Thursday, February 23, 2017

How Many Standing Rocks Do You See?

I’ve recently been reading a book called The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram, an author identified as one of Utne Reader’s “hundred visionaries who are changing the world.”  I admit I’ve felt a little self-conscious while reading it in auto repair waiting rooms and other public places because the title is suggestive of pulp romance or erotic fiction.  How sensuality ended up being conflated with sexuality in this culture is clearer once you read the book, but that’s not what it’s about. It’s revealing, however, that sex is one of the places in life where the loss of felt connection that Abram does explore is revealed as dysfunctional and ultimately self-defeating. The habit of objectification that reduces breathing trees to so much lumber and a living landscape to an engineering problem doesn’t play out very well when applied to the intimate partners who show up in our beds as mother nature’s representatives, asking for connection.

Abram doesn’t write about this at all, but I’m starting here because it’s personal. We’ve all felt objectified at times, and it registers as anything from rudeness to dehumanizing violation. Most people understand, on some level, that treating others as objects is inappropriate. Often missing from our understanding is that it’s a pervasive feature of Western consciousness, one that efficiently produces destructive results across a broad range of human activities. 

These destructive results are all around us and dominate the news. Abram starts with questions about the origins of the ecological crisis in particular and Western culture’s apparent disregard for the needs of non-human nature. The answer he brings us to is surprisingly simple: we do not experience, as most indigenous peoples do, an immediate and felt connection with the mood of our local river, nor feel in ourselves the place in the general order of things of the redwing blackbird perched on a swaying reed.  Instead of this felt connection, which helped keep the world’s indigenous peoples in fair balance with their environments for thousands of years, there is objectification, separation, distance, and disregard. Western culture, argues Abram, treats rivers and redwing blackbirds as “things,” and often enough the culture treats its own members as “things,” too, which allows for astonishingly callous disregard. If we were feeling ourselves dancing with the living features of our world, we wouldn’t treat our dance partners that way. But we don’t feel it. We’re not dancing. So what are we doing?

Says Abram:

“To define nature as an inert or passive object is to deny its ability to actively engage us and to provoke our senses; we thus block our perceptual reciprocity with that being. By linguistically defining the surrounding world as a determinate set of objects, we cut our conscious, speaking selves off from the spontaneous life of our sensing bodies.” (page 56)

There’s a lot in those two sentences. Consider the many ways this basic dynamic has been playing out between the Standing Rock Sioux and the companies involved in constructing an oil pipeline at Standing Rock, North Dakota. I’ve spoken with a couple people who have been there, and I’ve followed media accounts that included personal interviews, reporting, and video documentation of what’s happening. Events are often reported as a clash between members of a tribe seeking to prevent a pipeline from endangering its water, and business interests and their law enforcement and private security proxies. The images of uniformed, helmeted, armed and armored police arrayed against a colorful collection of eclectically dressed people carrying feathers and sage have captured attention around the world.

Underneath that confrontation, often framed in terms of legal rights and political objectives, is a basic difference in consciousness. On the one hand we have the bankers and businesspeople operating in faraway towers and their on-the-ground machine operators and police forces. These people have demonstrated no felt connection with the land and see it and the local rivers as merely impediments to getting oil to world markets to realize “profits” in terms of dollars. On the other hand, we have a people who directly feel this land, for whom its tearing open by machines is experienced as a violation not only of the land and their ancestral connection to it, but of their own bodies. Those digging machines are tearing the people up, and once constructed the pipeline will endanger the river that flows through their veins. 

Further, I see a pattern of evidence suggesting that one of the project’s objectives is the destruction of the indigenous sensibilities and felt connection with the land that have informed the opposition. In this, it’s much like the witch burnings and inquisitions of Europe, when hierarchical structures within those cultures began attacking anything that remained of their own indigenous roots (as Abrams goes on to note on page 199), even, as I recently learned elsewhere, publicly burning the harps and murdering the harpers of Ireland. Likewise, it looks to me like Standing Rock has devolved into an attempt on the part of big business to exterminate a particular kind of consciousness, demoralize it, demonstrate its weakness, and win recruits to a less feeling way of existing in the service of these business entities and the governmental agencies they have co-opted.  

The developing story at Standing Rock was suppressed for a very long time. From what I can see, it spread via nonmainstream news and social media, and opposition gathered momentum. Why? Is it an important story?  Evidently quite a few people thought so. But the images, reports and information concerning events at Standing Rock did not spread because of events in Standing Rock alone. The information disseminated because of events happening in individual people’s bodies. Feeling shock, revulsion, anger, grief, and even horror, millions passed the story along using whatever harps we could find in this post-bardic culture. The story passed from feeling/sensing/intelligent body to feeling/sensing/intelligent body. I think it’s amazing how it grew, given the competition for people’s attention bandwidth by Candy Crush, instant Gene Wilder memes, the antic 2016 US general election, and the ongoing deluge of cute animal videos.

In me and I expect many others, the stories triggered a sick sense of eerie dread, a clamoring for justice, a desire to offer material support, and grief for what the people at the Standing Rock encampment have been enduring at the hands of militarized police forces. However, I felt something, and by connecting with these feelings within myself, I connected with these people. From there, seemingly chance encounters led to one-on-one conversations with people who had spent time in the camp, thus breaking through the mental habits of compartmentalizing and objectifying so typical of Western consciousness. First, I opened up to it emotionally. Next thing I knew, without doing anything more than opening to that connection, I was looking into living eyes and hearing living voices in which I could see and feel the events reflected.

And please, I am not comparing my “armchair protesting” with the on-the-ground struggles, hardships, injuries and indignities suffered by the Water Protectors in North Dakota. Emphatically: No. I am suggesting that for the water protectors to ultimately prevail, and not just in North Dakota but globally, we must move into the same kind of felt sense of connection that is motivating and empowering them in their actions. We have to start recovering this kind of awareness, beginning wherever we are. We cannot count on the Water Protectors to feel the devastation for us; we have to bravely feel it for ourselves. And, with utmost respect for the wisdom traditions of the earth’s remaining indigenous peoples, that wisdom won’t make any sense, or be of any use to us, unless we get in touch with our own indigenous wisdom, the kind that arises from the inside.

Making this connection may not be easy for many of us. This is no accident. We are socialized in countless ways out of our indigenous wisdom and the felt connection with ourselves, our surroundings and our fellow beings that informs it. We are conditioned instead to accept received ideas, often and especially in ways that run counter to that felt sense. For example, consider that in the United States, generations of mothers whose every instinct told them to pick up their crying infants were advised by authoritative doctors that “crying is good for a developing baby’s lungs” or that newborns wailing in terror at what they can only assume is abandonment will “teach the baby to self-soothe,” despite the fact that separation from caregivers has proven universally fatal for helpless young mammals since the age of the dinosaurs. Or consider young children who are told to sit still for seven hours a day when every cell in their bodies is telling them to move around a lot and explore the outdoors to develop their growing, sensing bodies in accord with the last million years of human evolution. By following such social programs – and perhaps worse, emulating the models of other people who have preceded us as initiates in these dark arts – eventually we lose connection with our own feeling bodies, and after that happens, it’s but a short step toward running a bulldozer of sullen self-righteousness through ancient burial grounds, or committing any number of crimes against the earth and its inhabitants.

How do we know if we are moving in the direction of our indigenous wisdom? Here’s a handy chart below. If we’re moving in the direction of our indigenous wisdom, we’re probably going to be moving toward the column on the right. The dominant cultural mindset is outlined on the left.

Experience mediated by text, screens, tech            Immediate experience
Symbolizing                                                            Feeling
Abstract thoughts                                                    Perception as conversation
Programming                                                           Spontaneous response
Objectifying                                                             Connecting
Machines, engineered systems & processes            Organic systems
Logical, calculating, detached                                 Holistic reasoning
Unrooted, metastasizing                                          Connected to place
Head-centered experience                                       Whole body experience
Clock-driven                                                            Biological/planetary rhythms
So here’s a question: Looking at these two columns, which kind of consciousness fills your working days? From what I can see, for most people, our education and employment tend to move us toward the column on the left. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that many of us would seek to find balance in recreational activities that move us toward the column on the right. This is fairly hopeful. It’s a good sign when people still know somehow that walking along the beach can be a helpful antidote to 50 weeks spent under fluorescent lights staring at a computer screen in an office cubicle. This is what I mean by indigenous wisdom, and given the forces arrayed against it, it has proven remarkably resilient.

However, there are some caveats in this, and we are in no position for hasty self-congratulations. We’ve been colonized, you see, by a kind of alien intelligence, and it doesn’t give up easily. We might go to the beach, but the alien intelligence will nudge us into thinking we have to consume more than sunshine and salt breezes to get our money’s worth of “fun” while we’re there. We might gingerly feel our ways toward some semblance of embodied consciousness in a yoga studio, but if we’re like most Americans, as we get down on all fours for the first time in ages we very likely will wonder if our hips are too big, if we look sexy in spandex or if we have all our needed equipment. The first thoughts amount to self-objectification; the second reflects the commercial colonization of yogic practice.

I live surrounded on three sides by one of Michigan’s lovely state recreation areas –hundreds of acres studded with lakes, stands of pine, and second-growth oak/hickory forest with trees now reaching maturity in some places. Compared with when I moved here twelve years ago, when I walk the trails today it feels more like a racetrack for bicycles. Although it’s praiseworthy that people are getting outdoors and away from their screens for a while, again I see a very evident infatuation with fashionable biking attire and fancy new high-tech bicycles and gear. Being a man I know how guys tend to be proud of whatever they’ve got going between their legs. In this case (no surprise) it’s a machine, and, as if everyone needs to be reminded that these cyclists are not street cobblers in Calcutta but instead drove here with their bikes atop their cars, their bikes and biking gear have to be super fancy looking. It’s not enough to simply walk in the woods, to amble along or wander off the trail and find a nice place to sit for a while. Instead, it’s more like: “Commuting v.3.0, The Fitness Version.” The sandy, forested hills are not felt as unique entities to get to know, dialog with and explore, but seem instead a mere backdrop for further ego-driven conquering. I step off the footpaths and let them pass at a clip.

Forgive me if this seems harsh. The point is, even within the minimal gestures most people in our culture make toward feeling some kind of connection with the body, the natural world, or with something that isn’t packaged, sold, or pushed at us through a screen, the fragmented bands of indigenous consciousness are colonized and subjected to settlement and exploitation by commercial interests as soon as new territory opens, and this says nothing about the vast swaths of inner landscape already ceded. No wonder so many people seem to be feeling backed up onto a reservation that is being steadily encroached upon and compromised.

I believe this is why the Standing Rock confrontation has gathered so much attention, and why so many of us have felt so deeply what’s really at stake there. Every one of us is a Standing Rock: a piece of the earth where this perennial confrontation is occurring, a place where indigenous wisdom is engaged in an ongoing skirmish with the abstract mandates and fortified self-deceptions of a culture out of touch with the planet. The ongoing conquest and confrontation is happening inside every one of us, and I suspect that becoming aware of this might ultimately decide the outcome of the larger battle.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Naked Gardening

It’s February, so why am I thinking about naked gardening? Maybe you’ve heard of World Naked Gardening Day, an annual May 1 event whose existence I know about only because it makes the rounds on social media every year, much to the titillation of many who are out for a pleasant spring scroll down their Facebook newsfeeds. The idea of standing naked in the garden, well, let’s just say it’s got mythic dimensions, and while I honor those who buck their cultural programming and get out there to actually do it, my entry today is geared more toward understanding the many people who have yards surrounding their homes, but who as yet have no actual garden in which to even try naked gardening, were they so inclined when the weather warms up. 

Because, let’s be honest: standing naked on a chemically treated lawn in front of geometrically pruned foundation plantings wouldn’t be quite the same. For one thing, there’s little to do out there: no reason to bend to the soil, nothing to pick, plant, taste or smell as it offers itself out of the wet spring earth, and come summertime, no sunflowers or cosmos to sway to their different tempos in the warm breezes and strategically reveal and conceal the gardeners' bodies. Instead, there’s nothing. So let’s back it up a notch and get the gardens in place first. It’ll be more fun for everybody.

However, as I consider this more basic issue, I see that the problems involved in establishing a garden are much the same as those we would likely encounter in encouraging gardening in the nude: cultural resistance, a sense of being exposed and alone in one’s passions and life path, and quite possibly in many locations, legal ramifications. But ay yi yi! The bleak uniformity of suburban landscaping! Consider what we're really talking about here. Among people in the world, these are the privileged, and among their precious privileges is something truly remarkable: access to a piece of land. And yet out of this we see crafted a strange kind of sterile, anonymous nowhereland. What’s that about, really? Seems to me it’s about conformity, and about the perceived safety of not standing out. It’s also about class identification, as my friend Lois Robbins was kind enough to enlighten a group of us who had assembled on Earth Day some years ago. In my mind, conformity and class identification are connected: “People like us – we normal people – don’t do that.” Right. We don’t have time. We’re on Facebook or playing candy crush or watching professional sports on TV.

But given the possibility of a discontinuity in the food supply, say, or even just more of the same given that food quality has measurably declined as the decades have rolled by, it might be time to reconsider such social preoccupations. Herd thinking and herd behavior do not represent humanity at its finest, nor do they typically tend to be adaptive. Most people don’t even consider the stampede of suburban outgrowth as a herd phenomenon, but there it is, pretty much the same from coast to coast. 

Fortunately, the long tradition of American self-sufficiency has not been completely exterminated, and in fact every spring we see tons of garden centers filled with plants, including many vegetable starts and seeds. By most accounts, gardening remains the most popular hobby in the United States. Nonetheless, when I walked out to my garden a few minutes ago and stood in the snow that had fallen on the duff of leaves amidst the still-standing but stripped-bare kale stalks, I counted ten homes with windows visible from where I stood.  Of these, only two that I know of have any food growing on the property at any time of year. These do not represent substantial plantings: in one yard I’ve sometimes seen a few tomatoes, and in the other, of all things, four large container-grown fig trees, the love of an Armenian immigrant who lives across the road. The reason I can report this with some confidence is because gardening is not a private activity. What we do out there is visible, as is our overall success or failure. Regardless of what we’re wearing, we’re basically exposed for all to see out there. It’s no wonder to me that people who are unsupported by history, knowledge or community have a hard time taking first steps toward growing some of their own food.  

Noticing this, my hope is that those who “always wanted to start a garden” might gain some insight into some of the reasons why they not have done so yet, and find a way to start. I was lucky to have grown up next door to the Wu family, Chinese immigrant parents with two US-born boys about my age who treated the yard behind their ranch house as a place for productivity instead of merely a placeholder for underused lawn furniture. I vividly recall Mrs. Wu showing me how to gently pull the trumpets from her red salvia flowers to taste the nectar, and Mr. Wu showing me how to build a compost pile and check the corn for worms. Next thing you know, at age six I had gathered sunflower seeds from the bird feeder to plant in my sandbox and was watching them rocket upwards to a height of 7 feet. Amazingly, I also had family support in converting that sandbox into a vegetable garden. (It was a bottomless sandbox, and the zucchinis did especially well.) Later, as a seventh grader equipped with a plan and a shovel, I got a affirmative reply when I asked if I could dig up a section of sod out back and build an herb garden. 

In revisiting the chief purpose of this blog – the sharing of gardening and other knowledge to build  healthier and more shock resistant communities – I feel less than successful. Part of it is, I may have underestimated the zone of social resistance and the nakedness of every gardener before the court of neighborhood opinion and their own inner critics.

For this reason, if as the days grow longer this spring you find yourself feeling that this is finally the year when you’ll try growing something edible, I salute you.  If you’re planning on starting a garden but haven’t done so yet, one shortcut is to start by cultivating relationships, people who will be on your side when you go ahead and be the neighborhood weirdo with hops vines flowering on your porch. Someday maybe you can invite your neighbors in to sample your home brew – who knows what converts you’ll win? Or you can be the person who gives a neighbor girl her very first sun-ripened strawberry; it’s a moment that can change a life. Or just be the one who confidently walks out some quiet August evening some years from now and returns to your kitchen with a fresh bunch of kale to feed your family. You won’t be naked, but you will be noticed, and that’s ok you never know when you might get a visit from a neighbor kid with a lot of questions and an unused sandbox in the back yard.