching fire. This is the real “new normal,” a phrase people started hopefully intoning to come to terms with the progressive disjuncture between representation and reality. However, the expression bears the stigma of an ominously Orwellian inner contradiction.

The words of Antonin Artaud come to me now:

"Burning is a magic act . . . we must consent to burning, burning in advance and immediately, not a thing but everything that represents things for us, in order not to expose ourselves to being burnt up whole."

Reason does not fare so well under these conditions, and this is precisely the point we are heading for. We must then find our refuge in something other than reason as the culture that found such ingenious ways of tyrannizing itself and the planet with symbols and paper goes up like a trash can ablaze. This is the gift we have prepared for ourselves.

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the lovers leave the city and all they know when the reality of their love comes into conflict with the abstract mandates of Athenian law. They find themselves in a wilderness where, as it turns out, the elemental forces of nature are likewise in upheaval as the fairy king and queen are estranged from one another. In the end it is not through reason that order is restored, but through the agency of madness. My sense is that this is what’s happening to us as well, but as a culture we’re so far astray that a single crazy night in the wilderness won’t be enough to set things right again.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Feelings, Art, and the Making of Movements

I recently had the privilege of seeing performances by Lucas DiGia and Walter “Soul” Lacy at the HomeGrown Local Food Summit in Washtenaw County, Michigan. Lucas brought a powerfully articulated vision of the relationship of food, culture, and society to his raps—spiced with a bit of wry humor. Walter left me stunned with his spoken word poetry and thoughtful commentary themed on social justice and redemption.

My response to these performances could be summed up in a single word: visceral. On my way home I reflected on the words of Sifu Robert Brown, under whom I studied kung fu for a number of years: “All movement starts in the dan tien.”

For those unfamiliar with the Chinese term, the dan tien is the region of the body centered just below the navel. Of course, as a novice Kung Fu student I don’t pretend to fully understand what my teacher meant, although I think I got the basic gist of it. Today it occurred to me that what is true about body movements is also true of social movements: they start with something at the feeling level, a gut-level response. It’s here we will find our motivation, our willingness to take a stand, and our desire to turn our activism into real activity. For this reason I see a lot of value in starting off the Local Food Summit with performances that evoke such a response, and I felt a great appreciation for the performers and their talents.

Of course, given that the gut and the feeling center there is so powerful, there are similarly powerful efforts made to align people’s feelings with the prevailing power structure. And it’s not hard to do. The reason is pretty simple. Here’s an example.

As shoppers we see a can of food on the shelf in the grocery. The can has a label with a design we recognize from our childhood, when our mothers may have opened a can with the same kind of label and served it to us. Now we are adults, and of course, we really want that image and design on the label of a canned food to mean it’s safe to eat and serve to our families. Discovering that “gender-bender” BPA is being used by many manufacturers in the canning process and that this hormone-like substance could affect our body systems is unsettling, to say the least. It’s even more disquieting to consider that there are corporate offices where people calculate that the risk of human reproductive cancers is an acceptable cost of doing business. Since we want to believe it’s safe, even if our reading of the research suggests it might not be, it’s easier to side with those who would have us believe it is safe.

There’s an awful tendency to forget what we’ve just read or learned about because it’s easier to convince ourselves we are safe than to really engage with the information and the feelings it provokes. However, when we separate our knowledge from our feelings in this way, we stymie our ability to act on that knowledge. Without our feelings, we will have no gut-level response. No gut-level response, no movement.

Given the way it gets embedded in us, to unplug our blind faith in industrialized food and then build food systems based on real relationships with people and the earth, we have to get over our viscerally linked loyalties to food brands and generationally engrained consumer shopping habits. The package design and other aspects of the marketed product identity of a brand of tortilla chips or bag of french fries are consumed along with the industrial food itself, and in a way these images are just as deeply assimilated. Once they’re a part of us, there’s a tendency to defend them.

As behavioral scientists are well aware, food is a powerful reinforcement. Each time a food is perceived and eaten without immediately producing ill effects, a deep conditioning happens. We see the package of processed cheese or a hamburger with a certain brand stamped on the wrapper, and we literally salivate like Pavlov’s dog. This is another way of looking at why changing dietary patterns and habits can sometimes be difficult.

One saving grace in all of this is that the human body is wiser and more ancient than any particular culture a person inhabits, and we can allow ourselves to help this wisdom make our true needs known regardless of the local customs or the prevailing personal and cultural conditioning. We can learn to listen to this wisdom and notice whether a particular food or a certain quantity of it is weakening us or strengthening us. We can connect with our gut-level responses and untangle them from the conditioned cultural overlay.  We can even re-train our conditioned responses, refurbish our food aesthetic, and create a food culture based on conscious participation rather than mindless consumption.

Doing this, however, requires that we wake up to food, to the voice of the body, and to the need for change. And to really move toward change, we must connect with our feelings. By feelings I mean both physical sensations and emotional responses: How does drinking a liter of soda make us feel, really? And, what does it emotionally feel like to have food handed to us in a paper bag through a car window?  Conversely, what feelings show up with a meal thoughtfully prepared and eaten in a social context that brings it meaning, or a plateful of potatoes grown, dug, cooked, and served with care and love? My experience is that just one such food experience can undo a lot negative conditioning as we connect with a new set of feelings. In this way it is quite possible to develop an appetite for ways of eating that really nourish us.

To make a movement, we have to connect with all of our feelings, and with our capacity to think reflectively about them. Since artists model this connection and help create a culture where it can happen, one place to start is by looking to our artists to help us make our own inner connections. This is why I’m grateful for people like Lucas DiGia and Walter Lacy, who can articulate a message and get it through to a place where I can actually feel my own truth in what they share. If we can feel it strongly enough, we can find both the motivation and the right path of action to move with it, and ultimately we may also be able to help others make connections in turn to build a larger movement.

To learn more about Lucas DiGia's Rap for Food visit: and 
Contact poet and spoken word artist Walter "Soul" Lacy at:

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Cultural Renaissance of Free Gooseberries and Outlaw Dandelions

I love giving plants away, and I hold that the sharing of vegetative abundance is the foundation of a sustainable culture. Every time seeds, cuttings, runners, crowns or rootlets change hands among friends and community members, powerful things can happen.

Let’s start with the miracle and freedom of the plants themselves. Soon after my wife and I purchased our first home, I surveyed the back yard and counted 70 ornamental and fruiting perennials that had come into our hands through friends. Some of these had moved with us from the rental property where they had lived for a year prior, and then new plants were added during the summer of our move. These plants were the surplus of my gardening friends, and freely given.

But there’s something more important. For example, when a start from a currant bush went in on the south side of the compost pile (it turned out to be an excellent location, by the way) suddenly a new being was inhabiting our space. I had no idea that in just a few years the shrub’s luxuriant growth would lead to an abundance of fruit, or that my daughter would suggest making currant jelly as a homeschool project. Making the jelly ultimately became an annual family ritual, and the ruby-red jars were a traditional holiday offering as the years went by.  It was but a stick with a few roots on one end when I got it. 

Nor could I have known how important the gift of three crowns of ostrich ferns would become as in succeeding years they multiplied and softened the air in the back corner of the lot beneath the trees from which eventually hung a hammock, the fronds grazing us with cool touches on summer afternoons. Likewise, how could I have guessed the cumulative overall effect of these and all the other plants in this community: the German chamomile in profuse sprays, the spring displays of primroses, or the long-lasting waist-high backdrop of biennial black-eyed Susans gracing many of our backyard gatherings?

In essence, these inscrutable earthly beings living in our back yard had rooted themselves not only in the soil, but in our lives. Their beauty and abundance both merited the care required to sustain them and motivated me to share them with others.

The depth of all this points to another powerful sphere where sharing plants adds value to life: human relationships and community. Sharing in the mystery of plants serves to remind us of the ultimately mysterious interface between us as human beings. Personally, I think it works this way: whether it’s a handful of heirloom morning glory seeds of unlimited potential or a dozen leafless raspberry canes in a bucket of dirty water that are destined soon to meet the earth again and spread in a friend’s back yard, human relationships that touch upon the plant world draw from it both the rootedness and the cosmic connections of the plants themselves.

At a certain point we may even wonder who is serving whom in this dynamic where plants, friends new and old, and happenstance encounters can combine and lead to growth on all levels. For example, at my nephew’s graduation party a few years back, I was asked by a neighbor if I’d like to visit his vegetable garden around the corner. When we got there, I noticed some mature gooseberry bushes and obtained permission to take a couple green cuttings, which I wrapped in a wet paper napkin and placed in a plastic bag.  These cuttings soon rooted, and six years later those bushes have reached enormous sizes, and their self-layered progeny are now growing in the backyards of more than a half-dozen friends. Who else, unknown to me, might ultimately also have gooseberry pies and preserves as scions of these plants are shared? What children might connect with something primal in themselves by plucking the blushing fruits on a hot summer’s day? It's impossible to know. I do know that I will remember the gardener who shared them, and that those friends of mine whose yards are bearing new fruit because of those two cuttings also now have living testimonials to our relationship that can weather the seasons along with us.

Friendships take on an expansive quality and a touch of immortality when we share plants.  

Finally, by combining the grace of the plants themselves and the magic they can bring to human relationships, sharing in this way also revives an ancient cultural narrative, creating a beachhead for life-sustaining values to emerge in a culture that lately seems hell-bent on running headlong in the other direction. Plants, after all, provide their services for free. In our culture, anything free is devalued. This is true whether we’re talking about the pure water that used to run freely on the one hand, or the flow of energy involved in parenting and childcare on the other. We do not value these things unless we start to pay for them, and if we really feel into it, the fact that we now pay for such things has already devalued them at a much more basic level.

The cultural habit of putting a price tag on everything ultimately means that we too are bought and sold, although this remains in the blind spot of a culture where commerce has become the central focus. It doesn’t have to be this way, but in a classic case of the servant becoming master, the markets that were intended to follow the needs of life and the living somehow took the reins and started driving. The term, ‘free market’ is, when we stop for a moment and think of it, an oxymoron, for the things we find in the market are seldom free, and many of the costs do not even appear on the price tags.

This is why freely giving plants just as they freely give of themselves is a paradigm-changing act. And it’s interesting to see how people inured to a market mentality sometimes respond to a gift. With everybody selling everything, gifts freely given can meet at first with misunderstanding and incomprehension. Good, then! That just shows how much they are needed. Ultimately, I suspect, the biggest gift is shifting the mindset that assumes our self-interests are achieved at the expense of others.

When operating in a balanced system, plants don’t do it that way. A dandelion that sprouts up in a vacant lot, for example, is in every way a pioneer and an entrepreneur. It’s also anarchical, however, in the sense that it pays no rent and holds no title. The dandelion is a squatter at best, a trespasser and an outlaw in the eyes of many. It claims its freedom and it holds the land, and in so doing it claims also a place for itself and its progeny in the world.

But if we look more closely we see that just as the plant has taken its place without title, it yields up a host of benefits that are likewise unfettered and untaxed. As rain patters down on the disturbed earth, the dandelion and its companions work together to blunt the impact and slow runoff. It does this for its own reasons, of course, but as a result erosion is mitigated for all. With its taproot reaching down into the subsoil and its leaves gathering the dew and falling rain, the dandelion furthers this process by channeling water deeper into the earth – again for its own use later, but this also benefits the other plants and trees that would find their water there.

That taproot also draws nutrients up from the subsoil for the dandelion’s own use, but these nutrients in turn are deposited on the topsoil as the plant loses leaves to growth and herbivorous animals. From the resources it procures in sun and soil, the dandelion plant also offers up food for nectar and pollen eaters, a healthful, tonic herb and vegetable, as well as a profusion of airborne seeds that can multiply all of these benefits as they colonize other areas.

My goal is to operate in parallel with this pattern from the human side. Being an agent for the propagation of plants can, when pursued with consciousness and care, give the living system a push in the direction it’s already seeking to go, and gently shape it to bring enhanced benefits to us as well. For example, lettuce seeds travel on airy puffs like dandelions, yet sharing my heirloom seeds with friends miles away helps to ensure that if I had a crop failure, other sources of seed might be available to begin again. Note that this is in direct opposition to the “market” strategy of withholding seed, patenting it, inserting genes to prevent it from reproducing, and otherwise making seed scarce and controlling it.  

The abundance principle also applies every time I share food plants in a world of increasing food insecurity. In a food crisis, I don’t want to be the only person in the neighborhood with fruit hanging from my trees or knowledge of how to garner calories from the soil. Real security rests on my neighbors having the resources and ability to do so as well. Thus I share liberally, and in my own self-interest…just as plants do.

How values got so out of whack that many people in our society fail to see this option is an important question, but outside the scope of this essay. For now, I would suggest that human life, like plant life, holds the possibility of expressing as a celebration and offering of abundance if we choose to participate in this way. Vegetative generosity is the foundation of an abundant life for all earth’s inhabitants, and it’s well worth sharing.