Our Philosophy

Festina lente
-make haste...slowly

Monday, July 29, 2013

Reply To Steve Carrow About My "Experience"

Did I miss something? Before you turn back to rational permaculture topics, are you going to share what the brush with the world beyond the [veil] was? -Steve Carrow

[This started out as a reply in the comments section of the previous post but, as you can see, quickly became its own post.]

Hey, Steve.  I guess different people have all sorts of different triggers for experiences like mine, but it's the results of that experience that seem to validate it more than the actual trigger - what a born-again might refer to as the "fruit."  I suppose that's why I spent all my time talking about how it changed me instead of talking about what actually happened. 

It's kind of mundane really.  I was watching a YouTube interview with permaculture co-originator (his own terms) David Holmgren, talking about his new book "Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability" when it hit me.  David was talking about how aggressive pioneer "weeds" will capture and occupy a disturbed site, forming a monoculture or restricted oligoculture, and remain until the site's energy resources begin to decline.  At that point the stranglehold of the dominant population becomes maladaptive, and increasing biodiversity and cooperative relationships begin to emerge in an effort to more effectively utilize a declining energy base.

The parallels between that weedlot community David was talking about and human cultures on Earth hit me across the head like a 2x4.  All of a sudden I recognized the gravity of global energy peak and what it would mean for our species.  I saw colonial Eurasian farming culture (us) for the aggressive, (to borrow ecological jargon) r-selected, pioneer monoculture that it is, and energy descent as the very beginning of our people's return to a more normal, more reverent, mixed-strategy existence.  And probably the emergence of a new, far more spiritual, far less material, ecological culture.

[To define the disturbance that lead to the aggressive mental monoculture currently in existence, I would place the initial disturbance on the doorstep of agriculture, roughly 10,000 years ago, and a much greater disturbance on the shoulders of the fossil fuel era, which encompasses roughly the last 300 years.  Eurasian farming culture simply multiplied its initial agricultural disturbance when it figured out how to harness the awesome power embodied in fossil fuels.]

But suddenly my anger toward our exploitative, extractive (and ultimately suicidal) economic mode subsided, not because I was suddenly OK with it, but because I knew it wasn't going to last forever.  Couldn't last forever.  I knew that our Earth would begin to recover now, and that humans, being part of the Earth, would too.  That's the real silver lining of energy descent!

[Like every other liberal "progressive" I formerly believed in fantasies like "free energy," "weightless economies," and a soon-to-be-generally-affluent-if-we-could-just-get-those-other-idiots-out-of-the-way global culture, but the systems thinker in me subconsciously knew that that wasn't going to turn out well.  It caused me a lot of anguish.  The recognition of peak oil and subsequent energy descent as an inevitability was really a huge sigh of relief...]  

Being an ecologist I had a decent mental grasp of how very differently populations tend to behave in a contracting energy scenario than they do in an expansionary one, and realized suddenly that the behavior of the average Westerner was eventually going to be altered, and probably altered radically, in favor of a more permanent, (to continue the ecology lingo) K-selected culture.  A permanent culture.  Permaculture.

Oil being what it is to us, the industrial world that is, and the U.S. particularly, peak oil meant that humankind's expansionary phase was coming to a close.  It meant that our inertia toward one world order (controlled by us, the aggressive monoculture) was about to make a U-turn.  In other words, peak oil equaled peak exploitation, of the Earth, of other people, and of ourselves.  And that understanding changed me deeply.  I consider my experience to be a full-on mental paradigm shift.  Whether it constitutes a brush with the "sacred" is certainly debatable, but I've never experienced anything like it, nor heard more than a handful of stories that could compare.  Among Westerners in particular they seem vanishingly rare.

Everything I started predicting 5 years ago, based on this new revelation, is coming true.  I predicted that food would get perpetually more expensive as average real wages continued to decline in tandem, and it has, as they have.  I predicted that more and more affluent industrial people would be gardening and keeping small livestock every year from now on, and they have done both, with gusto.  I predicted that specialization would begin to decline and that the return of the generalist was at hand, that herbal medicine would start to regain its former prominence as the desirability and efficacy of allopathic chemical medicine came increasingly into question.  On and on.  All of which is the case today.  Just look at how much energy the dominant culture is investing in maintaining the status quo!  Since then I've read lots of similar opinions and of course tend to gravitate toward them - the writings of John Michael Greer, Richard Heinberg, Masanobu Fukuoka, Toby Hemenway, David Holmgren and Bill Mollison of course, cyclical historians Arnold Toynbee and Oswald Spengler, Colin Campbell, Ianto Evans, etc.

And now Stephen Harrod Buhner's writing on indigenous herbalism is altering my perception profoundly once again.  Maybe we'll have this talk again one day!  I hope that answers your question well enough because a lot of this is fairly hard to articulate, but thanks for that little stroll down good memory lane...cheers.

And now, back to permaculture...

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Hunting For the Big Antenna

Wow, if my world isn't moving these days.

Maybe it's the never-ending rain, keeping me in the books, keeping me in my head.  Or maybe it's the fact that I haven't been distracted by the "connectivity" of the modern world as much lately.  Apparently it's been two weeks since I even checked my email.  (Sorry, Josh.)

Recently I decided it was time to be a hard-core student once again, so I hung up a couple of distracting habits and decided to learn more about indigenous plant medicine.  The book I turned to had been on the shelf of Mrs. Small Batch Garden for four years since I bought it for her as a birthday present when we were still in Washington.  The title had always been a bit off-putting to my rational Western brain (though intriguing enough to buy obviously!), but, after hearing a few people I really trust and respect speaking highly of the author, I finally decided to dive into Stephen Harrod Buhner's Sacred Plant Medicine

The first chapter blew my mind. 

Like every other intellectual rationalist in the industrial world I had always considered indigenous myth and tradition to be quaint, superstitious, and generally useless to serious and sober people.  I don't think that anymore, although, even in my unusually receptive state, it took some time for me to really wrap my head around the information gathering process he was explaining. 

Buhner leads the book off by pointing out that certain organs in our bodies generate electromagnetic (EM) fields, and that these fields can be detected by sensitive instruments out to about 12 feet away but are strongest within 12-18 inches of the body generating it.  Ever had anyone get inside your "personal space bubble" that wasn't welcome?  Yeah, that's the field I'm talking about.  But the real revelation in this new knowledge was that the field generated by the heart is actually 5000 times stronger than the one generated by the brain.  5000 times stronger.  In other words, our heart is our big antenna, not our brain.

Ask any Westerner where his consciousness lies and he will point to his head, generally right around the temple.  But ask the same question of a man from any indigenous medicine culture and he will very resolutely put his hand on his heart.  And therein lies the mountain of difference between the two.

Because really, even from a rational perspective, what is it that we use to communicate with one another, to exchange information?  One range of electromagnetic wavelengths or another, in fact.  Radio waves, microwaves, ultraviolet, visible light, and so on.  And apparently we've been selling ourselves awfully short in the quest for rationality!  No wonder Mother Theresa quietly commented, when receiving her Nobel Peace Prize, that "it is not we who are poor, but you."  Never mind using only 10% of your brain; how impoverished are the people who only utilize 1/5000th of their faculty to communicate with the world around them?  No wonder we feel so alone.

Could ignorance of that magnitude keep us from any real understanding of the other living organisms that share this planet with us?  I can't imagine it not doing so.  To only command 1/5000th of your capacity to do something is like not having any capacity at all.  I think this may be an area where "born agains" have some advantage over atheistic rationalists: they've likely acquired an ability to communicate, to send and receive information, with at least some of their heart capacity and not just the brain field.  Strong heart-felt emotions seem to be much more normal for believers than they are for scientific rationalists, and a major reason for breakdowns in communication between the two worldviews.  But don't misunderstand me.  I'm not lending any particular credence to their specific doctrines, merely suggesting an explanation for the powerful feelings that are apparently invoked by their "salvation" experience.

So why God?  Why salvation and eternal life when similar experiences lead indigenous people to such different places?  Buhner suggests that this might be due to the fact that we respond to our brushes with the "sacred" (or what my Irish ancestors called the world "beyond the veil") by fitting the experience into the narratives we know best.  For folks weaned on the Bible this is how they explain these experiences and the radically re-energized direction in which their lives head as a result.  You can't deny the deep fervor of a young pastor in the pulpit no matter what your beliefs.

Indigenous people have these same experiences with the world beyond the veil all the time.  Matter of fact a large portion of their day-to-day activity focuses on having them.  And the report from all these unconnected people scattered across the planet comes back surprisingly similar.  For example, indigenous people everywhere believe that non-human life forms have voices of their own, and that we can learn to communicate directly with them if we spend enough time learning their ways.  In every medicine culture that has access to cedar trees the cedar is considered to be not only an agent of benevolent plant medicine, but also a protector of people from evil forces.

My Western understanding (all 1/5000th of it) immediately jumped to "well, cedar is a very common thing to use to protect our possessions from pest damage, things like old special quilts in cedar chests protected from hungry moth larvae, so of course it makes sense that their brains would project this sort of supernatural power upon it."  My wife was quick to point out that, if she wasn't mistaken, their brains weren't even involved.  Wrapping my rationalist head around this sort of knowledge is always going to be tough.  And now I know why.  There isn't much of it to go around.

If you could convince a born-again that he could feel the power of his salvation experience repeatedly through disciplined exploration of his big antenna, the comparatively giant heart field that he's learned to tap into, would there be a single one who wouldn't engage in just such an activity?  I doubt it.  I haven't personally had a "salvation" experience, but in January 2009 I had a brush with that world beyond the veil, and it changed me deeply, and permanently. 

Among other inheritances, the driving forces behind my daily activity moved quickly from the material toward the spiritual aspects of life.  I lost my interest in sports, in drinking and smoking (though I backslid for a while due to a lack of direction), and stopped believing that either Democrats or Republicans had anything meaningful to offer the world.  I went from rational atheistic ecologist to ethical permaculturalist with a deep sense of belonging almost overnight.  My liberal guilt disappeared.  These days I can't get enough of the soil, or the plants, fungi, and other macro- and microorganisms that make it what it is.  I often walk to my various gardens multiple times a day just to spend time with the plants, animals, and mushrooms that live there.  I acquired an unshakable desire to be home and to grow roots where I stood, though I couldn't settle for just anywhere.  Anyone who has followed this blog for any length of time probably knows more of that story than they ever wanted to.

I could suddenly feel and communicate with my surroundings, even if it was only subconsciously.  I, at first instinctively and later consciously, knew that life after industrial abundance would be difficult in a place like Spokane, Washington, due to the length of the cold hard winter and lack of rain in that dry semi-arid steppe.  Not that Spokane doesn't have plenty to offer today!  If you live there enjoy it for me, please.  Mentally I love Spokane, and I found my mate there.  Likewise, I knew that our situation in Macon, Georgia, wasn't a long-term solution.  We didn't have much land, the house was not designed well for life without energy-hogging A/C, and we were the only white folks for half a mile.  There were going to be deep cultural issues to deal with, and potentially a lot of anger erupting as the federal government and its multicultural initiatives disintegrated over the coming decades.  In Tifton, Georgia, where I was born, and where we moved after Macon, we found tons of wonderful family and friend support, but also the opposite problem of Spokane: long, hot, gnat- and fire ant-ridden, sultry summers that are mighty testy without air conditioning.  And something wasn't right about the terrain either.  We were looking for home and we didn't feel it there.

But we're home now.  We settled where we used to vacation, in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains of north Georgia, right along the piedmont/montaine ecotone, where life without modern amenities would be pleasant enough, where apples and blueberries thrive in the schist-derived soils, and where the hills are swarming with some of the greatest plant diversity on Earth, just waiting for the return of humans who are interested in talking with them.

Now that I know where my voice is, I think you can count me in...

Photo at top of post courtesy of Amir Peeri.