The Druid's Garden

Spiritual Journeys in Tending the Land, Permaculture, Wildcrafting, and Regenerative Living

Making a Difference December 27, 2015

I had a long conversation with an older close relative of mine over the holidays. He had overheard my sister, brother-in-law, and I talking about herbalism, permaculture, cultural shifts.  This conversation was framed in the context of the recent Paris climate talks where it appears that world leaders agreed not to do anything for 15 years and in some future time, stave off too much of a temperature rise. After listening to us for a time, my relative indicated that anything that we would do would make “little to no difference” and that when we were his age (he’s in his late 60’s), we’d look back on our lives and regret not being able to do much; we’d certainly regret not being able to hope we had hoped to accomplish.  The fact that we had “little money or resources” made this a certainty. He thought he was doing us a favor by “telling it to us like it was.” While this was certainly a mood killer for an otherwise pleasant holiday, its also a fantastic subject for this week’s post: the idea of making a difference.

 

We hear about “making a difference” all the time, and most often, it is rather nebulously defined in our culture. In fact, when I asked my relative to define what he meant by making a difference, he refused to do so…and yet, its these unstated assumptions and definitions that are in most need of illumination.

 

If I try to define it as it is most commonly understood, making a “difference” seems to imply some kind of very large-scale thing, national or international, that makes substantial impacts on many, many people or ecosystems or whatever. Perhaps “making a difference” means stopping climate change, saving a whole ecosystem, fixing the political system–something drastic, big, and far-reaching. You know, saving the world kind of stuff,. Sometimes, you can find “making a difference” applied to large-scale actions in the lives of many people in a community (but I don’t think this is what my relative was referring to).  And of course, there are the many non-profits telling you to “make a difference” with your dollars.  But it is this first thing, I think, that most firmly is in the hearts and minds of many of us in industrialized society.

 

I think these concepts stem from a few places–first, here in the USA and in other parts of the Western world, we have an extremely individualistic culture, where individual actions, not collective actions, matter.  Individuals, then, are held to high standards with regards to their own lives and individual impacts (for some cool data on this, check out Geert Hosfede’s work).  Second, in an increasingly global society, our news streams from all over the world–we hear about the “big things” that are entertaining or abhorrent enough to be covered. Generally, local communities and contexts are minimized in this kind of system and are seen as not important, trite, or irrelevant. A final issue at play, and one that I see firsthand in my research at the university, is a fear of failure.  We have become paralyzed with fear that we will fail–and failure is seen as simply not a reasonable option.

 

Given these assumptions and definitions, the problems with “making a difference” are clear. Most people walk around with this nebulous idea of “making a difference” in their heads, and their realities nearly always fall short of what they hope to accomplish.  The problem with this assumption is a matter of scale: we expect to make this enormous difference on a grand scale, all while pretty much ignoring what it outside of our door or immediate to us.  Sure, given this definition, its no wonder my relative wanted to give us a “hard dose of reality.”  Assuming that we need to make a difference naturally leads us to feeling disempowered.  Disempowerment encourages is not to act, to assume that you can’t do anything to change what’s going on, that you are hopeless to change the terrible wave of civilization from crashing down around us.  So then, the most logical solution is to do nothing at all–to be paralyzed with inaction for fear of failure.  What a catch-22!

 

However, there are other ways to define and consider these terms.  We’ll start with the notion that shifting our understanding of what “making a difference” is about can help us move past this dilemma.  Its to this work that we now turn with some help from permaculture design.

 

Zones and Sectors on my Michigan homestead

Zones and Sectors on my Michigan homestead

Permaculture’s Zone

Permaculture design uses a concept of a “zone” to help us design effective and ethical living spaces, gardens, communities, and more.  I find that the zone is particularly helpful for framing our actions and any “difference” they might make.

A zone is simply a designated area (in this example, a physical area) that sees a certain amount of use.Let’s look at the typical suburban home-turned homestead as an example here. A typical home has five zones, each zone getting a bit further out from your center of activity and each getting less visited or maintained. Zone 0 is usually the house itself—where you spend a majority of your time and what is easiest to access. (Even within your house, you can designate zones of use; think about the kitchen or bathroom’s daily usage compared to the basement or utility closet!) But moving onto our subruban yard: Zone 1 is the area you access most frequently and is the easiest to get to and to tend—for our suburban home, this means the places you spend the most time or walk through every day. The path from the door to the mailbox  and the back patio where you commonly enjoy dinner might all be considered zone one. Zone two takes us just a little bit further away—zone two is still visited visit and tended often, but perhaps not in the immediate pathways or energy flows of daily living: for example, kitchen garden just out back, the pathway to the chicken coop (the coop is further from the house, its still considered a lower zone because you are tending the chickens at least two times a day). Zone three might be the inside of the chicken yard itself, your compost pile, your extended perennial garden–you visit these a few times a week, and they still require some care. Zone 4 could be a small back field where you gather herbs or a small orchard where you occasionally prune.  Zone 5 is the wild edges, maybe a forest stretching back further. We may really like what’s in zone 5 and we go there to reflect, to learn, and to grow. Zone 5 receives pretty much no regular attention or tending, however, and doesn’t need it.  The zone doesn’t just apply to our yards–it can also apply to our own living in a community.  Zone 1 is our homes, zone 2, our immediate community and town.  Zone 3 is our state or other geographical region, zone 4 is our country, and Zone 5 is the rest of the world.

 

The principle of the zone is extraordinarily useful in understanding the problematic thinking in our conception of “making a difference.” As this concept illustrates, you have the most power and possibility for changing those things that are closest to you geographically and physically–where you spend the most time and where you are rooted.

 

Putting our Feet on the Path

As the principle of the zone illustrates, and as I’ve often discussed on this blog, its our own lives where the changes are best to start.  Its our own lives where the first “difference” can be made. Of course, this is completely the opposite of our cultural conception of making a difference.  And so, when we think about “meaningful change,” it’s not about waiting for someone else to change Wall Street or Congress to do something—its about making changes in your own life, first and foremost, and its about going outside of your door and changing that which you are closest to and which you have the most power to change.  This is the kind of change that we can do quite successfully–and its this kind of change that can lead to many others!

 

So as a permaculture designer, druid, herbalist, artist, and professor residing in Western PA, I have the most ability to change my own actions, first and foremost. I have some measurable influence on my immediate surroundings and that of my immediate community using my skills (so, there is a group of us trying to start a food co-op, for example, which could really benefit our community and provide food security, resilience, etc). I’d certainly have less control at the county level or state level, and I’d have very little power over Wall Street Executives or Congress, because they are so far away. This isn’t to say that I couldn’t work to change these things, especially with the help of a great many other people, its just that that kind of change is much less likely than me doing something positive in my immediate surroundings.  So, principle one then is that “making a difference” can be focused on our local level, first and foremost, and that we can make a really powerful difference there.

 

A stone circle at Sirius Ecovillage--these stones were set by the work of many hands

A stone circle at Sirius Ecovillage–these stones were set by the work of many hands

Another issue here is the difference between individual and collective differences.  As one person, I can only do so much.  I am reminded of this when I want to stack stones or set standing stones in wild places.  The stones I would like to lift and move are usually much bigger than I am–and I could strain and hurt myself to lift them, which would not be good.  Or, I can take one of two approaches–ask a friend for help, or set my sights on smaller stones.  This is an important point, and one that is often lost on us–we can’t, and shouldn’t, do this work all ourselves.  Its about many people, each doing what they can, and working together, that the work is done.

 

Another factor is in the word “difference” and in defining this in a way that allows us to succeed and sets reasonable goals instead of setting us up for failure. Again, its worth interrogating the term and asking: for who? in what way?  Personally, making a difference means leaving my community, my land, any other spaces better than I found them–improved in some way. For example, when I think about the healing work I accomplished for five years on my homestead in Michigan, it exceeded my exceptions–its a 3 acre piece of land, not that “big” in some standards–but now, it is cleaned up of garbage, energetically and physically healed, and literally bursting at the seams with biodiversity, healing plants, food for all, and–just as importantly–left in extremely good hands.  That’s an accomplishment I can be proud of.

 

Time is another factor that we simply can’t ignore–and time doesn’t play by anyone’s rules. I don’t really know what the long-term impact of  working on that homestead site for five years is–and I might never know. In the same way, my father might never know if the thousands of trees he plants each year will sprout or grow into giant oaks. I also point to my dear friend Linda, and what she was able to do in her front yard farm–she didn’t know what it would lead to, but the important thing was that she did something. Could any of us predict what will happen with our actions in the word?  Likely not, and a lot of things take a while to “take hold.”

 

I’d argue that the outcome of the actions don’t matter nearly as much as the act of doing.  This is all to say that we do not have power or control over the outcomes, what may happen to the work we put out there into the world.  All we can do is do it.

 

Doing the Work

I actually think that things like “making a difference” or “having impact” are great, they make you feel good, but they also are problematic red herrings. I don’t have power or control over the outcomes or other people’s reactions to what I do–I only have control over my actions.

The Tarot of Trees, 1st edition

The Tarot of Trees, 1st edition

An example from my own life might best illustrate my point about simply doing the work, and seeing what comes of it. Many of you might be aware that about 6 years ago, I finished painting a Tarot Deck called the Tarot of Trees.  I painted this deck over a three-year period for myself for three reasons: I wanted to use the Tarot but didn’t want to use people-based symbolism, I wanted to deeply learn the tarot and work with its archetypes, and I wanted an artistic challenge.  After starting to share my work online as I was finishing the major arcana, a number of people wanted me to publish it, which I eventually did.  Its been quite successful, much moreso than I could have thought possible–it allowed me to help get a down payment for my homestead in Michigan, it allowed me to donate considerably to some great organizations, and when my family members were financially challenged, I passed it off to them and it allowed them to bring in a bit of extra income to make ends meet–and continues to do this.  It also was turned into a cool app by a really great company.  In other words, this project has been a blessing on my whole family and beyond, and continues to be so. Never could I have possibly imagined that when I started painting this project in 2006 that this would have been the result.  And you know what? The results are like icing on the cake–what was important was that I did the work! Most recently, its led to a really exciting collaboration on another oracle deck with a good friend (details of which will be forthcoming in 2016!)  The truth is, I would have been happy just to have finished the deck and used it for myself–I kept my goals modest, and then, they radically exceeded my expectations.

 

Another side of this has to do with working with nature.  Nature can provide her own healing–sometimes, she just needs the tools to do so.  Another way to think about doing the work is that we are planting seeds–and with the right conditions, the wind, light, rain, and soil, the seeds will grow.

 

Moving Forward and Visioning

 

So in conclusion, I think we should pay less attention to the outcomes or what “might happen.”  This stifles us, it makes us feel that we are not accomplishing our goals, especially when we set goals that are impossible or unreasonable for us to achieve. As important as the outcomes are, especially for the kinds of work I often discuss on this blog, they are largely out of our hands.

 

If we focus only on outcomes,  we are losing out on the most important pieces–the immediate journey and insights it brings.  In this case, for all of us, its the journey that matters at this moment in time.  Don’t get discouraged by feeling that nothing is being accomplished, that nothing big is happening.  As we are coming to the close of another year and looking to what 2016 will bring, I would encourage each of us to set some reasonable goals for the work ahead–what do we want to accomplish? What work do we want to do?  Just set your feet upon the path you wish to take, and walk forward.  Just as we sow seeds into abandoned lots to help them grow–the seeds that we sow will sprout in their own time, and good will come of them.

 

Review of the 2015 Mother Earth News Fair in Seven Springs, PA September 26, 2015

A view of some of the fair from the ski lift ride I took!  This is maybe 40% of the fair.

A view of some of the fair from the ski lift ride I took! This is maybe 25% of the fair.

Last weekend, I attended the Mother Earth News Fair in Seven Springs, PA for the first time. I’ve been wanting to go for years, but I was always too far away until my recent relocation.  I wanted to share with readers interested in homesteading, reskilling, herbs, organic farming, renewable energy,food forests, mushrooms or more, some key features of the fair and provide a general review of my experience.

 

As I’ve certainly discussed on this blog at various points, we have a group of human beings who have lost their way, primarily due to various circumstances surrounding industrialization and consumerism.  We have so many who have lost their connection with nature and lost their knowledge of how to take care of themselves by forging a sacred partnership with their land.  A lot of people now are beginning to wake up, to want to do something different, but have very little knowledge or skills of how to do so. Mother Earth News, a magazine that has been around for almost 40 years at this point, has long been working to educate people on traditional skills, and in my opinion, doing a fine job of it.  Their focus is mostly geared towards the small-scale homesteader. Some time ago (probably 8 or so years now) they started offering the Mother Earth News Fairs.  There are now six of them throughout the USA–the one here in PA was one of the original fairs they started. The fairs are really reasonably priced (I paid just $20 in advance for my wristband for the whole weekend; I think it was $35 at the door) and offer opportunities to learn and have a sense of community and interaction not possible in any publication.  Mother Earth News is offering really accessible and affordable reskilling for people who are waking up, wanting to live differently, wanting to do something in the face of such challenging times.  I have no idea what they make on these fairs, and I really don’t care–from my perspective, they are doing good work to re-educate people in an accessible, friendly, and affordable way, and for that, they should be commended.  And so, let’s hear a bit about the fair and my experiences there!

 

Location

Seven Springs is a ski resort located in the heart of the Laurel Highlands region of South-Western PA.  The Laurel Highlands the ridges of the Appalachians in PA; lovely rounded mountains with beauty, biological diversity, and some incredible views.  Its really an ideal place for the Mother Earth News Fair, and if you had extra time to stay beyond the fair, you could check out some of the best that PA has to offer: nearby Ohiopyle State Park offers multiple waterfalls, whitewater rafting, kayaking, hiking, rappelling, and almost 80,000 acres of forests; Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater is just down the road, and Laurel Caverns offers amazing spelunking (caving) opportunities. Seven Springs itself has a canopy zip line tour and some other really fun stuff even for the summer months. While I was lucky enough to have only about a 2 hour drive to the fair, I met people who had come all over the East Coast and Midwest to attend the fair.

 

Lodging and Transportation

Because the lodging at the fair itself is super expensive ($250/night to stay at the lodge itself), I reserved at campsite at the nearby campground, Laurel Hill State Park, which cost me $60 for the entire weekend for up to 3 tents on one site.  Laurel Hill State Park is a smaller park but still amazing, and its also home to my favorite patch of forest possibly anywhere in the world–an old growth hemlock grove. The Laurel Hill Campground is a really economical option that is less than a 10 minute drive from the fair–and most of the people camping there are there for the fair, so you can meet fun people at the campground that weekend.  I learned from others attending the fair that the other cheaper option if you don’t want to camp is to try to get a cabin nearby, like one of the lodges for Seven Springs (which is a ski resort during the winter); one friend was able to rent a lodge in walkable distance for only about $125/night.  If you don’t mind a 30 minute drive to the fair, there are ample hotels in nearby Somerset.  Do note that if you arrive anytime to the fair after about 8:30am, parking is an issue, and you’ll have to park pretty far away and take a shuttle bus back and forth—which is fine unless you wanted to keep food in the car or take purchases back to the car.

 

Presentations

Sandor Katz shows us some fermentation techniques.

Sandor Katz shows us some fermentation techniques.

One of the big draws to the Mother Earth news fair are the presenters.  Mother Earth News does a good job in finding presenters that are knowledgeable (and that already have books, in most cases).  The presentations each have an hour slot, which allows only for a certain amount of depth and specificity (although they sometimes do put two-part series back to back in the schedule, this year, there was one on renewable energy). The biggest problem is that about 15 presentations are going at the same time, and you may want to be in more than one place at once (really, how can you choose between building an electric bicycle, winter beekeeping, medicinal mushrooms, and food forests?) Since I came with my mother and father to the fair, the three of us split up, each going to different workshops, then meeting up and sharing the information that we learned. This worked well for us. The quality of the presenters and talks was generally quite high, and I really enjoyed the presentations that I attended.  Here are a few highlights:

 

Tradd Cotter (Mushroom Mountain) gave my favorite talk of the fair on the medicinal value of many mushrooms. He has been doing a lot of fantastic research on medicinal mushrooms and showed us photographs and described his lab research with chaga, reishi, maitake, even jack-o-lantern mushrooms. While I have been interested in mushrooms for some time, the level of depth and specificity he went into about mushrooms fighting illnesses, mushrooms being the next penicillin, and so on, was really exciting and has encouraged me to take up the study of medicinal mushrooms more seriously. As an added bonus, each day he did a mushroom walk at 7am (not to interfere with other fair activities) and that was a ton of fun.

 

Seeing Dan Chiras (Evergreen Institute) was another highlight of the fair for me. I’ve been reading about his work on passive solar, greenhouse design, and biological natural water filters through some of my permaculture courses and organic farming courses for some time. I attended his talk on Chinese Greenhouse design, and, in less than an hour, was  convinced that conventional hoop houses/green houses (or heated greenhouses) have it all wrong, they are super energy inefficient, and by taking inspiration from the Chinese and building passive solar greenhouses, we could do a lot better.  The design that Chiras is currently testing includes double glazing (standard on any hoop house), orientation of east to west to maximize the south side of the greenhouse, glazing only on the south side of the greenhouse, a heatsink wall in the back of the greenhouse (with stone, most likely), having the greenhouse sunk into the ground on the north side or, at minimum, a big pile of earth piled up behind the north side for heat control, solar powered fans to move air and sink more heat, and even big automated insulating blankets for the greenhouse at night. This is such a smart design in so many ways and I’m excited to hear more about how Dan is able to implement various iterations of it as his site.

 

Petra Paige Mann (Fruition Seeds) gave an absolutely outstanding talk on how to select and create new varieties of open-pollinated seeds. While I have always been working with seeds and seed saving, this gave me a new perspective on what you can do to better cultivate your own varieties that are adapted to your specific site. Her perspective includes spotting natural variation of plants to create new varieties, cross pollinating, deciding the best way to select fruit or veggies to save for seed, using a flagging system, and working with farmers and their specific needs. I really enjoyed her discussion of de-hybridization, something her seed company specializes in, where they take an F1 hybrid and over successive generations, create an open-pollinated variety with that as a start.  She’s really enjoying that work, and has created some unique things not found anywhere else!

 

Sandor Katz (Wild Fermentation, the Art of Fermentation) was also really exciting to see, given that I’ve been reading his books for years and so many of us learned to fermet from Wild Fermentation.  He did a live fermentation demo and a few other workshops–I attended his fermentation demo.  It was certainly crowded at the demo and he was covering just basic principles, but I came away with a number of new tips for fermentation (like using an air lock to avoid mold at the top–why didn’t I think of that? LOL).

 

Tradd Cotter's 7am unscheduled mushroom walk was one of the highlights!

Tradd Cotter’s 7am unscheduled mushroom walk was one of the highlights!

A few issues with the presentations was that the presenters are often booked for multiple talks (sometimes in a single day) and they may repeat themselves a bit in their talks if you attend multiple talks. The other big issue with the Fair presentations was simply that there were a lot of people at the fair, and the seats filled up fast.  They had a lot of seats, a lot of tents, but it didn’t seem to be enough for everyone who wanted to hear and listen.  They had TV screens setup that projected images and information from the presenters, but unless you were close, you often couldn’t see them.  While this is a bit of a problem, its also nice to see how many people want to learn this stuff!

 

Vendors/Shopping

You know, generally, I really dislike shopping, and I avoid stuff and spending unnecessary money. I spent more at the fair than I probably did anywhere else the entire year. Why? Everything that I use to help me homestead, forage, and otherwise live cleanly was there at the fair. The Livestock tent featured farmers with their alpacas and amazing weaves, hand-dyed and spun wool and yarn, and so much more.  The vendors outside and inside of the building offered a huge variety of things: from electric powered bicycles to heirloom seeds, from beekeeping equipment to healthy snacks, from locally brewed mead to ferments, and from t-shirts and wool socks to hard-to-find medicinal plants. Mushrooms were also a big thing at the fair. There were people demoing solar hot water systems, storage containers converted into houses, log splitters, and more.  Mother Earth News also had a huge bookstore.  Uh, yeah.  I purchased all of the gifts for my family and close friends I needed for the next year and gifted myself with some amazing things (like a great 6′ tall, 24” across air dehydrator for dehydrating bulk medicinal herbs and tea plants–super useful, several new books that I’ve been hoping to get, wool socks, and a bunch of medicinal plants !)  I also had a chance to meet and see some of the people whose products I often do purchase and ask questions (like the Bushy Mountain Beekeeping people, who I use for beekeeping supplies–I talked to those guys for a solid 45 minutes). I can hardly even believe I’m saying this, but shopping at the fair was a ton of fun–and one of the reasons was that the vendors were cool people passionate about what they were doing and working to create the best products to make the world a better place.

In the Livestock Tent

In the Livestock Tent

Aplaca gets ready to demo packing supplies up a mountain

Alpaca gets ready to demo packing supplies up a mountain

Some baubles from Plant-it-Earth Greenhouse (located very close to me here in Indiana, PA!)

Some baubles from Plant-it-Earth Greenhouse (located very close to me here in Indiana, PA!)

Did I mention mushrooms?

Did I mention mushrooms?

They brought their cob oven with them!

They even brought their cob oven with them!

Community

The overall community and vibe of the fair is great. Everyone was happy to be there, people were super friendly (as is the case generally in Western PA), everyone was interesting to talk to. When you’d be getting lunch, or waiting to hear a presenter, or even at your campsite at nearby Laurel Hill, there are people to talk to and learn from. I really enjoyed this aspect of the fair–just meeting people, hearing their stories, hearing their plans about life. It was so delightful to be around a concentration of people who really cared about the health of the land and in regenerating the land, building connections to nature, and sharing.

 

Fun Stuff

Riding the ski lift.  I am such a nerd.

Riding the ski lift. I am such a nerd.

In addition to the regularly scheduled events, Tradd Cotter offered mushroom hunts in the wee morning hours of the fair. Nearly 75 of us took him up on the offer on Saturday morning, and we went all over the woods, bringing whatever mushrooms we found back for identification and insight.  It was a great time to be out as the sun was rising, talking mushrooms, the big group of us ignoring the “closed” signs at the gates to the fair and heading off into the woods.

 

The other fun thing my family and I did was ride the ski lifts up and back.  This seems kind of silly, but it was a wonderful view, a fun experience, and after a long day of intensive learning, it was nice just to have the wind on your face for a bit!

 

Conclusion

All and all, I had a wonderful weekend at the Mother Earth News Fair, and came away with some really exciting information not yet available in books or published online.  I spent way too much money, I made new friends, and I got to hear their stories.  Perhaps, the most important thing that happened, is that I came away energized and invigorated and ready to keep on healing and regenerating our great earth mother, and working to teach others to do the same!

 

Taking Back Our Food: Establishing a Food Co-Op in the Community July 1, 2015

Just one of the many delights at a local co-op- organic, heirloom lettuce

Just one of the many delights at a local co-op- organic, heirloom lettuce

I remember the first time I visited a food co-op.  It was in Ann Arbor, Michigan, a wonderful, progressive town, and the co-op was incredible.  From products made or grown locally in South-East Michigan (non-GMO and organic tortilla chips, fresh salsa, all kinds of fruits and vegetables, raw chocolates, kale chips, soaps, baked goods and so much more) to regionally available products (like tofu, organic candy bars, raw milk cheeses, and even miso). It was an exciting place to be. All of the food I could have wanted to buy in one place, and that food was better, healthier, and fresher.  That food also paid a living wage to its creators.  The prices were fair, the atmosphere pleasant, the workers in the store friendly and helpful–and most important–happy to be at work.  I made it a point to get there every 6 or so weeks while I lived in Michigan so I could stock up on as much amazing, local and regional stuff as possible. The co-op was owned by the community and operated for the community.

 

Last night, I attending the first meeting where my new community in Indiana, PA is working to open a food co-op (did I choose to move to the right place or what?) It was so exciting to sit in the room, see how many people were there, contribute ideas, and really think about how we can make this vision a reality.  As you can expect, I decided to jump in on the planning and will keep some updates on our progress as this exciting venture begins!  Today, I thought it would be helpful to discuss some of the underlying reasons that a community would take the long road of opening up a food co-op.

 

On Community Food Education & Asking the Right Questions

One of the issues raised at the end of the meeting was on the importance of food education in the community–if we build it, will they come? This ultimately comes down to helping the broader community understand that the issues surrounding the production and consumption of their food really matter.  We’ve been led to believe that price is the only factor that matters in the purchasing of our food–but, truthfully, so much more also matters. We can look at the issue of food education through a series of questions, such as:

  • Where is my food produced? (Local, regional, in the US, outside
  • What regulations, if any, determine the safety of that production?
  • Under which conditions is my food produced? (chemicals, pesticides, GMOs, organic practices, certified naturally grown)
  • Have the producers of this food and their workers been paid a living wage? (this includes farmers and anyone who picks or processes the food)
  • How far has my food traveled to arrive at my plate?
  • How much waste is in the packaging?
  • Have the workers who have transported, stocked, sold, or otherwise contributed to this food getting into my hands been paid a living wage?
  • Is this food free of contaminants?
  • Is this food healthy and nurturing for me?
  • Does the money paid for this food go back into the local community?

These questions get at a series of underlying issues that, I believe, sit at the core of why communities, like my new community here in Indiana, PA, come together to take back their food. Let’s take a look at each of these underlying issues.

 

Locally grown beans!

Locally grown beans!

Transparency

The first issue that a food-co op (and other direct sales, like farmer’s markets) solve is transparency. I believe people have a right to know exactly what is in their food, how it was grown, if there were chemical additives, what kinds of seeds it came from, and so on. Beyond being just about knowledge of what one’s putting into their bodies, we also have increasing–and severe–food allergies. People living with these allergies have to navigate an increasingly masked system where chemicals and contaminants show up all along the food chain. Even for people without allergies, the desire to know what you are eating and to eat in a chemical free, wholesome manner is critical.

 

Unfortunately, the US government is going in the opposite direction of food transparency, and on a national and international level, there are a lot of corporations trying to make sure we have no idea where our food is produced, the genetics of that food, and so on. Why?  Because knowledge is power, and they are engaged in a slew of unethical practices (factory farming, GMO warfare, worker exploitation, etc). Just this month, the US House of Representatives, in their infinite wisdom, voted to repeal country of origin labeling on meat.  I don’t know about you, but there is no way in hell I want to be eating chicken from China–now, if you buy that chicken in a conventional store–you’d just never know if the House gets its way.

Control

The second issue surrounding our food is control.  I’ll give a very simple example of this: I have a friend who has some very severe food allergies, and a large grocery chain where she shops stopped carrying the only miso b that was OK for her to eat. Talking with the managers of the store did nothing to return the miso to the shelves–the decisions about what she had access to buy were controlled by “corporate” somewhere in a different state–literally hundreds of miles away.  This happens all the time in big grocery chains: people who have never set foot in your town or community make all the decisions about what you have access to buy. They have access about what farms they choose to use, how they work with those farms, how they present material to consumers about the nature of those farms, and so on. Some may say “but what about the laws of supply and demand?” Sure, this works to some extent, but as my friend’s example illustrates, its rarely enough.

 

Access

Access happens on a few levels. First, there is the physical access of the grocery store. One of the immediate issues facing our community is having a walkable, accessible grocery store that doesn’t require the use of a car.  The history in Indiana, PA was that there was one in town, but it closed, and since then, our downtown hasn’t had a grocery store or really anywhere even to get foods beyond convenience foods or prepared foods.  This suggests a kind of food desert, where access to healthy and fresh vegetables is largely not there (although there is bus transportation to grocery stores on the edges of town and there is a farmer’s market downtown on Saturday mornings during the warmer season).  Putting a food co-op in the place where most people can easily access helps solve the issue of easy access to fresh food.

 

The second issue surrounding access is accessibility of good, wholesome food. Its not easy, always, for people to get food that they want to have.  I end up driving all over the place to secure the basic necessities (from farmer drop-offs to the farmer’s market to bulk and health food stores).  A lot of people simply won’t do that–so if we want to encourage healthier and local food choices, we need to make that food accessible.  A co-op also gives us the opportunity to bring in awesome foods made regionally by other co-ops.

 

Locally grown garlic

Locally grown garlic

Food Miles & Environmental Issues

The term “localvore” has been used to describe someone dedicated to eating locally produced foods.  I’ve talked about this extensively in other blog posts.  One of the things a local food co-op does is allow us to reduce the amount of fossil fuels it takes us not only to get the food (going back to access) but also how far our food travels to get on our plates. It also allows us to support local, organic, and sustainable agriculture, which is generally less environmentally destructive than big agriculture (I’ll direct your attention to a recent UN report, that said the only way to solve the world’s hunger problems and address sustainability and environmental concerns was to create a network of sustainable, small farms). Its much harder for a farmer to mask poor farming practices when that farmer is only a few miles up the road–and one can see the way the farmer treats the land.  Local agriculture also typically uses a lot less packaging and plastic–another source of food waste.  All of these issues are wrapped up in broader environmental ones, like fossil fuel use, landfill use, and land use–and buying local can make a real difference.

 

Fair Trade and Fair Prices

Another benefit of a co-op is that fair trade and fair prices are emphasized for all.  Local farmers are paid a livable, reasonable wage for their food and they can grow in larger quantity knowing that they have a market.  Items we can’t get locally, like chocolate or coffee, can be fair trade to ensure that all farmers and workers are paid ethically (again, when most corporations buy food, their only concern is cost, which drives farmers’ and workers’ wages down and increases poverty). At the same time, as my experience at the People’s Food Co-Op in Ann Arbor suggests, prices can be kept fair for community members, partially because the model is not for-profit, but for-community.  Nobody is cutting themselves a big check out of the co-op; that money is re-invested in our farms, community, and members.

 

The second thing that fair trade and fair prices does, essentially, is to vote with one’s dollars.  Each time you buy something, you support that practice.  If we financially support organic farms, that keeps those farms going and encourages more demand. A co-op can radically increase demand for this kind of food because it makes it more accessible.

 

Keeping Money Local & Living Wages

Buying local means we keep money locally, into the hands of other members in our community, where it can continue to circulate and do the most good.  Many big businesses involved in food have become too big and concentrate wealth in the hands of their upper managers, CEOs, and shareholders–not in the everyday workers or producers that actually grow, make, or sell the goods. By shifting money back into our local economy and into the hands of producers, we not only keep that money locally, we also develop more resiliency as a community.

There’s also an issue of workers’ pay. Most people who are working in any kind of food service industry are paid wages that likely land them on food stamps–Walmart is a prime example of this, where their workers can’t even afford to buy their cheap food because of sub-standard wages.  A community co-op can ensure that workers there provide a livable wage to employees.

 

Members of my previous community learning together!

Members of my previous community learning together!

Resiliency

One of the big issues surrounding local food movements is resiliency.  Resiliency, used in the sustainability and permaculture design movements, is basically the capacity to endure, despite various trials and setbacks.  What this ultimately comes down to is that a community wants to be able to feed itself and take care of itself–because we never know if someone else will be there to do it for us. Never, at any time in human history, have so many people depended on others for basic needs of survival: food, employment, health, entertainment, and so on. I think if we can bring resiliency to our food system, we can learn how to do this is so many other ways as well–in this way, food becomes the catalyst for broader community change.  Our community ceases being a market for others and instead, we start to become the producers of of our own needs. Why is this concept of resiliency important?  Some of the recent natural disasters in the US are one good example–when Hurricane Sandy hit, all sorts of shipping lines were disrupted and people were largely on their own for weeks. A strong community, one that already has come together, can face these, or any other, kinds of issues.

Community Identity and Empowerment

Ultimately, what bringing a co-op to a local community means is that the residents of that community have made a commitment to the economic, health, and social well being of their community. They have decided to take the power and decisions out of the hands of corporate entities at a distance and to re-invest time, money, and energy locally where the direct effects matter.  They have done so while practicing the principles of self-organization, collaboration, democracy, and compromise. This helps us build resilient, strong, and self-sustaining communities who depend on each other, who know each other, who can work together, and who grow together.

My community here is still in the early process of starting our co-op–I welcome comments and discussion on this post to help us think through these issues further!

 

On Letting Go of Your Land and Leaving Your Homestead: Lamentations, Joys, and the Way Forward April 1, 2015

A scene from the land...

A scene from the land…

I’m in the midst of a major life transition. After six years of living in South-East Michigan (with five of those here on my homestead), I have made a big life decision to take a new job at a new university and return to my beloved mountains and forests in rural Western Pennsylvania. The pull to return to my homeland, to my family and beloved forests, has been growing stronger each year I’ve been gone, and was part of my decision to return. When I left Western PA at the age of 22 to go to graduate school, I had no idea if I’d ever return.  Now I’m 34, and 12 years have passed. In those 12 years, the landscape of my homeland has been desecrated with extensive amounts of fracking and logging, in addition to the mills and mines which were already so prevalent and destructive. I’ll be moving deep in the heart of fracking territory in Western PA. The fracked lands are my home lands, the soil where my ancestors lay, the trees that taught me this path, and I will not abandon them. My future work on every level: professional, homesteading/personal, spiritual, artistic, herbal, community building lay among these beautiful Appalachian mountains.  And so, I now face the difficult challenge of letting go of my land here in Michigan.

 

This post is part lament, part joyful, and part how to let go.  I’m sharing my process with you, dear readers, because you also at some point may have a decision to make, land to leave, a new path to follow.

 

On being one with the land.

The longer you are with a patch of  land–the more that you become reflections of each other. As I built sacred spaces, butterfly gardens, brought bees and chickens, established a huge garden, and began to do incredible amounts of reskilling, I was undergoing inner transformations and initiations at the same time. As I healed the land and transformed it, the land transformed me. I wrote about this blending of inner and outer work extensively two years ago–one thing it really taught me was that one can live in a sacred manner always, that each action and interaction can be sacred.  It taught me that we can set aside sacred time, build sacred space, and be one with our setting.

 

The same scene in the wintertime....

The same scene in the wintertime….

When you live on the land in the way that I have, there’s an exchange of energy that is difficult to put into words. When I started obtaining a yield from my land, eating what is grown on it, I began to take the land and its nutrients into myself.  My physical health and vitality improved as well. The land physically sustained me in the same way that the physical earth allows me to walk upon it. And I brought nutrients back to the land each season. When I made medicine from the land, the medicine healed me, becames part of me. When I toiled on the land, and I dripped sweat, the soft earth drank it up and my sweat become part of it. When I cried next to the pond upon making my decision to leave, my tears dripped into the water and became part of it. When I breathed out carbon dioxide, the plants breath it in and gave me life-giving oxygen. Every interaction, every action has a response, even if its not visible to the naked eye. The process of homesteading, of herbalism, of spiritual practices, of  inhabiting a landscape that you depend upon for survival ties you so innately and closely to the land that you feel like one entity. This is what I experienced in the five years on my beloved homestead. The question becomes–how can one possibly let go?

 

On the Power of Ritual in Decision Making

Imbolc Spiral

Imbolc Spiral this year on the pond.

What I have found through this process, and other vision quests and vigils that I have done as part of my spiritual path, is that decisions like this cannot be made in our “normal space” and time, where the demands of life press deeply and urgently upon us and cloud our inner vision. In “normal space” we are in a certain frame of mind, and that is often the mindset of immediate action and reaction rather than contemplation and mindfulness. In order to make such a monumental and life-changing decision, we must set aside sacred space, healing space, space to simply be, reflect, think, cry, feel, breathe….space that allows us to have a new perspective on the decision at hand. For those that study the tarot, the Hanged Man card (or in my tarot deck, the Inverted Tree) exemplifies this–hanging oneself upside down is a sure way to gain a new perspective.  And since ritual can provide us with that altered perspective through the use of ceremonial actions and intention, it served the purpose I needed it to–that of creating a space to ask the land about my decision.

 

Since Imbolc is the time of renewal and the first holiday of spring and occurred right at the time I needed to make the decision, I decided to use the ceremony to help me figure out the way forward. I walked the spiral that we had created as part of our ceremony out on the pond with some fellow druids, and thought much about the land, the beautiful land, woven into my soul. As I walked the winding spiral, I recounted about the gifts the land had given me, the tremendous gifts. As I lay in the middle, I opened myself to the land, asked its permission to go, let it feel deeply my feelings, know my thoughts. As I walked the slow walk out, I recognized the peace and blessing the land was sending me–and how the work is never done, and others will continue it here in Michigan, in their own way.

 

On Letting Go.

The one thing that has given me great peace through this process is this: I am leaving this land in such better condition than I found it. I am leaving it as a nurturing, healing, and bountiful place where many have come to seek rest, rejuvenation, and connection. Where the trees literally sing in the wind, where the stones hold the energies of the space, where the bees and butterflies thrive and grow. I’ve had multiple friends tell me that when they drive up my driveway, they didn’t feel like they were in Michigan anymore–they were somewhere else, somewhere sacred. I realize that this is such a gift, creating and honoring the land in a sacred way. When I arrived, as I detailed in this post, I found heaps of trash, pollution, and general disregard for all life on this property. But now, there are fruit trees, sanctuaries, abundance, fertility….and we’ve honored the land with ceremonies recognizing the passing of the wheel of the year.

 

I realize that this land has imprinted itself on me, that my very body has been nourished from its nutrients.  That even when I leave, I will leave a piece of myself always here in this land.  The land will remember me long after I am gone.  And I, too, will always remember this land–and it will still be here, long after I pass beyond the veil.  So I take comfort, in understanding while my years here were short, they were certainly meaningful.

 

I will miss this place so much!

My amazing garden….

And now, this beautiful homestead is ready for someone else to learn and grow–and they have a great start to doing so, since I’ve laid the foundation, preparing the rich soil, planting many trees, awakening it in a spiritual sense, and loving this land as best as I could. I am eagerly awaiting meeting the new caretakers of this land, whoever they may be, and sharing the secrets of the soil.

 

Realizing there is somewhere new, waiting

I know that out there, somewhere in Western PA, new land is waiting for me. I have been feeling its pull for several years, and now, it is pulling even more strongly by the day. Michigan is not my home–it is not where my ancestors are buried, it is not the land that birthed me, nor where I first heard the voices of the trees. I realize now that Michigan was meant to be a place where I would learn some of the deep mysteries of inhabiting the land, of being tied to the soil, and hearing its whispered secrets in the wind. It was meant to be a place where I had so much opportunity: to learn from some wonderful teachers and mentors in organic farming, natural building, herbalism, food preservation, permaculture design, and much more.

 

And the knowledge I have and the experiences I’ve gained are not common or much established where I am going…so I will have knowledge to share, knowledge that is wanted and needed. I’ve learned so much while being immersed in a great community here and living on my homestead. I’ve already been asked to share my knowledge of herbs and plants and have been told by many they are excited to have me come–and I expect so many opportunities will emerge in the coming years to share what Michigan has blessed me with.

 

Sacred Land, Unsacred Times

A friend who lives about 10 miles from here is also selling her property–she is getting older, and the property is getting too much for her husband and her to maintain.  Like me, she has worked spiritually with the land, hosted rituals, even built a kiva on her property for ceremony.  And so, like me, she has sacred, awakened land.  We had a long conversation about it–how does one sell sacred land?  How can one make sure the right people buy it, honor it, and love it?  This is the challenge we face–but there are many tools to make this happen.  My inner senses tell me that it will work out perfectly for both of our properties, but there is still the worry and concern.

 

How I will miss you, dear homestead!

How I will miss you, dear homestead!

The Way Forward…

Now that I’m leaving, I’m trying to spend as much time as I can out on the land, appreciating it, observing it, taking in these final memories before the property is sold and I am off on my next adventure. While I had felt, on some level, this transition coming for a number of years, I had no idea when it would actually arrive, and I realize that I’m working through some serious grief and feelings of loss.  As much as I have grief about moving, I’m also excited for the new opportunities this process brings–and the new experiences and energies that will be present. My home will be on the market and officially for sale in the next week, and I am already in the middle of making the transition to PA.

 

So, part of this journey and the upcoming focus of my blog will be my transition from a 3-acre homestead to renting again (and what sustainable and spiritual activities can be done in that situation) And part of the story will be finding that new land to call my own, and the story of my work on that land, deep within the heart of the Appalachian mountains.
And so I hope, dear readers, that these upcoming journeys are as rich as my last six years in Michigan have been. Thank you for walking by my side, for learning about this land…and for your companionship on the journey that still is to come.

 

Alternative Housing: Tiny Houses, Campers, and the Road Less Traveled January 9, 2015

For an increasing number of Americans, especially those under 30, the “American Dream” is an absolute joke. For those of us in our 30’s, like me, its still a joke, but a harsh one because lot of us got sucked into believing in this dream and buying houses and such just before things crashed down in 2008. Of course, the joke’s on us, I suppose. Even for college graduates (or those with graduate degrees) finding a way to make a decent living and support a family, much less buy a house or anything else, is a fantasy. Those in the trades that I talk to often also don’t have any work. Many friends of mine in their 20’s are still living at home because its too expensive to be on their own, the job opportunities aren’t there, or the bills are too much to consider moving out. Or, they are like Sage, who I described in a post about meaningful work last year–they work several jobs to pay the bills, living from paycheck to paycheck, having no free time or energy to do anything else. Two days ago a new article described most Americans as being one paycheck away from the street.  And some are already halfway there–I have numerous friends living in homes in Detroit without heating for the winter, running water, and more–because they can’t afford it. So…this begs the question–what can be done and who is doing it? This blog post explores just that.

Freedom!

Freedom!

 

From a sustainable perspective, American Dream, with its white picket fences and perfect sprawling lawns, is one of the most destructive ways of living that there is. Especially when that American dream resides in large, suburban homes far away from workplaces. Now, I got sucked into this too before I had my great sustainable/permie awakening and bought a much larger house than I needed (about 2600 square feet). I’ve since been working with what I have to make my impact as little as possible (the subject of many posts in this blog), given the present circumstances in which I find myself. I’ve made several serious attempts in the last two years to turn my large rural home on 3 acres into a kind of hippy commune/small sustainable community, with the idea that more people in a smaller space = less waste, more opportunity, lots of fun experiences, lots of veggies from the garden, but thus far, its not really been successful–hardworking hippies are surprisingly hard to find, especially long-term, and I’m rethinking the whole plan at present.  I even had a few friends living in a trailer behind my house for a while last summer. And I do think that model can work–provided you find the right people.

 

But today I’d like to explore another solution, one that a dear friend of mine has been working towards for the last six or so months. In less than a year, my friend went from renting, working two jobs and barely making ends meet to downsizing her life, owning her own residence, and supporting herself with what she loves the most–her art.  She has no mortgage, no property or school taxes, no nagging boss, no rigid schedule, and few of the other problems that life presents most of us, even those of us like myself trying to live as sustainably as possible. And yet, despite her current status (homeowner, debt-free, mobile, self-supporting, with savings) nearly everyone that she knows thinks she’s crazy and have been trying to talk her out of her “insanity.”

 

What has my friend and her husband done? They have sold 90% of their possessions, purchased a van and a camper, quit their jobs, and have decided to live in in their camper. Why do people think she’s crazy? Because her and her husband have decided, frankly, that they aren’t drinking the Koolaid anymore. They aren’t playing the game. The idea that you could just quit the rat race, that you could find more happiness and fulfillment by not working full time, by not taking on a big mortgage, and so on, isn’t an idea that can even be conceived of by most Americans.

 

My friend’s husband is keeping a vlog (check it out here) where he’s showing off their setup, describing sustainable projects (like the composting toilet) and documenting their journey. In a recent update, her husband (the Earth Bison on Youtube) describes working the insanity of retail over the holiday season and finally getting ready to head out on their adventure. Today marks my friends’ journey from Michigan (where it has gotten quite cold and their little camper has had some winterizing challenges) to warm and sunny Arizona for the remainder of the winter.  I am so proud of them for making such a choice.

 

I want to step back a bit and investigate some of the negative reactions to my friend and her husband’s choice:

If you want to be free...you have to seek it (one of my paintings)

If you want to be free…you have to seek it (one of my paintings)

 

1. It comes down to stuff. A big part of it, I think, is that you can’t take all that stuff with you. But really how much stuff does one person need? I’ve given away about 25% of my stuff in 2014, and I intend on downsizing another 25% in 2015. Things can be hard to part with at first (and at first, I literally had to take the boxes into a room, mourn the loss of it, and then eventually after a few weeks, let it go). The more that I gave away, the better and lighter I felt. I found places to give my stuff away that mattered–expensive musical instruments I haven’t played in 10 years to an after school program (a community partner for a course I teach), clothing and household goods to a place that gives them away for free to those in need, books to friends who are interested in them, art supplies to fellow artists, and so on.  I still have a lot of stuff to get rid of, but each time I do, I feel better, lighter. The stuff weighs on us, it really does, and we don’t realize it until we start giving it away. Its so easy in our culture to accumulate it–even if we don’t buy stuff, people buy and bring stuff for us, often without our consent.

 

2. Space. Another issue–and a valid one–is space.  We are used to living big and luxurious…but again, if one doesn’t have all the stuff, does one need all the space? The space requires heating (usually inefficiently via fossil fuel), money and time to upkeep, time to clean, and so on.  I’ve been really challenged in this regard with my current living situation.  I do host big events (like our monthly permaculture meetings) in my huge greatroom, and do a lot of other good with the land, but I still feel like I’m taking up way to much space.  I do think, given my introverted ways, I might have difficulty living with a person in such a living situation–but I’ve done it before (dorms in my undergrad years) and seemed to be fine.

 

3. Convenience. I think convenience is another huge issue. Many of us are used to so many modern conveniences and living in a small space sustainably forces you to give up some of those (think about the work involved in a composing toilet, or in hauling your water each day).  To give some perspective, last weekend, I had some unexpected guests, including a number of small children, and they kept asking me why I did things “the old way.”  I didn’t really consciously think about what I did, but they were really intrigued by me and my old ways.  I made them popcorn on the stove with popcorn from my garden in olive oil.  I built them a fire to keep them warm (they all slept next to it).  They made art and watched the fire since I don’t have a TV (give away during last year’s great giveaway).  We played games on the floor (pick up sticks, which they loved). We cooked on the stove since I don’t have a microwave (again, by choice, also given away in last year’s great giveaway). Since I’ve made shifts slowly away from modern conveniences slowly and integrated them into my life fully, I guess didn’t realize how different I now live than others.  But children have a way of pointing out things in ways adults won’t.  I think about my friends–they have made many more shifts than I have–living on solar power and limiting energy use, composting toilets, greywater systems….these are shifts that I’m also planning, but I haven’t yet gotten there!

 

4. Fear. Ultimately, a lot of resistance to my friend’s plan came down to one thing–fear.  Fear of the unknown. And its a big risk, quitting one’s job, leaving a roof over your head, and going off into the great beyond. Others have done it, and many others plan to do it–and as they become the trailblazers for their generation and document their experiences, still others will muster up the courage.

 

But given the economic circumstances that so many of my generation and those younger than me face, I do think this path–tiny houses, campers, and other smaller spaces–is a really viable one. The choice and what it offer can be summed up in one word: freedom. I think many more of us, myself included, are thinking about how to escape at least some of this rat race, how to live sustainably and meaningfully, how do meaningful work in the world. The yurt living movement and tiny house movement is gaining steam rapidly–more and more people are seeking alternative living that is debt-free, sustainable, and fulfilling.  I’d love to hear from others who are considering the same choice or who are enacting it. I have some big life changes ahead for me as well–I might join them one day.  It certainly is a tempting proposition.

 

 

Community and Connectedness: Extending our understanding of “tribe” September 30, 2013

Sociologist Geert Hosfede* has a set of cultural dimensions (which you can look at here) that helps us understand broad differences in culture. These aren’t absolute by any means, but they do give us some baseline indications of how cultures differ for the purpose of understanding intercultural communication. One of these cultural dimensions is his concept of “individualism” which indicates the extent to which a culture is based on individualism (focus on the self) vs. the community (which could be a family unit, a tribe, a town, or even a country). But in today’s blog post I really want to focus on this idea of individualism and collectivism, and the shades of gray between these two binary terms. (*As an aside, Hosfede’s other dimensions are equally fascinating, for those of you interested in these kinds of things.  Hosfede’s dimensions do work under binary assumptions, that is, the opposite of individualism is collectivism.  False binaries aside, its still a useful rubric through which to consider these issues, even if it does simplify them.)

 

Druids around the fire at the latest OBOD East Coast Gathering (photo from John Beckett)

Druids around the fire at the latest OBOD East Coast Gathering (photo from John Beckett)

The United States and many other western industrialized nations seem to be very highly individualistic societies, which manifests itself in our culture in the idea of pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps, individual rewards for individual actions, a focus on individual achievement, and, especially in the latter part of the 20th and early 21st century, a whole lot of isolationism and solitude. In my experience in living in four different states in the USA, we don’t seem to have strong bonds, even within our families, and most of us these days barely know our neighbors. We seem to have more loyalty to company brands than we do to people–and everything in our culture is structured this way purposefully, to get us to buy and consume. The idea of “me” and the “self” seems to be the most important to us; narcissism is a key American quality among our younger generations. This seems to be exacerbated by current technology which emphasizes the individual and his/her actions (Facebook’s wall, Twitter, etc.).  I make these observations partially just as someone living in this culture, but also as a professional who teaches college-age students for a living. I see the difficulties these students face with defining themselves, with their relations, and their uses of technology that seem to isolate more than they bring together.

 

Collective cultures, on the other hand, work on the level of the family or the tribe, where bonds of community are central. This leads to things like strong family bonds, extended families living and taking care of each other, and family/tribal honor. I had the opportunity to spend time with a group of close friends who were students from Korea while in graduate school–I was amazed by the bonds that they formed, their gift-giving and kindness.  One said to me once, “Dana, why is it that everyone in America asks ‘How are you?’ but nobody actually wants to know?”  The OBOD East Coast Gathering, which I blogged about last week, is another example of a tribe forming–its something that transcends the individual, and allows a supportive community to grow.

 

The USA used to have a more collective culture in its past. This is particularly true when communities had to work together for mutual survival.  Families and communities banded together, raised structures together, found/grown/hunted and preserved food together, ate meals together, and so forth, because being isolated from the community in times previous to this one likely meant death. (You can see the remnants of this in old colonial dances, where you danced with everyone in the community to build communal bonds rather than with a single partner, or older fraternal orders, like the Grange, who banded together to aid rural communities and farmers.  Laura Ingalls Wilder’s novels also have great examples of community-oriented experiences.)

 

I’d like to propose that individualism causes particular kinds of troubling trends, and would like to suggest that if we draw upon the idea of the “tribe” and extend that “tribe” quite far, it gives us positive ways of interacting with the world.  One of the problems I see with a heavy focus on the self is that it makes us lose the bonds of community and connectedness; and these two qualities are really what make us human and make life worth living.  If we disconnect ourselves from other human beings, we have less altruism, less care and compassion.  We end up with political movements like the present-day Tea Party, which is essentially an exercise in selfishness.  Since when did helping out fellow human beings become a problem? Since when is altruism a dirty word?  Another problem with the heavy focus on self is that it disconnects us from the healing power of nature–we see ourselves as disconnected from the whole, we don’t see the consequences of our actions, and we begin to treat nature like something that is ours to own and exploit rather than our mother and nurturer.

 

Traditional cultures throughout the world were also much more collectivist–the idea of “tribe” or “clan” (such as those in ancient Ireland, Scotland, and Wales) all followed this collectivist model.  We can see these tales of tribe, of clan, of family, woven into so much of the mythology and folklore of many peoples (read the Mabinogion with this in mind). We can also see the idea of collectivism reflected in everyday interactions–in its height of power, the Iroquois nation used an elaborate system of consensus-based diplomacy to encourage fairness and equity among its members.  Even though it was made up of five (and later six) different peoples and tribes, its bonds of brotherhood were solidified by rituals and discussions in order to maintain stability and peace amongst its members (although how outsiders were treated was a different subject of discussion). In this, the bonds of family and tribe are central to living and interaction in the world.

 

What is part of our tribe? Wood sorrel?

Wood sorrel is part of my tribe! 🙂

Some cultures, such as most of those indigenous to the Americas, took the notion of tribe a step further and went so far as to include non-human persons (animals, plants, stones, etc.) within their idea of tribe.  This is the concept of animism, and remains central to understanding much indigenous cultural interaction (such as those examples provided by Dale Everett in his interactions with the Pirahas his book Don’t Sleep There are Snakes).  A basic animistic philosophy suggests a “belief in spirits”, the idea that every living being (and sometimes rocks and other so-called “inanimate” objects, have a spirit and a soul).  In his book Animism: Respecting the Living World, Graham Harvey examines four groups: Native Americans, Maori, Aboriginal Australians, and Eco-pagans to show how their animistic philosophy is enacted by expanding the concept of tribe, where being with, speaking, interaction, and engaging in magic surrounding the living, spirit filled world is a critical part of the human condition.

 

Can we once again build tribes among our fellow humans? Can we expand our own notion of the “tribe” to include all life on this planet? If we do this, what do we gain?  I would like to think that by doing this, we gain a great deal, and we begin to shift some of the destructive trends in human thinking and action; trends in thinking that have caused substantial environmental destruction, the destruction of whole peoples and cultures, and the inevitable loss in diversity that goes with such destruction.  Instead, we can focus on our connection to each other and to the land, and the community that such connection brings.

 

The Process of Tapping Trees and Making Maple Syrup – A Blessing from the Maple Trees March 15, 2013

Sap in buckets on trees!

Sap in buckets on trees!

This time of year, something magical happens to the maple trees. When the temperatures drop below freezing at night and then goes above freezing during the day, the maple sap runs.  In South-East Michigan, this usually occurs in late February and throughout March. Maple sap, of course, becomes Maple syrup or Maple sugar depending on how far down you want to boil it.  A group of us, including some grove members, are tapping trees and learning about this process this year.

Maple is a sacred tree, and the Native Americans were the first to tap it and discover its incredible sap. The sap, and the syrup that results from the boiling of sap, is the lifeblood of the maple tree. In taking part of that lifeblood into ourselves, we receive the blessing of the maple tree. Partaking of such a sacred thing should be done with reverence and respect (and thanking the trees for their offering, of course!)  The process of making syrup also has links to alchemy, and truly, I see it as one of joining opposite elements–we have the cold of the sap and the wet of the snow, the application of heat and flame, and the required persistence and diligence–and the resulting amazing syrup, which tastes like liquid gold and stores for many months!

The process of making Maple syrup is not difficult, but it is very time consuming. I’m going to walk through the process step by step.  Ours is a very small-scale, home operation, not a large commercial operation.  It can be done with a minimum of equipment and an investment of time.

Equipment:

To tap trees, you’ll need some equipment including:

  • Tree taps
  • Small buckets for collecting sap (ours are 1 gallon each)
  • Storage tanks / bins for sap (ours are 40 gallons each)
  • A drill (electric or hand-cranked)
  • A source of heat (we are using hardwoods from dead trees)
  • An evaporating pan to boil off syrup (this process should be done outside)
  • Measuring stick for measuring the evaporation rate of the sap
  • Screens/straining equipment for filtering out impurities

A few other things also help:

  • A secondary heat source and sap boiling apparatus (does not have to be large), this substantially speeds up the process
  • A group of friends (because many hands make light work and this is how we build community)
  • Several 5-gallon buckets (we used these to transport sap from the tree buckets to our storage tanks)
  • Something to take sap home in, assuming your site is not at your property–we’ve been using pressure canners with locking lids)

 

The Process

1.  Identify maple trees of an appropriate variety and age.  Sugar maples work best for tapping (hence the name) but all sorts of maples can be tapped (including box elder, red maple, etc.). We’ve tapped all sugar maples for our syrup making, as they have the highest sugar content (and high sugar content equals less work). The first step in our process is to tie a bright-colored strip around each tree so that we can clearly identify the trees.  You can do this work at any time in the year, but its a lot harder in the winter if you aren’t that familiar with tree identification.

Trees tapped with buckets

Trees tapped with buckets

2.  Tap your trees when the time is right. When the weather will be above freezing during the day and below freezing at night, go ahead and tap your trees. Tree taps also usually have a little bucket holder so you can place your buckets.  We tapped about 50 trees, which is quite a lot, but there were about 8 of us and we all wanted lots of maple syrup.

Running sap!

Running sap!

3.  Collect sap. We collected sap each day in the evenings until we had about 40 gallons (and 40 gallons will make 1 gallon of maple syrup).  This evening collection took us three days when we were starting out because the sap ran slow, but quickly, we were collecting more sap than we could boil in a day!  Depending on the size of your buckets, it may actually be that the sap is flowing so well that you need to empty them twice a day.  If the sun is shining brightly and its warm, the sap will flow quickly! Since our trees are spread across about a 4 acre area, we used the 5 gallon buckets and the larger bins to transport sap to our boiling area.  We find that many hands make light work of this process.

I should also add here that the sap, in its unaltered form, is an amazing beverage.  We fill our water bottles up with it and drink it and its so good.  Its just slightly sweet at this stage.  If you want it sweeter, you can boil it for an hour or so, and then it takes on a very mapley quality but still is not too sweet.   We’ll be using some of this for our grove’s upcoming Spring Equinox celebration!

Sap in storage bin.

Sap in storage bin full of syrup (yes, it freezes at night sometimes!  That’s ok!)

4.  Boil off the excess water.  Our setup for evaporating off the excess water involves a 24″ x 24″ evaporator pan (which was custom made by a neighbor) and an old stove that has the lid cut out of it.  The pan, then, sits directly on the heat from the fire.  We lay the pan right on the stove, stoke the fires, and boil the sap down all day.  As the sap boils down, we add more and keep track of the evaporation process.  This allows us to have a sense of how many gallons of sap we’ve added and how much resulting syrup we will get.

We found that anything we can do to maintain a good boil is worth doing. You can see in the photo below that we are also using the stove to heat up/dry out our wood which keeps things hotter.  After a few days, we got smart and brought out a second little stove and pre-heated our sap on that stove before adding it to the evaporating pan so that the sap wouldn’t cool when we added more.  This probably made us 20% more efficient.  As a complete aside, we also built ourselves a temporary rocket stove for heating up food :).

Boiling sap to make syrup!

Boiling sap to make syrup!

Setup with wood pile nearby

Setup with wood pile nearby; wood is covered with a tarp to prevent excess moisture buildup

 

5.  Boiling at home, part 1.  Our rule of thumb has been that we boil as long as we can, and the syrup takes on an amber quality over time.  We boil till the evening and it gets dark, and then at that point, we take it home to finish it off. As the syrup boils down, you’ll see that it will take on an amber quality.  This was the syrup as I started to boil it down in my pressure canner.  You want to boil it down about halfway where it needs to go one evening, then pour it into jars and let the jars sit. All the debris from the trees and outside will settle to the bottom after 12 hours or so.  You pour the good syrup off, then boil it down until you are happy with the thickness.  If you boil it too much, it will crystalize and turn to sugar (and then you have maple candy!)

Finishing syrup

Finishing syrup

Straining the syrup

Straining the syrup

 

6.  Enjoy your syrup! The last step, of course, is to eat it.  We’ve found that our syrup, using hardwoods to boil it down outside, takes on a different quality than the syrups you purchase from larger operations.  Our syrup has a woody/smoky flavor to it that is so incredibly good, and so incredibly hard to describe.

Liquid gold- the finished syrup

Liquid gold- the finished syrup

I hope you’ve enjoyed seeing into this process–its so much fun, and despite the long hours and heavy lifting, the results are 100% worth it!  Commune with the trees, eat some pancakes and maple syrup, and enjoy the Spring Equinox that is almost upon us!