Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Unity, Diversity, and Love

Here we are, in the midst of a time out of time, past the Solstice, past Christmas, into Kwanzaa and the dark days of winter.  In the middle of all this it's important to stop and notice the stillness.  It's important to remember that love is the miracle that keeps us going.

It's 'Boxing Day' today, the feast of St. Stephen, and the first day of Kwanzaa.  The principle for the day is Umoja, Unity.  It's not hard for me to draw a line from there to love.

I have quoted my mother as telling me that "Every one of my children is different and I love them all the same."  Truly, every one of us (worldwide) is very, very different from each other and we are all connected.  How can we create unity out of that diversity?  How can we create room for everyone--no matter how they think, what they look like, what they believe, what they say they want?

Love is about opening our hearts to everyone.  Love is about seeing the connections, seeing the unity in this very diverse world.  Love is about saying yes to it all.

Yes, there is sorrow and pain here.  Yes, there are some pretty horrible things happening.  Yes, people do awful things to each other.  Yes, many things in this world have to change.  And, yes, I will love no matter what.  Because love is the miracle, the miracle that we can still love in spite of it all, that we can see each other's vulnerable helplessness even when we try to hide it by doing all the terrible things we do.  Only love can stand up to atrocities, love and forgiveness.  Only love can see the wonderful unity in our rich diversity.  Only love can say yes to it all.

Quote of the Day:  "Don’t ask what love can make or do. Look at the colors of the world." - Rumi

Friday, December 21, 2012

Beginning Again

I never wrote my usual 'Samhain' post--I was too busy getting ready to go to Twin Oaks.  (Once we were there, ironically, we were immediately invited to a late Halloween party.)

Every year, also, I've written a post for the 'Yule', the Winter Solstice.  I think of this as the end of the year, the beginning of a 'time out of time', and the prelude to the new year (which I sort of celebrate with everyone on Jan 1st).  But this is the time, as the darkness reaches its deepest point and begins the turn back toward the light, that I celebrate.  A time for summing up the old year and thinking about the new.

This past year brought major changes to my life.  I abandoned my latest attempt at community and have become (by choice) homeless and jobless, a drifter, a nomad, and a couch surfer--as well as a community... well, some people have said, consultant, but I think that both glorifies and marginalizes what I'm trying to do.  I intend to be a real participant, a helper and supporter, of new and starting communities.  I'm looking at (as I explained in my last post) a time of traveling up and down (and back up and down) the east coast of the US, from MA to PA to VA and back.  A circuit-riding preacher of community, trying to live and learn what I'm also trying to teach.

Not what I was expecting at all, but in a way something that all my work on starting communities has prepared me for.  I'm hardly an expert on building community, but I've certainly learned a few things on the way and I really want to see more community arising.

And what does all this community stuff have to do with social change, social alchemy, the subject of this blog?

I see community as step one.  It's not the final goal, it's the foundation for creating social change, a little laboratory to try living differently.  I still believe strongly in simplicity, equality, and sustainability, I still think that the SLoBIND (starting Small and LOcal, and building the changes in a way that's Bioregional, Interconnected, Networked, and Decentralized) is the way to go, I still think the most important goal is to meet people's real needs.  I just think that community, for me, is the clearest way of beginning this.

So, here I am at the dark of the year, the beginning of winter, dreaming and scheming and getting ready for what might happen next.  My only definite plan at this point is returning to PA in March to see what I could be part of there, but there are several other things I'm playing with, that might or might not emerge.  At this point I also have a bunch of new resources I want to review and a small series that I hope to write for this blog on issues in community--things I've learned from my travels this fall and my experiences and learnings from others, that I think would be worth looking at.

Beyond that, who knows.  I certainly didn't expect to be where I am now and I certainly don't really know what the new year will bring.

Welcome Winter. Happy Yule everyone.

Quote of the Day: "Spring passes and one remembers one's innocence.
Summer passes and one remembers one's exuberance.
Autumn passes and one remembers one's reverence.
Winter passes and one remembers one's perseverance." - Yoko Ono

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Update 8: Building New Communities

This will be the final post in my update series; I'm going to try to tie together much of what I learned and talk about my directions from here. 

When I was visiting at Acorn I began to realize that I didn't really want to settle down there and just be part of an established community.  I really enjoyed Acorn, and Twin Oaks even more, but by the time I visited TO I was sure that what I wanted was to be part of helping to build new communities.  (Which is why I didn't apply for membership there.) Acorn and Twin Oaks are wonderful, but I wanted to see more of them.  Both communities have population caps (Acorn doesn't want to grow beyond 30 members, TO beyond ninety-something) and both now have long waiting lists.

On the other hand, I have learned from my experiences.  I don't want to try to start another community.  Instead, I want to help others who are trying to start communities.

I am well aware that the majority of community start-ups fail.  I'm not sure what the numbers are, but let's pretend (for the sake of my argument) that ninety percent of new communities don't make it for more than a few years.  You can look at this two ways.  One is to say, 'Why bother? It's not likely to last very long.'  The other is to think, if we want to have more communities we're going to need to build a lot of them.  If nine out of ten of them don't succeed, then if we get a hundred new communities going, chances are ten of them are going to work and that's ten more new communities.

Someone at Twin Oaks confronted me with the arrogance and egotism of starting new communities (as opposed to just joining one).  Yet if no one started TO, she wouldn't be able to be there enjoying the place.  In fact, one of the founders, Kat Kinkade, helped start three successful communities: Twin Oaks, Acorn, and East Wind.

I'm trying to learn from people like Kat and from communities that are going strong about what works and what doesn't.  One person at Acorn told me that Kat's recipe for community was to grow it fast--get lots of people in and see what evolves.  Another person there suggested that, in order for a community to last, it needs at least five dedicated communitarians (and maybe more like ten).

Living Energy Farm (see my post of 12/8/12 about them) is an example of a community that I suspect will make it--mostly because it has the support of Twin Oaks and Acorn.  As I said in that post, it's rather desolate looking--but it makes me imagine what TO looked like when it started.  I'm also interested in Chubby Squirrels (which I've mentioned in my posts on Communities of Communities, 6/9/12, and The Twin Oaks Community Conference, 9/9/12) and I was able to be part of at least one discussion on it, but currently Paxus (who is the person wanting to build this) is in Europe and won't be back until January.

However, at the Communities Conference I also found out about a community in Pennsylvania that a couple of folks are trying to build, focusing on radical simplicity and eco-sustainability.  After my visit to TO, I went to the small city that they're living in and hung out with them for a week.  I really liked what they're trying to do, but I'm a bit skeptical that they can make it work.  Still,  it's intriguing enough that I'm planning to go back there in March and stay for at least a month or two to see if this could be a place I could help build.

In addition,  Vera (who runs the blog 'Leaving Babylon' and has been visiting the northern Missouri communities--Dancing Rabbit, Sandhill, Red Earth Farm, and the Possibility Alliance--again, see my post on Communities of Communities for more on them) has connected me with someone who wants to build an ecovillage in New England.  I'm planning on meeting with him next week and learning details.

When I told my brother-in-law that I might be spending my next little while traveling between New England, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, helping out with communities here and there, he said that I sounded like one of the old circuit-riding preachers.  I sort of feel like that, too.  It's not what I planned on, and I'd still like to settle down in an FEC style community in New England (if I can help one emerge), but meanwhile, I'm facing a life on the road for the foreseeable future.  I just think that if I can add my energy to some of these endeavors, it might make a difference.  I can only try.  Hopefully, I'll report here how things turn out.

Quote of the Day: "Living or working with people does not guarantee community; it takes intentionality and developed skills to build and maintain ongoing community." - Harvey Baker, Barbara Lee, and Jeanne Quinn

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

A Dozen Reasons to Live in Community

(In honor of the day.)

  1. To combat loneliness
  2. To learn different things from different people
  3. To share more
  4. To live simpler
  5. To live more sustainably
  6. To develop closeness and connection with others
  7. To learn to develop better boundaries
  8. To learn to deal with your own issues in the fire of conflict
  9. To have support for your social change work
  10. To have support for your spiritual work
  11. To have people to celebrate with and to celebrate frequently
  12. To model a different way of living

Quote of the Day: "Intentional Communities have for many centuries been places where idealists have come together to create a better world." - from the webpage of the Fellowship for Intentional Community

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Update 7: Living Energy Farm

I've now been to Living Energy Farm (LEF) twice.  Once for a few hours on a Saturday when I was at Acorn and again for a few hours on a Saturday when I was at Twin Oaks.  It's a fairly desolate place.  The land had been clearcut a couple of years ago just before they bought the property and things are slowly growing back.  There wasn't much on it to speak of so they are building the place from scratch.  When I went there in September I pulled nails out of old boards they were hoping to reuse.  When I went in November, I helped shovel mulch into a pickup truck so they could use it for fruit trees on another part of the property.  They are trying to use as much cheap and recycled material as possible.

The goal at LEF is to be fossil fuel free and they have given themselves three years to build the infrastructure (using fossil fuels as necessary) before they plan to completely give them up.  Meanwhile, things there are sparce and spare; it's quite the contrast with Twin Oaks, for example, that's so organized and developed.  Then I think about how Twin Oaks probably looked forty years ago when they were just starting up.  The people working at LEF have a long way to go but they are pretty committed.

Living Energy Farm is one of the places that I'm thinking about putting some energy into.  It's a community with a good mission that's in a very early stage.  After working with Alexis (one of the principle organizers of the community) who was explaining that he appreciated all their interns and the help he was getting from them but also concerned that most of them were pretty unskilled, I asked him how he'd feel about having someone for an intern that was not only unskilled but old.  He looked right at me and said, "I'd take *you* as an intern."  I thought that was a really sweet thing to say--and I do hope to do an internship with them at some point and be part of building this fledgling community.  It will be really interesting to see what this place looks like in a couple of years.

Quote of the Day: "The Living Energy Farm is a project to build a community, education center, and farm that demonstrates that a fulfilling life is possible without the use of any fossil fuel. Our mission is to serve as an example and actively promote lifestyles and technologies that are truly sustainable, and to make these sustainable technologies accessible to all persons regardless of their income or social position." - Living Energy Farm's Mission Statement

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Update 6: Life at Twin Oaks

I'm sorry it's been so long since I last posted.  I'm back in the Boston area now and trying to evaluate it all.  Here's a piece that I mostly wrote when I was leaving Twin Oaks and that I've edited and added to.

I've written about Twin Oaks before (see Real Models 1:Twin Oaks, 9/30/10), but mostly from what I've read about it.  Here I want to write about what I learned from visiting it.

Unlike Acorn where I stayed in September (see Update 2: The Acorn Community, 9/14/12, and Update 3: Life on the Farm, 9/23/12) and I thought of as a farm, Twin Oaks (affectionately abbreviated TO) is a village.  There are over a hundred people living there including members, visitors and guests (two different categories of life here), and children.  Ages range from toddlers to eighty-somethings, one of whom is approaching ninety.  (I hope to write posts in the future about children in community and aging in community.) Twin Oakers live in a bunch of houses, each of which contain a 'Small Living Group' (aka an SLG) or two. 

TO has its own water supply, its own sewage system, a communal kitchen and dining hall, a communal laundry system, and communal clothes.  (They affectionately call their communal clothes system 'Commie Clothes'.)  They even have communal bicycles to get around with.  (People can also have their own clothes and/or bikes. On some things here sharing is optional.)  There is a fleet of 15 community cars (there's no private car ownership) and a repair shop (in a building called Modern Times) that services the cars, trucks, and bicycles.  There's also a woodshop, lots of gardens, a small herd of cows, and a bunch of chickens.  TO has a number of business that bring income to the community, the two biggest of which are making hammocks and making tofu.  The newest business is managing the wholesale part of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, Acorn's main business. They also have an industrial area away from the main part of the community (where they manufacture some parts for the hammocks and prepare boxes of tofu for shipping) that they call Emerald City. (The name is from The Wizard of Oz.  Most buildings at TO are named after historic communities and the rooms at Aurora, the visitor's building, are named after fictional utopian communities.)

Life at Twin Oaks is highly structured.  Like Acorn, they have a forty-two hour a week work quota system.  Work includes everything from making hammocks and gardening to cleaning, cooking, and attending meetings.  But unlike Acorn, everyone fills out labor sheets and all work is tracked.  Their visitor program (which I was part of) is filled with tours and orientations.  I learned an enormous amount from being there--both about how a community this big operates and a lot about TO's forty-five year history.  The whole program was very informative.

Some things I did while there included learning some pieces about making hammocks, helping cut up the tofu in preparation for packing, working with the composting toilets (which I requested), getting to know the other visitors there (we stayed together in Aurora which TO has set up like an SLG--and we had to make decisions about how we'd live for our three weeks together), and I requested and got a tour of their sewage and water system. (I wanted to really see how this village worked.)

It's with some sadness that I decided not to apply for membership there.  It was wonderful and I want to go back again and again, but I couldn't see myself living there.  Twin Oaks and Acorn are both great in their own ways and I want to see a lot more communities like them.  They both have waiting lists at this point, so the interest is there.

I realize that what I want to do now is to find communities that are starting up and add my energy to them to help them survive and grow.  I think the world needs more communities like Twin Oaks.

Quote of the Day: "As you would probably guess, almost everyone who is living at Twin Oaks prefers our lifestyle to that of the 'mainstream' world.  But, we are still actively working on making this place better.  We don't pretend that this is paradise, or utopia, and if that is what you really want you will have to look elsewhere..."  - from Not Utopia Yet, the Twin Oaks Visitor Guide

Monday, October 22, 2012

Update 5: Riding the Rails

If you want to travel long distance within the US, you really have four main options: drive a car, fly, take a bus, or take the train.  (There are, of course, other ways, such as taking a ship, biking long stretches, or even walking across the country--which I've heard tales about.)  There are a bunch of airlines if you decide to fly, but if you decide to take the train or bus (which both have a much smaller carbon footprint than flying or driving--alone anyway), there is really only one option each.  If you're traveling by bus, your only real option is Greyhound; it acquired Continental Trailways, its main long-distance rival, in 1987.  If you want to take a train any long distance, you need to take Amtrak.

When the small rail systems began losing passengers and money in the late '60s, the US Congress (prodded by the National Association of Railroad Passengers) began looking into the possibility of a national rail system.  In 1970, they passed the Rail Passenger Service Act to create that system.  As the Amtrak brochure, Amtrak America, 2011-2012, states: "Officially known as the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, Amtrak began service on May 1, 1971 as the country's first centrally managed, nationwide rail network."

When I realized how much I'd be traveling this fall, I was debating between taking Greyhound or Amtrak.  Greyhound looked cheaper, but friends pursuaded me to do most of my travel on Amtrak--pointing out (because they knew me) Greyhound's difficult union history as well as it being a private corporation and Amtrak being a publically owned enterprise.  I have and will do some of my travel on Greyhound but I'm doing most of it, including my long trip to California (see my last post on Eco-Oakland, Riveting Richmond, and Groovy SF, for details about what I did when I was out there) on Amtrak.

The trip to California was a long one.  I left South Station in Boston, Friday, September 28th, on a bus that replaced the train west, because they were working on the tracks.  Luckily the bus went directly to Albany, New York, saving lots of time.  Unluckily, that meant being stuck longer in the station in Rensselaer, NY (the train, or in this case bus, doesn't actually go to Albany), which was not near anything.  (From a roadway near the station I could see the capital building in Albany in the distance.)  Eventually the train came for Chicago and by the next morning we pulled into the 'Windy City', where the most exciting thing I did was dash across town so I could see Lake Michigan in the distance for a minute.

At 2pm on Saturday I left Chicago on the California Zephyr.  For the next three days I saw cornfields and mountains (the Rockies, the Sierra Nevada), towering cliffs, looming mesas, and miles and miles of desert.  I saw the Mississippi River as we crossed it and I saw bits of Denver, Reno, and Sacramento (not to mention Grand Junction, Colorado, where the train stopped for forty-five minutes and I got to run around outside for a bit).  At about five-thirty on Monday, October 1st, the train pulled into Emeryville, California, its last stop.

My train ride back last week was equally long--four days--in the other direction.  The biggest differences were that I was longer in Chicago this time around (and got to stand on the shore of Lake Michigan for a while) and when the train reached the 'Albany-Rensselaer' station, it actually split in two, with one half (that I was in) going on to Boston and the other half heading off to NYC.  Pretty clever.

And I'm getting to be a regular on the Northeast Corridor route.  I'll be taking Amtrak down to Charlottesville, VA, in a few weeks to go to Twin Oaks, and later (because I'm also planning to visit a community in Pennsylvania on this trip) taking it back from Harrisburg to Boston (via Philadelphia).

The most important thing I can say about taking the train, or the bus, (other than notice the smaller carbon footprint) is that, unlike flying, you get a real sense of what lies in between your destinations.  I feel like I've experienced how big the US is and a lot of what lies in the 'heartlands', and with every trip to Virginia, I see more and more of the east coast.  Which is why I'm 'riding the rails'.

Quote of the Week: "There was a time when taking a trip in America meant taking the train.  But by the end of the 1960s, the national highway system and a growing aviation industry had changed travel habits.  Private railroads clamored to eliminate their unprofitable passenger operations.  But the government knew that the country needed passenger rail and stepped in to create Amtrak." - Amtrak America

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Update 4: Eco-Oakland, Riveting Richmond, and Groovy SF

I can't believe that I'm out in Oakland, California.  As someone who seldom likes to leave New England, it seems bizarre to me to be traveling the country.  But I have a very dear friend out here who has wanted me to visit for a long time and this seemed like the best opportunity I'd have.  I took the train out here and I will write a post on my train adventures in the near future.

While I've been in Oakland I've visited some of the community groups that my friend has been working with.  One is Phat Beets Produce. They have a garden where they teach young people about growing food and make all of what they're growing available to the neighborhood.  They also run a great little farmer's market, which we visited on last Saturday. Another cool group that he is involved with is the People's Grocery.  They have a garden behind the California Hotel--a place which houses people with disabilities. When we visited the People's Grocery they were hosting an event where they made 'smoothies' with fresh vegetables and fruit and offered them to anyone who came by the busy urban intersection by the Hotel (located in a very low income area).  The MC for the event managed to pursuade on young skeptical kid to try a smoothie--which he then spat out.  Turns out he likes eating nachos.  But the MC stayed with him and got the smoothie makers to create a fresh food drink that he liked.  Maybe this will spark an interest in eating better--or at least create a seed that might flower later.  I was very impressed with the work that both of these groups are doing.

My friend and I also took a bike ride up to the Rosie the Riveter National Historical Park in Richmond, CA.  (Richmond is few towns north of Oakland.)  This is an amazing exhibit about how the needs around World War II led to changes that eventually sparked many social change efforts.  It gave me a view of the situation of women, blacks, and Asian and Latin groups in the 1940s and how the war changed everything.  It was a good reminder that the movements of the 50s, 60s, and 70s, did not come out of nowhere.  (For more on this time in US history, see my posts on World War Once More, 3/2/09, through Social Movements in the Seventies, 3/30/09.)

Recently we had a great time in San Francisco, which is across the bay from here. We did Sunday morning meditation with the Gay Buddhist Fellowship which had a nice group of mellow men, took in some of the 'Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival' (which featured Patti Smith--who is truly hardly bluegrass and who we didn't see--and Emmy Lou Harris--who is sort of bluegrass and who we caught a little of), and spent a night at the Red Victorian in Haight Ashbury which is not only a bed and breakfast, but also "a living peace museum".  Needless to say, wandering around Haight Ashbury was a trip.  Monday we biked around Golden Gate Park where we saw bison, as well as a whale off in the distance in San Francisco harbor and a blue heron up very close up in the lagoon behind the Tree Fern exhibit (very prehistoric looking) in the Park.

There are some wild and amazing things happening out here in the Bay Area.  But, much as I've enjoyed it, New England is still my home and I'm still hoping to settle down somewhere on the east coast.

Quote of the Day:  "What We Work For, What We Want:
  1. Health Care Without Harm
  2. Strong Economic Opportunities for small, disenfranchised farmers [sic]
  3. Edible Parks, Edible Communities
  4. Neighborhood Based Food Micro-Enterprise
  5. Empowered Youth that Shape their Food System
  6. Resiliant Communities Organized Through Food and Healing" - Phat Beets Produce brochure

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Update 3: Life on the Farm

I'm now finishing up my time at Acorn. (See my last post, Update 2: The Acorn Community, for more about Acorn.) Here I want to focus on what it's been like living here.

I'm a city boy. For example, I always thought of morning glory as a pretty flower that grows on people's fences. Here at Acorn I've been trying to wipe it out because the vines were taking over and strangling the melons and squash that are being grown. And onions have always been just onions to me and garlic just garlic. Here I have been packaging 'Alliums' and I've been learning about many different varieties of onions, garlic, shallots, and leeks. (My favorite are 'Egyptian Walking Onion' and a variety of garlic called 'Music'.) And packaging seeds has taught me about many heirloom varieties of vegetables, beans, and grains.

(Incidentally, correction from my last post. I was told by another Acorn member that we don't actually buy produce from local farmers--almost every vegetable served here is grown here--or dumpster dived. They spend very little money on food here--at least according to someone who works in the gardens.)

The land here is beautiful--fields and woods and old farm buildings. At night I go out and look at all the stars (many more than you can see in Boston). I've been living in a tent for over three weeks and it's been fine--it's been kind of nice to be outdoors so much. (Although I suspect I'll enjoy being indoors in a real bed once again.) I've also been making friends with the dogs and the goats that live here--and and harvesting beans and okra and watermelons. Pretty heady stuff for someone who has never really lived on a farm before.

Today a group of us went out to Living Energy Farm, a community that's starting up about ten miles from here--it's really wild and green out there. The land is recovering from being clear-cut and they've started building some simple structures on it, as well as growing lots of vegetables there. They have been very slowly building on the land since they bought it about two years ago and the buildings are still pretty primitive. I'm not sure anyone lives there full time and the LEF community is really only a couple of people and a bunch of volunteer help. Very much a work in progress. I intend to visit them again when I'm at Twin Oaks in November.

 And I don't think I've flushed a toilet since I've been out in Virginia. We're encouraged to pee in the woods here and they have composting toilets for creating 'humanure'. When I have used a regular toilet, I've followed the 'mellow yellow' rule. Truly we can live fairly simply here on the farm.

Quote of the Day: "Acorn Community is a rural community of people living on the same plot of land and managing business together. ... We will share our land, labor, income, and other resources equally or according to need. ... The members of Acorn Community will strive to live our lives in a way that supports the basic human rights of people here and in the rest of the world. ... The members of Acorn Community will attempt to live in a way that is gentle on the environment, attempting to show an example of how this can practically be done." - from Acorn's Mission Statement

Friday, September 14, 2012

Update 2: The Acorn Community

Acorn is at least three different things: an egalitarian community, a farm, and a business (Southern Exposure Seed Exchange).

As a community it is an outgrowth of and sister to the Twin Oaks community (which I will visit in November) and they compare themselves to Twin Oaks a lot.  Some differences which were pointed out to me in my orientation here are that Acorn operates by consensus  (whereas Twin Oaks has a complicated Planner/Manager system) and Acorn members don't need to fill out labor sheets--although visitors like me do.  Both Twin Oaks and Acorn require members and visitors to work 42 hours a week.

Here at Acorn work can be farm work in the gardens or with the animals (I've been doing some weeding), office work (I've spent a lot of time packing seeds for SESE), or house work (I've been doing some clean up after the meals and did the dishes once--which is a lot of dishes when it covers breakfast and lunch for around forty people).

As a farm, it has extensive plantings--plus chickens, rabbits, and goats.  However, most of the plantings are in support of the seed business--food is usually grown for the seeds rather than as food. Someone said that what was left after the plant reached the seed stage and had the seeds taken out was not thrilling food.  They buy most of their food from local farmers (and occasionally dumpster dive some).

The seed business is what keeps Acorn going--it's the community's work and they're very serious about it.  Most of their seed is organic, as well as adapted to the area, and much of it is heirloom varieties.  They see this as righteous work, something they believe it, and it also makes quite a bit of money for the community.  They feel lucky to have something that can support them well that they also feel so good about.

Acorn is a spinoff from the Twin Oaks community (see my post on Communities of Communities, 6/9/12, for details) and has been around for nineteen years now.  At the moment they are so full that all the visitors are staying in tents in the woods on their property.  They tell folks that even if they are accepted for membership it may be at least six months before there could be an opening that allow moving in.  The place is full, the waiting list is long, and the people here work hard.  This is a community that's working.

Quote of the Day:  " Our community encourages personal responsibility, supports queer and alternative lifestyles, and strives to create a stimulating social, political, feminist and intellectual environment....
"Remember, this stuff is hard! Living and working together, having fun and running a business, making decisions together and sharing income, are all challenging every day." - from the Acorn Website

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Update 1: The Twin Oaks Community Conference

The Communities Conference was an amazing three day combination of workshops, activities (a dance at Twin Oaks, dinner and a bonfire at Acorn), and many opportunities to network.  I found out about a forming community in Pennsylvania that I intend to explore--along with being able to be part of the formation of Chubby Squirrels.

I also got to be in a workshop on Economic Leveraging throug Income Sharing hosted by Laird Schaub,  two workshops with Debby Sugarman on Conscious Connection and a process called Heart of Now, and Paxus Calta's unexpected, apologetic, and totally brilliant workshop on Radical Transparency.

I am thrilled that I was able to be part of the biggest conference in years and one that people are still raving about.  It was a great start to my fall journey in search of community.

Quote of the Day:  "It is more important than ever that we find alternatives to the mainstream system....
"Intentional community... is one answer.... At Twin Oaks and Acorn Communities, for instance, our ability to share cars, houses, businesses, farm work and more reduces our financial dependence on 'the system' and lowers the amount of electricity and fossil fuels that we as individuals consume by as much as 80% when compared to the average Virginian.
"...How can all of us who see the need for change in modern America work together and learn from each other?  What can we do to shift the culture away from one of isolation and greed towards one of sharing?" - Janel, Conference Manager

Thursday, August 30, 2012

And I'm Off...

Tonight I take a bus down to Virginia for the Twin Oaks Communities Conference.  This is the beginning of my fall adventures.  For details of what I will be up to, see my post A Long, Strange Trip, 6/28/12.  The one change in what I wrote there is that I won't be visiting the Missouri communities this fall.  It got too expensive and is probably just as well, seeing how much I will be doing.

I'm not sure how often I will get to blog--I may not be able to write again until December, or I may be able to put out periodic updates.  Hopefully somewhere along the line I'll be able to write about what I've learned.

At this point it's all a gamble.  I'm going to check out the various Virginia communities as well as keeping an eye out for people who want to create community up in the northeast US--preferably in New England.  Who knows what I'll find.

Have a good fall folks and we'll see what it all brings.

Quote of the Day:  "In a world of possibility for us all, our personal visions help lay the groundwork for political action. ... In our world, divide and conquer must become define and empower."  - Audre Lorde

Friday, August 17, 2012

Biology 101: A Premature Wrap

I'll be traveling soon so I'm trying to tie up lots of loose ends.  I'm still reading that Biology book, but I have neither the time nor the energy (at least at this point) to cover any more topics.

In any case, even at this point the most enlightening things I read were the stuff on cellular respiration and photosynthesis and I'm glad I put out detailed posts on them.  (See Biology 101: Cellular Respiration, 5/10/12, and Biology 101: Photosynthesis, 5/17/12.)

I've since studied things like cellular communication, genetics, evolution, plant biology (aka botony), and I'm currently reading through "Animal Structure and Function" (aka anatomy and physiology--with a side trip through nutrition).  I just finished an interesting chapter (and side readings) on the immune system (which is a *lot* more complicated than I thought) and I'm currently reading about temperature regulation, water balance, and the excretory system.  I'm hoping to finish all the animal A&P before I leave, but I know I won't have time to get into the final section of the book which is on ecology, something I'd really like to have a mainstream scientific understanding of.  So I will be keeping this big heavy textbook, both so I can read the ecology section at some point and because this is such a great reference for so many things that I'm interested in.

I would recommend to anyone interested in knowing how life works that they pick up a used (or free, if you can find it) relatively current college Bio textbook.  You may be surprised at what you learn.

Quote of the Day: "Biology, the study of life, is rooted in the human spirit.  ... Biology is the scientific extension of this human tendency to feel connected to and curious about all forms of life.  It is a science for adventurous minds."  - Neil Campbell and Jane Reece

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Pan Poly Path

I have mentioned in this blog that I'm bi and poly (ie, bisexual and polyamorous--see Sex and Squeamishness, 8/9/08).  Part of my reason for identifying as bisexual is my age--that's what I've identified with since high school (forty-five years).  The problem with bisexuality is that it assumes there are only two sexes, but if I were choosing an identity today, I'd probably say I was pansexual since I think I could be as easily involved with someone who identified as trans or genderqueer as I could with someone who identifies as a woman or a man.

All of which seems moot at the moment since I've taken a vow of abstinence while I'm pursuing community.  But as I'm exploring love (see my last post), I'm beginning to see other possibilities.  Sufi dancing (particularly the 'partner' dances where you keep switching partners and you never know who you'll get next) has also helped me see this in a new light.  (Not to mention studying about bonobos, who are truly pan and poly sexual.  For more on bonobos, see Bonobos and Chimpanzees, 7/30/08.)

I think that all love is erotic, in some way.  It doesn't mean I have to have sex with anyone, just acknowledge that there is a sexual/sensual element to all my loving--and this is a good thing.

And the fact that I can love anyone (being pan) and many people (being poly) opens me up to truly loving everyone I meet--regardless of gender, looks, age, race, class, etc, etc.  I can just greet each person I meet (like I try to do when I'm Sufi dancing) with lots of love and joyousness.  I have taken my sexuality and turned it into a spiritual path, opening myself up to loving everyone regardless of who they are.  Because everyone deserves love.  And that starts with me loving them--as much as I possibly can.

Quote of the Day: "Our loving finds a new depth, one that is both personal and impersonal. ...
"... the relationship journey is not about two people becoming one.  It is about realizing that we are all one vast, loving heart."  - Jett Psaris and Marena Lyons

Monday, August 6, 2012

The Great Triple Love

In the middle of all my busyness and worry, I want to write about love.  Love, compassion, kindness, caring, concern, generosity, and forgiveness.  These are central themes in my life and I'd like to devote my next two posts to them.

I see love (etc) as having three focuses.  (Many religious people will want to add a fourth.)

I want to begin with love of self.  This is often disparaged as being selfish, yet it's absolutely essential.  The bible says (Leviticus 19:18, Mark 12:31), "Love your neighbor as yourself."  It sounds good, but how would that work if you didn't love yourself?  At a Sufi dance I went to, someone taught us the song, "I love me so much, That I can love you so much, That you can love you so much, That you can start loving me."  (Attributed in at least one place to James Bevell.)  I think we need to begin by loving ourselves.

This allows us to love others, which is the second focus of love.  I will talk more about this in my next post, but I think we need to focus on loving everyone we possibly can.  The bible says to not only love your neighbor, but to love your enemies (Matthew 5:44), love the stranger (Deuteronomy 10:19), and, most important, love one another (John 13:34). While I think it's important to love everyone, I think it's most important to love everyone you come in contact with.  (Loving world figures, people in the news, "the oppressed", "the oppressors", politicians, etc, is good but I think it does more good for you then for them--unless you actually see them or email them or otherwise get in contact with them.)  I try to imagine how I can be loving with each person I meet today.

Beyond loving others is loving the world.  This focuses on the natural world, but includes humanity since, really, we are part of the natural world.  We forget how dependent we are on it but gaia/the ecosystem/the earth gives us our life as well as what we need to live.  We wouldn't live a minute without it and it is a beautiful, amazing process that isn't hard to love if we open ourselves up  to it.  And we need to love and care for the world because if it dies we die and everything we love dies.

So we need to love ourselves, others, and the world, and we need to work on ourselves, support each other, and take care of the world.  This is why I talk about personal growth, social change, and ecological awareness.

However, from a whole systems perspective, as well as an ecological perspective, a Buddhist perspective, a Taoist perspective, etc, there really isn't any separation between ourselves, everyone else, and the world.  We are all one giant interconnected system and therefore the Great Triple Love is really only one love. Love all, serve all, be grateful to everyone, be grateful for everything.

Quote of the Day: "If you love yourself, you love everybody else as you do yourself. As long as you love another person less than yourself, you will not succeed in loving yourself, but if you love all alike, including yourself, you will love them as one person..."  - Meister Eckhart

Friday, July 27, 2012

Finding My Way Through the Dark

As I said in my last post, my autumn is not going to be what I planned or expected.  In fact, in this past twelve years, since the community that I helped found in the nineteen-nineties fell apart, very little has gone according to plan.  I've had two direct attempts at building community and neither has turned out to be at all what I wanted.

Yet I can't give up.  There's something in me that won't let go of being part of a community effort.  I often find myself in the position of being unable to move forward and unwilling to move back.

When that happens, I just stay where I am and keep exploring until a new possibility arises.  For example, this winter I realized that the house I was living in was not going to be what I was looking for and that no one here was ready or even really interested in trying to build the type of community I'm after.  Further, having been looking for others who want to do this around here for twelve years made it seem unlikely I was going to find anyone by continuing on this way.  When I told my former community mates that I was going to just join an established egalitarian community, one said that she was 'sad but relieved' and another said he was 'shocked but not surprised'.  The upshot was that they've thought for a while that I wasn't going to get what I wanted this way, but because I'm so stubborn they feared I would keep trying anyway.

I do realize my own part in all this.  I have some real strengths in terms of community building (for example, this house did come together well and will be continuing on--though it's not clear what kind of household it's going to become).  I also have some real weaknesses (it has become obvious that my desire for community can let me see what I want for a while rather than what's really happening--and I don't seem to be a good judge of character). 

Through the spring, I rode with the changes.  I wanted to become part of Twin Oaks or Acorn, but found they both had long waiting lists.  I tried to join a community in the midwest, but they didn't want me.  Now my fall is going to consist of the Communities Conference followed by visits to Acorn and Twin Oaks in the hopes that something will emerge out of that.

A metaphor that feels right to me is that I'm exploring dark tunnels and reaching dead ends.  Unwilling to turn back, I keep exploring the cul de sac that I find myself in until I notice a hidden opening that I missed in the darkness. I go through it (since there aren't any other choices) and find myself in another tunnel that leads to another dead end--but with another hidden opening that I will find after more patience and exploring.

It's not my favorite way to travel.  I'd rather have my future all planned and mapped out, I'd rather be living in and building community than be endlessly looking for it, but that's not what life is handing me.  I need to deal with what's truly possible rather than just living in plans and fantasies.  And I remain hopeful that I will get to live in community yet.

Quote of the Day:  "In many initiation stories the search ... is described as the hero's crossing the great water, climbing the impossible mountain, confronting dragons,...  In each of these images we risk the life we have known to discover something new.
"Perhaps they are so daunting because the unknown territory of initiation will open before us only to the extent that we turn our whole being courageously toward it.  In willingly facing the unknown, we offer trust in  a greater purpose to life.  And then we must venture wherever the road leads us, in spite of the dark, in spite of the quivering of our heart." - Jack Kornfield

Thursday, June 28, 2012

A Long, Strange Trip

This is the post I've been promising on my community plans. I know it's taken me a while but I haven't had anything in place until now, and there is still a lot of things that are shifting.

This will be a more personal post than I usually do. I hope that it may be useful to others searching for community as well as letting those who follow this blog know what I will be doing and why. Among other things (and this even sounds crazy to me) I'll be quitting my job, leaving my home, and traveling around the country. In otherwords, I'll be jobless, homeless, and I don't even like traveling.

In order to understand why I would do this to myself, you need to know that my goal in life (more or less for the last 25 years) has been to live in a community where people were connected and committed to building something together. I had this at least once when I lived in a community I helped build that lasted five years in the nineties. I've decided that I really want to live in a community like this somewhere in New England, if possible, or at least on the east coast.

My most recent attempt has not turned out to be what I wanted. There have been some parallels here with what happened with an attempt to build community in northern New England a few years back that made me realize that I need more than just my own willingness and efforts to build community. I need other people with the passion to do this and at least one with some real experience. I won't do it again without both those pieces--that's a public promise. At this point I'm looking for either a community to join or some people to build one with.

There are two wonderful communities in Virginia that are examples of what I want: Twin Oaks and Acorn (see my last post, Communities of Communities, for more information on them and other communities I mention in this post). Both communities require a three week visit to apply for membership. I knew that Twin Oaks had a long waiting list so I contacted Acorn, initially for a three week visit in July. They approved it but said they were very full and that even if I was accepted, it would be at least six months before they had an opening. (Note--in some ways this is a good sign; the fact that both Acorn and Twin Oaks are full with long lists means there are lots of people who want this kind of community.)

At that point I heard about an interesting community in the midwest looking for people and decided to apply there instead. Unfortunately, it turned out to not be a good fit. So now I am back to visiting and applying at Acorn.

And it looks like I will spend the fall traveling. I'm beginning with the Communities Conference at Twin Oaks on Labor Day weekend (hoping that there I can connect with some folks really interested in community) followed by my three week visit to Acorn nearby, now rescheduled for right after the conference. I will apply for membership there, but even if  they accept me, I won't be able to stay. So I will come back to Boston briefly before leaving to visit a very close friend in Oakland, California (and since I don't like flying, I will be going across country by train or bus, a four day journey in either direction). I will spend about a week with my friend sometime in October (and may stop to visit the northeast Missouri communities--again, see my last post for details on them--on the way back) and then I'm now trying to schedule a three week visit at Twin Oaks in November. I hope to be back in Boston for the holidays, probably staying with friends and family, and maybe by that time I'll have some idea what I'll be doing in 2013. My goal for next year is to either get into one of the Virginia communities (Twin Oaks, Acorn, Living Energy Farm, 'Chubby Squirrels', or something else that emerges) or be building a community in New England with committed people.

What makes this really difficult is that I'm now 60, and soon to be 61. But I know this is what I need to do. I believe in the social change ideas I talk about in this blog and, for me, the way to put them into practice is a community that models these ideas. If it takes me the rest of my life to find or build that community, well, that's what I need to do.

Quote of the day: "...hope is not an emotion; it's a way of thinking or a cognitive process. ... hope is a combination of setting goals, having the tenacity and perseverence to pursue them, and believing in our own abilities. ... Toleration for disappointment, determination, and a belief in self are at the heart of hope." - Brené Brown

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Communities of Communities

I've written about the Federation of Egalitarian Communities in my post on Egalitarian Communities, 10/22/08, and about Twin Oaks in a post entitled Real Models 1:Twin Oaks, 9/30/10. What I want to write about here is what is happening in Louisa County, Virginia, where Twin Oaks is located.

Twin Oaks has been around for forty-five years as of this year and has a population of about a hundred people (adults and children). While this would be impressive enough, in 1993 some folks from Twin Oaks helped found a second community, called Acorn. (Yes, this is a spinoff reference.) Acorn is located in Mineral, a town over from Twin Oaks, and now has about 30 members. Last year, with help from Twin Oaks and Acorn, work was begun on Living Energy Farm.  This will be a community, education center, and farm which will also be a demonstration of how it is possible to live without fossil fuels. (For more on this see my series on life Beyond Fuels, starting with Beyond Fuels 1: New Living and Old Learnings, 11/23/11.) Twin Oaks and Acorn are members of the FEC and Living Energy Farm is a Community in Dialogue with them. All are located close to one another in Louisa County.

Paxus Calta who lives at Twin Oaks appears to be planning to organize another community, which he also wants in the area and in the FEC, which he is alternatively calling Dancing Squirrels and Chubby Squirrels. I normally wouldn't pay a lot of attention to someone who has an idea for a community, but given the size and stability of Twin Oaks and Acorn, with their help, this (and Living Energy Farm) will probably succeed. In fact, at this point, Twin Oaks and Acorn both have long waiting lists of people who want to get into them. The waiting list at Acorn is at least six months and I suspect the waiting list at Twin Oaks is a lot longer.

I find what's happening in Louisa County very inspiring. There's a growing community of communities there within a few miles of each other, backed by the durability of Twin Oaks (and now Acorn) and an apparent real longing for community, as evidenced by the waiting lists.

But what's really amazing is that Louisa County isn't the only place this is happening. In Rutledge, a small town in northeastern Missouri (population 109) there are also three growing, thriving intentional communities that are working together.

Sandhill Farm is the oldest, started in by four 24-year olds in 1974, now at maybe eight members. That may not seem impressive, but the fact that Sandhill was there and supportive encouraged a small group of students from California who wanted to build an ecovillage to settle there in 1997 (incidentally, the group began to converge in 1993, the same year Acorn started). Dancing Rabbit now has sixty-something members, residents, and children. They are talking about wanting 500 to 1000, but even having sixty now is pretty good. Among other things, Dancing Rabbit wants to have a "Society of Communities". One community within Dancing Rabbit is Skyhouse.  Dancing Rabbit isn't an FEC community but Skyhouse is (and so is Sandhill). Then, in 2005, Red Earth Farms, "an intentional community of homesteads" bought 76 acres of land adjacent to Dancing Rabbit. There's now about seventeen adults and children living there. From what I understand, there is a lot of traffic back and forth between the three communities--and a lot of support for each other. And, not far away, in La Plata, Missouri, is the Possibility Alliance, very interesting community of nine folks that has some links with the three Rutledge communities. In addition, some students from Colby College are making a film about the three communities called "The Rhythm of Rutledge".

Paxus, the blogger I wrote about above, has written a post called "The best parts of America"  where he talks about all these communities (except the one he's starting) as well as some of the other FEC related communities around the country. It's a nice overview of this process.

What is so exciting to me is the building energy in Louisa and Rutledge. Far from the urban mainstream, folks are gathering (about 130--so far--in VA and nearing a hundred in northeastern MO) and supporting each other in building communities. The long waiting lists for the communities in Virginia shows the hunger for this and the durability of the communities. The fact that Twin Oaks has also been running strong since 1967 is an interesting answer to "Whatever happened to all those communes from the sixties?" I think it's also significant that Sandhill has been hanging in since the seventies and has managed to attract and support two other communities in their small town. Building strong vibrant egalitarian community is possible, and even very successful, at least in two places in the US.

In my next post I'll talk about some of my own plans around community.

Addendum (6/12/12):  I finally found a piece of info that I was looking for.  I never really understood why the folks at Red Earth Farms decided to create something separate from Dancing Rabbit.  From Laird Schaub's (of Sandhill) blog Laird's Commentary on Community and Consensus  in a post labeled 'Culture Forming in Northeast Missouri':
"When some DR members were unhappy about the community's adamancy about maintaining a high population density, they started the spin-off community of Red Earth Farms, on 76 adjoining acres in 2007. Red Earth is based on a more agrarian, homestead model of land development."

Quote of the Day: "Why We Exist--Because we share so much, and because we are committed to a vision of community which transcends our individual groups, we have joined together to cooperate on publications, conferences, recruitment efforts, community support systems including health care, and a variety of other mutually supportive activities. Our aim is not only to help each other; we want to help more people discover the advantages of a communal alternative, and to promote the evolution of a more egalitarian world." - from the FEC website

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Interlude: Next Changes

I'm still reading my biology book but I'm not sure whether I'll continue this series, or when I will if I do.

Several things have been happening. The first is that I kept a copy of all the posts that I've written on a flashdrive that I kept in my pocket. Some of it was backed up, but there was much of it that wasn't. Then one day the flashdrive was missing. I still haven't found it and that's put a crimp in my desires to write lots of posts.

More importantly, about halfway through this first year of my latest community venture, I realized that it wasn't working. I'm not happy about this but I don't think that continuing on, as is, makes sense. Neither does starting over. I've done this several times and it hasn't worked. There comes a point where I need to pay attention and decide that it's time to go in a different direction.

In essence, instead of trying to create community (at least for now) I'm looking at trying to join an already functioning community. Part of the reason is to learn from what's working (as well as to perhaps help a community or two work even better) and part of it is to look for others with experience living in community. I will not (and this is a promise to myself) try again to start building a community alone or only with people who haven't done it before. I need to have others with experience to do this with--and, I think the way to find others with experience is to get active in the communities movement.

Unfortunately, this is a challenge, as I'm now sixty and starting over, especially since it will involve traveling and some short term community situations (a year or two, is what I'm thinking). It may involve more than one situation before I find the folks I'm looking for. This isn't exciting and it is risky, but I don't have any better ideas.

What I want to do is to build or live in community in New England, but the kind of community I want (simple, sustainable, communal, and egalitarian) doesn't exist here. What it looks like I'll be doing is leaving New England, hopefully not for too long and not going too, too far.

Meanwhile, my next post will be on what I see as one of the most hopeful developments in building this kind of community: communities of communities.

Quote of the Day: “Life is occupied in both perpetuating itself and in surpassing itself. If all it does is maintain itself, then living is only not dying.” - Simone de Beauvoir

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Biology 101: Photosynthesis

Biologists define us humans, as well as almost all other animals, fungi, and even many bacteria as heterotrophs--which means we can't make our own food. Plants, algae, and cyanobacteria, on the other hand, are defined as autotrophs, or more specifically, photoautotrophs, which means that they make their own food from carbon dioxide, water, and sunlight.

We get our nutrition from plants. Even extreme carnivores who might eat nothing but meat really get their nutrition from plants--it's just that they get it by eating animals who eat plants, or even animals who eat animals who eat plants. This is what's meant by eating lower on the food chain. At the base of that chain is plants (and algae, etc).

In my last post (Cellular Respiration, 5/10/12), I talked about why we need oxygen and ended with the question: 'where does the oxygen come from?' From plants, of course. Plants and algae and cyanobacteria.

It's believed that Earth's original atmosphere was mostly methane, and the first organisms were anaerobic. Cynobacteria came along and began giving off oxygen, which triggered what is sometimes called the 'Great Oxygenation Event' or the 'Oxygen Catastrophe'--where some of the oxygen caused rust and mineral formation, some of the oxygen combined with the methane to form carbon dioxide, and some of the oxygen stayed in free form. This killed off much of the aerobic population and allowed the formation of oxygen breathing creatures.

Plants (etc) keep oxygen in the atmosphere and, as I said, feed us as well. In my last post I gave the formula: C6H12O6 + 6 O2 → 6 CO2 + 6 H2O, which means we take in glucose (and other carbohydrates) and oxygen and break them down into carbon dioxide and water. Photosynthesis allows plants to do the opposite, to take carbon dioxide and water and using the energy from sunlight, make them into glucose and oxygen. The formula for photosynthesis is the reverse: 6 CO2 + 6 H2O → C6H12O6 + 6 O2.

Photosynthesis is a two part operation. First the plant collects light using the 'light-dependent reactions', then it feeds the generated energy into what's called the Calvin cycle or even the 'dark reactions' (because light isn't needed for this).

So here's another question, similar to why do we need oxygen and where does the oxygen come from: Why are plants green?

Light, as you may know, is made of a spectrum of colors. We see black when something absorbs the entire spectrum of light, and we see white when something rejects (or reflects) the full spectrum. The spectrum goes from red to blue and purple--and apparently the colors at either end have the most useful energy for the plants. The plants look green to us because that's what's in the middle and what the plants can't use. The chloroplasts of the plants are filled with pigments that pull in the red and the blue and reflect back green (chlorophyll), as well as pigments that pull in other parts of the spectrum and reflect back yellow (xanthophyll) or orange (carotene)--this is why, when the chlorophyll disappears in the fall, leaves turn yellow or orange.

All of these pigments collect photons from the light and pass them to a 'Reaction Center' which uses the energy to excite electrons from the hydrogen in water (H2O) to send along an electron transport chain (similar to what I talked about in my last post). The protons are sent through various pumps and the oxygen is given off as a waste product. (Yes, this is the oxygen we breathe.) It also uses the energy from the electron transport and the proton powered pumps to create ATP and NADPH--which, as I explained in my last post, are just ways of storing energy.
The Calvin Cycle is sort of like the Krebs cycle in reverse. It takes in carbon dioxide and the reconstituted hydrogen from the electron transport system (and the energy from the ATP and NADPH created by the system) and uses them all to form sugars.

All this happens in the chloroplasts of plants. It also happens in the chloroplasts of algae. Something similar happens in cyanobacteria, but they don't have chloroplasts--in fact, the theory is that cyanobacteria were absorbed by the ancestors of plants and algae and became the chloroplasts.

Again, plants take in carbon dioxide and water and give off oxygen as well as creating sugars, starches, proteins, etc. We breathe in the oxygen and eat the nutrients from plants and breathe out carbon dioxide and pee out water--which is what the plants can use. Photosynthesis and cellular respiration are connected in a cycle that basically keeps the whole planet alive. This is why I think learning this stuff is important. As I heard someone once say, every time you breathe, you should thank a plant.

Quote of the Day: "On a global scale, the collective productivity of the minute chloroplasts is prodigious; it is estimated that photosynthesis makes about 160 billion metric tons of carbohydrates per year... No other chemical process on the planet can match the output of photosynthesis. And no other process is more important than photosynthesis for the welfare of life on Earth." - Neil Campbell and Jane Reece

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Biology 101: Cellular Respiration

Take a deep breath. Now what just happened?

Okay, you took in air and the oxygen in it was absorbed by your lungs and travelled through your bloodstream to your cells. Now what? What do your cells want oxygen for?

Cells (as I put in my last post) are complex organisms, always in motion, always working. That work is powered by the mitochondia (also called 'the powerhouses of the cell'). The process of energy production that they do is called cellular respiration.

Cellular respiration is a process that converts a molecule of sugar (glucose)--or some other energy source: carbohydrate, protein, or fat--and six molecules of oxygen into six molecules of carbon dioxide and six molecules of water. (The chemical formula is C6H12O6 + 6 O2 → 6 CO2 + 6 H2O.) It actually consists of three processes: glycolysis, the citric acid cycle (aka the Krebs cycle), and something called oxidative phosphorylation (aka the electron transport chain).
Glycolysis is the process where glucose (or some other carbohydrate/protein/fat) is broken down into the chemical pyruvate. It takes place in the fluid of the cell (which is called the cytosol). This is done as a first step and is in itself a complex process that creates a small amount of energy in the form of molecules of ATP and NADH. Basically the cell uses these molecules as ways to store energy, sort of like little batteries that can be plugged in and used when energy is needed. Once glycolysis is complete a couple of things can happen.

The most likely (in our bodies, anyway) thing to happen next is that the pyruvate enters the citric acid cycle. This is a really complex circle of reactions that take the pyruvate and break it down into carbon dioxide and water. It takes place in the mitochondria in our cells and whether it happens or not is decided by whether there is oxygen available or not.

If there isn't oxygen available (either because this is happening in a muscle that can't get oxygen quickly enough or because we're talking about yeast or bacteria), alternatively cells can use fermentation, which creates a lot of waste products--lactic acid in the case of your muscles, and which is why they become sore after hard work, as well as what happens from the bacteria in yogurt, and alcohol in the case of yeast, and people drink the waste products.

Assuming that the citric acid cycle happens, a few more energy molecules (ATP, NADH, and FADH2) are created. But the real energy pay-off is from the third part of the respiration process. This is called oxidative phosphorylation which breaks down the hydrogen from the glucose (or whatever) into electrons and protons (which is all hydrogen is, an electron and a proton) and sends the electrons along an electron transport chain in the membrane of the mitochondrion (the singular of mitochonria) and pumps the protons back and forth through the membrane. The whole process of the electrons travelling along the transport system reminds me of electricity (ie, electrons flowing through a wire). And the process creates a whole lot of ATP, which is what powers all the work your cells do.

Now here's what keeps it going. At the end of that transport chain is a molecule of oxygen. Oxygen is, in this case, the electron acceptor--it's what attracts the electrons and keeps them flowing through the transport chain. I think of it almost like a magnet--it strongly attracts the electrons and keeps the whole thing running. When the electrons and protons arrive, they combine back to hydrogen and then combine with the oxygen to form water (H2O). Then you pee out the extra water (and breathe out the carbon dioxide created in the citric acid cycle).

I've quoted a couple of times the line that "you can only live 3 minutes without air, you can live 3 days without water, and you can live 3 weeks without food." (See Air, 5/7/09, and Water, 5/10/09.) We need water to keep everything fluid in our bodies. Here is why we need food and air. We need food for those molecules of glucose (etc) to start the process of cellular respiration. And we need air to supply the oxygen to finish the process of cellular respiration. And, as you can tell by the fact that we can make it three weeks without food, but only three minutes without air, we really need that oxygen.

So, now that you know why we need oxygen, another question is, where does the oxygen come from? That's the topic of my next post.

Quote of the Day: "...When your muscles are doing lots of work, they need lots of ATP. Your cells make ATP by doing cellular respiration. In order to make ATP, you need oxygen to accept electrons at your electron transport chain. So, as you use up your ATP in your muscles, you breathe faster to bring in more oxygen, so you can have more oxygen in you mitochondia to accept more electrons, to make more ATP. This is why you breathe.
"Everything you already knew about breathing, such as bringing oxygen to your lungs and having your red blood cells carry it around your body, is all true, but that's really more about how you get oxygen to your cells, not why your cells need it. The why is all about electron transport chains. Really. And if you're denied oxygen for some reason, you die because no oxygen = no final electron acceptor = no ATP = no cellular work = cells cease to function = death." - René Fester Kratz

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Biology 101: Cells

Cells are the basic unit of biology. All living things (except viruses, and it's debatable whether they're alive) are made of cells--or are cells themselves. Some creatures are unicellular (consisting of one cell--examples are bacteria, amoebas, and diatoms) and others are multicellular (such as plant and animals).

While the cell structure of some unicellular beings (such as bacteria) is fairly simple, the structure of the cells of protozoa, fungi, plants, and animals are very similar and very complex. When I first started learning about cell structure, I had trouble believing all those little things (called organelles) really existed.

The cell is basically a huge chemical factory, constantly busy, constantly in motion. It's filled with these organelles, such as the nucleus, the endoplasmic reticulum, the Golgi apparatus, mitochondria, and, in plants, chloroplasts.

One of the interesting things about these organelles, is where they came from; how did cells become so complex? One theory about some of the organelles--in particular, the mitochondria (the energy source for the cells) and chloroplasts (which contain the chlorophyll in plants)--is that they were originally bacteria that were taken in by cells. The mitochondria and chloroplasts even have their own separate DNA.

Besides organelles, cell have membranes that surround the cell and many of the organelles and, suprisingly (at least to me), they have their own skeleton. The membrane is particularly intriguing since it not only protects the cells (or organelles) but is also very involved in biochemical processes as well as regulating transport of materials across its boundary.

The mitochondria (and particularly the membrane of the mitochondria) and the chloroplasts are involved in two of the most important processes for all life on earth: cellular respiration and photosynthesis. I will talk about these in my next two posts.

I'm still trying to wrap my head around all this. Each of us is a walking conglomerate of millions of these cells. At this minute, they are all in action in your body. Think of it. Who you are is the sum of all these cells--the cells make up your organs and your organs make up the body you call you. All our thoughts are electrical impulses traveling through these cells. It makes me appreciate the Buddhist ideas of 'dependent origination' and having no separate, permanent self.

Quote of the Day: "Cells are the smallest living things and they have all the properties of life, including reproduction, response to environmental signals, a need for energy, and the release of waste products. ...
"All living things are made of cells. All cells are built out of the same materials and function in similar ways, showing the relationship of all life on Earth." - René Fester Kratz

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Biology 101: An Introduction

This has been a rough year for me. (More on this much later.) While trying to put together a community of sorts, I've been spending my spare time (what else?) reading.

Reading about community? Consensus decision making? Social change? Spiritual paths?

Well, yes, but mostly I've been reading about biology.

It started with me finding a recent, detailed college biology textbook in with the free books at my very local recycling center. I realized that if I was interested in taking care of people, health stuff, nutrition, growing food, plants, and ecosystems, these all had to do with life, and therefore, biology.

At my house, you can often find me at one kitchen table or another, reading a biology book (or several)--slowly poking my way through the big textbook as I eat lunch or dinner (always stopping if there's a housemate to talk with), really trying to learn this stuff. I have been supplementing the textbook with all sorts of other books on the various aspects of what I'm studying at the particular moment. I'm making my way systematically through the book. I've gone through biochemistry, cell structure, metabolism, cell communication, cell respiration, and photosynthesis. I'm now working my way through genetics.

I think that some of what I've been learning is important enough to put in this blog. Since one of the things I think is most important in social change is taking care of people and meeting their needs, I think that having some knowledge of how people work and the natural world works, can be useful in this.

Feel free to skip the next bunch of posts if most of this doesn't interest you (hopefully you skip things that don't interest you here anyway) but my hope is that social change activists and other people concerned about people might want to learn a little of what we're made of and what keeps us alive.

Quote of the Day: "Life can be explained by its underlying chemistry, just as chemistry can be explained by its underlying physics. But the life that emerges from the underlying chemistry of biomolecules is something more than the collection of molecules. ... once these molecules came to reside in cells, they began to interact with one another to generate new processes, like motility and metabolism and perception, processes that are unique to living creatures, processes that have no counterpart at simpler levels. These new, life-specific functions are referred to as emergent functions.
"...I once again revert to my covenant with Mystery, and respond to the emergence of Life not with a search for its Design or Purpose but instead with outrageous celebration that it occurred at all. I take the concept of miracle and use it not as a manifestation of divine intervention but as the astonishing property of emergence. Life does generate something-more-from-nothing-but, over and over again, and each emergence, even though fully explainable by chemistry, is nonetheless miraculous." - Ursula Goodenough

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Complexity Once More

I recently re-read the book Complexity by Michell Waldrop. Once again I was taken with many of the ideas of these researchers--especially the idea that " systems always seem to emerge from the bottom up, from a population of much simpler systems." They talk about how "...since it's effectively impossible to cover every conceivable situation, top-down systems are forever running into combinations of events they don't know how to handle."

Building things from the bottom up (or as I've been putting it, "Rebuilding the World from the ground up") is what I see us needing to do--it's the only way I can think of to create "a World that Works for Everyone."

But the scientists and theorists in the book go on to talk about focusing on "...ongoing behavior instead of a final result." They point out that " systems never really settle down." And they make the point that social systems, as well as biological systems, need to be on what they call 'the edge of chaos' in order to function well. Systems that are too orderly (Doyne Farmer, one of the scientists being interviewed, cites Stalinist USSR and "the Big Three automakers in Detroit in the 1970s") become "rigidly locked in to certain ways of doing things" and therefore vulnerable. But systems that are too chaotic (Farmer points to the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the horrors of the industrial revolution in the UK, and the laissez-faire economics that led to the savings and loan collapse in the US in the 1990s) don't work either. "Common sense, not to mention recent political experience, suggests that healthy economies and healthy societies alike have to keep order and chaos in balance--and not just a wishy-washy, average, middle of the road kind of balance, either. Like a living cell, they have to regulate themselves with a dense web of feedbacks and regulation, at the same time that they leave plenty of room for creativity, change, and response to new conditions."

This reminds me of what sustainability folks call 'resilience'--creativity and adaptibility with built in redundancy so that there is room to deal with problems.

One more thing (among many) that I was taken with was some of the ideas on learning and behavior change. John Holland is a computer scientist that became fascinated with neuroscientist Donald Hebb's ideas on learning and the brain. It's all about synapses and connections but you can take the ideas on wiring as metaphorical as well as literal. What several of the complexity theorists (including Doyne Farmer, referenced above) were coming to believe is that "...the behavior of the network as a whole is determined almost entirely by the connections." In this way learning is about changing the connections, and the idea is that " can change them in two different ways. The first way is to leave the connections in place but modify their 'strength'. This corresponds to what Holland calls exploitation learning: improving what you already have. ... The second, more radical way of adjusting the connections is to change the network's whole wiring diagram. Rip out some of the old connections and put in new ones. This corresponds to what Holland calls exploration learning: taking the risk of screwing up big in return for the chance of winning big."

Unfortunately, I know about some of this personally as I've taken several risky chances in my attempts to build community where I've ended up screwing up big--although one time I think I ended up winning big when a bunch of us were able to set up a well functioning community that lasted five years. I also think that if we are going to build a new way of living we are going to have to "Rip out some of the old connections and put in new ones." And, yeah, it's risky. But it may be the only way to really change things. But that's why (when there is as much chance of screwing up as getting what we want) we will need to build small adaptive systems (communities, cooperative businesses, small farms, demonstration models, etc) many of which will fail. It's the way that emergence works--and it's the way natural systems evolve.

Building resilient, adaptive little systems on the edge of chaos as an ongoing process that never settles down. Not easy, but it's the only way that I can see to create change. Observe, take small steps, build simple systems--and who knows what will emerge from there.

Quote of the Day: " means that you observe, and observe, and observe, and occasionally stick your oar in and improve something for the better. It means you try to see reality for what it is, and realize that the game you are in keeps changing, so that it's up to you to figure out the current rules of the game as it's being played. stop being naive, stop adhering to standard theories that are built on outmoded assumptions about the rules of play... You just observe. And where you can make an effective move, you make a move." - Brian Arthur (from the book Complexity)

Thursday, April 12, 2012


This is another book review that for some reason I never posted.

At the beginning of last year, I wrote a post on Daniel Quinn's book, Beyond Civilization (see Beyond Civilization, 1/3/11). Daniel Quinn has written a bunch of books but the one that first got him some attention was Ishmael, which won the Turner Tomorrow Fellowship Award in 1991 aqnd was published in 1992. Having seen dozens of references to it and having heard from several people how important it was to them, I have just read it.

Ishmael is the story of a guy who answers a personal ad for a teacher seeking a pupil and finds that the teacher is a 500 pound gorilla who communicates telepathically (yes!) and describes two cultures, one that Ishmael (the gorilla) calls 'the Takers' and one that he calls 'the Leavers'. The Takers believe that they are the pinnacle of the evolutionary process and are meant to rule the world, where the Leavers (or tribal folks) are content to just be another part of the natural world. All this is teased out of Ishmael's pupil by means of Ishmael's questions--most of the book is a sort of Socratic dialogue.

It's not the best written book. The style of this story reminds me of Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe stories that I used to read when I used to read mysteries. The voice of the anonymous narrator seems to me a lot like Archie Goodwin, the narrator of the Wolfe stories. (And there is the fact that, like Wolfe, Ishmael has considerable weight.)

But it's an important book. Not because it's unique, but because it has been so widely read.

I doubt that Daniel Quinn would think of himself as an ecofeminist--nor do I think most ecofeminists would think of him as one either. For one obvious thing, Ishmael uses the term 'man' to refer to human beings throughout the book. Nevertheless, I was reading Ishmael at the same time as I was reading various ecofeminist authors and felt like there was a strong similarity of emphasis. As it says in the novel: "The premise of the Takers' story is 'The world belongs to man.' ...The premise of the Leavers' story is 'Man belongs to the world.'" "In order to make himself the ruler of the world, man first had to conquer it." "Man is conquering the deserts, man is conquering the oceans, man is conquering the atom, man is conquering the elements, man is conquering outer space." Many ecofeminist writers have written very similar things, even including the use of the word 'man'--although in an ironic sense that Daniel Quinn doesn't use.

The point of this book, and, I believe, the point of most ecofeminist writing, is that in trying to rule the world we are destroying it, and we cannot live without the world. Thus the book suggests we need a new story and that we can learn much of that story from 'the Leavers', the tribal peoples of the world, who live as a part of nature rather than trying to dominate it. The book in many ways reminds me of Chellis Glendinning's book My Name is Chellis & I'm in Recovery from Western Civilization (see my review in One with Nature 1: Recovery, 12/26/08). Like Chellis, Daniel Quinn looks at hunter-gatherer tribes as a model for re-learning how to live in harmony with the natural world.

I know that Ishmael has been very influential for many people. And it really doesn't matter that many other writers (including most of the ecofeminists, and the permaculture people, too, for that matter) are saying the same things. This is a message that needs to be put out again and again and again. It's not just about climate change, or rainforest destruction, or peak oil, or whatever issue you want to name. We are dealing with a systemic issue and we need to rethink everything. We need to think--as I would put it--how we can live simply, sustainably, equally, cooperatively, and even communally. Yes, and we need to think how we can live tribally. Because we are on the verge of destroying the planet and minor reforms are not going to cut it. (Not to mention that people are treating each other very badly, and it's about time that changes too.) As Daniel Quinn puts it, "You're captives of a civilizational system that more or less compels you to go on destroying the world in order to live." Well, as Quinn and many other people are insisting, it's time to create a different system. It's either that or say goodbye to everything.

Quote of the Day: "The Takers are a profoundly lonely people. The world for them is enemy territory, and they live in it like an army of occupation, alienated and isolated..." - Daniel Quinn

Thursday, April 5, 2012


At this point, what's going onto this blog is a mishmash of stuff I'm thinking about, stuff I've wanted to post for a while, stuff that just occurs to me, and random stuff I think might be useful. Among other things, I'm going through stuff I meant to put in the blog but somehow never did. This is a book review I wrote a long time ago and never posted.

Mycelium Running by Paul Stamets bears the subtitle "How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World". He isn't kidding; Paul Stamets believes that mushrooms and mycelium are the best means of saving the planet. I'm not quite as much of a fanatic about mushrooms (or any single 'solution') but reading this book has made me believe that mushrooms and mycelium should be an important part of rebuilding the world.

Mushrooms come from mycelia (the plural of mycelium) which are long, white, underground, threadlike cellular structures that run through the soil. The mycelia form a network through the earth that can grow as large as 2,400 acres, as was found in Oregon and dubbed the largest organism in the world.

These mycelial networks help explain things like 'fairy circles' where a perfect circle of mushrooms will grow in the woods. The explanation is that they are all interconnected by their mycelia. Mushrooms are often described as 'the fruiting bodies', (that is, the reproductive organs) of mycelia--they contain the spores that can be carried off by animals enjoying the mushrooms, thus helping to spread the mycelia.

The first chapter in the book is devoted to mycelial networks, comparing them to the connections in the brain and in the internet, and even dark matter in the universe. It seems a bit much but the accompanying photographs show how similar the patterns of these various things are. From there Stamets goes into the life cycle of mushrooms and the various types of mushrooms. He discusses the medicinal use of mushrooms and devotes an entire section to what he terms 'Mycorestoration', using mushrooms and mycelia to restore the world through filtering out toxins, remediation of poisoned soil, helping to grow back forests, and even to develop natural pesticides. The final section of the book concentrates on how to grow mycelia and mushrooms--with a last chapter of the book on 'Nutritional Properties of Mushrooms'.

Like I said, this book didn't convert me to mycofanaticism but it did make me aware of the contributions that mycelia make to the ecosystem. If you want to enrich your ecological awareness or perhaps just want to know how to grow mushrooms, this is a great book to look through.

Quote of the Day: "There are more species of fungi, bacteria, and protozoa in a single scoop of soil than there are species of plants and vertebrate animals in all of North America. And of these, fungi are the great recyclers of our planet, the mycomagicians disassembling large organic molecules into simpler forms, which in turn nourish other members of the ecological community. ...
"Since most insects are fungus loving and are excited by spores, they appear as mushrooms ripen and overmature. Vertebrates from squirrels to bears to people seek mushrooms as food. Bacteria use rotting mushrooms as a rich base for growth, further freeing nutrients and releasing a cascade of microbes that destroy the structure of mushrooms as they melt into the soil. This bacterial influx predisposes habitats for the emergence of plant communities. Ultimately, nature fosters complex partnerships of interdependence...
"Nature loves communities." - Paul Stamets

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Those of Compassion

I love reading things in very different places that I see mirroring each other. For example, two women, following different spiritual paths, write about legends from those paths, and I see similarities in the different legends that they write about.

Rachel Naomi Remen (see my posts, Blessings, 3/9/10, and More Blessings, 3/23/10) tells the legend of the Lamed-Vov. (I have written this up in More Blessings and will quote some from that.) "In this story, God tells us He will allow the world to continue as long as at any given time there is a minimum of thirty-six good people in the human race. People who are capable of responding to the suffering that is part of the human condition. ... If there are fewer than thirty-six such people alive, the world will come to an end."

She was told this story by her grandfather and when she asks him if he knew who these Lamed-Vov (the thirty-six) were, he replies, "Only God knows who the Lamed-Vovniks are. Even the Lamed-Vovniks themselves do not know for sure the role that they have in the continuation of the world, and no one else knows it either. They respond to suffering, not in order to save the world but simply because the suffering of others touches them and matters to them." Rachel Remen goes on to say that the Lamed-Vovniks could be anyone, anywhere. "What mattered was only their capacity to feel the collective suffering of the human race and to respond to the suffering around them."

Finally she asks her grandfather what the Lamed-Vovniks need to do to keep the human race safe. His answer is, "They do not need to *do anything. They respond to all suffering with compassion. Without compassion, the world cannot continue. Our compassion blesses and sustains the world."

This story resonates with me and reminds me of another story from Joanna Macy that she writes about in her book World As Lover, World As Self (see my post, World As Lover, 1/15/10, for more). Here the legend is of the Shambala Warriors which she learned about from a Tibetan Rinpoche in northern India. In brief, the story goes: "There comes a time when all life on Earth is in danger. ... In this era ... the kingdom of Shambala begins to emerge.
"... it is not a place ... It exists in the hearts and minds of the Shambala warriors... [you can't] recognize a Shambala warrior... for they wear no uniform, or insignia, and they carry no banners.
"...the Shambala warriors go into training... in the use of two weapons. ... The weapons are compassion and insight."

Two different stories, from two different traditions, Judaism and Buddhism, yet I see several parallels. The first is that both of them are about special folks, each of which uses compassion to save the world. A second is that you can't tell them from anyone else. In some ways I see them as the same story, about people, perhaps even unknown to each other, who heal the world with their compassion. Any of us could be part of the Lamed-Vov or the Shambala warriors. Maybe everyone who brings love, compassion, insight, and clear thinking to trying to make the world a better place is part of this select band. And perhaps that even includes you.

Quote of the Day: "You have to have compassion because it gives you the juice, the power, the passion to move. When you open to the pain of the world you move, you act. But that ... by itself is not enough. It can burn you out, so you need ... insight into the radical interdependence of all phenomena. ... With insight into our profound interrelatedness, you know that actions undertaken with pure intent have repercussions throughout the web of life, beyond what you can measure or discern. By itself, that insight may appear too cool, too conceptual, to sustain you and keep you moving, so you need the heat of compassion. Together ... these two can sustain us as agents of wholesome change. They are gifts for us to claim now in the healing of the world." - Joanna Macy