I loved going to museums, but over the last couple of  years the simple joy of it got entangled with doubt, guilt, and sadness. With every visit now it gets worse (and more interesting). In the “mummy room” at the MFA I felt a misgiving akin to my horror of zoos. I practically fled from the Peabody Archaeological Museum, where I used to spend contented hours grazing the treasures of human culture, for the sheer shame of it. The sight of the slag heap at the Harvard Semitic Museum reduced me to tears. At a contemporary “traveling” exhibit of Australian aboriginal art at the Harvard Arts Museum I read a curator’s explanation and got so upset I had to sit down for a long time.

On that bench in the full presence of an amazing work of art, the sadness, horror, shame, and anger ran like quicksand. I have not had the energy or clarity to untangle it all. I’m not, it turns out, after all, one of those admirable thinkers – Timothy Morton comes to mind – who can passionately set their analytical skills to the task. I’m in too deep. But I have some insights. They might interest someone.


Let’s start with place (always a safe place to start). All art works, artifacts and bodies in art and archeological museums have or used to have a home (a place there they belong and can do the work they are meant to do). For some that home is, for the moment, not safe or welcoming, and so one could say the museum is “hosting” them, intending to return them when it is safe again. Under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) for instance, museums need to repatriate Native American artifacts and human remains when a tribe proves their ownership and claims the work. But that is the exception.

The place, time, culture of most works in museums has passed. Take a portrait by Rembrandt of a wealthy burgher: the seventeenth century parlor that it was painted for, that is even depicted in the background, no longer exists. The neolithic vessel: the culture that utilized it is remembered by no living person. Or a first-century Roman frieze: that temple has long been replaced by an office building, that god by other gods, or none. Homeless works of art, then, and the museum not a host but… an orphanage?

You might say, well, they might now and here be out of place, but in these cabinets of wealthy collectors, art galleries, and museums, they still do very well. Anything is better, anyhow, than oblivion. To which I would say, that may be so, but only under certain conditions – and how could it be otherwise?


I sit in front of these now, having paid my ticket, and I am grateful for the privilege of a glimpse of those past, dead, destroyed cultures. As someone who firmly believes that the past (whether it is remembered or not) very much informs the present, I also believe that it is helpful to know one’s past if one is to understand what the hell is going on.

dscf8003smallGilgamesh, you see here on this seal,

with the help of his domesticated wild brother Enkidu,

cuts down Humbaba, the spirit of the great forests,

so that next he can cut down the mighty trees to build his great city and feed its fires

and  when the gods protest, he will cut down the Bull of Heaven as well.

Because if you have an axe, you have to use it, right?

That old image and all the millennia that surround it, what a feast for the eyes and the mind! And in the glass case, the real thing, not a reproduction. It comes from that time, when it meant what it was meant to mean: the proud seal and story of the civilizing power of the man, Gilgamesh, through the domestication of spirits, wild animals, trees, gods and metals. As one who believes that the past informs the present, the original work of art and the absolutely perfect, indistinguishable (and therefore machine-made) copy of it are like the stone and the image of the stone: the one, with the gravitas of a long past of being worked on, in sweat and spittle, and carried through time, and sometimes lost and then found again, against huge odds; the other, a pastless image, three seconds deep. Oh, I appreciate the gift very much.

I can appreciate them on the condition of listening to them speak of what they are and where they come from, of all that being gone, stolen, forgotten, mislaid by carelessness, erased on purpose. This too they give. They are a good thing that is also terribly wrong, a corpse, stolen goods, a crime scene, a gravity well of loss and grief. There is much listening to be done, even more so as our own forgetting time draws near.


It’s a hard thing to do, that listening, but that’s not nearly the end of it. Part of the sadness and mayhem is that these dead are not also heard by the curators, funders, patrons and visitors on their rainy Sunday outing. When you hear it you want them to hear it as well. But it takes guts to weep in public places!

Ah, public spaces… Susan Sontag touches on this in Regarding the Pain of Others (2003):

Space reserved for being serious [“standing back and thinking,” and bowing and weeping]  is hard to come by in a modern society, whose chief model of a public space is the mega-store (which may also be an airport or museum). (p.119)

So there is another condition, another task here.

Perhaps that is what we are looking for on social media, Facebook, and in blogs. But those “places” not being places, and those “people” not being people, and those “friends” not being our friends, and those faces not being faces, those are not the public, common space at all. When you weep at the museum, you undeniably are somewhere, being seen and seeing those who see you. And they will see you, in fact, they will stare.

I cry in museums. I bow down deeply before works of art in an offering of humility,

regret and apology.

You may stare, but

I think as time winds down, you will see more people doing it.

Imagine a picture of you and your family on the wall,

People passing by, unmoved –

you’re a beggar with your hand out –

They don’t even say, goodbye, goodbye.

If you think that we have lost the skill and habit of making public our thoughts and feelings in a mannerful, effective, healthy was speak only for yourself, or better yet, give it a try. The expressing of it is actually easy in that it just happens, pretty raw and naked, yet controlled too. You may want to shriek, but you’re in company here, of those who are calling you, and of others who are not hearing it yet. All this has a gentling effect on your expression, and on your mood too. That’s what used to be called “a civilizing effect” – now much maligned. Better to say: you’re paying your respects.

So, not so impossible after all. The difficulty still lies in the reactions of those who witness. You, who weep, know immediately that in one sense you have joined the vanished in the paintings, the mutilated victims in the war photographs, the eyeless mummies in their wooden boxes: your goodbye, goodbye is not understood. But unlike theirs, your grief is heard loud and clear. Where they were but images, objects for consumption, they now sound out through you. You’re drawing them all in, the long dead with their beauties and histories and grievances and joys, and all the living who are staring and hearing it, changing that silent museum/megastore into a common, public space.

So, a call for nevertheless, notwithstanding, going to the sorrowful museums and taking them to task by listening and weeping. And a call for approaching those who cry there and asking them: why do you cry? What is here that makes you cry? And why can’t I hear it? Yet.

toensmeierbookcoverI just received Eric Toensmeier’s Carbon Farming Solution, A Global Toolkit of Perennial Crops and Regenerative Agriculture Practices for Climate Change Mitigation and Food Security (Chelsea Green, 2016). Reading this, along with Peter McCoy’s mind-blowing Radical Mycology, as well as the third US Department of Energy Billion Ton Report (just released today), and also listening to presentations such as the one in Concord last week, on carbon sequestration by a group called Biodiversity for a Livable Planet, I realize I feel optimistic again.

Cautiously optimistic, of course. And not hopeful.

I love it that none of the writers of  the blurbs and reviews on the back of Toensmeier’s book use the word “hope”. They use instead “opportunity”. This is so very important to me.

Early on, in all these years of doing to work – educating myself and others and practicing it – I did away with hope. I am one of those people who, in Transition Inner Work and Work That Reconnects gatherings, has an almost visceral reaction to the word. The concept (we call it a feeling – “I feel hopeful” – but I doubt it is one, I think it is instead a cultural construct) is useless to me and, I fear, destructive to what needs to be done. In most cases, hopeful people just don’t allow themselves to be upset enough to get off their asses and start doing the work. Their hope that “it will work out” (notice the expectation in this expression that the speaker doesn’t have to do anything) is based on fear – fear of work, fear of failure, fear of having to give up entitlements, fear of guilt. To combat this fear, they use more hope, the third in the trinity of cope and dope. That’s the thing with hopium: when the buzz wears off, it makes you believe that all you can do to make it better is to take another hit. It is not based on scientific data, on a real community and fellow-feeling or, most importantly, on actual work. And it is only by work, now, that we build the future, but “I hope” keeps putting it off. This made, and makes me, angry, and obviously I stopped going to these workshops which inevitably end on the hopeful note.

Not that I advocate hopelessness. Hopelessness too leads to despair and paralysis.  No, I reject the false choice between hope and hopelessness. What I have instead is work, because it has to be done, because it is the right thing to do, regardless of the outcome. I opt for now, put all my eggs in the basket of now, not some hoped-for (or despaired-of) future. I don’t count on hope, but on joy. Hence the subtitle of this blog, the quote from Wendell Berry: “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts”.

That joy is now growing, because some of those facts have changed. Namely, it is increasingly becoming clear that, if we work with her, the earth can sequester the excess carbon that we already put in the atmosphere. This was the missing piece, the missing fact. Previously we feared that, even if we stopped putting carbon in the atmosphere, we’d still be dangerously overheating because of our past emissions, which are called, powerfully, “legacy carbon.” I am awed and convinced that the earth, the soil, the soil bacteria and fungi and plants can do it. In fact, it doesn’t surprise me at all, but here now we have scientifically convincing proof.

Can this realization, which effectively wipes away the “it’s too late anyway” argument, silence those who are against quitting fossil fuels? Can we now do both, stop putting new carbon in the atmosphere and sequester the legacy carbon? Toensmeier, p. 36:

So can carbon farming alone solve our climate change problem? Not even close. Carbon farming doesn’t work without dramatic emissions reductions (including clean energy an reduced consumption in wealthy countries), as even a small fraction of the remaining 5 to 10 trillion tons of carbon in the fossil pool would far overwhelm the theoretical maximum sequestration capacity of soils and biomass, estimated at 320 billion tons. (note) Emissions reduction also doesn’t work without carbon farming  since even if emissions stop today, we’re already over the tipping point with no way to return without sequestration.

This isn’t hope, this is opportunity. And what Toensmeier gives us in this book is also not hope,  but a toolkit. The opportunity and the toolkit are here: you grab it now and get to work. Or not. I know what I’m going to do. You?


(note) Rattan Lal, “Managing Soils and Ecosystems for Mitigating Anthropogenic Carbon Emissions and Advancing Global Food Security,” BioScience, 2010, 60, 9, pp.708-721. (You can read this fascinating paper here).

This is a cool tool. Put yourself on the north pole, or at, say, 74.8 degrees N latitude.

Is this nature study?

I’ve rediscovered Tim Morton’s books on ecology, among them Ecology without Nature and The Ecological Thought, where he introduces the concept of dark ecology as a means of expressing the “irony, ugliness, and horror” of ecology. Yes, that’s what we need, or what I need: to ditch the neutral theoretical ground on which to articulate ecological claims. Instead, all beings are always already implicated within the ecological, necessitating an acknowledgement of coexistential difference for coping with ecological catastrophe that, according to Morton, “has already occurred.”

With a friend I’m also working on a series of events and a documentary film about dying, death and burial. How can it be that death is a rumor? And I also suspect it is about endurance as well. “The Sovereignty and the Goodness of God, Together with the Faithfulness of His Promises Displayed,” by Liz Waldner:

“Time” is a word. “Love” is a word.
Between them are words and between them

an entrance. I pray to be
entranced, starting right now again I do.

I am old enough to understand
being willing
to go on is a great gift.

In Transition and Permaculture circles we’re constantly talking about putting systems in place for when, that is, before, they’re needed. When I headed up the Solarize program in Wayland in 2012, this was my main motivation: lots of individual solar arrays on roofs so we have at least a basis for clean and decentralized electricity in times of emergency, if (when) the big grid goes down. It’s also part of my motivation for much of what we do here at the homestead: chickens, bees, garden, solar PV, solar hot water, rainwater harvest, etc. It’s not just a matter of physically building and installing and test -driving and improving these systems, but also of training oneself to build them getting the experience to get a yield from them, and then to be able to teach the skills to others.

The problem though is this: most of these systems are not yet needed. With any luck, they won’t for a long time, maybe not even in our own life time. Once an “element” is built – a favorite phase involving family and friends and fun problem solving – it needs to be maintained even though there are still much more convenient ways of getting the yield.

For instance, I could much more easily get eggs and veggies from the farmers market than having to deal with lame hens that need nursing and garden beds that need weeding. The water still comes out of the tap, so why am I scrubbing the algae from the water totes and struggling with low water pressure? There is still oil in our tanks or money to buy it, so why am I cold with the thermostat at 59F and why should I get up in the middle of the night to feed the wood stove? Why can’t I go on a long holiday without having to arrange hen and garden sitting? Why am I canning so much apple sauce! Often, the systems I like the most are those that don’t need maintenance, like the solar machines. Yes, I admit it, the living systems are often a drag.

It’s yet another skill, of course, and perhaps the one that most needs learning and practicing: to persevere in a difficult thing and to not give in to comfort and convenience just because we can buy it, or just because society still supplies it. It’s a skill to not turn a blind eye to the real costs of that comfort and convenience and to live a principled life, now and here.


My house is on fire. It took me a while to realize it and I’m still not doing much about it, but there are good reasons for that.

  1. For one, my house is really too big for me. All the water pipes, the heating systems, the gas and electricity lines… they’re all over the place, pretty extensive, and their sources are far away. My walk-in fridge, for instance, is supplied by a massive network of trucks and middlemen over two-thousand miles in diameter. Also, when I built my house, during the fat and innocent years, I didn’t think them through, so they’re cheap, wasteful, vulnerable. One center or line goes down and I get burned. All that is true but that’s how it is.
  2. And, though I feel the consequence, the cause – the fire – is too far away, out of my reach. I can’t do much about it. Others are working on it. My getting all worked up over it doesn’t help.
  3. But I do act! See, this fire burns in little pockets everywhere. I spend some of my time and energy putting out some of these little fires – the ones that touch me the most. Where I can’t reach I pay money to help someone else do it. Whenever I put out a little fire, I rejoice, because in my little-fire-perspective I am absolutely victorious. Yes, my joy is momentary, because three fires sprang up while I was tending to one. But then I get to work on another one.
  4. The fire, as a whole, burns quite slowly. Thank goodness this allows me to relax a little. It’s not that urgent, we have time to fix this.
  5. About those occasional sudden flare-ups due to high winds. They’re scary, especially when those closer to me are affected. I recognize myself in them, only it was them who got burned, not me, so that’s where the comparison ends. When I do get affected, I help, of course, and am greatly relieved when it’s put out, which it usually is. I am really too exhausted after that to accept that I didn’t put out the general fire, that I can’t put down the wind. Why rain on the parade?
  6. You know, you can’t expect me to worry about this all the time. There are so many people in the house and they too are working on putting out the fires. Maybe they don’t know about the general situation yet, but soon they will get the big picture, and then they’ll really get to work. Then we’ll beat it! I’ll have to wait for them.
  7. It’s true that there are too many people living in my house. I don’t know how that happened, or how it came to be that decision-making goes to the one who bought the loudest, most expensive mic and I realize that that’s the one who has the most to gain by doing nothing. I can’t shout louder than them. As for everyone else, they’re all over the place with their priorities and strategies. Whom to follow?
  8. Let’s face it, the situation is awfully complex, as complex as the weather! You can’t with 99% certainty predict the weather. Or 90%. Not even 70%. Or even 65%, which is only 5% less than the impossible 70%, and in the context of this massively complex system, 5% is nothing. But then you can’t even have 60%, or 55% certainty.  Science just isn’t there yet. We need to wait till Science can give us models that give us at least 40% certainty. 50%, at least. Better make it 60%, because so much seems to be riding on it.
  9. But so science is now pretty certain (not absolutely certain) that I am the cause of the fire. My “lifestyle” is what feeds it. Believe me, it’s an unintentional consequence. It’s not my intention to set my house on fire. So I’m not really responsible for that consequence.
  10. Also, my lifestyle is embedded in my culture, and it’s not called “the dominant culture” for no reason. If I don’t live this lifestyle my friends and neighbors will reject me. As an outcast, I’ll be entirely powerless. Why give away what little influence I have?
  11. As I said, I am only one of all the people living in the house. If I stop, the others won’t. It won’t make a difference. So why should I stop? Why should I sacrifice while everyone else keeps on partying?
  12. Enough about me; back to my house. If you’re suggesting that I could at least rebuild it and make it more resilient, then I hate to say it but it’s too late, I’ve no more money, it’s all sunk into the old infrastructure and I’m ruining myself as it is, trying to shore that up.
  13. But alright, let’s say that I am the master of the house, and I say, rebuild, sacrifice, save the house! It wouldn’t be democratic. To compromise on our democracy is worse than letting the house burn. And if we go back to the Dark Ages, what would there be left to live for?
  14. Look here, what I really hope for? Technology will save us! If we can use our technology to set fire to our mighty house, then we can use it to save us. It doesn’t exist yet? True, but look at all of us, good-willed, clever, well-informed, civic-minded people. We’re a global community, a tribe, if you will, spread far and wide but real tight and caring. And we’re putting our heads together, sharing our collective genius to save this thing. Together we’ll find a way. Maybe it won’t be me, but some genius among us. It’s only a matter of time.

I remember singing along with Band Aid, “Do they know its Christmas time .” I must have sung this line, but I can’t remember realizing what it says, or anyone making a comment on it, either fellow-singers or popular media – being only thirteen in in 1984, I wasn’t clued into any other culture. The line:

 Well tonight thank God it’s them instead of you


A friend sent me a link to the live webcam of the eagles of Berry College. Thrilled, I watched them on and off for a day, had them on my screen while I read or wrote (longhand). Saw the exchange between mates, the two fragile eggs, the snow come down, the wind ruffle their feathers, the night fall around the sphere of light cast on them by a spotlight. It was that that made me suddenly uncomfortable. It is infrared light, which eagles (birds and most mammals*) can’t see, so it shouldn’t bother them. If we were walking around the Berry College campus, also we can’t see that pool of light (we see it as light on the screen because the camera can see it and has transformed it). So, they can’t, we can’t, we’re good? But even so, doesn’t it affect other animals (nocturnal animals, mostly), plants and minerals, bacteria and fungi and the atmosphere around the eagles? It would seem so. We can’t just carve a piece out of nature like that, thinking it does no harm. They should turn off the light!

It was but a second to the next realization: I should stop watching them. It is wrong for me to use these creatures for my entertainment. Shame flooded me, I think I even blushed. I closed the screen.


From my window I could see, a couple of days ago before more fell, that the snow had melted away from the front of one of my hives, but that  the other one was still fully encased. One breathing, one dead. That’s 50.000 pairs of eyes gone from the world. 50.000 compound insect eyes, which are land and sky-eyes so unlike the vertebrate’s single-chambered eyes that developed in the ocean, fish-eyes. Each with  150 flickering ommatidia (and did you know that bee-eyes are hairy too?). 50.000 times 2 times 150. That’s  fifteen million reflections of the world.


It’s Winter on the homestead and aside from plodding through two feet of snow to feed the chickens there’s not much to do on that level. There are many other levels to work on, however. I’ve written about  some personal inner work in the previous blog posts. Our tribe of friends meets often for cooking and eating together, and walking. Transition Wayland has started up an Inner Work group – after our first meeting we agreed: “What took us so long!”  But most of my efforts have gone wider. Last year I helped 350MA start up a Metrowest regional node, and I’ve become very involved in the work, mostly on statewide divestment and the Governor’s climate legacy. I do a lot of outreach and media work for them and am finding my stride. We also pitched in on the national fight against the Keystone XL Pipeline with a local vigil.  Then a friend also put me on to organizing a local action in the Friends of the Earth campaign to ask Home Depot and Lowe’s to stop selling neonicotinoids and neonicotinoid-laced plants, which are killing the bees.

A lot of this work goes on indoors, but I wanted to show you some images of the outdoor events: there is lots of snow in all of them! Like good New Englanders, we don’t let that deter us.

Showing Bees Some Love with Friends of the Earth on February 15:



20140215 131504 bee demo with transition wayland at home depot in waltham 8623 NEF r1_500

Protesting the Salem Gas Plant on February 8:


Almost 400 came to this rally:



Vigil against the Keystone Pipeline on February 4:

NoKXL Vigil Group Photo_500

Climate Change Act Now (s)

That vigil elicited two letters to the editor in our local newspaper. In the print edition the first one, a pro-letter by my friend on the left  in the picture, was immediately followed by the counter-letter. The contrast between the two can’t be starker! I will add links here as the paper releases them online. They’re definitely worth your reading.

Coming round full circle, in all of this I do not forget:

Our planet is not fragile at its own time scale, and we,

pitiful latecomers in the last microsecond of our planetary year,

are stewards of nothing in the long run.
— Stephen Jay Gould

If you would like some music with this post,  I recommend Isakov’s 3 a.m., from which comes the following lyrics:

give me darkness when i’m dreaming, give me moonlight when i’m leaving
give me mustang horse and muscle, cuz i wont be goin gentle
give me slant-eye looks when i’m lying, give me fingers when i’m crying
and i aint out there to cheat you, see i killed that damn coyote in me…


One of the first papers I wrote for the professor of Kantian philosophy for whom I would eventually try to write a doctoral dissertation involved an attempt to give “the given” a place in Kant’s idealism. He discouraged me from pursuing this. For Kant the given is always already “the raw sensible manifold of intuitions,” always already in the framework of human perception. Ontology can only be epistemology. That’s all there is to it.

I wish I had found Paul Shepard‘s books then. Maybe I would have gone on to question Kant on this matter or to drop him as a subject of study altogether, instead of plodding on for years of growing discouragement and self-doubt eventually to let it chase me out of academics. But I doubt it. This road along which I found Shepard has been long and hard-won. And even if I had had the maturity to recognize what he was talking about back then, I doubt I would have accepted the consequence, that I would have had to ditch the entire paradigm in which I was studying and staying in this country. I would have had to take a stand, instead of studying others’ stands like a good student of the history of philosophy.

But, though I am increasingly of a mind that Always-Already is really Too-Late, in this case it was not too late to come to Shepard’s iconoclasm, to get a second chance at turning the tables and having a turn at dancing on the board.


The given is for Shepard the antidote to the cult of relativism – “the incipient abandonment of positions” – that has thrown a pall over science, education, history, and art alike and landed us in this mess. We view ourselves as a special case: biological evolution has ended for/with us and “cultural evolution” is now calling the shots. Therefore, man is free to make a world according to his desires. He need not be troubled by the long past, his animal self, or any rules that seem given rather than made. Man makes himself, and nothing is given that cannot be remade to his liking. 

If nothing of consequence is given, or prior, then there is no absolute. Without such a foundation, all ways of life, all views, all manner of using nature are legitimate in a democratic society. Hence, writes Shepard, the incapacity of the modern mind to find permanent environmental attachments, the alienation, the destruction.

It is clear what we have to do. We have to accept that

the wild, taken to mean the whole community of species, is the prior question. In fact, it is not a question at all. For there is no alternative to living with wild things… In some part of our skulls there is a wilderness. We call it the unconscious because we cannot cultivate it the way we do a field of grain or a field of thought. In it forces as enduring as climate and bedrock maintain our uniqueness in spite of the works of progress. (Encounters with Nature, 168)

What is given – our ontogeny, to put it simply – is absolute, deterministic. No relativism or Kantian idealism can touch it, not in the sense that it is elsewhere, on some other side of us (and therefore we can still be free of it), but, on the contrary, in the sense that it bears down on us, body and soul/mind, with millions of years of evolution, and weaves us into the shaggy web of all life.

Some say to be

Is to be perceived

I hope that means


Nothing is alone.

(poem 1 in 350 Poems)

But that’s like being flies in a nasty spider web, so we thrash about. For centuries we succeeded in rending the fabric that holds us. Our machinery, our efficiencies, our psychologies and ideologies have reduced it all to resources. Bumping up against limits, we idolize the ever faster change for its own sake (novelties, fashion, restructuring, “New features are coming!” ), progress for progress’ sake.  It can’t last long. Shepard, writing for the most part in the seventies, was innocent of the realization of climate change, but when he writes that “there is no alternative to living with wild things,” his words ring with an untimely echo.

We are at that time, an end-time either way you look at it.


Shepard knows full well what we’re up against: “This philosophical antinaturalism now conditions most of modern life–so diffused into the tissues of society as to become a mode of perception.”  Shepard’s most outspoken essay, “Ugly is Better” (1977, you can read the short essay here) is well worth a full and close reading.

The disease has burrowed so deeply that it affects our language and, even worse, our actions. Environmentalism, conservation, recycling, “Keep America Clean,” John Muir and the Audubon Society – all for naught. Worse yet, they have made things worse, “a worse disaster for the American environment than an oil spill.”

Anti-little campaigns and freeway plantings are Airwick and deodorant soap–sensory crutches protecting our own perceptions from unwelcome data… It looks at first like counterculture, and it may have been for some. Mostly it was the system taking over the old landscape aesthetic, one with which it could live, and making illusory options–like the modern soap company that in reality owns its own competition… recycling is the ecological slave in the front office. We seem determined to engage in the most frenetic charades and games to avoid reducing consumption and human numbers. (“Ugly is Better” Encounters with Nature, 177-9)

He wrote that in 1977. Look around you. I think it is fair to say he was right.


Then what can we do or think or say?

We cannot formulate a new relationship [with nature] out of air… We cannot achieve a fundamentally different worldview by an act of will alone–some individuals can, perhaps, but not societies.

For the present it is just as well. We have only begun to recognize [the problem].

This is not a cop-out. It is not the curiosity of the inventor and capability of the engineer that have been at fault–but rather the zeal to employ every technological innovation for change and newness as ends in themselves. Changing culture is open to the same mistake.

True, but we are almost forty years later now. That is nothing, from the viewpoint of ontogeny, but it may be everything from the viewpoint of our ontogeny. That is why people like Derrick Jensen and now also the mild David Holmgren are calling for an active overthrow of our culture. Those who are not ready to consider Holmgren’s “Crash on Demand” should read Shepard anno 1977.


Of late I have seen a lot of quarreling and downright nasty behavior toward one another among activists/environmentalists. People switch “camps,” carve out new camps, defend and attack (Dave Pollards “New Political Map” is a pretty good approximation) all the time, and that is all fine, but the  personal attacking makes me wonder.

So I was  happy to read Dave’s latest blog post, which directed me to Eric Lindberg’s essay “Agency on Demand”. Dave holds with Eric that

our agency is limited, and that our propensity for beating each other up for our different ideas and proposals for coping with emerging system crises and collapses, stems from an exaggerated sense of our own agency.

Eric urges in his conclusion “Let us be patient and tolerant with ourselves and each other.” That’s hard to do as we grow more and more alarmed about out future and our apparent inability not only to control it, but even to agree on what tactics and strategies are most appropriate to cope with what is coming.

So we thrash and with each kick and shove we are reminded that the dominant culture, the “cultural evolution” that is supposed to make us free, may be a tighter straitjacket than our ontogeny ever was.

Do I have any agency left to get out of that straitjacket? Can I change my culture, find a new language, find my way back into the landscape? Can I take a stand?

DSCF5854Last Sunday a group of us carpooled into JP to hear Charles Eisenstein speak at the Jamaica Plain Forum. I spotted him standing to the side at the front of the church, waiting for everyone to settle down and the event to begin, and an uneasy feeling grew in me. He looked out of place in that big, cold, stone church. It was packed, but he looked alone, and bone-tired. When the talk began, he explained he had just recovered from the flu and that his voice was last to recover. It was painful listening to his voice.

Yet there he was, giving it his best.

I loved Charles’ talk, his words, his confidence, his humbleness, his answers to questions and criticism, and how he held everyone’s silence for over a minute all the way at the end. After the talk I took my copy of The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible for him to sign and thanked him for saying that “sometimes we think we have forgotten how to be human, but we have brought reminders along.” I said he gives me hope that we can come fully alive when it is needed and we need to live up to that more beautiful world. All he did was nod “yes,” and that was enough.

After the talk I read his essay, “2013: A year that pierced me,” in which he writes that the did over a hundred and fifty speeches and longer events in 2013, despite  doubts that he was doing any good. He writes,

I cannot keep doing this work – the exhausting travel, the missing my family, the rejection by social institutions that confer money and status – unless I believe that it is worth it, that I am truly and effectively contributing to a more beautiful world, and that such a world is indeed possible… the case for despair is by far the stronger. No matter. It isn’t evidence or logic that sustains me, nor can it sustain anyone else in a life of service.

A life of service.

Later on I spoke with a friend who was also at the talk. She said she hated it. She hated being cold (it was freezing in the church), and the speaker wasn’t giving it his best, it was like he was just rehashing things from other talks, and she felt that being there was a waste of her time. I expressed surprise, said  I had loved it, then told her that there is this thing I do before walking into events like this, where speakers carry in messages near to my heart: I examine my expectations, then let them go (insofar as I am capable, but I think I’m pretty capable by now). Now this friend is an amazing person and she understood. She asked:

“What do you think I missed because I couldn’t let go of my expectations?”

What an amazing question! I answered all the above (paragraph 3). But this is what I should have said:

“You missed the meal.”

In hindsight, what I see is a man who was offering himself up and being eaten. He was already half-eaten, and yet he had come and was serving himself again, living his life of service. Tired and sick, he came anyway, because people asked him to come, because people needed to be fed.

While shoveling snow after hours of tedious and unappreciated activist work and before cooking dinner, the thought of Charles Eisenstein being eaten by those who love him and those who hate him alike made me angry, then guilty. I had eaten. What had I given him in return? Even when I gave him my thanks, was I taking yet another piece? Then I felt scared for him. There must be a way, I thought, for people of service not to be consumed. A balance of some sort? A protecting ceremony? A cadre of helpers? A way of giving thanks?

Of course that was about me – a little run-down, at that moment, a little resentful for not even being asked to do the work, and the work being anonymous, unnoticed, and the results nothing much to write home about. But after a while when I let go of that, I looked at Charles again. Though I still very much grieve that this is how it seems to have to be, and wish that he will not be fully consumed by our demands on him for a new story, for hope, I come to accept the meal he gave so readily.

As he writes in his essay,

Why am I still doing my work? Much as I would like to say otherwise, it is by no means because of any personal fortitude. It is because of the timely help I receive from people like Joshua, people close to me and strangers from around the world who reflect back at me what I know in my heart and cannot believe without help…  This support answers those who say it is foolish to trust in the generosity of others. It is living proof that we yearn to contribute to something beyond ourselves that is beautiful to us.

It is but one piece of giving true thanks to the one who serves us: not to decline it, to accept and thus value it fully, and make the giving of it everything. There is another piece: to then pass it on.

I am enrolling  in Stephen Jenkinson’s Orphan Wisdom School, which begins in April.

The Orphan Wisdom School is crafted specifically for all those people who will fail to live forever, who have come to the idea – or been driven there – that their yearning for a deep life must be tethered to the plough of labour and learning to harrow the hardened field of sorrows and solitary, grey news that has become our corner of this beautiful world, so that children can one day soon be born into to a real, detailed, laboured over Better Day that we ourselves might not live to see.

There I hope to learn how to serve the meal as well as eat it, all of it, with deep gratitude for the giving.

{UPdate} I just discovered this on Stephen’s blog. In this five-minute video he actually talks about eating:

OLD HANDS Stephen Jenkinson from Tim Wilson on Vimeo.


{The following is an offshoot and distraction from another, much more difficult post, which can be read here.}

Via my studies of Stephen Jenkinson I found this talk on grief by Francis Weller,  In it, Weller likens the history of mankind to a 100 foot long rope. The first 99 feet represents humans in nature, hunting, foraging, defending themselves, making fires and clans. The last 10 inches represents agriculture, the last 3/4 inches the industrial age, and the last sliver, the information age. That sliver we call  “normal”  and by doing so, we  condemn ourselves to homelessness and deep, deep grief. The talk is full of gems and I suggest you listen to the whole thing.

Weller quotes Paul Shepard, whose fascinating book, Man in the Landscape, poses two theses that I find plausible and helpful. The first is that there is still, inevitably, a huge presence of that nomadic caveman, that hunter-gatherer in our primitive brains, in our very bodies. Even deeper:

The genes’…. environment extends from the immediate nucleoplasm surrounding them in the cell to the distant stars. It ranges from the colloids and membranes upon which they float to the light from the sun and croaking of frogs.


The idea of “remembering” our life in the trees does not mean recollecting a stream of day-to-day events. The human organism is its own remembering. The emergence of the past into consciousness is inseparable from awareness of ourselves.

Then, not allowing ourselves to engage that part of our identity – by not even making the movements that have kept us alive for millions of years, like throwing a spear or making a fire – we are starving our bodies, our minds, our culture, our world.

Now I understand why Stephen Jenkinson insists (in Homecoming) that the ancestors are still here, very much alive. How, I wondered, without some religious or mystical idea of a heaven or supernatural spirits, none of which I would invoke to explain anything? Well, here it is. My immediate ancestors, just one or two, exceptionally three generations deep, are still “here, alive” mentally, in my mind as memories. But they, and all the others that stand behind them are also literally, presently  alive: in my body, the way my organs and muscles evolved, in my brain, in my genes. Those and they are the immensely long taproot going immensely deep into time, still sucking nutrients from the rich earth and feeding them to me if only I will accept their food, if only I will not starve myself.  If only I remember and celebrate all the ancestors by letting them live in my body: the wild man and woman crawling through the late Pleistocene bottleneck, roving the forest and the grasslands with their fish eye, placing their hand prints in the Chauvet Cave 40.000 years ago, telling stories around the fire. To let them and the verdant world they are at home in “attract me into life,” as Weller says.
Today I recognized some of this when I opened the brand new issue of Orion Magazine and found the essay “The Great Rewilding,” in which George Monbiot writes:

My sense is that people like me are ecologically bored, that we possess the psychological equipment required to navigate a world that is far more challenging than our own—a world of horns and tusks and fangs and claws. Yet our lives have been reduced to the point at which loading the dishwasher seems to present an interesting challenge…  I think all of us have a sense that we’re not quite fulfilling our potential as the human beings who evolved in this really quite thrilling and exciting and dangerous environment, and that our lives are a bit too small and too constrained.

This movement, by the way, has caught the attention of the champions of de-extinction, like Stewart Brand of Revive & Restore, and National Geographic (see Brand’s  TED talk – for context, this the same man who advocates for nuclear energy and GMO’s). In the essay, “Why revive extinct species,” Brand writes: “The prospect of bringing back the aurochs is helping to boost the vibrant European “rewilding” movement to connect tracts of abandoned farmland into wildlife corridors spanning national boundaries.” This is only one of Brand’s misguided or rather misguiding statements, but I’ll not to into that here. Suffice it to say that Monbiot is not a fan – and neither are many who fear that de-exinction projects may undermine goodwill towards conservation of species now on the brink of extinction. This kind of “rewilding”,  then, is about as far from what I am talking about here as can be.
Then, the dream, which I am sure has something to do with all of this.

Several evenings ago, though the wood stove had brought the temperature in our house up to a balmy 67F (it’s usually 60F), I was shivering under my two comforters. “Are you okay?” DH asked, and I assured him I was not falling sick. It was the strangest feeling. Nothing was wrong, but I was cold, like there was a draft everywhere on my bare skin, despite the PJs, the two comforters and the two extra blankets DH piled on top of me.

That night, in that hot cave, I dreamed deeply. In the dream,

Amie, DH and I were with a group of strangers on a guided tour of some kind. We traveled in a plush bus, chatted in cafeteria line-ups, attended workshops. Aside from my daughter and husband, I knew only T, the tour guide/trainer, a woman whom I know as a trainer and love as a friend.  At some point the bus dropped us off at a Kafkaesque city/castle and I got separated from the group.  Running through a dark corridor to catch up, I abruptly came upon a big hole in the ground, an unfathomable deep cuboid of steps around a dark stairwell like the entrance to the Underworld itself. I teetered, in a panic, then discovered I was holding a broom for balance, and considered the slightest desire to fall anyway, but then recovered and stepped back. From there on the dream got darker. I walked around with the sure knowledge that the hole would get me anyway. Finally we all got on the bus to go home. DH, Amie and I were sitting up front so we saw the big river coming up in the flat landscape. The water was very high, almost as high as the road running right beside it, and on its flat surface the ice shone like silver under the sun. We were going too fast, but only we were aware of it. I tried to get T’s attention. I remember well T, standing in the aisle in the back, laughing and chatting, holding on.  Then the bus took the turn onto the river road and missed it. Two wheels touched the ice. A gasping silence fell.  The driver opened the door and DH, Amie and I jumped out onto the road. I looked behind me, the bus’ tires punched through the ice and the bus fell away from me. I remember all those faces staring at me in disbelief, or screaming, fists beating on the windows, and the wide-open hole of the door, empty. They fell away so neatly. The black river swallowed them up. We cried for someone to come out, but no one came out. The ice closed over the water.