Public Schools as Ecosystems: Part V

Gambier River

Image via Wikipedia

In my last post, I sought to balance the concept of achievement with the necessity of equity in education. Before I dive into curriculum (I know, I keep saying I will get into it), I would like to expound further on an analogy I made at the beginning of this series between ecology and public schools, and which has given the title to this series.

I’ve begun with the premise of schools as ecosystems. In any healthy ecosystem, there is a dynamic and interactive balance between all of the components of that ecosystem, from the trees, to the low lying shrubs, to the soil, to the bugs, the birds, the berries, the squirrels, the bears, and what have you. All components function to create an interconnected, interdependent system that naturally self-regulates to create sustainable conditions for the most productive life possible within that given environment.

Now that’s a “natural” ecosystem I’m discussing. Let’s explore the concept of a man-made ecosystem in order to better adapt that idea to schools. In a man-made ecosystem, such as a garden, the gardener works to recreate natural environments, but with a focus on a purpose that suits the gardener, such as food growth, or flower cultivation. Sometimes that focus is so monolithic that the gardener ends up in constant battle with nature, and must maintain their garden on life support infusions of toxic herbicides and pesticides. Fortunately, there are methods of deliberately harnessing natural processes and dynamics to best serve our own selfish interests. When the gardener best recreates the conditions that will foster interconnectivity and diversity of life adapted to their environment, their garden will thrive.

Now let’s bring that idea back to schools. In education, instead of growing food or flowers, our work is to grow our kids’ minds. A lot of times, this effort of increasing achievement is presented as a type of competition, which is furthered through the use of punitive grading systems and high stakes testing. Sometimes the way we talk about it makes it seem like all we want to do is pump steroids into the minds of our youth. But we know that’s not what it’s about. Education is about nurturing, developing, instilling, guiding. And in terms of an ecosystem, the big idea is that ultimately, no one is really competing, even if it looks like that on the surface. Ultimately, we work to counterbalance each other and create an environment that best harnesses the resources available within that given community.

This all sounds relatively banal, even to me, but the reason I keep pushing this analogy between gardening and education is because I’m seeking to apply permacultural principles to the ecosystems of schools. Permaculture is a philosophy of cultivating land grounded in holistic and sustainable design practices. I believe the permacultural approach is not only necessary to counter current devastating ecological practices, but is in fact superior to traditional methods and approaches to land use.

I believe that one of the critical issues underlying education reform is that we are all too often seeking superficial means of enhancing student performance. In a garden, we might temporarily achieve enhanced production through an arduous turning of topsoils and expensive input of chemicals. In a school, we might temporarily raise student test scores through test prep and infusions of outside contractors. But ultimately in both scenarios, we are only doing battle against nature and economy. In order to enhance productivity sustainably, we have to build up the foundations of our communities, our ecosystems. This requires targeted investments in the communities that most require it. There is no other way.

Growing Healthy Food and Children

Now that I have a rare moment wherein time is somewhat suspended (the woman is sick and passed out and I’ve finished grad school work due tomorrow), and I’m imbibing some Dominican ambrosia and just relaxing and feeling reflective, I think I’d like to verbalize some thoughts on public education, as right now it’s surprisingly caught the drift of a lot of national attention, due in no small part to Waiting for Superman (which I pledged to go see but never did, because  . . . you guessed it, didn’t have the time (but that’s what Netflix is for, in any case (plus, I’m opposed to seeing movies in movie theaters any more))), as well as concurrent talking points like Race to the Top, Common Core State Standards, Michelle Rhee, Cathie Black, reformed systems of teacher evaluation, bullying and deaths in school, etc.

The strange thing about education is just how damned political the whole undertaking is. The field of education is a messy conflux of policy and politics, with many stakeholders taking often quite adversarial positions even when they ostensibly have common goals. Education is a hugely dynamic and complex field, and it doesn’t really make sense to view it through the lens of only one stakeholder.

Therein, perhaps, lies the crux of the issue. No one can really quite agree on what public education is supposed to do, exactly. We certainly agree that we should be teaching our children, but often in actual application, it would appear that us adults (whether parents, teachers, administrators or policymakers) are quite confused about what is worth teaching and might need some further schooling ourselves. Often we end up simply capitalizing off of children, in the same manner that giant corporations capitalize off of war, and industries capitalize off of prisons.

An Analogy

Coinciding with the rise of public education was the rise of agribusiness. Both of these services to society, I would argue, were crucial and entirely necessary. The drive to efficiency and scalability of agribusiness has resulted in some unforeseen issues, however, such as rampant dependency on pesticides and herbicides, and the ravaging of topsoils. Awareness of these detrimental side-effects has grown, and the organic and whole foods movement has caught on at a mainstream level in order to address some of these imbalances, though the jury is still out on whether we’re even capable of rectifying them. At the very least, society is beginning to recognize that short-term gain is not always worth long-term detrimental effects, including impacts on global and personal health.

There are links between food growth and education that I think should be elucidated. When you grow food, you are not simply growing a product, you are sustaining soil life. The more vibrant and diverse that soil life is, the more abundant, sustainable, and healthy your final product is. In education, you are not simply building student dendrites and promoting academic development, you are cultivating a community. The more inclusive, diverse, and vibrant that community is, the better the academic and other outcomes will be for students. We don’t need research to tell us this.

The Big Idea

The big idea here is that post-modern farming and education, as in the permaculture approach, is all about fostering foundational systems of interconnectivity. When you are dealing with complex systems of life, you need to promote those interconnections at all cost, or else you will end up weakening those systems at an incalculably large cost to greater society.

It’s this idea that I think can promote a unified vision for where education needs to go today. It’s not just about technology or knowledge work or global competitiveness or what have you–it’s about societal health and a sustainable future for our nation. If we can’t cultivate self-sustaining communities that are vibrant, interconnected, and teeming with diversity, then we will be able to do little else than continue infusing unhealthy doses of industrial era, one-size-fits-all reforms into school systems, propped up on federal money and compliance based policies.

Accepting the Bad

Eliminate the bad, extend the good. This could be said to be the mantra of humanity. It’s an understandable outlook, of course, given that it is in our biological nature. Problem is, people take it to the furthest extent possible, such that in doing away with all the bad (temporarily), we also end up eradicating the good things which originally and naturally kept the bad in check. We upset balances in favor of an idealistic and unachievable victory.

The problem is not simply that we are attempting to eliminate the bad—it is that we are attempting to address immediate symptoms instead of looking at the root causes. We do this in everything from agriculture to health care, from scientific research to judicial systems. Examples are:

1) In the attempt to eliminate all harmful insects from our food bearing crops, we blanket them with pesticides. We kill not only all bad insects, but also the good insects which prey upon them.
2) We attempt to eliminate all malevolent microbes by making everything as sterile as possible with toxic chemical solutions and through the flippant use of antibiotics. We destroy most of the microbes, for a short amount of time, until they mutate resistance, and then they come back even stronger than before.
3) We lock up poor adolescents who are selling drugs in the attempt to find means (as businessmen with little other option) of escaping the ghetto. We render all narcotic substances illegal, even if some narcotics have a proven medicinal use, or are simply relatively benign on their effects on society in comparison to accepted substances like tobacco and alcohol.
4) We incarcerate and marginalize prostitutes and people who are addicted to illegal substances, rendering their lives incredibly dangerous, as well as encouraging the spread of disease.
5) We go to doctors mainly to treat extreme sicknesses or injuries. They barely attempt to address underlying behavioral issues, diet change, and preventative care through education and a holistic approach. Rather, they have a tendency to be mere pill-pushers and organ vultures, as their main function is to treat immediate symptoms and then send you on your way.
6) We reduce and fight forest fires, upsetting natural cycles and balances, and creating extensive brush and fuel, such that we have generated a future of increasingly apocalyptic wildfires.

These are just a few examples of what the conventional outlook of “eliminate the bad, extend the good” results in. One could extend the idea yet further into issues such as rampant hydrocarbon use or conventional sewage systems.

This perspective is extremely childish, selfish, and short-sighted when seen for what it is. In taking a whole-systems, holistic approach to these issues, one begins to see that the simple treatment of immediate symptoms, and the attempt to eradicate all immediately manifested outbreaks of all things “bad”, only leads to deeper and broader problems. What must be done is to take a step back and look at the root causes, and seek a means to realign structures into a harmonized cyclical and balanced system.

Such an approach, of course, takes time and patience, and that is one thing most of us these days are in dire lack of. We want problems to be solved immediately. We are also overconfident in technology and man’s ability to eventually overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles through breakthroughs in technological ingenuity and innovation. But no matter how many immediate problems we may solve through such means, the fact is that our essential outlook is still skewed, and eventually the rooted causes of our suffering will become so magnified as to destroy us completely. Because no matter how advanced we become, we will never be able to completely eradicate “bad” things such as disease, substance abuse, violence, or poverty.

However, in balanced and well-designed systems, we can achieve a sustainable harmony, in which these “bad” things are naturally regulated and subsumed to a greater whole; they can be accepted into the fold, temporary eddies rendered inconsequential by their eventual flow back into the main stream.

Take as an example a well-designed garden (as modeled on nature): when “pest” populations begin to rise and threaten the flowers and herbs, natural predators slim them back down before they can pose a threat. When diseases break out on a microbial level, the nutrient rich soil and humus—which is full of life so dense that it can’t even be fathomed by science—naturally fights back, just as a healthy immune system will work to set itself back into harmony after exposure to malevolent microbes.

The reason such a garden is healthy and balanced is because it fosters diversity (as opposed to monoculture), complex interconnectivity of independent systems, and natural cyclical processes (as opposed to enforced dependency on chemicals).

Now think of our society in terms of this garden, and you may begin to get some ideas on what some root causes might be underlying such immediate symptoms as illness, apathy, war, and poverty. . .

A List of Ways to Reduce Your Waste

The main problem right now in all of the world, including within each of our own lives, is waste. We waste our time, we waste our resources. Our social, economic, and political systems waste money, people, natural capital, time, and energy. We have all been taught to waste, because we have been taught—and we allow ourselves—to be blind, heedless, “good consumers”.

Businesses can strive to become closed loop production systems, in which they use a whole systems approach to reduce and eliminate waste. This ultimately saves them money and allows them to become increasingly efficient and agile in adapting to the market. So too in our individual lives we should strive to eliminate our output of waste as well as our input of short-term or function-less products.

People always seem to be confused about what they can do in their individual lives, aside from donating money to charity, to really enact change to regressive and repressive social, economic, and political systems. As in any grassroots movement, the real change comes from within. And then it begins to affect daily lives. And daily lives—the furthest downstream from centralized, sloth-like systems—affect everything.

So as an exercise, I thought it might be useful to attempt to compile a list of ways to reduce waste from our everyday personal lives. I don’t do many of these things myself yet, either, so take these as suggestions and goals. If you know of other ways that individuals can act to reduce their production and consumption of waste, please feel free to add more in the form of comments. Also, think of ways that you can mirror some of these actions within your community or workplace. Sometimes you’d be surprised at what you could change.

Please note also that almost all of the items detailed below will ultimately save you money, in addition to the social and environmental benefits, so please get beyond the dismissive mentality of labeling me as a “treehugger” or “hippie”—that’s the kind of perspective that lends itself to further waste.

1) Purchase from local businesses and food sources as much as feasible.

2) Reduce or eliminate the use of a personal vehicle. Walk, bike, and utilize public transportation. Delimit the sphere of your personal social needs to as localized an area as feasible.

3) Utilize your free time for things that make you feel good, foster interaction with other people, and that are productive. Reduce or eliminate mindless activities such as TV watching. Learn new things. Take classes at your local community college. Check out books from your library.

4) Make exercise a part of your daily existence, such as in biking or walking to work, or biking or walking to a bar or bookstore or cafe. Try to eliminate the perception of exercise as an accessory chore or activity to become more desirable.

5) Cook your own food. Mend your own clothes. Make your own coffee or bring your own coffee mug to coffee houses. Utilize whatever resources you have to do your own thing.

6) Eliminate the use of plastic bags at stores. Bring along a tote bag or backpack to carry items in whenever you go shopping.

7) Stop buying water bottled from municipal sources. Get yourself a Brita filter and drink tap water.

8 ) Buy produce directly from local (preferably organic) farmers; attend farmer’s markets or join food coops.

9) Make your own household cleaning solutions

10) Purchase only energy star rated appliances and lighting systems; convert all of your lighting to compact florescents

11) Insulate your house with energy efficient windows

12) Convert your lawn to a natural food source

13) Compost your food and outdoor waste; utilize kitchen scraps for the making of stock

14) Harvest rainwater and utilize in shower and household use and/or garden irrigation

15) Design and implement a greywater system

16) Reduce your use of paper and wood products; reuse paper as much as possible (double-sided printing) or eliminate altogether through the use of a computer. Use alternative woods, reclaimed wood, or engineered wood products whenever possible when designing and building structures.

17) Take yourself off of junk mail lists; utilize e-mail notification services where possible for bank notices, cellphone bills, etc.

Knowing Nothing as the Center

“The path I have followed, this natural way of farming, which strikes most people as strange, was first interpreted as a reaction against the advance and reckless development of science. But all I have been doing, farming out here in the country, is trying to show that humanity knows nothing. Because the world is moving with such furious energy in the opposite direction, it may appear that I have fallen behind the times, but I firmly believe that the path I have been following is the most sensible one. . . .
In general, people are only concerned with whether this kind of farming is an advance into the future or a revival of times past. Few are able to grasp correctly that natural farming arises from the unmoving and unchanging center of agricultural development.

To the extent that people separate themselves from nature, they spin out further and further from the center. At the same time, the centripetal effect asserts itself and the desire to return to nature arises. But if people merely become caught up in reacting, moving to the left or to the right, depending on conditions, the result is only more activity. The non-moving point of origin, which lies outside the realm of relativity, is passed over, unnoticed. I believe that even “returning-to-nature” and anti-pollution activities, no matter how commendable, are not moving toward a genuine solution if they are carried out solely in reaction to the overdevelopment of the present age.

Nature does not change, although the way of viewing nature invariably changes from age to age. No matter the age, natural farming exists forever as the wellspring of agriculture.”

Masanobu Fukuoka, The One-Straw Revolution

Self Perpetuating Fear

Just so as in a field in which the soil has been upturned, baring subterranean life to the cruel face of another world, so too in society we unearth, endlessly, the depths of what we cannot consciously understand. We look at these strange unintelligible truths we have unearthed in our cultivation, these creatures of a world before sight, and we are afraid. Because what we are destroying through our shallow misconceptions are the roots of our survival. We are wholly dependent upon the most simple and basic aspects of the earth, and we are destroying these structures like a man kicking at the essential pillars holding up his roof. And then we evince shock when we see our illusions crumbling? Shock that this civilization based on the myth that the earth is ours, that our minds are ours, that our bodies are ours, is falling all around us, leaving us as mere blind destroyers, simpletons sitting in the ravaged dirt?

(But perhaps this is our very function as a part of Nature, to serve as murderous wardens of restrictive mentalities. The dark to counterbalance the light. This is not for us to determine, either way.)

Again, go back to the field, the plot of land that has been blindly cultivated following tradition and convention. Weeds spring up at every turn, like viruses in a weakened immune system, and manufactured chemicals must be sprayed relentlessly, as weeds attack viciously like barbarian hordes. All along when in reality weeds are simple seeds attempting to capitalize on an open market, a market opened wide by methodical devastation. Insects infect the crops, capable of instantaneous destruction if not immediately ridden with poison. Poison leveling beneficial and invasive alike, like carpet cluster bombs in a city, like radiation in a cancer patient.

By creating environments that are based on the illusion that human life is the pinnacle and cream of all creation, we have set ourselves directly on the path of addiction and self-destruction. And we watch with confusion the nightly news repeats of murder, war, famine, suicide, refusing to draw the connections that would render ourselves complicit in all of this madness. The line that would link us to perversion, terrorism, and murder. The line that connects the dots of the individual and the masses. The line that swaths a path direct from innocence to guilt. From hunger to power. From resources to capital.

There is a reason why we fear certain things. These certain things are what we have created through our ignorance, by our deliberate ignoring of all other life that we are wholly dependent upon to survive. It is ok to be afraid. But it is better to be at peace with death. To accept that life is not the central meaning of the universe. That we are in fact nothing in the face of what we are a part of.

Once this fact has been faced, then we can get on with the tasks of enjoying dancing, enjoying breathing, enjoying eating, enjoying shitting, enjoying being alive, and fuck all of this stupid shit like fear.

Lawns as a Virus Symptomatic of Consumer Culture

“. . . every society that grows extensive lawns could produce all its food on the same area, using the same resources, and . . . world famine could be totally relieved if we devoted the same resources of lawn culture to food culture in poor areas. These facts are before us. Thus, we can look at lawns, like double garages and large guard dogs, [and Humvees and SUVs] as a badge of willful waste, conspicuous consumption, and lack of care for the earth or its people.

Most lawns are purely cosmetic in function. Thus, affluent societies have, all unnoticed, developed an agriculture which produces a polluted waste product, in the presence of famine and erosion elsewhere, and the threat of water shortages at home.

The lawn has become the curse of modern town landscapes as sugar cane is the curse of the lowland coastal tropics, and cattle the curse of the semi-arid and arid rangelands.

It is past time to tax lawns (or any wasteful consumption), and to devote that tax to third world relief. I would suggest a tax of $5 per square metre for both public and private lawns, updated annually, until all but useful lawns are eliminated.”

Bill Mollison, Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual

Conscious Food Preparation and Consumption

I just finished a wonderful book a line cook friend of mine loaned to me. It’s called Heat and it’s written about a man’s journeys into discovering what it really takes to prepare food, to know food, from the cutlet to the flame, from the history and tradition to the table. He begins the book quite obviously only with a kind of hobbyist’s interest in his book assignment. But as he becomes part of the kitchen culture, and strives to learn and really understand what he is preparing, his journey takes him from his curious outsider-ness and turns his search within, to discover his own capabilities as a chef.

It begins in the kitchen of Mario Batali‘s Babbo New York restaurant. At first, Buford can’t even cube carrots right, and the first portion of the book consists of harrowing and humorous accounts of a succession of humiliations: as he cuts himself, burns himself, and gets in the way of angry chefs in the testosterone, pressure cooker environment of a busy and small high-end kitchen. Then as he moves deeper into ability as line cook, he also explores Mario Batali’s origins as a star and chef, and he ends up drawing inspiration from Mario’s same mentors—and then ends up plunging yet further.

I found the most intimate parts of the book take place at the end, when Buford’s journey takes him finally to a renowned and passionate butcher in Italy. As someone tilted more to vegetarianism than red meat, at first I was somewhat revolted, but increasingly fascinated, by his accounts of learning to butcher and properly prepare various and unimaginable parts of innards and muscles and unseen mysterious pork and beef cuttings. What I found most compelling is when Buford, now capable of some basic butchering skills, buys a whole pig in a New York local farmer’s market and takes it back to his apartment draped over the back of his scooter. Horrified denizens of the city, despite being mostly meat eaters, of course, flash him disapproving looks and scowls. But he takes it back in the elevator to his apartment and slowly butchers it in sections, garnering a total of 450 servings of food at less than 50 cents a plate. That got me thinking: I’ve heard it repeated many times that it is more economical and requires less waste of resources to be a vegetarian. And I think in our modern culture of supermarket items delivered from across the globe to sit packaged and ready to eat on our shelves, this is generally true. But it isn’t always true. Sometimes, in fact, it makes more economical and ethical sense to be a selective omnivore.

Bill Mollison, in his Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual, also makes the case for omnivorism: “Only in home gardens is most of the vegetation edible for people; much of the earth is occupied by inedible vegetation. Deer, rabbits, sheep, and herbivorous fish are very useful to us, in that they convert this otherwise unusable herbage to acceptable human food. . . . If we convert all vegetation to edible species, we assume a human priority that is unsustainable, and must destroy other plants and animals to do so. In the urban western world, vegetarianism relies heavily on grains and grain legumes. Even to cook these foods, we need to use up very large quantities of wood and fossil fuels . . . . Omnivorous diets make the best use of complex natural systems; we should eat from what is edible, at any level.”

Basically saying, in other words, that we should eat from what we have available as an economical, local resource.

Buford’s section on butchering also got me to thinking about the fact that while most people in this country eat meat, they have absolutely no connection to the animal which was butchered for them. They couldn’t even visualize where the section of meat they are eating was taking from, nor would they want to. Which leads me to think that everyone should have to kill and butcher at least one animal in secondary school. Then probably we would be a nation of vegetarians. Because if you can’t handle understanding the meat that you are eating is coming from a slice of a once real living animal, and you can’t handle understanding how it was cut and prepared to be packaged and sitting so nicely sterile for you in the supermarket. . . well, then maybe you shouldn’t be eating it, huh?

I admit to being strangely compelled to want to eat some well-cut raw portions of pork after reading the butchering segment. The intimacy with the meat that a butcher and Tuscan meat lover has is far removed from the so-called American meat lover who thinks he loves meat because he eats hamburgers and steak, and yet doesn’t even know what kind of meat a hamburger is, nor what a real steak would taste like (go to Argentina and eat a steak and then maybe you will know).

I think being vegetarian is the healthiest and generally the most ethical food practice in our culture. But I also don’t think that if you are truly conscious and aware of what you are eating that you should have to be revolted by meat. I think the worst form of eating, in any sense, is to have absolutely no connection with where your food comes from.

Things to be Excited About at Work

I don’t usually discuss my work or my workplace usualmente aquí, pero tengo que porque I am very excited about some things in the year which are manifestly about to occur. After a period of personal study in the matters of permaculture and sustainable ecological design, I suddenly thought, why not attempt to apply these concepts to the beautiful environs where I am employed? It was one of those moments, wherein a horizon is unveiled that had never before been perceived, that is wider, deeper, and yet still inclusive of all of what has come before. Why not actually attempt to unite what I am actually deeply interested in with where I work?

So here are the coming attractions: I have made 2 bathouses in which to provide penthouse suites for bats, because during the summer mosquitoes are an everpresent nuisance: one bat can consume 1,200 mosquitoes within an hour. Much more effective than a zapper. Here’s me standing next to one of my bathouses:

Me and me bathouse

Also, I have built 8 birdhouses, specifically built to house native birds to the region: chickadees, bluebirds, nuthatches, swallows, and northern flickers. I will mount these next week in the surrounding forest to further encourage birds to populate the region.

Throughout the year, in conjunction with these actions, I will plant native pollinator attracting species, such as phacelia, pennyroyal, lupine, larkspur, columbine, aster, goldenrod, and penstemons; and also plant bird attracting shrubs, such as thimbleberries, serviceberry, chokecherry, elderberry, and mountain ash.

The idea is to condense and enhance the natural wildlife of the area. To further the biodiversity. To foster the interrelationships of insect, bird, bat, plant, and man. To educate and enlighten those who come to visit on the deep webs that interlink all species into verdant existence.

Also on my agenda is the goal of eventually building a compost system to compost all of our food waste, and thus to have a wonderful medium to build up the soil of the area with—currently, our soil is just thin residual soils from glaciation, with a lot of exposed granodiorite rock, and dense pine trees and some dry shrubs like tobacco brush (great tinder for forest fires, those). My eventual goal will be to build up a moist, nutrient rich soil, with dense interplanting and abundant wildlife, even in the midst of invasive humanity.

In my particular department, I am also converting completely to all non-toxic solutions. There is absolutely no reason, I’ve discovered, to use a solution that is even remotely toxic. Vinegar is the most toxic you need to get. I am also converting all of our lighting to Energy Star rated compact flourescent lighting.

I’m sure you’ve noticed by now that projecting a “green” image is fast becoming trendy amongst businesses. It’s not because there are more hippies in upper management, or because suddenly corporate humanity is growing a conscience. Rather, it is because sustainable business practices not only work to benefit the environment, but because sustainable business practices save more money after initial investments, foster positive employee and guest and community relations within the business, and push the business to the forefront of a new market and economy. It just makes sense, basically.

Interconnectivity as Survival, as Thriving Life


Research continuously supports the premise that social networks are incredibly vital to a human being’s health, both mentally and physically. A conscious awareness of our everyday and divine interconnectivity is further critical to our survival as a species, not only as individuals. How easy is it to sever a string? How difficult is it to tear through an intertwined mass, with no discernable ends?

In a garden modeled on nature, where there is a dense, layered collection of diverse plants, with various microclimates, insect, bird, and animal interrelationships, and a thriving, teeming soil-life, there is little chance for “weeds” or for “pests” to destroy the life therein. In conventional gardens, with widely spaced rows and monocultural cultivation, the plants are isolated and ripe for destruction.

Similarly, in human life, where there are multi-dimensional, intimate relationships, both familial and within broader society, there is a greater strength and ability to cope with trauma, disaster, and despair. Individuals who cultivate their main relationships with any one dominant thing (bottles, TV sets, money, etc) are setting themselves up for easy predation. But as human beings are supposedly at the top of the food chain, this predation comes rather in the form of self-administered demons: dark thoughts, anxiety, and invisible cancerous cells.

Strength lies in being able to express and envision many different aspects of yourself and others, while still retaining integrity. You can take on many masks–your work mask, your father mask, your son mask, lover mask, cool mask, funny mask, angry mask, intelligent mask, sensitive mask, athletic mask, etc. You are able to shift, like the dunes in the desert wind, while still retaining the inner essence of what you are. You can be many things to many people, and many things to yourself, but out of this multiplicity you begin to form a broader, deeper vision of unity. And you can allow other people to be what they are, even when they express themselves only limitedly. Because everything has its place, everything has its context, beyond the confinements of understanding. Acceptance and conscious arrangement stand for so much more.

Some parts of yourself are jettisoned into the darkness, like skin shed painfully in the night. Out of this death steps new life, like the dead husks of plants spread on the bower of the soil to recompose and give back new life and nutrients as a mulch, and then taken back like lovers into the roots of growing life, to fruit and flower once again, again and again. Cycles are seen for what they are. There is no depression and despair in a place where nothing is wasted.

Waste nothing. Don’t waste your time, don’t waste your love, don’t waste your life away on things that make you feel alone and hopeless. Every single day of our lives we have to remind ourselves that we are more than this. We are more than words, more than thoughts, more than actions, more than histories. We are alive, we are beautiful, we are powerful, and we are deeply interconnected, so deeply interconnected that it really is facile and reductive to pretend that we are anything but one. And facile and reductive to pretend that everything is anything but us.

Are You A Hypocrite Environmentalist?

“If we do not get our cities, homes, and gardens in order, so that they feed and shelter us, we must lay waste to all other natural systems. Thus, truly responsible conservationists have gardens which support their food needs, and are working to reduce their own energy needs to a modest consumption, or to that which can be supplied by a local wind, water, forest, or solar power resources. We can work on providing biomass for our essential energy needs on a household and regional scale.

It is a hypocrisy to pretend to save forests, yet to buy daily newspapers and packaged food; to preserve native plants, yet rely on agrochemical production for food; and to adopt a diet which calls for broadscale food production.”

Bill Mollison, Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual

SES and Permaculture

Some more thoughts on Ken Wilber and SES: I think there is a strong tendency to reject all his theories outright by many people, simply because of the way he writes and the fact that he bases many of his “facts” off of sweeping generalizations. But I really think that it is pointless to completely reject someone’s viewpoint altogether simply because of personality or because of some flippant usage of data. In any attempt to integrate seemingly disparate philosophies and sciences together, there are bound to be discrepancies, because how can you be deeply embedded in any particular one enough to know every facet of that viewpoint? He is taking what he finds useful in the core of each and plotting a map that bares their similarities and binds them together. The end result is a general perception of potentiality. I find that his critics generally pick at his conceptions of science or his interpretations of spiritual philosophers, or even just lambast him personally, and conveniently avoid dealing with the most interesting aspects of his discourse.

When I read something like SES, I am not looking for a definitive explication of what the universe is. I am looking for some ideas on how to live my life better, or how to improve my outlook on the world. And there are a few such ideas contained in that book, and I simply take those ideas and utilize them to cultivate my own perspective, and I leave alone all the confused, egotistical, or simply angry parts of the book that I don’t need. And this is essentially, I think, the process that Wilber himself is using in regards to the sources from which he draws. The main problem, of course, is that he at times writes as if he’s got all the keys to the universe in hand, and so all the kinds of people out there that line up at the door of the latest “guru” immediately fawn at his feet.

In reading any self-proclaimed “integral” philosophizing (as in “i’ve got the world figured out, y’all!), you’ve got to take it with a grain of salt, and acknowledge the subjectivity–and subsequent confusion of definitions–that is involved. I think Wilber himself gets a little confused in this area. But there are a few gems that he pops out, like re-introducing the concept of “holons” into intellectual discourse. Or challenging the reader to step outside of their conventions and re-evaluate their entire worldview. These are worthwhile endeavours, however steeped in heady new-age intellectualism.

As I said, take Ken Wilber as a theoretician, and not as a spiritual leader, and you’ll be doing both him, and yourself, a favor.

As I’ve been reading up more on permaculture, I find that it really seems like the real-world application of the ideas that Wilber is trying to get at. Wilber is trying to replace mankind as the evolutionary culmination of the Kosmos, but without the pathologies of domination, aggression, and environmental destruction. Permaculture harmonizes the creative intelligence and spiritual depth of the human designer with the primal energy and fecundity of Mother Earth. Permaculture is battling against the prevalent view of earth and nature as the slave and bitch of mankind–which results in the current agricultural devastation that we call “agri-business”–and trying to cultivate an empathic relationship with natural processes, to intelligently craft design systems that are sustainable and based solidly on the lessons learned from nature. But this doesn’t necessitate a subservience to nature, as some environmentalists’ viewpoints tend towards. It is a willful harnessing and enlightened acknowledgment of nature’s incredible power, used for the purpose of human benefit. For in the enlightened viewpoint, what benefits the world also benefits you. So you are modeling systems upon nature, but you are modeling them not out of idealism, which is always dangerous in any context, but because you are aware that the best possible design will work with nature and diverse communities, and not against them. This is exactly the kind of outlook that this world needs right now.

Because let’s be honest here: people like Republicans and CEO’s have absolutely no interest in idealism. They care only about one thing, and that’s usually something like themselves or money. That’s obviously a major pathology. But the point is that they won’t listen to any one attempting to moralize with them about their impacts on the environment and society, etc. They don’t understand such idealistic philosophizing. They only want to hear about what directly impacts them. So you have to talk to such people not from the anger and frustration of ethics, but rather from the perspective of what makes things better for them. And the fact is that sustainably designed systems work better for individuals, not only for the environment and communities. You talk too much about communities and the bigger picture, and these people immediately think of communism.

Anyways, enough for now, I’m tired and should have been in bed two hours ago (it is in fact only 9:30 right now but I haven’t slept in 2 weeks, so I’ve got some serious making up to do). What I was trying to get at in writing this whole spew of bullshit is that I am seeing an interesting linkage in the perspectives of SES and permaculture. Like I think that if Wilber took his head out of his books, he would probably be designing permacultural gardens.

Small Revolutions

I’ve been reading two new books on small-scale permaculture: Food Not Lawns, and Gaia’s Garden, both of which provide lots of useful information if you are interested in converting your stagnant yard into a garden (the Food Not Lawns might have a little too much polemic and activist sermonizing for some folks). The great thing about permacultural design concepts is that it turns conventional gardening stereotypes on their head; for example, I’ve always thought of gardening as back-breaking labor, ripping out weeds and pruning back trees and such. And this is because a conventional garden is oriented all around fighting against nature, as opposed to utilizing natural processes. In a well-designed garden, no weeding should be necessary. The permaculturist approaches a “weed” not as an enemy to be battled and overcome (which as we know is a constant battle that can never be won), but rather as a demonstration of what that particular plot of land requires. Weeds spring up where they are needed by the soil in order to recover from the devastation that conventional gardening wreaks upon it. As such, weeds can be considered “pioneer plants“, in that they are establishing the soil for new forms of vegetation (or are attempting to, before we begin pulling them out again).

At the heart of permacultural design is an enlightened perspective of nature, in which mankind is neither subservient to it, nor dominating it. We simply encourage natural processes to do what they do best, while reaping the benefits of edible and beautifying landscapes. And all it takes, really, is some forethought and ability to see processes as multi-dimensional and interrelated. It’s so remarkably simple that it makes one amazed that these design concepts are still considered somewhat new and cutting-edge, even though many of its processes have been utilized by tribal agricultural systems in the past. But like all things revolutionary, it is just in making that simple, small leap from convention that is so hard at first.

As a personal example, I grew up abhoring anything technical, and when my dad–who loves technical things and fixing things and inventing things–tried to teach me anything I just let it go in one ear and out the other. I never used a power tool until a few years ago. And now as part of my job I perform small fix-its and install hardware–activities that I would never have thought myself capable of doing. And the only reason I couldn’t do it before was simply because I never applied myself to it. Fixing things isn’t hard. All it takes is that small, simple revolution of the mind, where instead of approaching it from the angle of “this is broken,” you approach it from the angle of “how do I fix this?” It is these very small revolutions, these simple shifts in mentality, that allow us to go beyond convention and empower ourselves to innovate.

Approaches to Microbes

I ain’t no scientist or doctor, but I was thinking today that sometimes the approach one takes with scientific/medicinal information can determine the efficacy of that information. For instance, we developed, with the advent of antibiotics, a powerful ability to kill microbes. This is an ability which, in the short term, has saved many lives. But the unfortunate thing is, microbes evolve and mutate in response to our efforts to destroy them completely, and we are approaching an age where antibiotics will no longer be very effective. That’s scary. And this is because we’ve overused our antibiotics, and attempted to eradicate microbes that are impossible to eradicate. And my argument here is going to be that this is a rather idealistic approach for which we will suffer for greatly in the future unless we learn to shift our approach in treating disease.

Some microbes, like viruses such as HIV, evolve so rapidly that it is quite readily apparent that the standard approach is nearly completely ineffective–although the “cocktails” concocted have slowed its progress somewhat. Yet still, researchers are still plugging desperately away with the same approach, hoping to find some chink in its armor, some magic bullet that will wipe out all strains of the virus. This is most likely never going to happen.

Let me here make an analogy between the human body and a large plot of land. Think of vaccines and antibiotics like pesticides and insecticides. You are attempting to cultivate a large and healthy supply of various foodstuff from your soil. But there are numerous pests (microbes) which attempt to destroy the plants or steal the food at all stages of development. So you purchase the latest pesticide and hose down your garden with it, and voila!, the pests are murdered, like magic. But a couple of years later, they are back, and suddenly the pesticide ain’t workin’ so good no more. Because the pests have evolved to be resistant to that pesticide. So you buy the latest version, and kill them again. All this is well and dandy. But unfortunately, you later perform studies on your land and discover that these pesticides have also been polluting your water supply and poisoning your soil for years to come.

You then begin to study organic and permaculture farming principles. Organics relies on natural sustainable yields, with no unnatural, toxic pesticides or insecticides used.

Now let me bring this analogy back to the human body and medicine. It’s time that organics came into how we treat and approach the “pests” of the body: nasty microbes, which propogate like weeds and threaten to stifle our blossoms at every step of the way. You see, we’ve been approaching it in the idealistic, ethno-centric attempt to triumph over nature. We think that we can conquer our viral and bacterial enemies through science, that eventually we will be like gods, impervious to all microbes, chuckling condescendingly at the medieval memory of colds and flus. But just like in visible nature, the attempt to completely destroy some bad types of animals or plants ends up leading to similarly destroying good types. Nature relies on biodiversity. Our bodies rely on multiplicities of microbes to function. Even the bad ones.

It’s a matter, as in organics, of learning how to live with the “bad” things by tolerating a small amount of them, not wasting your time attempting to eradicate them completely. There are always methods of natural control and regulation which can be harnessed and applied in a balanced ecosystem, such as creating plant and animal “guilds,” in which natural collaborations between allied species acts to protect one another against invasive species. One of the crucial weapons in a permaculturist’s or organicist’s arsenal is that of cultivating biodiversity. The most devastating current agricultural practice is that of monoculture, cultivating solely one product. It devastates the soil, the ecosystem, the circulation of water through the soil and air, everything. And then of course you add the myriad toxic pesticides and all that crap and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.

So the approach of traditional medicine, while laudable for its idealism in attempting to save humans from suffering and disease, is simply misguided. We are treating patients for the short-term cure, not long-term health. For example, most of our major health problems, which is costing the nation thousands of dollars every day, are things like heart disease. Heart disease will never be cured. But it can fairly easily be prevented through education and subsequently enforced lifestyle and cultural changes.

Let me get back to the microbes. Just like in the organic movement, a more holistic approach to medicine does not necessitate swearing off the advanced findings of research and technology. It implies simply that one changes one’s approach in their application.

Anyway, these were just some thoughts that popped up in my head when I was on the plane coming back home.

Permaculture on Agri-business Methodology

“Here, we come to a grave impasse. There is no doubt that the once-off yield of a ploughed and fertilised monoculture, supported by chemicals and large energy inputs, can out yield that of almost every other production system. But at what public cost? for how long maintained? with what improvement in nutrition? with what guarantee of sustainability? with what effect on world hunger? on soils? and on our health? There is abundant proof that such forced yields are temporary, and that plough cultures destroy soils and societies.

These are some very akward questions to ask of the agricultural establishment, for very few, if any, modern agricultural systems do not carry the seeds of our own destruction. These systems are those that receive public financial support, yet they destroy the countryside in a multitude of ways, from clearing the land of forest, hedgerow, and animal species to long-term soil degradation and poisoning. We are thus obliged, by entrenched bureaucracies, to pay for the destruction of our world, regardless of the long-term costs to be borne by our children and our societies.”

Bill Mollison

Permaculture on Swimming Pools

“Swimming pools have crept across the affluent suburbs so that, from the air, these ponds now resemble a virulent aquamarine rash on the urban fringe. The colour is artificial, like that blue dye that imitates an ocean wave obediently crashing down the toilet bowls of the over-fastidious. Chemicals used to purify the water are biocides, and we are biological organisms; if fish can’t live in our pools, we should also keep our bodies out of the water. When chlorine isn’t being used as a war gas, it is being dumped into our drinking, bathing and swimming water, where it forms carcinogenic chloroform.

Innovative pool designers now filter natural pools below a base pebble bed, using the pebbles as algal/bacterial cleaners, then cycle it through a reed-bed to remove excess nutrients before cascading it back, freshly oxygenated, into the pool. Such pools can be delightful systems with tame fish, crayfish, rock ledges, over-arching ferns, and great good health.”

Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual

On Trees

tree.JPGThe root fungi intercede with water, soil, and atmosphere to manufacture cell nutrients for the tree, while myriad insects carry out summer pruning, decompose the surplus leaves, and activate essential soil bacteria for the tree to use for nutrient flow. The rain of insect faeces may be crucial to forest and prarie health.

What part of this assembly is the tree? Which is the body or entity of the system, and which the part? . . .[Such] separation is for simple minds; the tree can be understood only as its total entity–which, like ours, reaches out into all things . . . Life depends upon life. All forces, all elements, all life forms are the biomass of the tree.”

I finished the chapter on trees in my Permaculture book, and have picked up some new understanding. I had never really quite known just how powerful and affecting trees are on all living things around them. They create precipitation, they recycle water, they protect and nurture the soil, they break and redirect the wind–they harness the light–they cool the heat–they warm the cool–they take life into themselves with the least amount of destruction–they give back more than they take.

This brings my memory back to a time when I visited Sequoia National Park and went on a hike in its forest, and in the midst of this density of trees, far from the road where tourists would drive past the Sherman tree and eat candy bars and take pictures with their kids, stood the most immense living thing I had ever seen–an ancient grandaddy giant Sequoia tree, rising like a god above the surrounding forest. I fought an irresistable urge to prostrate myself before the tree and worship it. Because such trees deserve respect, bearing wisdom far beyond the scope of mankind’s feeble attempts at playing god. All trees are wise, and they can teach you things just by looking at them–where the most light is gathered, from where the hardest wind blows.

Studying this book on Permaculture brings me back to the wonder and mysterious pleasure I felt as a child when I would play in the wild, dense trees and bushes that I was privileged to have growing in my yard. I would lay on the branch of an oak tree directly outside of my bedroom. I would hollow out secret headquarters in thickets that still bear the shape of my childhood to this day. There is a mystery and power and beauty in growing things that is easy to forget in the midst of a city designed for convenience; this can be remembered when you venture back out into the wilderness, when you climb up mountains, walk on swaths of boulders through green trees, listen to a silence punctuated only by animals and wind and an occasional airliner. This sounds like a Sierra Club advertisement, but it is surely criminal to cut down any old growth forests. I don’t believe in religion, but I think if there is such a thing as sin, then it would be to cut down a tree needlessly. You go to the movies and watch dramas that turn morality into black and white, dioramas of good and bad. But there is no simpler and more direct drama of good and evil being played out than the real-life story of the Amazon jungle, and of how every day it’s thriving, truly wild, mysterious, beautiful life is being destroyed by gold diggers, oil drillers, drug traffickers, and short gain agriculture. Here is a story of the wickedness of shortsighted men raping and pillaging something far beyond their understanding–something powerful and wild and dangerous and so full of life in its density that you can’t hear silence, you can’t see the sun, you can’t find your way where you are going or from where you came except by sound and pattern–maps or GPS systems are rendered useless.

Human life is so interdependent on trees as to make our destinies indistinguishable. Disease, drought, and famine follow naturally from deforestation. The promise of replanting trees by loggers is useless in consideration that the trees they are cutting down are irreplaceable–for old growth forest can not simply be “replaced.” The soil will be changed. The climate will be changed. Trees are sacred, and we don’t need to revert to animism to recognize this. The evidence is there, before your eyes, in the science, in the mystery, in the living entity that breathes and dances in the wind, that fosters all creation, beauty, and life.

Permaculture on Streams

“In human systems, we have confused the order of hierarchical function with status and power, as though a tree stem were less important than the leaves in total. . . What we should recognize is that each part needs the other, and that none functions without the others. . . Thus, we can see how rivers change their whole regime if we alter one aspect. We should also see that water is of the whole, not to be thought of in terms of its parts. Thus we refute the concept of status and assert that of function. . .We need each other, and it is a reciprocal need wherever we have a function in relation to each other.”

Permaculture: A Designer’s Manuel

“Order is found in things working beneficially together. It is not the forced condition of neatness, tidiness, and straightness, all of which are, in design or energy terms, disordered. True order may lie in apparent confusion . .

“Thus the seemingly-wild and naturally-functioning garden of a New Guinea villager is beautifully ordered and in harmony, while the clipped lawns and pruned roses of the pseudo-aristocrat are nature in wild disarray.

“Neatness, tidiness, uniformity, and straightness signify an energy-maintained disorder in natural systems.”

Permaculture: A Designer’s Manuel