Tag Archives: making change

A Spring Ritual: Trash-to-Treasure Fairy

A typical "trash" pile full of perfectly good stuff

A typical “trash” pile full of perfectly good stuff from the move out day ritual.  Working fans, mattresses, bags of unused clothing, shoes, organization units, dishes, etc.

At the end of the semester in my quaint college town, a spring ritual of sorts takes place. (I know, I know. Spring rituals in college towns are rarely a good thing!) It is a holiday dedicated to the gods of consumption and waste, called “Move out day.” This day takes place the same day as graduation, and after graduation ceremonies, students and their families eagerly pack their cars and whisk themselves off to unknown destinations. Unfortunately, not everything that they brought, or bought here, goes with them. In fact, the primary activity of the move out day ritual is making one’s sizable offering of new and lightly used goods on the sidewalk or in a series of dumpsters and then to drive off into the sunset.

 

As you walk up and down the streets in the aftermath of this ritual, the carnage and enormity it can be overwhelming. To give you a sense of it, I’ll post two lists from friends and the “haul” they got from move-out day:

 

“End of the semester means move out day! This year’s haul includes a Weber grill, a metal bathroom shelf, an IKEA shelf unit, brand new Tefal fry pans, new cutting boards, a six month supply of laundry soap and fabric softener, clothes, a fan, a folding chair, and two bikes.”

 

“I got two boxes full of dishes, a leather rolling chair, two brand new garbage cans, a sound system, two digital voice recorders, an Xbox with 5 games and controllers, a almost new scanner/printer unit, a vintage metal chair, a whole bag of clothing with the tags still on, three pairs of jeans, towels, crystal plates and cups, a box full of plates and cups, two small throw rugs, a wooden jewelry box…and probably some things I forgot.”

 

I think these two lists help you get the picture–this is not ordinary garbage, but a ton of perfectly good stuff, or brand new stuff, that for whatever reason, students no longer want in their lives.

 

Each of these items have a cost: an environmental cost, a social cost, a financial cost. So many resources–directly from the living earth–natural materials, fossil fuels and the associated environmental tolls, environmental pollution from extraction sites, factory waste and runoff. Further, the social cost is also often extreme: workers and their families, near-slave labor in factories, chemical poisoning of workers, birth defects, poverty, and more. When we think about these costs, and the cycle of purchasing and disposal, it is very hard to see mounds and mounds of stuff going completely unused go to the dump. At the dump, it has a final environmental cost as it slowly decays, especially with all of those electronics leeching heavy metals. I don’t think that students participating in their spring ritual really think about what I’ve outlined here–it is the simplest action just to leave stuff on the curb on your way home.

 

I’m not going to go into there reasons this happens (see my earlier post on “disposing of the disposable mindset“) but instead, with the inspiration of permaculture ethics, I’m going to share the inspirational story of the Trash-to-Treasure fairy.

 

Clothes wtih the tags on in the trash

Clothes wtih the tags on in the trash

The typical response to those on the sidelines of this spring ritual are: 1) ignore it is going on and go about your business; 2) shake your head and move along; or, 3) take advantage of it to see what stuff you can salvage, use, and take off the streets. I have found myself most often in the 3rd category, and I never considered taking it a step further. In fact, there are a lot of people out and about during the move out day ritual, participating in a counter-ritual of sorts, sorting through the piles and  looking for stuff they can use (hence the lists above). Others are scrappers, looking to see what metal they can salvage to scrap for bit of cash.  In fact, I have a lot of nice new dishes here, including an awesome enamel saucepan, from this year’s haul. I was personally not going out much, because, shamefully, I didn’t want to be seen as the professor digging through students’ garbage. And then, I saw what the Trash-to-Treasure fairy did, and in the upcoming years, I have decided that I am going to put that sentiment behind me in the future and take his lead.  And maybe solicit the help of some others in furthering the cause.

 

The trash-to-treasure fairy, summoned by the spring move out ritual, decided that none of the three typical responses above were sufficient–and they aren’t. The first responses two allow a problem to happen,and don’t do anything about it other than have a non-response or levy judgement. The third response is much better in that some of what would otherwise wasted goes to use, but its also a very personal response problem, in that the larger problem still remains. But still, 95% of what is thrown away is still going to thrown away, going to the landfill to spend 2000 years or more decomposing.

 

The fourth option, which the Trash-to-treasure fairy enacted, was using a different set of ethics: the permaculture ethics of earth care, fair share, as well as the design principles of “produce no waste” and “the problem is the solution.” In simple terms–because everything that is on the curb came from the earth, and the fairy honors the earth, he decided he wasn’t going to let it go back so easily. And so, he began working his magic. The fairy spent a number of hours filling his car with anything he found that was perfectly good and made runs to one of the local thrift stores.  He selected his store very carefully, avoiding one of the national chains, but a local place with more sound ethics, who directly put on the floor what is donated, and who directly feed the needy with the sales.  The thrift store manager was thrilled to see carloads of perfectly fine dishes, brand new clothing with the tags on, video game consoles, fans, and more–and often of a higher quality than the typical used donations. The fairy’s blessing extends to the shoppers, of all walks of life, that visit that particular store.  This simple solution was able to do car-loads more good than bringing it to your house or turning away from the problem.

 

Lots here that can be used again!

Lots here that can be used again!

I’m also inspired in another sense to take the Trash-to-Treasure fairy’s actions a few steps further.  For one, it seems that in the future, perhaps we can encourage the thrift stores to be there, in person, with donation trucks and make it really convenient for students to make a donation to their store instead of the curb. (We are in a small town, all of the stores are within 2 miles of where this is happening…but still, a lot of people can’t be bothered to drop stuff off on the edges of town). I’m also wondering if more education and a push by the university could help move more of this so-called “waste” into the hands of people who need it. I think there are lots of possibilities here, and I am thankful to have been so inspired by the Trash-to-Treasure fairy and to share this with all of you.

 

The Trash-to-Treasure fairy wasn’t content to take only what he needed, and instead, took it a step further. He stopped thinking about himself and his own needs, and instead, thought about the good of the earth and the community. I am inspired to continue and extend this tradition and help reduce the waste produced by my own campus community. The following week, a very similar spring ritual of my hometown, where my parents live, was taking place: “spring clean up” and I went with the trash-to-treaure fairy to see what we could salvage and give away. So many of us have an opportunity each day to do these little, yet powerful things. May the inspiration of the trash-to-treasure fairy be ever-present in your life!

Making a Difference

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.