Giving thanks

Today is the American holiday Thanksgiving, and so I want to say thank you to everyone who has contributed to this website by stopping by and reading our articles, by sharing them with your friends, and by writing constructive and encouraging comments for the blog writers.  Thank you for being people in search of new answers (which are sometimes old answers rediscovered) and new questions.  Thank you for being a community of writer/readers, network-builders, and open-hearted learners.  Thank you also for all you do in “the real world” to make places of beauty or clean up the messes or protect the weak.

And of course,  a big huge thank you to the writers both here on this website and elsewhere for their bravery.  It can be a really scary thing to put yourself out there in writing,  on the net.   Thank you for taking that risk again and again.  We need every voice.  I know it sounds clichéd but I’ve come to realize that it’s really true.  We have to speak a new language and for that to happen we need every voice.  

So, struggle on, my friends, with courage and good will,  have a wonderful (holi)day and thank you!!!!

 

Winter is Coming

Fall has finally arrived.  It’s November, well past the time of year when we normally see freezing temperatures.  This year was unusually warm, a phrase that is beginning to lose its meaning since most years now are usually warm.  The leaves on the trees are finally turning color.  The nights are going to be freezing this week.  I look over the garden and see a few peppers I missed and remind myself to pick them before nightfall.  I collected masses of dill that reseeded itself from spring plantings.  I’ve learned that if I freeze the dill in tomato sauce I canned this summer the flavor in soup is the same as if it’s been picked fresh.  Good to know these things if you like the taste of fresh dill in winter soup.  I look over the garden and see bunches of herbs I need to pick before the frost or they will be lost to the freeze.  I worry about wasting them, and then I smile, remembering that the plants will give me another crop next year.  I’m still getting used to this experience of bounty from the perennials in the garden.  I’m still conditioned to think of food and herbs as things I purchase from the store, not wanting to waste money by allowing them to go bad.  Store bought food is so easily wasted.  Gardens are more generous!

Most of my life I’ve been a person who worried about waste; don’t waste electricity, don’t waste your food, “There are starving children in China”.  I wonder what was in the news in the 60’s when my mother used this phrase to make us feel guilty for not eating all the food on our plates.  Were there stories of people starving in China?  What happened, I wonder, to all the starving children?  I remember the oil embargo of the 70’s and the impetus not to waste energy.  I was old enough to understand about the lines at the gas stations, but ignorant of a thing called “peak oil”.  I remember the school placing plastic cards around light switches reminding us to turn off lights and conserve energy.  I understood about turning down thermostats and wearing a sweater.  Perhaps growing up in Minnesota we understood wintertime better than people living farther south.  To this day I still hear my mother’s voice complaining if a door is held open too long, worried that I’m ‘letting out the heat’.  I remember my father taking the screens off the windows and putting on storm windows.

My grandmother told me stories of living through the Great Depression reminding me not to take resources for granted because there might come a time when we need them.  She never wasted a thing.  That was her nature.  I’ve been conditioned by the times I’ve lived to think about energy, but mainly the cost of it more than the supply of it.  I remember the taking of our embassy personnel in Iran.   It was my first inkling that the Middle East would impact life in America for decades to come.  Ronald Regan took office and told us “Today is a new day”, and somehow people believed him.  The 80’s led to the 90’s consumption binge as if there was no need to worry about tomorrow. Credit was cheap.  We forgot about the embargo.  We forgot about saving money and living frugal.  We seemed to forget that bills always come due eventually.

Today it seems we have another Republican led effort to ignore the limits and pretend our actions won’t have consequences.  “Climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese.”  “Coal jobs are coming back.”  “There is plenty of oil for us to pump when the arctic ice melts!”  The cognitive dissonance this requires is profound.  If the arctic ice is melting how can we not be concerned about climate change?  As the storms, floods, and wildfires raged this year I wondered if a tipping point has been passed, if the rate of climate change is accelerating, if the dark time of climate chaos and weather disasters is upon us.  Winter is coming.  The time when food becomes scarce, when the softness of nature retreats into submission, and storms rage with callous fury.  It’s a time when we don’t know who or what will be left when spring arrives.

My ancestors are Scandinavian.  I often think their fears of winter starvation still reside in my DNA.  Those who lived in the north understood the necessity of putting up food and firewood enough to last through the winter. Winter was the time of harsh choices; when they were forced to choose the strong over the weak.   Scandinavians are often known for their stoicism.  My grandmother would fit that category, yet she had a heart big enough to love all of us as if each of us was her most cherished.  She never complained about the past, yet I knew she suffered many things.  She lived through hard times during the Great Depression, and yet still maintained the inner fortitude to keep living even when life was as hard.

Will my future be different?  I hear in people’s voices their fears of what might come, not knowing the horrors only imagining their likelihood.  I want to offer hope, but how?  How can I explain what I learned from my grandmother; that life is worth living even in the worst of times.  Family and God were all that she had but they were worth everything to her.  She had unshakable faith in the goodness of this world.  Her heart was big enough to endure pain and suffering and live through it…for us.  We were her future.  I wonder whether people truly realize how much our addiction to oil, to cars, to conveniences is going to affect our children and grandchildren’s future?

Yes, winter is coming.  But before it arrives I pause and give thanks for what I’ve received this year.  Fall gives us colors, a wild celebration of summer’s growth.  The last of this year’s crops are picked and stored away.  The wood piled high and dry under the eaves of the barn; enough to make many a warm cozy fire when the snow lays deep.  I hear the call of the wild geese passing overhead and remember how they sounded in my childhood, high in the sky, the V shape they flew as they winged their way south for the winter.  Here in Indiana they stay all year, winter and summer, never flying north.  Change has come, and more is coming.  It’s time to pick those herbs and finish my chores.  There will be plenty of time later to sit by a fire and ponder our future.

A low carbon footprint

The article “A world made by hand” was picked up and re-posted on Resilence.org.  I appreciated all the wonderful discussion by others in their comments to my piece. One person commented that “when ‘stuff’ was made by hand, the world population was around 1 billion.  So let’s examine the world of 300 years ago, when if you needed a pot, someone had to make it, if you needed flour, someone had to mill it.  Idyllic?  Blinkered is a more accurate description”

My point in writing that article wasn’t that I don’t use appliances or am against technology, but rather, that we need to use our hands more.  Or as another person wrote “Many of us have one foot in the modern world and another in the world we think is likely to come”.    Exactly!  And I have found that doing something by hand turns out to be surprisingly good for my peace of mind.  I enjoy reading about human evolution and I often think about how we as a species are changing.  I wonder what if anything will survive of our species and culture as we move through this “self” created bottle neck. That is what made me think that maybe we have lost something important when we no longer have the skills to do things with simple tools.

I would like to say something about my own family’s choices.  My husband and I both decided more than a decade ago to reduce our home’s carbon foot print. We saw the writing on the wall and felt changes forced upon us won’t be pleasant. I love the phrase “Collapse now, avoid the rush.” I stopped using a clothes dryer and dishwasher, grew more food, and cooked more fresh meals. Being an avid gardener and cook it wasn’t difficult for me to do these things. I still have a clothes washer, a stove, a refrigerator, computers, and T.V., etc. Not too great a lifestyle change!

I found the exercise of evaluating and reducing our home energy use very informative. So few people actually know how much energy their home uses. We planned to add renewable energy to our home and as recommended in the many books we read in preparation to install a solar PV system, we reduced our energy use in order to invest in a smaller sized system. We started with the less expensive but very effective solutions; more attic insulation, water heater blanket, and a programmable thermostat. We added motion sensors to some lights, power strips on electronics, and changed light bulbs to CFLs and then LEDs. Over time we purchased new windows, blinds, and replaced appliances. We were able to reduce our electricity consumption by 35% with investment in technology and rather modest lifestyle changes.

Eventually we added a high efficiency, wood burning fireplace insert and geothermal (a ground source heat pump) allowing us to stop using propane. When our home was all electric we added a 10 KW solar PV energy system, which with wood as supplemental heat supplied about 95% of our energy needs.   (I could have added to my article the enjoyment I find in gathering and stacking wood for the winter or sitting next to a cozy fire in the fireplace.)  So our “evolution” to reduce our carbon foot print was a combination of new technology and old fashioned skills.

Fifteen years later we bought an earth-bermed home (pictured above) and added solar PV energy.  My gardens are a bit smaller, the woods and views are larger.  I no longer have chickens and my husband says he’s done putting up fences.  My sons have grown up and moved on so I have fewer mouths to feed.  Perhaps the most satisfying thing about raising our children with a different mindset, was seeing how they think about the future.  One son who is studying engineering technology is interested in learning blacksmithing.

The point made by the person who thought my article was blinkered also wrote “individuals and small groups can and will pursue change for the better—but that the vast majority will have neither the means, intellect or inclination to do so.”  Yes, it’s very obvious (and saddening) to me that few people have the resources to make the changes we did.  But even more saddening to me is the number of people who do have the means and the intellect but not the inclination.  To be honest, living frugal has always been a choice we made.  Both my husband and I worked our way through college. We have always saved money and kept debt low. We teach our children that this is the way to live. Will my family’s actions  save the world? I am not optimistic, but we can’t let the inaction of others prevent us from taking action.

There was an excellent video presentation posted on Resilience Oct. 6, “The Gordon Goodman Memorial Lecture 2017 – Kevin Anderson.” Kevin Anderson, a climate change scientist, said something in an interview that sums up my position on climate change and peak resources. He was asked “Do you think [humanity] can keep climate change to less than 2 degrees?” He replied “I am not optimistic, but if we do nothing we will certainly fail.”  If we do nothing we will certainly fail.

So, yes, I’m changing what I can in my own life, and yes, I still fear for our collective future.  But living in fear is no way to live.  So along the way to stepping down into a lower carbon lifestyle, I’m finding that the path of change has also brought me unexpected joy and happiness.  If a doctor told you you had only six months to live how would you spend that time? Our attitudes toward life make a big difference not only to us but to the people around us.

I loved the piece written earlier by Richard “Getting Down to basics”, about his friend in Puerto Rico who was affected by the recent hurricane. I found his friend’s response incredibly inspirational!  She wrote “We have a few bananas and plantains from the remaining trees in the back, some we eat, some we put by, and some we trade with the neighbors for the things they have. It has continued raining often so we have water from the catchment. We are back to the island living that we always had before. No worries. The fishermen are out of luck with lost gear and little fuel but it gives the fish a rest and a chance to recover some…”

What remarkable calmness and acceptance in the face of such devastation to her home, their island!  And what a different point of view from what the news media portrays.  It seems that when disaster strikes the media only wants to show us people wailing and crying, begging for help.  The media wants us to think we are victims, beaten down survivors.  They don’t want to portray people who accept what happens and do what they can to help themselves and their neighbors; people who go about doing simple things like gathering plantains and water, with good spirits.

Her words confirmed what I deeply believe; that it isn’t our machines or technology that make humans such a remarkable species. It’s our resilience, tenacity, ingenuity, courage in the face of adversity…and most importantly, our ability to laugh and love.

All the signs are there if you can read them

The High Holy Day of the Equinox has come and gone, when the night is equal to the day, the time of pagan celebration, unfazed by all succeeding religions, unchangable by mere humans, effectively immutable, the cosmic clock, cosmic time, marking the seasons, metering our progress as a people, as a species. How did we do this quarter? well quarter and a piece, since with all the precision we can muster, after all these centuries, we still have to add a day now and again to keep up with the way it really is.

Take a look at the sky some clear night. This time of year just after sundown to the southwest, right between the spout of the teapot of sagitarius and the stinger on the tail of the scorpion one can see directly into the center of our galaxy. The band of stars brilliant with their cold indifferent light strewn across the sky stand still for awhile if you take the time to look. But if you keep watching they move, twisting across the sky all night. All the individual stars that we can see are a part of this one galaxy, each wheeling into view as the earth spins, forever aligned in terms of the abilty of our eyes to see, useful only if we can read and understand their pattern and act with the guidance they impart.

Meanwhile back on earth we breathe in and breathe out. Each decade is warmer than the last. We can argue about the cause but the simple fact is that every year another glacier dwindles or disappears, another ice shelf cracks off, and another low lying island is smaller and more threatened.

From a certain perspective it feels like we have been searching for survivors for some time, occasionally finding a few that can still talk, and some that even speak the same language.

We have lived with nature

We the Saami are a native people. We have lived with nature, not against it. — Mio Negga in these climate justice stories from 350.org

I would guess that Saami herders and hunters rely as much on motor power and mobile phones as the rest of us, but also that they’re more inclined to give Nature the benefit of the doubt in decisions small and large. The people who plan, approve and construct a hydroelectric dam,  on the other hand, are more inclined to privilege shareholder value, economic growth, personal career advancement, financial gain.  Ninety-nine times out of a hundred the dam-makers get their way.

When I was little and had my first carpentry kit, my Dad showed me how much easier it was to saw and shape with the grain of the wood rather than across it. People who live well seem to have that knack in life, and I suspect it’s true of cultures too. By this measure, our turbocharged fossil-fuelled industrial culture  does not live well. We have fought spectacularly against the grain of Nature for the past two centuries, and have equally spectacularly got our own way. But only in the short term. Our greatest victories over Nature have been Pyrrhic. We are now re-learning something that smaller, unnoticed cultures, like that of the Saami, never needed to forget.    

In the spirit of taking small steps, it’s a question we may ask in our daily choices:  is this with nature, or against it?

(photo credit: Abi King, Inside the TravelLab)

Seashells by the shore

I once visited a beach deep into Mexico along the Gulf of California.  I encountered a group of young girls as I was walking the shore collecting seashells, as I love to do.  We neither spoke each other’s language.  The girls were probably as interested in an American on their beach as they were in what I was doing in particular.  I showed them the pocket full of shells I had collected and then oddly enough they did the same.  It seems a universal habit then to pick up shells along the shore and show them off.  Humans the eternal collector and showoff!

One of the girls pointed to a particularly nice shell in my hand and I interpreted her expression of sounds/words to mean that she wanted to know if she could have it.  I sat down on the sand, spread out my shells, and invited her to do the same.  She immediately did so.  Amazing how much we communicate without words!

I saw a shell in her pile that I wanted, I drew two lines in the sand between us with a space in between.  I then reached over to her pile, picked up the shell I wanted, and placed it in the middle space.  I motioned with my hand that she could select from mine.  She grasped the idea quickly and did so, but selected a shell with which I was not willing to part.  I shook my head no, removed it from the middle, and invited her to pick again.  After she had chosen again I felt the one she selected was ‘worth’ more than the one I had chosen from her pile.  I made the sound of “hmmm” to indicate I was thinking about it and then I reached over and selected a second shell from hers and placed it in the middle.  I looked at her to see if she understood.  She shook her head yes and added a big smile, and we each took the shell(s) we had selected from the middle.  Our trading was completed.

We both seemed happy with our transaction, perhaps she was simply happy to have had interaction with an American.  Difficult to know!  But for me it was a  pleasant experience because we had done something as complicated as make trade decisions even though we did not speak each other’s language.  Later I reflected on trade deals and economics.  I realized that in our exchange we were both free to decline.  We both agreed to what we exchanged.  Neither of us had any power to force the other to trade unfairly.  We both knew what we were getting and what we were giving up.  We traded fairly.

So what does this have to do with the complex economic system we currently call our global economy?  The values of the seashells were arbitrarily chosen and what was valuable to me was different from what was valuable to her.  There wasn’t an intrinsic or objective value; we each decided what we were willing to exchange.  If it had been food or water and one of us had been hungry or thirsty the other could have held out for more because of the other’s need.  I tend to think of this as economic blackmail.  Supply and demand would also affect our trade decisions. If the beach had been covered with shells perhaps we would have seen no reason to trade for each other’s.  We all individually decide the value of the things we want and need.

Economics is a give and take, exchanging things we value; except we exchange dollars for cartons of milk, or pairs of shoes, or a package of meat.  And since we trade with dollars or some unit of currency it creates an intermediary, the ‘job’ where we acquire the dollars.  But economies are still about trading.  I trade my labor for the dollars you agree to pay me.  If you have more power than me I have less position to bargain.  The store owner trades dollars for products they then trade for more dollars.  The more intermediaries, the more complexity of the trading, the more difficult it is to see all the levels and ramifications of our trade.

Wages earners seem less able to negotiate the value of their labor making us less satisfied as employees.  We know less and less about the products we buy.  I go to a store and trade some dollars for a bottle of weed spray.  I don’t see the factory where it was made.  I don’t see how the factory affects the environment around it.  I don’t see the number of people who handled the bottle from manufacture to arrival in the store.  I don’t see the person who unpacked the container and placed the bottle on the shelf.  After using the spray in my garden I don’t see its effects on the microbes in the soil, the insects that visit the plant that was sprayed.  I don’t make the connection between the spray and a skin rash I develop later.  All of the things we don’t see or don’t make connections to are part of the reason why we’ve lost transparency in the trading system we call our economy.  And as trading has become more complex transactions are even less transparent.  Our purchases are increasingly affecting people around the world.

Trading seems to me to part of human nature, and it certainly has been important in the development or our civilization.  Rather than obsess about what we buy perhaps we should simply pay more attention.  Read labels and insist on good labeling and transparency because the more accurate the information the better informed we are as consumers.  We should do our best to find out about the product’s effect on users, producers, and the environment.  And we can start to think about how trade and economy work, how it affects the world. This is the power of the market; we are the market, we are on both sides of the market because we trade labor for money and money for goods.

We should keep in mind that across every ‘line in the sand’ is a another person.   It is much nicer when both parties have some power to trade or not, to walk away satisfied with the bargain.  And it never hurts to remember that every resource we trade comes from the earth.  We might dig it up, melt it, process it, make it into something with our hands or machines; but we still need the earth to supply the raw materials.  Ultimately, everything we trade is traded with the earth itself.

Community versus Consumerism

What is a smile worth, or a hug when you’re feeling bad?  Community is the experience of sharing and depending on others.  Consumer ideology tends to go in the opposite direction of community.  We are taught to compete against others for jobs and opportunity.  Consumerism creates an ‘us against them’ mentality that destroys our sense of common purpose.  If we are to get ahead, someone else must fall behind.  And even if others join our ‘hate group’ we still end up feeling condescension towards each other.  Rivalry corrodes relationship and destroys community.  Sharing mutual concern for each other binds us together in community.

Communities are made up of families and homes, the place where we feel a sense of ‘belongingness’.  There is something that stabilizes us when we belong, when we know where we come from, when our roots feed us even when we’re no longer there.  If our sense of community or family has been lost we feel cut off and adrift.  We derive value in a connection to the place we call “home” an identity that has a deeper meaning than just the name of the state or city in which we were born.  Home may be the house we grew up in, our parents, the source of our beginning.  Home may be the street on which we grew up.  It may be the view of the ocean, mountains, rolling farm land, or cactus dotted deserts.  Home may be the people we remember, the teacher, minister, or musician on the corner.  Whatever we think of as home, we carry this identity with us throughout life, no matter how far we travel or change.  Home grounds us and our rootedness gives meaning and stability to our life.

We are witnessing a significant erosion of both home and community in our society.  A large part of this is due to consumerism and globalization, the ability to purchase commodities made far away, distancing us from the people and places they were manufactured.  Were the shoes we bought manufactured by child labor?  We don’t know.  Was the food grown unsustainably in fields drenched with toxic chemicals?  We don’t know.  Are businesses exploiting developing countries?  We don’t know.  We only know that we need shoes.  We need food.  We need a job so we can pay for shoes and food.  When everything we purchase comes from somewhere else we are no longer living in community, we no longer know the people who grow our food and make our shoes.

We are also losing the connection to family and home because of how we spend our leisure time.  Reading email, surfing the web, checking social media are leisure time activities that we do most often alone.  These activities reduce the amount of time families play together, eat together, or talk about their day.   Children rarely play outside with other children, they prefer to play in their room on the computer.  Parents organize their children’s leisure time filling it with after school classes or team sports they believe are necessary to enrich their child’s life.  Even sports that used to be played in community have become organized around highly profitable businesses and travel teams.  It appears family time is a consumer product, something to be bought and sold.

Knowing who we are, where we come from, our origins, and belonging to a community is all part of developing a healthy psychology.  Working and playing with others we know well and depend upon is part of community.  When we know and like ourselves we are able to like others.  If we don’t like our self, we tend not to like others.  Hatred, bigotry, and racial prejudice lead to an unhealthy psychology that prevents us from being happy.

When we think of a happy person what do we imagine?  A happy person is someone that often laughs because they see humor in life’s situations.  A happy person has good health and well-being.  A happy person finds new people as interesting as they do familiar friends.  A happy person really listens when you talk to them and is secure enough to tell you honestly what they think.  A happy person is someone who feels loved and in turn loves others.

A gift economy is the opposite of a consumer economy, and gardening is truly one of the last gift economies that are still thriving.  Growing food in a garden encourages sharing.  Gardner’s share advice, plants, seeds, and produce. “Where did you get that beautiful plant?”  “How do you get such big tomatoes?”  “Please give me the recipe for this dip!”  When a neighborhood has gardens, people are neighborly.  You will share and receive fresh flowers or herbs, a bag of tomatoes, cucumbers, or zucchini; the excess from the garden.  You will visit with neighbors over the garden fence.  There is no sense of exchanging things of equal value, as in a consumer economy.  In fact, when my garden is producing too much, I am thankful that someone is willing to take what I offer.  It doesn’t matter if they give me anything in return.

Another community growing activity is the potluck meal in which everyone brings food to share.  Of all my memories from childhood the church potluck picnic is my favorite.  Tables covered with homemade food; children running about playing; adults sitting around talking.  People look you square in the face and ask “How are things going?” and you feel safe enough to tell them the truth.  Maybe ‘not so good’ and it’s nice to finally unburden yourself.  Maybe ‘something great has happened’ and you love to share the good news.  After lunch the adults would organize a softball game and everyone cheered for both teams.  This type of community gathering makes communities stronger.

Communities are places occupied by families and people who help when you need it.  We can depend upon each other.  Communities are places where people don’t need laws to tell us how to behave towards each other.  Our concern for our place in community controls how we behave.  Is everyone perfect?  No.  But it wouldn’t be a community if we didn’t have someone to talk about!  Hard to be arrogant when others have known you at your worst as well as your best.  Can communities become too enclosed, walled off from new thinking and change?  Yes.  But the opposite extreme is the World Wide Web where we are not walled off from much of anything.

Every time we turn on the T.V., surf the internet, or open social media platforms we are opening up to a flow of information that can be toxic and damaging.  There is a lot of negative comments and fake news stories spread on social media, cyber bullying that has become all too common.  Social media has become the worst form of social pollution.

The question to ask ourselves is “How does this make me feel?”  If what we read or hear makes us feel sad, confused, and miserable, then it’s pollution, it’s polluting our mind.  We can seldom do much to change the bad situations we hear and read about in the news.  And what we can’t control, we can’t be responsible for.  So when we read a story and imagine ourselves in someone’s place and feel bad, it isn’t a real and genuine life experience, we are merely being voyeurs.

What real purpose does it serve to watch stories about the horrors or violence that happens to others in the world; so that we can feel depressed?  By all means be informed and change your life where you can so that your consumption patterns make a difference.  I’m not suggesting ignorance is bliss.  I’m saying that ingesting negative disturbing information about things we can’t change is like eating junk food, it has no nutritional value.  It just makes us emotionally and mentally sick and depressed.

The places where we can act are at home and within our community.  Find ways to connect with the people around you.  Have a conversation with your husband, wife or child.  Make friends with your neighbor by stopping to talk when you see them outside.  Shop locally.  Get involved in your community through volunteer work or join an organization that does work you support.  Become a better friend to yourself.  Shut off the computer or phone and read a book now and then.  Enjoy a relationship with the writer.

Stop looking for happiness in consumption, shopping for stuff you don’t need.  Find your place, your home and community and occupy it.  Sometimes there will be sadness, but there is something you can do about it.  You can be there, for real, in person.  And you will also be there to share the happiness too.  You will experience the richness of belonging.

Identifying Social Pollution and the Erosion of Community

Following on our earlier discussion of community as a necessary myth or story for our time and the discussion in the comments about the ambivalence of tradition as both grounding and nourishing but also sometimes stifling and rigid…

Something that both “liberals” and “conservatives” can agree on is that our current American way of life is marked by extreme loss of community.  What we disagree on is who or what is to blame.  (Actually both sides like to pin the blame exactly on each other: conservatives blame the disruptive moral relativity of liberals and liberals blame the pro-business ideology of conservatives.)

I have been thinking about how traditional communities with their shared culture have been decimated around the world by the onslaught of the West with its monetized economies and emphasis on individual achievement/success over the health of the family or the community.   Western market economies (and their imitators around the world) are incredibly successful at producing consumer goods and creating material prosperity.    But it seems to me that this success has been bought at the cost of family and community coherence, not to mention environmental degradation.

We have gotten better at identifying and addressing physical pollution, (partly, it’s true, by off-shoring manufacturing), but are slower at seeing the social pollution that has eroded our communities.  We still see this social pollution as necessary and inescapable.   This is the way it is, we have been told since as long as we can remember. It is hard to see what is necessary and what is harmful. We don’t have the tools to understand and mitigate this kind of pollution yet.   And without understanding social pollution we seem to be trapped in a system that drives us to contribute to physical pollution.

For instance, many people commute long distances to work and  spent their days and energy at jobs that do not build a local community.  Instead their job will support the interests of a national chain or a multi-national corporation. Such corporations are primarily interested in communities as groups of consumers, and only distantly interested, if at all, in the health of a community.

What constitutes a healthy community?  What constitutes the unhealthy social pollution of a community?

I would argue that social structures – economic, cultural or institutional – that destroy the place-based bonds of a human and natural community are a form of pollution.   Probably there are other ways to identify what is polluting, but that is my starting point.

What has become blindingly obvious in the last few years (2016!!)  is that we live in a very socially polluted world.  Not that there ever was a social world – some perfect Golden Age – that wasn’t polluted.  Just because we don’t know what a perfectly healthy community would look like doesn’t mean that we can’t recognize the things that pollute and weaken a community and that we can’t identify beliefs and practices that are better versus worse in building community in a particular place.

What is healthy in one community might not be so for another.

Things that destroy human and natural community might include: adapting the environment to the needs of machines rather than the other way around, or the ideology of perpetual economic growth or the globalized food production and distribution system.  Community-destroying pollution also might be in the stories we tell ourselves and our children about how the world works and what success looks like.   Also in what we tell ourselves is beautiful and desirable.

What is pollution for one person might not be for another, just as a weed is just a plant that I happen not to like at this time.   Again there is no state of perfect purity that we can go back to or that it is even useful to imagine.   But maybe the idea of social pollution connects the natural and social environment in a way that might be helpful when we think about our lives and communities.

Some quiet time with the wildfire

In the last three days a wildfire has turned 800 acres of pasture on our ranch to black. It was a very dry pasture with very dry feed, hence the wildfire, but still  it was good feed, like standing grass hay. 

These fires happen periodically when it gets dry.  Every ranch around here gets their turn at this and it is no cause for despair.  But it is a painful blow to lose so much feed for our cattle when we are in a Stage Two Drought and there is no predicting the weather-patterns anymore.

I don’t know how the fire started. Probably a careless fisherman tossing away a cigarette into a clump of dry grass as he crossed our pasture on the way to or from the ocean. Maybe it was started deliberately by a local “firebug” – a person that likes to start and watch fires. It doesn’t really matter how it started.  What matters is that once it got started it was almost unstoppable.

This is a photo from the first night, when it had burned all day and eaten up about 200 acres. This is just before a bulldozer got in to cut a firebreak – a line where the brush has been scraped off, depriving the fire of fuel.   When the firebreak  was done the line of flames died out and it seemed we had the fire stopped.

But that was a vain hope.  The next day the wind picked up and the embers that had been smoldering “in the black” leapt to life, crossed over the firebreak and consumed 500 acres between 9 am and 1 pm.  More firebreaks were made and again as the wind died at dusk the flames stopped at the newly made firebreaks.  But there were smoldering piles waiting all along the line.

The next morning I decided to get to know this fire personally.  I have to admit that this is the first wildfire that I’ve taken the time to get to know face-to-face, one-on-one. During all the previous fires I’ve stayed distant while my father or brother got involved in assisting (and sometimes surreptitiously directing) the fire-fighting effort.  But for this one I decided I needed, finally, to try to understand what was happening.  Why was this fire defying the efforts of a half-dozen fire-crews and two helicopters?  How could it keep leaping the firebreak even though it was a back-burn i.e. burning against the wind?  What is the most effective way to fight a range wild-fire?

So I went down to the fire-line early before the wind picked up, before anyone else was there and watched the fire.  I didn’t bring any equipment to fight the fire.  I just wanted to be there with it for a while, to see it up close, rather than watching it from a distance or running around reacting to it or talking about it with other people.

Everything was black on the far side of the firebreak, white smoke streaming in tiny wisps from single blades of grass, or billowing extravagantly from half-burnt piles of debris that the bulldozer had pushed to the side.  A little way into the black orange flames burned in a pile of wood at the base of a brush tree. I stopped there looking at this few hundred feet of the fire-line on this, the back-burn end of the fire.

What amazed me was that the dirt seemed to be quietly on fire, reaching by slow black inexorable fingers across the fire-break.  I stuck the toe of my boot into the hot, black dirt and discovered that it was a root that was burning, the underground root of a clump of grass that had already been incinerated, and that burning root had blackened the dirt all around it.  Even with no fuel for it above ground the fire was slowly crossing the fire-break.  

The sun shone hot on the dark soil and the dark burning debris radiated heat and then the wind picked up slowly.  Out of what was smoldering and smoking emerged active orange flames, burning, reaching back against the wind to patches of fuel, flaming, reaching.  The fire was going to cross the break and there was still only me watching.  And then just as the fire crossed and orange flame burst out in a clump of grass in the unburnt side a team of firefighters arrived and doused the flame.  If they had been a minute later they would have been too late.  But this was just one spot on the mile-long line.  

After the fire-fighters arrived I went for a walk down the fire-break. Rounding a corner  down the line I saw a brown columnn of smoke and the roar of a wildfire at full-bore.  We had lost the line again after all.  I turned and walked quickly back to my truck, hearing the roar of the fire following me.  I told the fire-fighters what I had seen and evacuated behind the next fire break line.  Before long red flames were shooting into the sky very impressively and we had lost another thirty acres.

Finally, late on the third day, we got the only help that mattered, the thing that we could not ask for or requisition: a misting, then a very light drenching of rain.  It was not enough to put out the fires but it was enough to dampen the hot dirt and the hot air and discourage the fire from its willful spread.

On the fourth morning the wind did not pick up and the fire-fighters could get a handle on the fire.  Late on this, the fourth day, more rain came.  I’m pretty sure that it is over this time.

What did I learn there with the fire?  That if you want to fight a range fire with any hope of success you need to know a lot of things, such as the wind pattern for that area and the kind of vegetation there.  That timing is everything: you need to be able to think 12 hours ahead and at the same time be ready to change and react instant by instant  as the wind, the humidity, the terrain that the fire is on changes.   That you will probably not be able to beat the fire no matter what you do because when it starts burning it just wants to keep burning.

And that the world when it is burning is a very different place from when it isn’t.