Thursday, November 26, 2009

Giving Thanks

Thanksgiving in the US is hard holiday for me and many people--fraught with ambiguity.

On one hand, this holiday is about how the Native People helped the European colonists survive and how thankful the Pilgrims were for this. Of course, the repayment for this act of kindness was that the Native People were eventually wiped out. The United American Indians of New England claim, "The first official 'Day of Thanksgiving' was proclaimed in 1637 by Governor Winthrop. He did so to celebrate the safe return of men from the Massachusetts Bay Colony who had gone to Mystic, Connecticut to participate in the massacre of over 700 Pequot women, children, and men." These folks celebrate 'Thanksgiving Day' as a 'National Day of Mourning'. Is this what I want to celebrate?

On the other hand, I am really taken by the idea of setting aside any time, let alone a full day, to be grateful and thankful. I think we should spend our lives being grateful, even just for being alive. We have many blessings in this life and I believe that we need to acknowledge them.

Still, this seems to be a day where what we are grateful for is the blessings that have come to us through privilege, that we were not born or become poor, that we have this wonderful country that came from getting rid of the Native People that lived here in what amounts to genocide and enslaving people from Africa to build our infrastructure. This isn't what I want to celebrate.

Yet this year, my family will be gathering together, mostly to celebrate our connections with each other and to support one another. I certainly want to celebrate this.

Contradictions, uncertainty--what are we really celebrating here? What do I want to support?

I would like to support general thankfulness and connection while acknowledging our privilege and trying to figure out how to help those in need of help. My housemate has made a tradition of going down to the National Day of Mourning in Plymouth and helping feed the people there--some year I would like to do that. I know others who go to soup kitchens and help feed people on Thanksgiving. When I lived in Brattleboro, VT, I helped out (mostly by doing dishes) with a feast put on by people in the town where they would feed anyone who came, no questions asked, including the homeless and people who drove up from New York in fancy cars--and also brought meals to the elderly and to police and firefighters who had to work that day.

This year I am going to spend the day with my family. It's our first Thanksgiving since my mother's death--and, in fact, Thanksgiving was the last time I saw my mother awake, interacting, and talking with us. We need to be with each other, especially since some of my family are facing the possible deaths of in-laws.

I'm not sure what I will do next Thanksgiving. But I do try to take the opportunity every day to be thankful and not save it for one, culturally loaded day.

Quote of the Day: "Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. ... Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today and creates a vision for tomorrow." - Melodie Beattie

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Reduce and Reuse

'Reduce, Reuse, Recycle' is an oft quoted phrase. Unfortunately, I think that when many people hear it what actually goes through their heads is the equivalent of 'Recycle, Recycle, Recycle'. The phrase is so connected with recycling that plastic companies brand their products with the ubiquitous three arrows (which I think stand for 'Reduce, Reuse, Recycle') to show that the products are recyclable.

What many people don't get is that there is an order to the phrase.

First, and most important, is reducing our consumption. Having less stuff, needing less stuff, leads to wasting less stuff. Companies (who want to sell you things) are not keen on emphasising that part of the phrase.

Then comes reusing things. When you need something, it's important to reuse it. Unfortunately, this society has been called the 'Disposable Society' and the 'Throw-away Society' because of the amount of waste we generate. Again, companies encourage you to use something once and throw it away so you will buy more of their products. Another way of encouraging you not to reuse things is what's called 'Planned Obsolescence' where companies design products to only work or be desirable for a short time so that you will run out and buy a replacement.

Is it any wonder that the recycling part of the phrase is what is drummed into people? When you recycle a thing, you can feel good about it not ending up in a landfill, and then go out and buy more of whatever. One thing that is often not taken into account is the amount of energy that goes into recycling an object. While it is usually less than what's involved in making the object from scratch, recycling is a lot more energy intensive than if you reused the item--or just decided you didn't need it in the first place.

Simple living is all about reducing what we need. (See my post of 9/24/08 for more on Simplicity.) Sustainability is best served by reusing things. (Again, see my post of 10/14/08 for my take on Sustainability.) Reduce and reuse. Less energy, less pollution, less waste, less climate change. Reduce, reuse, and remember to do it again and again.

Quote of the Day: "'Reduce' means using fewer resources in the first place. This is the most effective of the three R's and the place to begin. It is also, I think, the hardest because it requires letting go of some very American notions, including: the bigger the better, new trumps old and convenience is next to godliness. ...
"Reuse. Before you recycle or dispose of anything, consider whether it has life left in it. ... Reusing keeps new resources from being used for a while longer, and old resources from entering the waste stream. It's as important as it is unglamorous. Think about how you can do it more." - Sheryl Eisenberg

Thursday, November 19, 2009


One of the good things about people reinventing the wheel is that it's never the same exact wheel--and the differences are often interesting.

I was prowling through my local library and found the book, Noah's Garden, by Sara Stein. While reading it I was reminded of several permaculture things I've read, especially Gaia's Garden, by Toby Hemenway. (For more on permaculture, see my post of 7/22/08.) It's funny, because Sara Stein is coming from a different place than Toby Hemenway and ends up in a different place, but midway through there is a place where the books seem very similar. Sort of an 'X' pattern.

Sara Stein started as a woman wanting to create a garden. She didn't have much knowledge about this--she had been a toy designer and a children's book writer. She decided, as she started planting things, she would learn more by reading gardening books. It also seemed logical to her to study some botany as well. She figured the gardening folks and the botany people would be saying much the same things. It turned out that wasn't true at all. She wrote in Noah's Garden: "Horticulture told me to cultivate the soil to control weeds; botany told me the more the soil is disturbed, the more weeds grow. Gardening books said that grass needs fertilizing; botany books said that grasses produce the soil fertility that other plants depend on."

She also noticed as she built a neat and clear garden, that the birds, and butterflies, and wildlife around her were disappearing. So she 'unbecame' a gardener. She began looking at ecosystems and how plants and wildlife interact and began studying native plants for the region. Instead of making nice, neat gardens, she began creating native environments which attracted birds and other wildlife. She made a pond and got heron and muskrat. She created a small 'prairie' and got meadowlarks, and wild flowers, and insect life. She wrote about what the land around her looked like in the 1600's and the late 1800's and compares it to what she saw where she lived. She wrote about remembering growing up with creatures she no longer saw: birds like purple martins and bluebirds, butterflies, box turtles, salamanders, snakes, bats, weasels, bullfrogs, and fireflies. She began to realize that only by restoring the land would these animals come back. Noah's Garden is subtitled 'Restoring the Ecology of Our Own Back Yards'.

Sara Stein became a strong voice for supporting native species and once criticized Michael Pollan for planting a Norway maple. He responded by calling her a 'Plant Fascist'. But when she talks about her philosophy of restoring the land, she suggests doing small things, like planting a raspberry hedgerow or a small-fruited crabapple tree. That hardly sounds like a 'plant fascist'. Sara Stein died in 2005 and was described in the New York Times obituary as "an influential advocate for gardening with native plants".

I found the book very useful for learning about the ecology of New England and many little details--like clear explanations of grasses and how they interact, and what happens to an animal when it dies. I also liked her concern for recreating ecosystems with things like hedges and pointing out how plants and animals need each other. This is what reminded me of Toby Hemenway's book.

Toby Hemenway began his career as a researcher in genetics and immunology working for biotech companies. Then he discovered permaculture. The book Gaia's Garden uses a lot of language about the 'Garden as Ecosystem' and ecological gardening. Hemenway focuses on gardening but points out that most of his ideas are derived from permaculture and ecological design. The book contains a lot of incredibly useful stuff, including tips on sheet mulching, creating constructed wetlands, how soil works, how insects and birds help gardens, and how to create 'guilds' of plants. The book has just been reprinted--revised and expanded.

Hemenway can be critical of native species advocates. He seems exasperated with 'The Natives versus Exotics Debate' in Gaia's Garden and has written a pointedly critical article that is posted on his website. But in the back of Gaia's Garden (and also on his website) is a list of books that includes Noah's Garden. He says that it is a "well-written and compelling plea for allowing nature back into our yards, full of natural history."

The two 'Garden' books end in different places (Stein trying to attract wildlife, Hemenway trying to grow food), just as the authors started in very different places. But I was struck by that intersection of thinking of gardens as ecosystems, of involving wildlife and all of nature in what we plant, of seeing the soil as transforming what dies into new life, and of creating hedges that both people and animals can enjoy. I didn't realize until I went on Toby Hemenway's website that he was familiar with Sara Stein's book (it's been awhile since I looked at the Bibliography in Gaia's Garden, but there's Noah's Garden again). Maybe it influenced what he wrote. But I like to think that, travelling from different places, they came to similar territory. Certainly I don't think that Sara Stein was familiar with permaculture nor the founders of permaculture with her work. Yet the similarities stand out, and I find the differences enriching. Sometimes it's useful to re-invent the wheel.

Quote of the Day: "Once a garden comes alive ecologically, it displays a humor and richness of meaning that have been missed by the narrow ways of horticulture.... Each plant or planting becomes more than what nurseries believe they sell, or gardeners suppose they grow, or visitors would notice.... To the cardinals that overwinter here, a grove of conifers is a lifeboat in the ocean, the focus of their struggle to survive through winter storms. The grove is richer for that additional meaning." - Sara Stein

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Great Turning

I am skeptical of those who insist that a great change is upon us and that everything will be different soon. I've heard this too many times.

I heard it from Charles Reich in the seventies talking about The Greening of America and how 'Consciousness III' would be taking over soon. Somehow America doesn't look all that green nearly forty years later. I heard it from Marilyn Ferguson in the eighties talking about The Aquarian Conspiracy and how that was going to change everything. The Conspiracy seems to have disappeared without causing any major changes. Recently I have been hearing Paul Hawken claiming that the Blessed Unrest that he sees is "the largest movement in the world" and how it "has the potential to heal the planet". I'd love to believe it but I've been there before.

So it may seem strange that I am so excited about something called 'The Great Turning'. But the term does not refer to an event predicted to come; the Great Turning refers to choices that must be made. It begins with a similar idea to Reich, Ferguson, Hawken, etc--that there is an epic shift coming. The actual term was first used by activists against nuclear war working for 'conflict transformation'. It was taken up by Joanna Macy, who not only has been involved in antinuclear war activism, but in the deep ecology movement and engaged Buddhism. In an interview in Yes! magazine, she pointed out that "...we might not pull it off. There's no guarantee that this tremendous shift will kick in before our life support systems unravel irretrievably."

It has further been developed as a book by David Korten, The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community. I haven't read the book, but some of the ideas I've seen seem interesting, especially his notions of 'Empire' and 'Earth Community'. Still, it is the articles by Joanna Macy that impress me.

David Korten admits he got the term from Joanna Macy, and said that when he asked her to use it, she said that it "should be a public term that is used by everyone and owned by no one."

The thing that most fascinates me about Joanna Macy's ideas are what she refers to as the 'Three Dimensions' necessary to create the change. Briefly, according to Joanna Macy, they are: "1. Actions to slow the damage to Earth and its beings; 2. Analysis of structural causes and the creation of structural alternatives; and 3. A Shift in Consciousness." When I first heard this I thought immediately of the slogan I first heard in the early eighties when I was in Detroit: "Agitate, educate, organize." (For more of this see my post from 7/2/08.) I related the 'Actions to slow damage' to Agitating, the 'creation of structural alternatives' to Organizing, and the 'Shift in Consciousness' to Educating. As I said in my original post, there's been a lot of good agitating, I think we need more good organizing (that is, creating more alternatives and more resilient alternatives), and that we haven't done that well at educating. But it's useful to see what she sees as happening. It's also important to remember, as she points out, we need work in all three dimensions simutaneously. Not that every one of us needs to work in all three, but we need to support the work in each of these areas.

As I've said since the beginning of this blog, it isn't any one thing that creates change (see my post of 6/28/08). We need to connect it all, and I suppose that would include Charles Reich's 'Greening of America', Marilyn Ferguson's 'Aquarian Conspiracy', and Paul Hawken's 'Blessed Unrest'. There isn't any guarantee of success, but when we do connect it together, the agitating and 'actions', the organizing of 'structural alternatives', and the education for a 'Shift in Consciousness', we become more powerful. More powerful than they want us to be and possibly powerful enough to make a difference.

Quote of the Day: "Let us sing this song for the turning of the world, that we may turn as one.
With every voice, with every song,
we will move this world along,
and our lives will feel the echo of our turning." - Ruth Pelham

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Bright Green, Dark Green, Deep Green

A lot of my posts are not topical, because I'm more interested in longer term issues, but I had to jump on this because it's all about stuff that I've blogged about and because the issues raised are close to what this blog is all about.

It started with a post by Alex Steffen on the WorldChanging website (see my post of 11/13/08 for more about WorldChanging) entitled 'Transition Towns or Bright Green Cities?' As might be gathered, it was more or less a slam on Transition Towns. (See my post of 10/16/08 for more on Transition Towns.) Rob Hopkins (Transition Towns founder) quickly responded. It seemed like a level-headed response to me, even suggesting that the problem may be that the Transition Initiative (as they now call themselves) hasn't been as good as they could about communicating what they are all about.

Other folks across the net begin weighing in, beginning with John Robb over at Global Guerrillas (I've touched on the Global Guerillas blog in posts on 8/13/08 and 8/31/08) and moving on to Sami Grover on Treehugger. Sam Grover wrote a second piece a couple of days later with a video that he claims gives credence to the idea that Transition Towns aren't such a Dark shade of Green--and he also thinks that Alex Steffen made his points better in his more recent post: 'The Revolution Will Not Be Hand-Made'. I'm not so sure. I actually do think that the revolution will be mostly hand made, but I'm sure that Alex Steffen would just dismiss me as just another 'Dark Green' wannabe.

Those who read some or all of these posts--or have even followed this post this far--can be forgiven for being a bit bewildered. What is with this 'Bright Green'/'Dark Green' terminology?

This is more of the way Alex Steffen thinks--beginning with a post entitled 'Bright Green, Light Green, Dark Green, Gray: The New Environmental Spectrum'. Basically he sees those who embrace technology as 'Bright Green'; those who advocate easy lifestyle changes as enough as 'Light Green'; those who advocate local solutions, change at the community level, bioregionalism, reinhabitation, and collective action (sound familiar?) as 'Dark Green'; and those who deny we need to do anything at all as 'Gray'. He also claims that the Dark Green folk tend to be 'doomers'. (Since he is so enamored with 'Bright Green' ideas, I was tempted to put lyrics from Paul Simon's 'The Big Bright Green Pleasure Machine' as my 'Quote of the Day'...)

Somewhere (and I can't seem to find where--or maybe I just made it up) I thought I saw a response to this post adding the term 'Deep Green'--from 'Deep Ecology'--to differentiate those who believe in significant ecological change from those of apocalyptic persuasion. I like that differentiation.

Me? I think of myself as being somewhat Deep Green, but with a Bright Green tinge in spots as well as some pockets of Dark Green. But that only describes part of who I am. I'm a rainbow person, embracing the anarchist Black, the socialist Red, the feminist Pink, the queer Lavender, the Blue that stands for peace as well as supporting the Blue of working-class collars, and also supporting the Black, Brown, Yellow, and Red of people of color, not to mention the as-yet-to-be-named colors of simplicity, justice, community, and equality. (Hey, I live in a state where the Green Party changed its name to the Green-Rainbow Party.) And at the heart of it all, as far as I'm concerned, is the Deep Rose color of love and compassion.

Okay, what color are you?

Quote of the Day: "Perhaps the best example that Transition Initiatives are an incredibly positive part of that vision lies in Rob's response to Steffen itself. Having refuted some of his arguments, and taken (I think rightly) objection to some of the more hyperbolic charecterizations, Hopkins takes the opportunity for some self reflection: 'Perhaps if he manages to miss what Transition is about in such a way, his piece bats the challenge back to Transition; how well are we communicating what we are doing?' That's the sign of a movement willing to learn—even from perspectives that it disagrees with. I didn't think it was possible, but my love for the Transition Movement just got a little bit deeper." - Sami Grover

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Man Behind the Curtain

In the process of transitioning back to blogging regularly, I thought I'd take the opportunity to say a little about myself.

As anyone who has followed this blog quickly realizes, this is not generally a blog about personal stuff. On the other hand, early on I assumed I could be a genderless, ageless (etc) entity in cyberspace and that allowed some incorrect assumptions to be made by other folks. I also was trying to keep personal information obscure so I could be open about some things and not alert family, coworkers, etc.

I still am not putting my name or picture here (I really don't want my personal information scattered across the internet), but I have slowly talked with my family about things and my work situation is quite different these days, so I can be a lot more candid without worrying someone might identify me. So here is a bit about me, perhaps more than you wanted to know. (And with my next post I will go back to discussing issues.)

First I am a man, and an older man at that. As a friend of mine is fond of saying, "I'm an old white guy." (Yes, surprise, surprise, I'm white.) I was raised in a lower-middle-class Catholic family in the suburbs of Boston. Most of my family still lives in the area.

I'm currently living in an urban co-op house. After years of working in hospitals (as a nursing assistant, mental health worker, and secretary), I have somehow ended up as a petty bureaucrat at a biotech firm. It's hardly what I think of as an appropriate job given my ideals, but in this economy it's a job and I am glad to be working. I have a degree in psychology and I am also a nursing school dropout.

I've written about my politics before, but to recap: I consider myself a radical, but have never quite gotten a good label: socialist? anarchist? eco-feminist? nonviolent revolutionary? Closest current label is eco-communalist, but as I wrote last year, my politics really revolve around trying to create a world based in Simplicity, Equality, Community, and Sustainability. (For more on this see my posts of 9/22/08 to 12/19/08 or get a copy of the latest issue of my zine, Bodhisattva Revolutionaries and Social Alchemists--plug, plug.) Even more central to my beliefs is that everything needs to be based in love and compassion--we need to be good to each other.

In some ways, I sometimes think of myself as 45 to 180 degrees away from mainstream American society in just about all areas of my life. I have taken to occasionally using the term queer, not only because I am bisexual and polyamorous, but because I have always felt 'different' and don't see myself fitting in to what is around me in any way, shape, or form. Little things, like being vegan, not owning or using a car, biking to work, living in a group situation, not watching TV, hanging my clothes out to dry, trying to live with less, and getting excited about compost, hardly seem like mainstream behaviors.

Even my spirituality doesn't quite fit anywhere. I call myself a naturalistic pagan but these days I am studying Buddhist philosophy and practices and I still have a lot of influences from my Catholic upbringing. I find myself connected to, involved with, living with, and working with Witches, Quakers, Humanists, born-again Jews, Buddhists, Agnostics, Methodists, Catholics, Unitarian Universalists, and a close friend who I describe as a universalist (small u) who tells me what he's finding out about the ancient Hebrews and compares the teachings of Jesus and Buddha. I occasionally go to Quaker meeting with a housemate--it seems to me to be a lot like the Buddhist meditation that I'm doing.

And I am trying to change from being a know-it-all to being someone who listens more, from being chronically anxious to being a calm presence, and from being judgmental of myself and others to being patient and forgiving with everyone--including myself. It isn't easy, but if I want to change the world (or at least the little bit around me) I know I need to change myself in the process.

Quote of the Day: "When you open your life to the living, all things come spilling in on you, and you're flowing like a river, the changer and the changed..." - Cris Williamson

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Out of the Darkness

This is the time of Halloween, of Día de los Muertos, of All Saints and All Souls Days, the time the Pagans call Samhain. I blogged last year on Darkness in my post of 11/1/08--in it I talked about 'death, disorder, and decay', and entropy. Another aspect of darkness is fertility: the deep, dark earth where seeds germinate and the darkness of the womb where life is nurtured. Darkness allows us to see things (the lights of candles, holiday lights, and especially the stars) that we can't see during the day.

In that spirit, I want to talk about my month off from blogging. As I said in my post of 9/22/09, after five months of intensive posting every three days, I wanted some time off to do other things. So I didn't post anything during October.

Unfortunately, one of the main things I did during the month of October was to work on the second issue of my Zine, which was originally supposed to have come out at the autumn equinox. It is now at the printers and should be out next week. (The zine is called Bodhisattva Revolutionaries and Social Alchemists and issue is entitled 'What I Believe'--it is basically a republishing of my posts from last fall with a little new material. Check the link for more information.)

But I didn't spend all my time working on the zine. I helped work on a house in Boston (the JPGreenHouse) that is being rehabbed to be very low energy use (I will blog on this at some point); watched Michael Moore's Capitalism with my housemates and The Greening of Southie at the Somerville Library; took little classes on energy use, wormbins, seed saving, and insight meditation; and helped out with the Massachusetts Relocatization Conference and the Boston Under Water Festival that took place on October 24 as part of the International Day of Climate Change. Don't think that I was doing exciting things, however. I did cleaning and taking nails out of boards at the JPGreenHouse, sat at the registration table at the Relocalization Conference, and taped up some sagging signs and helped with the clean up at the Boston Under Water Festival. But I think the important thing is to support people who are doing things that move us in a more progressive direction.

And, as I said in my post of 9/22/09, my goal for the next little while is to do what most people do in their blogs--to post irregularly, on whatever strikes my fancy. I will probably pick another theme and explore it at some point (hopefully the series on education that I have been promising since the early days of this blog) but for now I want to focus on my own learning and doing. Winter is coming, a good time to turn inward, and I intend to spend it nuturing myself and my work on community building. Hopefully, the darkness of winter will be nourishing and spring will see me working on many things--among them, my garden, this blog, and building a community. And, of course, I will continue to try to support social change efforts in whatever little way that I can.

Quote of the Day: "... perhaps it is up to us all ... to reach into the dark and reshape it into a clear night sky where we can walk without fear, into a well of healing from which we can all drink, into the velvet skin of life, the newly fertile ground." - Starhawk