Tag Archives: being more sustainable

Understanding the Interplay between the Specialist and Generalist for Sustainable Action

One of my favorite authors, Wendell Berry, has a great deal to say about the rise of the modern “specialist” in his Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture. (This book, by the way, is one of the most influential books on my thinking and action and is well worth the read). Berry argues that specialization is part of what has made the shift in our food system from a broad network small family farms to centralized agribusiness and has precipitated some of the cultural challenges we face.  Specialists, he argues, don’t do much of anything other than their specialty (so bankers can only bank, hair stylists only style hair, tax preparers only prepare taxes). He argues that as we become more specialized, we depend on specialists for everything outside of our specialty: food specialists raise our food, health specialists keep us healthy, mental health specialists keep us sane, housing specialists build our homes, lawn care specialists tend our lawns, and so on and so forth. So, more broadly, specialization has created a society where we literally depend on someone else for everything and fail to take care of or even attempt to address our own needs.  And this is the situation in which we find ourselves today. Berry argues that generalization allows us to be more sufficient, think in a broader manner, and develop better relationships in our communities and with our land.


Natural Building in our Community - One great set of skills for a homesteader to know!

Natural Building in our Community – One great set of skills for a homesteader to know!

I think there is a great deal of truth in what Berry says, and I’d like take Berry’s original concepts and complicate them a bit.  That is, I’d like to argue that that while we can certainly be specialists and some specialization is needed, to build sustainable and stable communities we need to balance specialization with generalist thinking and being able to work in multiple modalities. Focusing on working in multiple modes and embracing this generalist mindset allows us a great deal more independence and resiliency, which is part of the core shifts towards sustainability in thought and in action. To demonstrate this balance, I’ll use myself as an example of someone who is both a specialist and a generalist. I’ll also tie these modes of thinking and action to sustainability and permaculture design.


The  Super-Specialized Specialist.  I am an highly trained specialist in my profession (I am a university writing and rhetoric professor), and so I can speak direct experience and clarity about the specialization, how one becomes specialized, benefits, and drawbacks. From the ages of 18-28, I completed 10 years of higher education (including completing my B.A, M.A., and Ph.D.). For the first four years, I studied my specialty but also was exposed to a general education curriculum (which was a very good thing!) When I went to graduate school, I was trained only in my specialty. I breathed, ate and slept my specialty in the order of 80-100 hours a week to graduate and join my profession.  And truthfully, I really enjoyed the immersive study of it, the focus, the determination and dedication it took to see it through. Since that time, order to get tenure at my university (which I just earned about 3 months ago), I again engaged in my specialty extensively through teaching, research, and service. This means for my entire adult life (I’m now 33), in every working hour, I have lived my specialty, dedicated my life to my specialty. This is the nature of training to be a a specialist, at least in higher education–you embody that specialty to the point where the specialty IS your identity. I even carry my specialty in my title and people address me as “doctor” rather than “Ms.”  If I wasn’t so spiritually and physically dedicated to what I’m doing with the rest of my life with regards to sustainable and spiritual practice, I probably wouldn’t do a heck of a lot else.


Candlemaking - another great skill!

Candlemaking – another great skill!

Specialization certainly has its benefits–at least in the realm of higher education, specialization allows us to build knowledge by working intensively on a very small focused area, in conversation and collaboration with few others who are also working on that small area.  This is one way of learning things that are of benefit to our culture and world–but by no means the only way in which we can learn.  Some of the benefits of specialization are as follows:


1) Specialization helps build human knowledge, approaches, and understanding. There is a world out there full of things to know and things to respond to, but no one person can hope to understand all of it.  Specialists, with their intensive training, can build knowledge in ways that non-specialists cannot (they also suffer from issues with regards to seeing things only from their specialization, but that’s covered below).


2) Specialization helps us accomplish complex tasks. If I want to put a solar water system in my house, I am going to learn a lot about how to do that–but I would love to talk to someone who has done it, a lot, and make sure I’m doing it right.  If someone wants to write a grant or wants to learn about how to write more effectively, they talk to me.


3) Specialization can teach critical skills.  I am grateful to my specialization for teaching me a variety of useful skills, such as how to write well, empirical research methods, how to engage in critical thinking, how to focus, and so on.  The intensive nature of specialization training gives one tools that can be of great use in other areas (if one can see that training as use beyond the specialty).  Even on this blog, you get some hints of my specialization in posts like this, this, or this.


In sum, there certainly is a place for specialty in our world.  But at the same time, specialization has its serious downfalls and problems. Here are some of the problems of specialization as I’ve experienced them:


1) First, my perspective is mainly one of my discipline, which asks particular kinds of questions and uses particular kinds of methods in order to enact understanding (Thomas Kuhn had a great deal to say about this in his Structure of Scientific Revolutions.) Working in a highly specialized field can encourage a myopic view of the world.  I have found this to be the case with many specialists (and not just those who work in higher education).  For example, a neurologist sees all problems stemming from the brain, a dietician sees all issues related to diet, and so on.  While a myopic view might not be as culturally problematic in a discipline like mine (where I spend a lot of time thinking about how written language is enacted in the world) a specialization in making money leads to only thinking about making money and making decisions where the most money is made at the expense of all else. And that, my friends, is part of what has led us to where we now find ourselves as a culture.


2) Second, while I came out of my training exceedingly good at my specialty, it was literally all that I knew how to do when I left. Part of this is that intensive training is the only way to be a specialist, but part of this was that intensive training was  all I had time to do.  Again, this does not encourage a broad perspective nor, frankly, a balanced individual.


3) Third, the demands of specialization continue, even long after one’s formal education is complete.  After finishing my training, I entered the profession, and dedicated just as much time to being a member, learning how to be effective, making various contributions, and so on. I think many specialists find this to be true–a work week well and above 40 hours is demanded to participate in the specialty, which leads to less time for everything else, such as spiritual or sustainable practice.


4) While specialization provides a great deal of depth, it lacks any sense of breadth in most cases.  I don’t think that many specialists would disagree with this, even if saying it aloud might make them uncomfortable.


5) A lot of specialties we have today have nothing to do with providing for basic human needs, tending the land, ensuring a rich cultural tradition, and so on.  They are there only to make money, or their specializations have become so intertwined with money and corruption, any original intentions or benefits to society or the land are lost.  I think this is a sad truth that we also have to face.

Papermaking as another specialization

Papermaking as another great skill!

So now that I’ve examined some of the benefits and challenges of specialization, I’d like to turn to Berry’s second mode of thinking and action: the generalist.


Working in Multiple Modes: The Generalist

Wendell Berry argues that the opposite of the specialist is the generalist–the person who isn’t highly specialized, but rather, has a little bit of knowledge about a wide array of subjects.  He argues that small family farmers, by design, have to be generalists-they have to know a bit about soil ecology, meterorology, genetics, marketing, geology, and much more. There are a lot of benefits to generalization: seeing and interacting with the world in a multiplicity of ways, being good at a number of things, being flexible and adaptable. Take a look around any farmer’s market–you can spot the family farms with their dozens of products. I visited one such market this past week while visiting Washington DC (for a specialist conference): there were specialists at the market, like the cheese maker or the bread baker. But many family farms had a large assortment of products: handcrafted jams, mustards, maple sugar, honey, vegetables, scones, baskets, and more.  I have found that in doing homesteading, sustainable living, permaculture design, and so on, a generalist mindset is hugely beneficial.  Now a small family farmer might respond and say, “But I’m a farming specialist”; I think the difference here is that to be an effective farmer, one doesn’t just have to know one field–farming is inherently interdisciplinary and requires a broad set of skills to be effective.  This is especially true when one examines the difference between the kinds of work that takes place on a large industrial farm vs. a small family farm (which Berry would argue is the difference between specialization and generalization).


Farmer's market booth - Soda and Sundries is inherently generalized :P

Farmer’s market booth – Soda and Sundries is inherently generalized 😛

One way of thinking about generalization is the idea of working in multiple modalities. A “modality” is a particularly way of working, sensing, and/or inhabiting the world–it derives from the word “mode.” The term derives from the latin modus, which is where we get the Latin term still used frequently today in a limited context:  modus operandi, or a method or working. There are other ways of thinking about the multitude of ways that we can work in/sense/inhabit the world–we might think about lenses through which we see and experience things.  The 20th century rhetorician Kenneth Burke talked about this as a “terministic screen” – the screen, aided by language, is the screen through which we view reality.  And I think that ways of seeing and ways of action are linked and, really, inseparable.  If we see the world through an artist’s lens, we see everything as inspiration for painting or sculpture.  A real estate agent will look at the value of the properties on that street; a chef might note the variety of restaurants, a construction worker the spaces in disrepair, and so on.  Regardless of how you want to theoretically frame the idea of the modality or generalist way of being–it is a powerful thing to realize. One of the things I’ve been practicing is shifting my viewpoint often and integrating viewpoints: if I am standing on a city street, how do I see that street as an artist? as a writing professor? As a permaculturalist? As a druid?  And then, I say, can I see it as all of those things at once?


This blog is a great example of a generalist approach in working to achieve sustainable and spiritual practice.  It has a few larger categories under which I lump things: druidry, the practice of a nature-based spirituality and lifepath; sustainability, the emphasis on living in a way that preserves the land for all life; and permaculture, a design system that allows us to use resources more effectively and honor life. Everything that I write about or share here has something to do with one of those things, often all of them (even the above posts can’t disentangle one from another). The sub-categories of this blog are wide ranging indeed–from raising chickens to fermentation, from magical tinctures to seasonal celebrations and rituals, from herbalism to natural dyes, papers and artwork. I also spend a good deal of time thinking about philosophical and political issues , ones that impact sustainable and spiritual practices.  My coverage of any of these issues, say beekeeping, isn’t as thorough as other blogs or writers who have chosen to specialize (for example, my favorite bee blog is the Honey Bee Suite which is a specialized blog about beekeeping).  But what I can say is that you’ll be able to learn a little bit about a wide range of things, and for the kind of lifestyle I’m striving for, that’s super useful.
Each day, I work to find a balance (there’s another druidic concept) between being a specialist and finding time for my spiritual path, to reskill and learn and enact various sustainable practices.  I think many of us, even those working highly specialized jobs, can still find time to build more generalist understandings that can greatly benefit sustainable practices and our work in the world.   I’ve found that my work as a specialist is enriched by learning to think like a generalist–and this too, is an added benefit.

Finding a Balance

Finding a Balance

Generalist Thinking and Multiple Modalities as a Response to Our Predicament

I’ll conclude with a bit of a broader note towards the issues of specialization and generalization by addressing the broader picture.  One of the things John Michael Greer says, and its worth noting here, is that humanity has gotten itself into a predicament. This predicament is concerning human’s use and abuse of the land and uncontrolled growth, which has lead to climate change, peak oil, resource depletion, loss of resources, mass extinctions, and much more. Greer argues that this is not a problem in the traditional sense: problems have clear solutions and can be solved, predicaments do not. Responding to predicaments don’t make the predicament go away, responses  just give us some means of dealing with our predicament. And like the complexity of the predicament we face, using multiple modalities and generalist thinking is going to give us a wider set of responses.  I don’t think that any one specialized field or area is going to solve the predicament (it can’t be solved) but we can work to respond in many ways…and those responses can help ourselves, our communities, and our world.

Approaching the Sacred Through Nature: Sustainability and Sacred Action (Pan Druid Retreat Talk, 2014)

I was blessed to attend the Pan-Druid Retreat in Gore, Virginia this past weekend.  As part of the retreat, I served on a discussion panel about “approaching the sacred through nature.”  We were asked to prepare 10 minutes for discussion.  I used a series of past blog posts and current thoughts to prepare my remarks on “Sustainability as Sacred Action.”  I thought I’d share my talk with blog readers.  Enjoy!


Introduction. The common bond that unites druids, and other earth-centered spiritual paths, is a deep respect and reverence for the living earth. We celebrate the turning wheel of the seasons, we revere the plants, and we speak to the forest spirits.  But what does having that connection with nature mean, and how can we deepen that connection into every aspect of our lives? How can we ensure our actions nourish, nurture and support in all ways, especially when live in a culture that exploits and actively harms.


For my own practice of druidry, building a more sustainable life and teaching others how to do the same is the cornerstone of my druid path. Yes, I engage in ritual and meditation and all “spiritual” stuff, but I believe that beliefs must be accompanied by actions. For me this means an emphasis on sustainability, on treading lightly, and in helping to change humanity’s destructive practices. Why? First, because the more deeply in tune with the natural world I’ve become through my druidic practices, the more I’ve realized that my own relationship with the land started out more passively damaging than actively nurturing.  With this series of realizations, I began to radically shift my own life to align with my spiritual beliefs. For anyone who has been attempting to live more sustainably, the odds are stacked against us in a culture of consumption—but it is possible with knowledge, determination, and a community of support. I’ll talk about what this can look like and provide some philosophies and resources for making this happen.

Oak Knowledge. The term druid means “oak knowledge.” But what does knowledge of the oaks mean today? While we have many ways of interpreting “oak knowledge” within druidry, I would argue that a deep understanding of the natural world, an understanding humanity’s ecological impacts, and a knowledge of how to nurture our landscapes and communities is critical “oak knowledge.” And what we do with that knowledge and how we share it is just as important.


For most of human history, knowledge about the medicinal virtues of plants, how to grow or forage for one’s own food, how to preserve said foods, how to not take too much, were all critical skills. It has only been in the last century that we’ve lost these skills—and druids have much to offer the world if we can find them again.


As an example of a really bit of useful oak knowledge, let’s talk briefly about the typical “American” lawn. The typical lawn is a battlefield between humans and nature. The dandelion pops up in said lawn, and it is mowed, pulled, or most often, chemically treated. But my oak knowledge tells me about that dandelion—it’s a species that is the beginning of the land healing itself. Its deep tap root breaks up compacted soil and is likewise a fantastic medicine for digestion. Its greens are a wonderful spring food; and its beautiful flowers are one of the earliest sources for pollen for bees—not to mention, they make a great wine. All of this “oak knowledge” about dandelion and many other useful plants has come in handy in helping my friends and community shift their practices around their landscapes. The lawn is currently the largest crop in cultivation in America, and yet it produces no food, it produces no forage, it requires extensive chemical and fossil fuels, and substantial human labor. When I can show that there are alternatives to a velvety green lawn that benefit all, shifts begin to happen.


I am part of the organizing team for a permaculture meetup in our area in Michigan. As part of this meetup this year, we are working to get 100 people in our community to commit to converting some of their lawn into a productive space for herbs, edible fruits, nuts, and organic vegetables. Knowledge of how to do that, and what plants are beneficial, can really help this process. When you have the knowledge of the oaks, you can show others the value in the landscape around us—and this can go far in helping us become more sustainable.


The spaces that we choose to interact with and be knowledgeable about are also important. While we may gravitate towards the forests, the wild places, the quiet streams and rugged isolated mountains, and oak knowledge can certainly be useful there, I would argue that we also need to start using this oak knowledge in the spaces that humans most typically inhabit—our cities, our suburban communities, our workplaces, outside or windows and back yards. The most important work is the visible work we can do every day, in our daily lives. These are not simple choices like “paper or plastic or bring your own bag” (all of which still assume a consumerist mindset, which is a big part of how we got into this mess) but rather deep, meaningful changes, like reducing the need to use bags for the procurement of food at all. The choice of how to tend our yards (will we have grass or medicinal/edibles/wild flowers?); what food to eat (will we grow our own, buy it from farmers, or buy it from Walmart?); how to travel and heat our homes, how we spend our time, and so on, are the important, everyday choices.   Each waking moment can be an opportunity to engage in sustainability as sacred action and reconnect with the world around us through nurturing practices.


Where do we gain “oak knowledge”? Teachings in the druid tradition often focus on the spiritual side of things, which provide many gifts, but do not necessarily help us in understanding the practical work of living in a nature-focused, sustainable way. To learn oak knowledge and how to live sustainably, I found myself reaching far and wide. A local sustainable living center taught natural building and alternative energy skills; a friend mentored me through my first year as a gardener; my university offered advanced courses in organic gardening; a prominent herbalist offered a year-long herbal intensive; books from the library taught me about beekeeping and foraging; historical reinactors taught me about cheese making, weaving, spinning, cooking over the fire, sustainable fire starting, and so much more.


winter_peasIn addition to the various books and friends and classes, I found it helpful to have a unifying theory that guided my actions, mantras that would help me always live in a sacred manner and seek oak knowledge. I found this in permaculture. Permaculture is a design theory, a set of principles that we can use to help us design anything from a simple landscape or organic garden, to a building, and to a community of people living and working together. When I first encountered the concept of permaculture through a book called Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture by Toby Hemenway (2009), I thought it was one of the most Druidic books I had ever read. This book helped radically shift my view and deepen my own Druidic practice by observing nature, using nature’s forms, recognize the cycle of nature and nurture that cycle in my own life, and so much more.


In Permaculture: Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability, David Holgren (2002) outlines three core tenets for permaculture. They are: care for earth, care for people, and setting limits and redistributing surplus. Permaculture design also includes twelve design principles, such as “producing no waste” (spend a year meditating on how to accomplish that!) and “observe and interact.”


In the interest of time, I’m going to briefly describe one of the ethical principles and how I’ve used and considered it within the realm of druidry. The principle is “set limits to consumption and reproduction and redistribute surplus.” This tenant affirms that there are limits to what our lands can sustain and that setting limits within our own lives, communities, and broader world is important for long-term sustainability. To understand more about our world’s limits on a larger scale, I highly recommend the book The Limits to Growth: 30-Year Update (Meadows, Randers, and Meadows, 2004). This principle also recognizes, however, that the earth is abundant, and with proper care and tending, she can produce so much for us. I’m reminded of the principles of limits and abundance each year in the fall; the hickory tree in my yard produced an abundant harvest of hundreds of pounds of amazing nuts. I could go and pick every last nut, but if I did so, there would be no nuts for the squirrels and chipmunks that depend on hickory as a major food source. I set a limit of gathering nuts to once every other day and gathered them only from certain areas; this allowed us all to have our share. Permaculture design therefore, focuses on understanding balance—a lesson we Druids are reminded of every solstice or equinox.


Permaculture design asks us to see everything in our lives, every object, scrap of food waste, and so forth as something that we can redistribute rather than throw away. Nothing, after all, truly goes “away” as the earth itself is also a closed system. I highly recommend using these principles, or others like them, to guide your path. John Michael Greer’s Mystery Teachings from the Living Earth: An Introduction to Spiritual Ecology is a wonderful resource for this.


I want to provide you with some resources that I have found helpful in moving towards sustainability and more earth-centered living:

  • General sustainable living: Mother Earth News magazine, Foxfire magazines (1970’s)
  • Herbs and medicine: Matthew Wood’s Earthwise Herbals
  • Gardening and Landscapes: Gaia’s Garden; Grow Biointensive
  • Foraging: Samuel Thayer’s Books


I also want to say that if you are overwhelmed with the prospect of making change, and a lot of us are, I’ll turn again to permaculture design for guidance—one of the principles is to “use small, slow solutions.” Start slowly and choose one area. For everyone, the food system is a great place to begin, as so many of humanity’s destructive practices surround it, and we all have to eat. 


In conclusion, every action, every choice, however small, can be done in a sacred, intentional manner, a manner that nurtures the earth and allows our practices to become sustainable and nurturing. Each choice for me, is sacred: from growing my own food rather than supporting an industrial food system that burns fossil fuels and destroys life, to picking up “treasures” in my neighbors’ trash to use in a new way, to offering land and knowledge freely for friends to learn how to grow their own food. My actions can’t just be sacred when I walk into a forest and honor the spirits there using ritual—my actions have to be sacred when I am going to work, paying my bills, spending time with my family, when I’m deciding how to spend my money. I started to realize that my offering, and my path, was how I lived my life, each day, and how I interacted with those around me.  Everything became a potential for sacred action.  We are facing increasingly difficult times, where the lands we love are under serious threat from so many forces–including from ourselves. Finding ways of living the sacred of everyday, using and building oak knowledge, seeking more sustainable solutions, and finding ways of engaging in nurturing traditions can help us make this shift. And in that shift, druids can become invaluable resources to their communities and to the broader world.