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 Conversation with My Daughter, or the Possibilities and Dangers of the Future

My daughter, being sixteen, just got her driver’s license. I asked her a question a few days ago: ” If you had to choose one and give up the other, which would you choose: a personal vehicle or the internet (including social media, wifi, smart phones, etc.)?”

She thought for a bit and said: “It’s a hard question but I would choose the internet.  Nobody actually likes driving, it’s just something we have to do, but I really like having access to movies at home and all that other stuff.”

She is just one young person, but the choice and the distinction that she made surprised me.  I’m not sure that an older American (Boomers, X’s) would be capable of dis-owning the automobile with so little mental anguish. We “olds” have our sense of social identity tangled up with the system that requires a personal vehicle to “keep up.”  Car equals social survival and, beyond that, social status.

These younger ones, whose smartphone use we so often deplore, may offer a strange kind of hope.

Imagine if we could build upon this opportunity: the  remapping of social identity from personal mobility to personal connectivity.  Imagine if the US fleet of personal vehicles were to shrink just a bit every year.  That would be  an amazing reversal of our ever more frantic consumerism. It wouldn’t solve everything but it would be a beginning – a sliver of a wedge – and any wedge is welcome in what seems like a hopeless struggle .

And there is hope in thinking that our civilization’s hell-bent investment in social connectivity – the massive server farms, the underwater cables, the satellites, the FoxConn factories, the rare metal mines – might not have been entirely wrongheaded.  Perhaps we can leverage the transformation in connectivity to effect another transformation: the de-coupling of personhood from the personal vehicle?  I’m not, generally speaking, a believer in eco-modernism i.e. the idea that technology will save us from the negative side-effects of technology, but perhaps our obsession with our smartphones  could have a useful outcome after all.

The catch is that we have to actually capitalize on the opportunity and make it possible to have a decent life without each of us having to own  several tons of metal for personal transport.  We need to convert on the investments we’ve made, somewhat blindly and frivolously, in personal connectivity.  We have to dis-own car culture. And I don’t see my generation having the will to do it.

But maybe my daughter’s generation may have the social capacity to make that choice.  Maybe they can gently tip into another paradigm.

Ruben Anderson of A Small and Delicious Life  describes social capacity this way:

Three things are needed to make change;  we need three capacities. We need the Technical capacity, the Material Capacity, and the Social capacity. Let me explain:

If you have a recipe for apple pie, and some sort of an oven or other way to concentrate heat, you have the technical capacity to bake a pie.

If you have apples and flour and sugar and butter and pinch of cinnamon you have the material capacity to bake a pie.

And if you have someone who is willing to cut butter into flour, slice apples and wait around while the pie bakes, you have the social capacity to bake a pie.

If you lack any one of these three, there will be no pie. Pie will be impossible. You cannot have pie.

And the social capacity to let go of our automobiles has seemed to be the missing element .  So it’s exciting to see a glimmer of something being born that was not possible before. Just a tiny glimmer.

Of course the danger is that virtual connectivity overwhelms and undermines us humans at our very core, that we become creatures of our machines even more fundamentally,  as E.M Forster described in his prescient short story The Machine Stops, (1909)  –

…beautiful naked man was dying, strangled in the garments that he had woven.   

Our greatest strength is to need no machine, no garments of steel or intricate devices.  But that is not where we are at right now.  Right now we are searching for a staircase away from the cliff, and for any little glimmer of a path.

 

Halloween visitor

October is an unusual month, the turn of summer into winter, the sun getting lower now, a little weaker. And it ends with All Souls night. On the 31st of October 2016 a little black kitten showed up and moved in. Several times in the preceeding days i thought i had seen a dark shape duck back into the tall pasture grass along the road just catching movement out of the corner of my eyes figuring it was an unusualy dark mongoose. During the seven years we have been here many feral cats of all descriptions had come and gone with the surging tides of field mice and tree rats but none had shown any inclination to stay. During the previous summer while i was away an extended perod my partner had succumbed to the lure and adopted two once male kittens from a friend. These had grown, from mad tumbling chases around the upstairs to brave exploratory tree climbing, and following us further and further from the known territory of the barn where we live.

Our new visitor was not much bigger than my fist and was quickly named “Little”. Feral, shy and reclusive it could be found sleeping up in the joists above the foundation, the only one of the cats small enough to fit in that space. It seemed determined to stay from the start, taking quickly to the meals of kibble and occasional scraps. Apparently too young to hunt, it was a wonder how it survived before. We had a cloth mouse toy on a string left over from the twins so i dragged it across in front of Little until it became interested, seeing that i was trying to play, jumped on it and batted it around. i eventually tied it to a small branch of a tree so that it jumped around in the South Point breeze. Little jumped and jumped to get it over and over. The next day i saw the first live mouse in her jaws, but it was quickly taken away while she was playing with it and eaten by a bigger “brother” who knew exactly what to do. That was the last time. With the next one i heard loud growls and saw Little run off with the treasure. A row of nipples became apparent and it was clear Little was female. Never once did she allow me to get within arms reach, though once every few days i could get one pet in when she was feeding. Usually she just moved off if i even looked in her direction.

Little grew slowly. but one day i noticed she was getting a belly and remarked that she was getting fat. Later in the day my partner gave a look and said that’s not fat, she is going to have kittens. Oh so young. Periodically i had seen a neighbor’s stocky long haired siamese skulking around and heard the yowls from the usually silent twins, or seen the interloper chasing them around so figured maybe he was the lucky one. She grew bigger and bigger, then one day disappeared. When she showed up to feed in the evening quickly disappeared again, not staying to play. Several days later i watched her climb up to a joist space above the shop. After several days of seeing her go there i checked while she was feeding and low and behold there were a bunch of furry lumps back in a place very difficult to see. Over several days i tried to get a better look without much success. I got a drop light, tried the flash on the cell camera. Nada. Several times when she finished eating quickly she found me trying to get a peek back into her place, never challenging me just climbing back up in there and getting comfortable. A few weeks later i checked and they were gone, but then saw her back behind some scrap lumber on the ground. They musta started moving around and could easily tumble out of the joist space, so she moved them. A week later they were climbing around the top of the 5′ stone foundation wall. Three all black, two with long hair so they looked like baby bears, and one solid grey. The next week they were walking along the top of the wall, and bravely learned to scramble up and down to the ground. They ran and chased and tumbled over each other for an hour then slept for three. The next week they were trying to follow Little up a tree managing only a coupla feet. More fun than a barrel of monkeys, always something. But… What were we going to do with 7 seven cats? Reality set in. In a few months there might be a dozen, might be two dozen. Yikes!

A friend pointed us in the direction of the spay and neuter folks that come around every so often, and a date was set a month away. I could only hope that Little wouldn’t come into heat again before then, and the siamese wouldn’t come a calling. By then i would find all five twenty feet up in the christmas berry tree on the small branches near the top. The cages showed up and the towels for covers. The day approached. Then all too soon the day was here. And it fell to me to get them into the cages the night before. The whole thing left me out of sorts but i plowed ahead. Two of the new kittens were easy, i just picked them up gently and put them in their cages. Little fell for the trick of putting her dish into the cage, i watched her go in, then closed the cage. The third kitten fell for the same trick. This was going to be easy. The forth one had watched closely and would not go for the food in the cage, but i picked it up, place it in the cage, and went to close the door. The door jammed open just enough that the kitten shot out on the run. Now what? He kept his distance. He knew what i had in mind. He’d seen everything and got it. I racked my brain. Outsmarted by a kitten. Time was getting short. Aha! I got the fish landing net on the long pole. A couple misses, and he figured out the range staying just out of reach. I set the pole net down to refigure. Time was fast approaching for the appointment. Looking around for the kitten, now named “Speedo”, i found him batting at the fishnet, rubbing it in. I grabbed the pole and set the net ahead of him running away. He dodged it. A coupla more tries and i gave up, it was time to load em up and head em out. Last of the mighty hunters alright.

Later, going to pick them up, all four were hurting, scared and alone in covered individual cages, after being such a happy little family such a short time ago, that very morning. Two kittens went to one friend, the other to another. We drove back to the farm and left Little in the cage overnight as instructed. In the morning Speedo was waiting for me at the bottom of the steps, as if to say “See, no hard feelings, that was yesterday.” I let Little out and they got together immediately. But Little continued to call the others. She had lost three of the four and she knew it. Thankfully Speedo had escaped. He hadn’t been fixed when he wasn’t broken. The way it was meant to be.

Though the play fighting is getting more intense, Little and Speedo have been together almost every minute of every day since. And we have all been better for it. Reports are that all three of the other kittens are well loved and have become people cats, jumping on the couch, and getting petted.

It’s Halloween again and this year it is Speedo who is out in the light of the coming moon.

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.

A world made by hand

Only a few generations ago we made many things by hand.  Over the last 50 years store bought products have replaced handmade goods.  Few people still work with their hands, and I often wonder what we have lost in this process?  What have we lost when we no longer enjoy or even know how to make things with our hands?

Human prehistory is described by the tools and artifacts left behind.  Tools were both functional as well as art.  I love handling a kitchen tool that belonged to my grandmother.  Human development is attributed to our opposable thumb and ability to make and use tools.  So how have we changed now that we seldom use hand tools, and our hands are most often busy using a computer or phone? Are these the same kind of tools as a wood lathe, a knife and cutting board, or a needle and thread?

I love making pottery, bread, and cooking from scratch.  My grandmother taught me to knit and sew and I’ve made several articles of clothes and scarves.  I taught myself to carve wooden spoons and often think I should spend more time doing that…but don’t.   Like many people in their 50’s I often think, I’ll do that after I retire.  We are drawn to the beauty of artisan crafts and desire to explore making them ourselves, but don’t.  Perhaps life is too busy, it would take too much time to make things by hand.

In a world that has less energy available, a world that cannot afford to burn more fossil fuels, we need to move away from machines and back towards things made by hand.  That probably seems unimaginable if you didn’t grow up with a parent or grandparent that made things by hand.  But I think the reality of living like this will be more satisfying than you can imagine.

Many years ago I stopped using a clothes dryer and instead hung clothes out to dry as my grandmother did, as my mother did until she could afford the modern convenience of a dryer.  I enjoy hanging clothes outside to dry.  I like the excuse to go outside, to pay closer attention to the weather.  Is it going to be sunny and dry today?  Is it a good day to wash clothes or does it look like rain?  And while I am outside I become aware of outdoor sounds… birds, insects, the wind rustling the leaves.  It makes me feel lighthearted, less weary of things I can’t control.  I notice how the air smells and how it changes with time of day or season.  Early morning smells different than afternoon, and afternoon different from evening.  There is the smell of spring blooming flowers or bushes, freshly mowed grass in summer, or wood smoke in fall.  I also noticed the fresh smell of line dried clothes; fresh, clean, and sunny.  Did you know sunny has a smell?  And of course, I slow down.

The same thing happens when I cook using fresh food, especially from the garden.  I pay attention to what is ripening in the garden and plan a meal around what’s available.  The garden food changes over the year, cool season crops in spring and fall, and hot season crops in summer.  Did you know you can dig carrots in winter?  We have gotten used to shopping for food in grocery stores with their abundant types of food available, shipped from all over the world.  In-season and climate zones have lost their meaning.  In the process the food has also lost much of its flavor, freshness, and nutrition.  Food picked before it’s ripened and shipped across the world doesn’t contain the same nutrition as food picked fresh from the garden at the peak of ripeness.  Garden fresh food tastes better and makes me feel better eating it.

Chopping vegetables for a pot of soup takes time.  People call it Slow Food.  Food processors are not nearly as enjoyable to use as a good knife and familiar cutting board.   Making soup is a creative process.  There is the usual onion, maybe celery, potatoes, or carrots, but where to go from there, meat or beans, tomatoes or cream base?  What spices or herbs will I use; Asian curry, Italian, or Mexican?  Herbs add so much flavor there is little need to add much salt.   And herbs are easy to grow making me feel more self-sufficient.  Some come back year after year and some gladly reseed themselves.  An herb garden is a beautiful, carefree kind of place.  Butterflies and bees love to visit the blossoms, and when I’m gathering herbs I can’t help but feel connected to the life with which I share my garden.

I also enjoy making bread by hand, something I learned from my mother.  I got into artisan bread and bought a stone for my oven.  Eventually I purchased a hand cranked flour mill to make truly fresh whole grain bread.  It takes longer, but the rewards are worth it; the smell of the freshly ground flour, the yeasty dough, and the bread as it is baking.  Then there is the reward of seeing my family’s smiles as they walk through the door and smell fresh bread and soup for dinner.  One Sunday morning I brought fresh bread and homemade pesto for snacks after church service.  A man came up to me and said “Thank you for your hospitality!”  And I realized that is exactly what makes sharing food so enjoyable, hospitality.  How often do we have time to entertain guests anymore?

I know that few people have the luxury of working at home.  And perhaps your idea of craft making is different from mine.  But I think it’s too bad that we have given up this experience in the name of progress or modern convenience.    What was the convenience for?  Oh yeah,  so we’d have more time to do things we enjoy.

Too often people work because they need to earn a living, not because their job is their career.  I think people would like to have more time to be at home, enjoying time spent at a slower pace, enjoying more leisure time to be with their family, in the garden, kitchen, or workshop.  I think it may even be a deep seated need within us, to make something with our hands.  Unfortunately, this need gets suppressed by the demands of earning a living.  This need is ignored when we spend our leisure time staring at a phone or computer screen, trying to relax and tune out the pain we feel from the modern, convenient lifestyle we live.

A world made by hand isn’t going to happen by itself.  We need to find ways to turn off the machines, tune out the digital media, and let our hands be busy instead of our brain captured by a computer.  We need to learn to fix something that is broken rather than throw it away and replace it.  We need to find ways to express our longing for making art, crafts, food, laughter, and lightheartedness.  Hands that are busy pushing keys on a device do little to challenge our mind.  Remember that thing we call eye-to-hand coordination?  I’m convinced there is something developmentally necessary for our brains when we learn to do something with our hands.  The experience we get from spending hours staring at the computer or phone screen is not very life affirming.  Humans became human because we made the world by hand.  Will the world really be enriched if a robot can make pottery?  Will we still call it  “hand” made?

how’s that again?

have been running from required activity to required activity and not paying enough attention to some of the earlier thoughtful posts and comments, so want to go back a thread or two, to a story you all might find relevant to both the consumerism and life style thoughts. To me just naming how we live in terms of words like those implies an external point of view, similar i believe to the comments about the GDP value being greater for the overweight about to be in court smoker fellow than the obviously poverty striken family living within their means… Seems it’s about how we measure things, how we value the things that make up our lives.

The story goes somethng like this:
A successful norteamericano businessman is on a seaside vacation in a rural area of the Central American coast. He is walking along the beach in the morning below the village, and a small boat comes to shore and the three fishermen begin unloading a half dozen good sized tuna into an old rusty truck. The vacationer wanders over to inspect the proceedings, and inquires where they got the fish. “Oh we went out before dawn this morning and caught them just off here.” “Well that’s a good catch and it’s only 10 oclock in the morning. What are you going to do now?” The captain said they were going to take them up to the village, and cut them up to sell. Then we are going to go to the cantina and have some food with our families.”

The vacationer considers the reply for a bit then says “…well you know that if you stayed out longer then you could catch more fish and you would make more money.” “Well senor, that is true but…” “Then you could get a bigger boat and catch even more fish… If you did that then you might even be able to buy another boat or two.” “But senor, why would i want to do that?” “Then you could make even more money, and hire people to run your boats… and then you would have time to spend with your family.”

Uncle Abel Versus The World

Uncle Abel is not really my uncle.  You call almost everyone of the older generation Uncle or Aunty in Hawaiʻi.  In the twenty years that I have known Uncle Abel we’ve been on the opposite sides of the question more often than not, which is to say in enemy camps, although not exactly enemies.  But the differences don’t matter as much as what we have in common. What matters is that we love the same place.  We have a shared history with a small bay and section of land called Kāwā. He lived there for years, and I worked there for years.

Kāwā might not look like much at first glance.  It’s a small bay with a rocky, pebbly beach where the wind is usually blowing briskly.  There is no white sand and no palm trees.  The surf is  rough and the water cold. However, on a small bluff above the bay at Kāwā are the spectacular ruins of an ancient heiau (temple) and on the flat below the foundations of a village site.  These are what we used to call “archeology,” and what we now refer to as “cultural resources.” Not long ago relics such as these were considered of minimal significance compared to the demands of commerce and progress, but now they have become vital links to the pre-contact, pre-industrial past.  There is a large brackish pond behind the beach that is considered an important wet-land  for multiple species of endangered native birds.  Kāwā also has one of the few surf-breaks in the district and that in itself makes it precious to surfers of all ages.

I worked with my family on the ranch lands above the bay where Abel lived. We both impinged on each other’s realm with a casual, lawless tolerance that is nearly un-imaginable now-adays.  We pumped brackish water out of the pond and his crew of hippie-hangers-on set up camp on a piece of land inset within the ranch.  They had a Rainbow Festival one weekend and a number of the visitors stayed on for months in a constantly dwindling camp.  We thought they were funny and harmless.  None of that would be possible now.   You have to do everything by the book even out here.  You have to have all your permits in order these days.

We haven’t spoken much, Abel and I, over the years, but we’ve been on the same land. We’ve known of each other as distant neighbors. Weʻve both heard stories of each other, as one does in a small community; we’ve seen each other coming and going for a couple of decades now.

Abel is politically radical, a native sovereignty activist who camped for years near the beach at Kāwā.  I’m politically centrist, non-native, middle-class, highly indoctrinated into conventional life.  I can count on my two hands the nights I’ve slept anywhere but on a nice, soft bed.  I’m on the slightly unconventional side of conventional; Uncle Abel takes unconventional to a whole other level.

Uncle Abel has the long gray-white hair and the thin, high-cheek-boned face of a Chinese sage, but his skin is dark brown, mottled with sun spots.  His eyes, somewhat rheumy now, can glare at you with a manic insistence. Today he is wearing two ti leaves around his neck which he has tied together and shredded.  Also he is wearing a pareau in black, green, gold and red.  All of these things have a specific meaning: the two leaves – a minimalist ascetic lei  -asserts his pure spiritual authority; the pareau echoes the colors of the flag of the Hawaiian sovereignty movement.

We are both at a county government hearing for an advisory commission that recommends lands for preservation.   Abel is giving one of his famous speeches. He is protesting everything.  I’ve always admired his gift as a speaker.  He had the dramatic genius of a Shakespearean actor. When he was in top form, he was a public enemy to those in power and a cult favorite for those who were not.  He was able to keep large crowds spell-bound by his unpredictability and mad prophet oratory.  Even if you did not agree with him, even if he made you uncomfortable, Uncle Abel meant “action” – as in quite possibly police action.  It was high entertainment.

Abel has a signature line that he uses in every speech I’ve heard him give: “Ka’ū (the name of our district)” he intones meaningfully, drawing out the last vowel, “ has never been conquered.” He says this in a dramatic whisper,  turning around to confront his audience his eyes wide, daring anyone to contradict him.  His voice rising in volume, he continues: “I no recognize no government: county, state, federal.  We was never conquered you see? We the government. We, the people.”

Technically speaking he is wrong.  Our district was conquered over and over again by various ancient chiefs, but we are dealing with political myth-making here, not pedestrian historical facts. And his favorite line expresses something that is, in a mythical sense, essential. Ka’ū is the hinterland of the island.  It has always been sparsely populated and poor.  This is mostly because there are few sources of fresh water, because the district is downwind from the volcano, because the soil is rocky, the climate arid, and the oceans rough.  It is a difficult place to make a living.  Nevertheless, the people of this district, Ka’ū, are passionate about their land and fierce in their politics.  Ka’ū is known as a land of rebels.  We don’t bend the knee.

But Abel had the calling to take it quite a bit farther than the rest of us.  He wonʻt go along with our modern conveniences, like private property, representative government, hot showers and refrigerators, and in his passions he calls shame upon all of it and all of us. (He does have a Facebook page though, of course.)  In his radical rejection of all modern forms of life, we part ways with Abel, and yet not completely.   We say to ourselves, “Well, he is crazy.”  And yet he humiliates us in our acquiescence and opens up a space for questioning the status quo.

He has heart.  Even his most ardent detractors would have to give him that.  And there are plenty of people who dislike him intensely.  Mostly people who he has challenged in their position of public or private authority.  My friend who works for the county parks department has had many run-ins with Abel.  He says: “Abel doesn’t like me much, because I made him spend his seventieth birthday in the county jail.”

He loves to make trouble to those in power.   He’s good at it. Once when the County evicted him from Kāwā he planted a taro patch on the lawn in front of the big glass windows of the Mayorʻs office.  He is a political performance artist, a show-boat, an anarchist. But I’ve never heard of him doing anything low-down and dishonorable. At least recently.  Well, he used to shake down the beach visitors.  From what people have told me, including he himself, he would demand things – hoʻokupu (small offerings) like toilet paper, or money – to support his occupation.  He once asked my father if he could kill one of his cows.  My dad said no.

There was a rumor that he had murdered somebody in Honolulu a long time ago.  Thatʻs why he  holed up in Kāwā in the first place.  And then somehow he decided that it was his to guard.  I would be very surprised if the rumor was true.  There is an Old Testament madness to him, but no malice and no sneakiness. He might say outrageous things about you but he’ll do it straight to your face, which is better than some people. Heʻs not a violent person – well, there was that one time that he and his sister got into a doubles wrestling match in the brackish pond with Kyle Soares and his wife.  The police had to break it up, evidently. And, well, Iʻm sure there was plenty of blame to go around on that one.  But other than that, Abel is peaceful, as far as I know.

Having named himself the konohiki, or guardian of the place, Abel lived at the beach for years, and kept a close eye on all goings on.  He was famous for confronting anyone who showed up in an official-looking vehicle and chasing them off.  As konohiki he considered it his right to do so, as they were threats to his authority.  He also grew native food plants and organized surfing contests at the beach in the heyday of his self-appointed reign as guardian.

Other people in the community had better documented familial ties to the lands of Kāwā than Abel. They considered him a usurper and a fraud. Some people found his retinue of penniless hippies distasteful. But they mostly tolerated Abelʻs antics because his occupation threw a wrench in any attempt to develop Kāwā and helped to maintain their native, familial claims to the land without actually having to live on the beach themselves.

Abelʻs advocacy for Kāwā may have backfired on him. His term as konohiki of the beach at Kāwā ended when it was purchased by the County of Hawaii for public space and natural resource preservation.   At first Abel refused to leave and there were many tense confrontations between he and his followers and County officials. Eventually Abel was evicted. On one level he failed, in that he is no longer the konohiki of Kawā. On another level he succeeded in his very failure – the public purchase of the wild beach and ancestral sites of Kawā protect it for the foreseeable future from the commercial developments that transform  shorelines all over the world into resorts and other artificial paradises.

Is Abel a saint or a fool? A visionary or a clown? One thing is clear: he long ago stopped worrying about how to make a living or being respectable or playing the game.  He gave all that up in a way that makes me slightly vertiginous just to think about.  He walks a wild edge of the mind with only the place, Kawā, to return to, to keep him centered.   He is a brave person.

Image: Kawa Bay is pictured here in 2011. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

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.

Getting down to basics

finally heard from an old friend from Puerto Rico more than three weeks after huuricane Maria blasted the islands back to the stone age. She has a good job in the main city of San Juan working for the US Dept of Commerce NOAA Fisheries and the federal building finally got power, and lo and behold telephone, and internet via an old “antique” 3G hotspot. We were in the middle of an all too rare volley of emails when the storm struck. i had called many times over the interim and emailed a few knowing they would stay on the servers until retrieved. Despite all the coverage on the tube of dire straits Graciela seemed happily content. “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 more could one want ?

an old friend said that
she wished to have only
a bowl and a spoon

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)