Asking the Right Questions

Golden Tree and The Achievement of the Grail

Sir Galahad Discovering the Grail by Edwin Austin Abbe (1895)

The legend of Percival’s search for the holy grail is an odd one. Spoiler alert! Percival finds the holy grail not through solving a riddle or answering a question. Rather, he asks the right question. In his first trip to the grail castle and the wounded Fisher King who oversees it, Percival doesn’t know what to do or say. It takes him years to find the grail castle again. On his second encounter (depending on the version) he either asks simply, “What ails thee?” or “Whom does the grail serve?” In this way, he finds the grail.

I was thinking about this myth this weekend in Larry Santoyo’s Permaculture Design Course when Larry stressed the importance of asking the right questions. It got me thinking about the kind of questions we need to ask about the many subjects covered on this blog.

Take for instance bees. Mainstream beekeepers ask, “How can I get more honey?” when they should be asking the same question Parsifal asks, “What ails thee?” That is, “What is in the long term interest of the bee’s health?” This is the question Michael Thiele and Kirk Anderson both ask. It’s a wise one to ask, since our health is inextricably entwined with that of the bees.

Or think about aisles of poisons and traps at all those big box stores. What if instead of asking, “How do I kill this pest?”, we asked, “How do I create conditions inhospitable rats/possums/raccoons/coyotes?” Maybe instead of buying poison (or worse, setting snares) we’d, for instance, stop leaving pet food out at night.

What questions do we ask in our neighborhoods? We often, myself included, ask questions such as, “What number do I call to anonymously report my neighbor for having a car up on blocks in the front yard?” A better question might be, “How do we foster the sort of community where neighbors aren’t strangers?” Communities where, if I have a problem with a neighbor I can simply have a civil chat because I know them and we’re friends. A short answer to this question, by the way: throw a party and invite the neighbors.

Like most legends there are many layers to the Percival story. Carl Jung considered it to be central to understanding ‘what ails’ Western civilization. Percival, according to Jung, embodies the reconciliation of the masculine and feminine, the logical and intuitive. But Percival’s quest begins and ends, not through some grand gesture, but through humility, through asking a simple question.

Urban Homesteading and Homeowners Associations

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Photo: Wikimedia.

Homeowners associations are notoriously intolerant when it comes to many of the activities discussed on this blog. HOA covenants and deed restrictions tend to forbid things like keeping chickens and front yard vegetable gardens. You can even get in trouble for a laundry line.

I’m curious to hear from readers who live in an HOAs. Did you get into urban homesteading before or after moving to an HOA? Have you ever gotten in trouble? What did you do about it? Do the benefits of living in an HOA outweigh the restrictions?

And there are less restrictive HOAs. I once met a couple who live in an HOA in Orange County, CA that allows chickens.

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Flagpole antenna. Source: The Doctor is In

Some HOA residents take a stealth approach such as the amateur radio operators who hide their antennas in flag poles. Have you figured out a way to hide your activities?

The Organic Minefield: How organic are your organic eggs, soy and dairy?

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I wish the label “organic” meant all that I mean when I use the term, but unfortunately organic is not a a guarantee of sustainable agricultural practice, much less humane treatment of livestock.

The Cornucopia Institute promotes sustainable organic agriculture and family farms, and helps consumers parse the difference between greenwashed and genuine organic farms and suppliers.

They release quick reference charts on various subjects, as well as reports which get into food issues in detail. But the main reason I’m posting this is because they produce useful quick reference charts for brand names and stores. I’ve just found their dairy chart, and wanted to share it with you, and thought I’d share some others as well while I was at it. We’ve posted about the eggs score card before, but it is important enough for a repeat. Check it out:

Organic Dairy Scorecard

Organic Egg Scorecard

Organic  Soy Product Scorecard

Organic Cereal Scorecard

Note: Links to scoring criteria are at the top of all the scorecards, with the exception of the dairy scorecard. In that case it is located at the very bottom.

The Elysium Delusion

Matt Damon in Elysium

If the futurist projections of my childhood had come true, by 2013 we should have all been living in a spinning subdivision in earth orbit by now. But space colonization is a concept that’s always bugged me. It strikes me an irresponsible escape: rather than fix things on earth, let’s all get the hell out–it’s the ultimate form of suburban flight.

NASA's 1970s era version of Elysium

NASA’s 1970s era version of Elysium

The heyday of space colonization futurism was the 1970s. But space station fantasies have reappeared in popular culture recently. At the end of the recently released movie Elysium [spoiler alert] the evil French speaking space colonists (who look like Armani clad Santa Barbarans) have their computer reset by Matt Damon who, with a few keystrokes,  gives the miserable residents of Earth (represented as a third world, distopian Los Angeles!) both universal health care and citizenship.

But, the movie Elysium, while on the surface a struggle between the haves and the have-nots, still takes it as gospel that our salvation comes in the form of an orbiting space colony. The final scene shows the teaming masses of Angelinos saved from above by the miraculous intervention of nurse robots from the space colony Elysium (which, incidentally, looks both like a rotating Mercedes logo, and the cross within a the circle symbol which Carl Jung associated with wholeness).

1970s space farming.

1970s space farming.

Coincidentally, physicist Stephen Hawking, descended from his own Euro-Elysium recently to speak to a group of nurses and doctors here in Los Angeles. In his speech, according to Associated Press, he argued for getting off earth, “The 71-year-old Hawking said he did not think humans would survive another 1,000 years “without escaping beyond our fragile planet.” The same article noted his previous advice to “Look up at the stars and not down at your feet.”

A scene from Elysium

A scene from Elysium

These fantasies permeate our culture. Take also the new reality show offering participants a one way trip to Mars, as well as the ongoing efforts of Richard Branson to hurtle rich people into low earth orbit.

In answer to Hawking, Hollywood’s imaginings, Richard Branson and those unfortunate Mars reality show participants, I say we haven’t been spending enough time looking down at our feet. The fact is that earth is a paradise, space is a vacuum and Mars is a hell.

We have to work with what we have. In my cranky opinion, the future is in down-to-earth appropriate technology, not space stations.We need to plant gardens here on earth not in the vacuum of space. I’ll note that the farms in these space colonies look an awful lot like the dystopian factory farms we have down on earth.

And we should recognize the space station fantasy for what it is: a materialistic version of a heavenly afterlife, with scientists such as Hawking acting as the priests of what John Michael Greer calls the “religion of progress,” the unspoken faith that our salvation lies in an ever greater progression of shiny technological objects.

I get that we need myths. Jung recognized rockets and UFOs as sort of a machine age manifestation of archetypes of heaven and transcendence. But it’s well past time to switch out our outdated, mechanistic symbols. Perhaps we can look to the fevered imaginings of permaculture for a healthier alternative to space station futurism. Or maybe we just need to get our hands dirty, planting gardens, building swales, working to improve what we have–in other words, look at our feet not the stars and work towards a hands-on integration of the physical and the transcendent.

Filter Fail: How to Cure Internet Addiction

You say to yourself, “I’m just going to check my email and get back to doing the dishes.” Two hours later you’ve “liked” a dozen posts on Facebook, watched a hillbilly dance with a raccoon, checked BoingBoing, Twitter, LinkedIn and Root Simple (of course).  Not to mention ,

This used to be called “information overload,” but I prefer the phrase “filter fail” that Douglas Rushkoff introduces in his book Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now (Rushokoff borrows this idea from the writer Clay Shirky). The problem is not that there’s too much information out there. The problem is that we’ve failed to screen out what is irrelevant.

It happens to me everyday and I’m not alone. This year, according to the research firm eMarketer, internet use will surpass TV viewing. The average American will spend five hours and nine minutes online (much of that time using mobile devices) and four hours and 31 minutes watching television.

I want to be careful not to come off as being anti-technology. The internet is an incredibly useful research tool and a great way to reach out to the urban homesteading community. That being said, I just can’t seem to stop watching those dancing raccoons. We may be well past the point where the distraction potential of the internet is beginning to adversely effect its usefulness.

Preventing filter fail
So what can be done on a personal level to prevent “filter fail?”

Only two things have worked for me in the past:

  • Checking email only twice a day, though this is getting difficult. I find myself falling behind.
  • Putting distance between myself and the computer by getting out of the house in the evening and going to the YMCA or fencing.

I need to do more to prevent filter fail such as getting back to my evening exercise schedule. It’s just too easy to fall into raccoon video holes. I’m even having trouble reading books and not being distracted by looking stuff up on Google.

I’d like to hear from you–do you think you have a problem? What strategies have you used to reduce filter fail?

Update on Los Angeles’ Backwards Parkway Regulations

It looks like Councilman Wesson has temporarily suspended enforcement of parkway planting rules. This is in response to Steve Lopez’s LA Times column that profiled two parkway vegetable gardens that the city busted.

A tip of the hat to Mr. Lopez for his good deed. We will all need to keep our eyes on the council and the Bureau of Street Services to make sure that the changes they make reflect common sense.

And at the risk of tooting my own horn, I pointed out the foolishness of LA’s parkway regs back in 2010.

The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Ignorance

Henry David Thoreau

I’m turning over the blog today to Henry David Thoreau, who has kindly taken a break from running his pencil factory to blog for free:

We have heard of a Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. It is said that Knowledge is power; and the like. Methinks there is equal need of a Society for the Diffusion of Useful Ignorance, what we will call Beautiful Knowledge, a knowledge useful in a higher sense; for what is most of our boasted so — called knowledge but a conceit that we know something, which robs us of the advantage of our actual ignorance? What we call knowledge is often our positive ignorance; ignorance our negative knowledge. By long years of patient industry and reading of the newspapers, — for what are the libraries of science but files of newspapers? — a man accumulates a myriad facts, lays them up in his memory, and then when in some spring of his life he saunters abroad into the great Fields of thought, he as it were goes to grass like a horse, and leaves all his harness behind in the stable. I would say to the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, sometimes — Go to grass. You have eaten hay long enough. The Spring has come with its green crop. The very cows are driven to their country pastures before the end of May; though I have heard of one unnatural farmer who kept his cow in the barn and fed her on hay all the year round. So, frequently the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge treats its cattle.

A man’s ignorance sometimes is not only useful, but beautiful, while his knowledge, so called, is oftentimes worse than useless beside being ugly. Which is the best man to deal with, he who knows nothing about a subject, and what is extremely rare, knows that he knows nothing, — or he who really knows something about it, but thinks that he knows all?

My desire for knowledge is intermittent; but my desire to bathe my head in atmospheres unknown to my feet is perennial and constant. The highest that we can attain to is not Knowledge, but Sympathy with Intelligence. I do not know that this higher knowledge amounts to anything more definite than a novel and grand surprise on a sudden revelation of the insufficiency of all that we called Knowledge before — a discovery that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in our philosophy. It is the lighting up of the mist by the sun. Man cannot know in any higher sense than this, any more than he can look serenely and with impunity in the face of the sun: “You will not perceive that as perceiving a particular thing,” say the Chaldean Oracles

–From Walking, written in 1862. Read the rest here.

Planetwalker John Francis

Planetwalker John Francis

Check out this interview in Grist with Dr. John Francis, the man who not only did not own a car, but opted to not ride in motorized vehicles at all for twenty-two years–and spent seventeen of those years in silence. He crossed America on foot, completed two college degrees in silence, and became an ambassador for the U.N.

You may have heard of him already–his story made the rounds years ago–but if you haven’t heard the details, haven’t heard him describe why he made the choices he did in his own words, you’re missing out. The man is wise, and he speaks from his heart.


Bonus: You can watch him talk at TED.

And find out what’s in his backpack.

And he’s got a book, Planetwalker: 22 Years of Walking. 17 Years of Silence.

Smurfs Team Up With US Forest Service

smurfs_ooh

When I saw this ad at a bus stop I thought I had fallen into some kind of post-modern hall of mirrors. At first I could not believe that it was real. Is the Forest Service really pushing our magnificent National Forests with an ad depicting a simulated forest populated by the Belgian version of Hobbits*? How could I begin to write about this?

A look at the website reveals that the Forest Service has entered into a co-branding arrangement with Sony Pictures (who took a break from helping remove our green bike lane). According to the Hollywood Reporter Sony’s work on this campaign was done “pro bono.” Of course, they do have a Smurf movie coming out this summer. The DiscoverTheForest website explains it all:

As inhabitants of the forest, Smurfs are the perfect ambassadors for forest recreation. As these new PSAs remind us, the forest provides benefits such as clean air and fresh water, and provides children with the ability to explore, use their imaginations, discover new wildlife and engage in unstructured and adventurous play. The Smurfs’ enthusiasm for their environment hopes to inspire families to create their own forest adventure and reap the many rewards that nature has to offer.

Are we slipping into a terminal nature estrangement syndrome here? A complete break with reality? Are we so detached from the actual forest that the folks at the Forest Service would think this is a good idea?

On a completely off topic side note–can someone tell me why the Smurfs wear phrygian caps? Are they revolutionaries?

*Mrs. Homegrown would like to register her disagreement re: the hobbit/smurf comparison. Mr. Homegrown has an underdeveloped understanding of magical creature taxonomy.

My New Drug Dealer Phone

TRA_PAC_12_G_155_LG440G

I’m not a fan of cell phones. I don’t like being interrupted when I’m away from home. But good luck finding a pay phone. For that reason cell phones have become somewhat of a necessity in modern life. A few years ago a reader suggested picking up a prepaid phone. We had one for a long time and it worked great, as long as you don’t use it that much. We lost it and I  had to replace it recently. For $20 I picked up the Tracfone 440. It bears a striking resemblance to:

star-trek1

Pay as you go flip phones are used only by old dudes, drug dealers, terrorists and old dude sustainability bloggers.

For the young folks out there let me explain how the flip phone works. Say I’m at Home Depot looking for just the right drip irrigation fitting but forgot to write down how many I need. I “flip” it open and place a call to Kelly:

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At home she picks up the signal on our “land line”:

uhuraearpeice

There’s one hitch. The only way this type of phone works economically, is if you don’t use it much. No idle chatter. Just, “I’m in a knife fight with a bipedal lizard and got tangled up in the drip line I’m working on. Please send help:”

gorn

The payment plan puts you into the awkward position of telling friends and loved ones that their idle chatter is costing $$$. You have to train people to not call unless they are sending help or are themselves in the middle of a lizard knife fight.

“Texting” on the Tracfone 440 keypad is challenging:

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A group of mostly old dudes sending and receiving text messages.

How many of you have embraced a drug dealer phone? How has it worked out for you?