Tools for Conquering Internet Addiction

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I think there are two deadly sins for the DIYer: One is accumulating cast off items for theoretical future projects. The other is falling into the trap of either researching a subject so thoroughly that somehow you never get around to actually doing it, or avoiding doing that research in the first place by checking email, Facebook or any of the other anti-productive tools our Silicon Valley overlords subject us to.  It’s the distraction problem I’d like to look at today.

The state of restless research and “busyness” that leads to ultimate inaction is an aspect of what was known in the Middle Ages as acedia and what has misleadingly come to be known as “sloth”. For me it begins this way, “I’ll just check my email.” Then, two hours later, I’ve descended to the click bait circle of  hell where I’m viewing all the latest cat memes, 80s music videos and hitting the “like” button like a mouse in a Skinner box.

I’ve become very worried in the past few years about this interweb induced state of acedia. As Nicholas Carr observed in his prescient 2008 article in the Atlantic, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?,” I’ve noticed that my attention span seems to be shrinking and that I’m less able to sit down and read books without the temptation to jump on the Internet and look stuff up. I’ve also noticed that I’m having a harder time initiating and completing the sort of gardening, cooking, food preservation and general DIY projects that provide fodder for this blog and for our books.

I think it’s time for some drastic action. It’s time to limit certain highly additive and often counter-productive Internet activities such as email, social media and general surfing not related to my core mission. Two tools I’m evaluating are LeechBlock, which works with the Firefox browser and allows you to block up to six sets of sites for certain periods of the day and two Chrome-based apps, Stay Focused and Strict Workflow (which uses a Pomodoro timer, an enforced 25 minute work period I’ve found helpful).

In the past I’ve found limiting email and social media to two brief periods a day, in the morning and late afternoon, really enhances my productivity. The problem is that I’ve fallen off this wagon. I’m hoping that these apps will get me back into this twice a day communications habit. I’m also thinking of taking the radical step of limiting emails to five sentences using the fivesentenc.es email signature.

While I find the internet to be a very useful research tool, not to mention a great way to publish my thoughts in both words and audio, I’ve become concerned of late with unintended consequences. At the risk of seeming alarmist, I think we may be in for some turbulent years as the full implications of a hyper-connected world work their way through our culture. Anyone watching Wolf Hall? The unmentioned offstage character in that drama is the printing press. Mobile computing, texting and the “Internet of things” could prove even more disruptive than Gutenberg’s invention.

Is Internet addiction a problem for you? What technique or tools have you found useful?

Grief is the pathway to action

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Clear cutting near Eugene, Oregon. Photo by Calibas. Courtesy of Wikimedia

Grief

Day before yesterday we had a little rain here in Los Angeles, a late season shower in a drought year.

I suspect we won’t see rain again until December. This long interval of dryness is normal in a Mediterranean climate, but what is not normal is how little rain fell this winter (or last winter, or the one before that, or the one before that), and how parched we are already as we look toward a nine month long summer with no hope of relief.

So I sat on the porch and experienced the rain, happy just to feel the cool, wet air on my skin one last time, yet at the same time feeling angry and frustrated and sad.

And as I sat there, I thought of conversations I’ve had with people who’ve confessed that they are grieving for what is being lost all around us, or they are grieving for a world their children will never know. Often they feel alone, as if no one else cares, or is much bothered at all.

I don’t think we like to acknowledge this grief, the deep sadness that comes from witnessing the diminishing of the world and the death of species due to human influence of various sorts. There isn’t any public forum for airing it.  (“Tonight at 9, a public gathering to weep over the disappearing starfish.”)

Yet I don’t think it’s all that uncommon to be sad, and what’s more, it is, of course, entirely appropriate to be sad. We’ve been discussing environmental degradation since the 70’s, if not before, but I feel like now it’s beginning to hit home, and hit hard. It’s not uncommon to feel sad because:

  • That little wilderness you loved playing in as a kid has been covered by a housing development
  • You can’t see the stars from your parents’ house anymore
  • You don’t hear the frogs sing at night anymore, either.
  • When you hike you feel like it’s awfully quiet. Where have the birds gone?
  • The fish seem to have left that spot you used to fish at with your grandpa
  • As you drive in the mountains you notice half the trees are turning brown

Or maybe you grieve or things you don’t witness, but hear about, like the plastic gyres in the ocean, worldwide deforestation, those last four white rhinos in Africa, quietly grazing away the final days of their species, the polar bears swimming in circles.

Often we don’t talk about these things because we don’t want to be a downer. Nor do we want to be labeled morbid, pessimistic, impractical, oversensitive or even (gasp!) a tree-hugger.

(FYI I was reprimanded in kindergarten for repeatedly arriving at school covered in sap because I’d been hugging trees all the way to school.)

But the grief is there, the endangered elephant in the room, which we walk around and talk past, and do our best to ignore by making our lives ever busier.

And anyway, what are we supposed to do about it?

Suburbia by David Shankbone. Tract housing in Colorado Springs

Action

I think there is something to do about it–about both the grief and the problems which lead to the grief.

I’m talking about work and atonement.

First, we in the developed world must own that our lifestyle has cost this planet dearly, and impacted all our fellow creatures as well as our fellow men. No matter how “good” we try to be with our recycling and organic produce, we are the heart of the problem. Us. Not other people. We use the roads. We fly. We shop. We use gas and petroleum and electricity and coal.

We all carry the responsibility for what is happening now. Not just the politicians. Not just your clueless sister-in-law. Not that guy driving the SUV. You.

I’m beating this point over the head because it’s way too easy to blame others for this, or to blame abstractions, like “the consumerist lifestyle”, or to think if everyone was like you, things would be better. I doubt it. Even if you’re some kind of off-grid saint, I’d still ask where you came from, and how you got there.

Too often I tell myself I’m doing “good enough” and “all I can” and that anyway, “I’m doing more than most people.” This leads to inaction.

Also, when I tell myself those things, I am lying.

This brings me back to the grief. Grief doesn’t allow me to lie to myself for long. Grief calls me to action. Grief alone can be paralyzing, but when paired with action, it becomes an ally, a compass, a burning fire in our hearts.  Grief can motivate us and activate us and spur us to do more than we’ve ever tried before.

Atonement

When we hurt someone, we apologize. But as you know if you’ve ever been on the other end of the hurt, an apology alone isn’t enough. It’s not enough that the one who injures feels bad about it, they have to learn from the mistake, so they don’t do the same thing again. They have to re-form their hearts.

That is the path of atonement between us and the natural world. Grief is not an end, it’s a beginning.

Can we re-form our hearts to make them big enough to encompass the world? I think we can.

And then we begin the work.

Bee Idle

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In the great battle against undifferentiated time, the 24/7  always-connected, always-on culture our Silicon Valley overlords orchestrate to get us all to work for free, I can think of no better response than the folks behind the Idler Academy. They put out the only email newsletter I actually bother to read even though most of the events are taking place half a world away in London. Here’s the opening paragraph of their recent email missive:

Dear Idlers
Good day. I am glad to report that the sun is out in west London, and that I saw a bee buzzing out of a daffodil in our front yard earlier today. Such activity and colour boosts the spirits, and though the techno-utopians in San Francisco and the economists in London and the utilitarians in government might scoff at non-productive activities like staring at bees and writing poetry, we will never lose our romantic spirit.

The Idler is a brick and mortar shop in London that also publishes books and hosts in-person and online lectures. I thought I’d highlight a couple of their recent efforts:

  • A free online lecture on the subject of William Morris. Morris, for those not familiar with him, should be considered a saint of the DIY movement. As the newsletter suggests, you should show this lecture to your children.
  • The Idler’s in-house philosopher Mark Vernon makes a case for heathens giving the Triduum a try. Today is day two, so get on it.
  • A class in using trees as a compass (free gin cocktail included).
  • While I can’t travel to Wiltshire, I really like the idea of a beekeeping and poetry weekend.

Lastly, this bit of pure genius:

On Monday I went up to visit the gardening writer and TV presenter Alys Fowler on her allotment in Birmingham, where we spent the day filming the first two instalments of our new online gardening course for eco-idlers. The principle is low effort, high productivity. Alys is a brilliant instructor and I wish I’d consulted her before I started growing vegetables and herbs. It would have saved me a lot of pain . . . We’re also organising an event with Alys for the Chelsea Fringe Festival. Her idea is that we create a Plant Cemetery at the Idler Academy, a resting place for neglected houseplants. There will be a wake with gin, and  you can read more about the idea here.

We are all gardeners

Pomo woman harvesting seeds

Pomo woman harvesting seeds, 1924, by Edward Curtis

After a break for camping and other things, I’m returning to the series of posts I initiated a couple of weeks ago under the heading, Back to the Garden. While this series is meant to be practical, I have a little more “thoughtstyling” as we say around here before I turn to the hands-on material. Look for new series entries every Thursday.

We are all gardeners.  What does this mean? It’s a saying which pops up in all sorts of contexts. Gardening, after all, is a universal metaphor, so the idea that “we are all gardeners” appears with equal validly in conversations about spiritual matters as it does in those about child development. The phrase is also often used in permacultural circles, where — by oral tradition, at least — it is attributed to Bill Mollison, though after a solid half hour of searching I haven’t been able to find a citation of him saying this in print.

In permacultural terms, to say we are all gardeners means simply that everything we do influences our environment. Whether we will it or not, our daily decisions shape the natural world around us, as surely as a gardener shapes her plot.

Every time we shop for food, every time we drive our cars or mow our lawns or choose where we’re going to live or just when settle down on the couch with our laptops, we are deciding what the world looks like. We choose to extract certain things from the natural world, and we choose to…er… supplement…our soil and our water with various substances. We choose what may and may not grow, when and where. We decide what may and may not crawl, creep or fly in our lands. We’ve already chosen to develop most of our land for human use. Consciously or unconsciously, we dominate the land.

Our influence is permanent, and huge. (Have you heard about the anthropocene epoch?) Somewhere in our group subconscious we like to believe there is always more wilderness, more chances, somewhere for the wild to be. But there simply isn’t. For example, check out this light pollution map of the U.S. How much undeveloped land is left to beast and bird and tree? Or, to put it another way, what isn’t a parking lot these days?

But this isn’t just about the abstract protection of species of fish, bird and insects we’ve never even seen. It’s about us, and the quality of our future as well. One of our best hopes for softening the effects of climate change is to work with nature as our ally. If we bring nature back into our cities and suburbs, if we build soil and plant trees and encourage biodiversity, we can do amazing things, like sequester carbon and regulate temperature and protect our lands from flooding. We can do all these things and support other species at the same time.

And on another level, we need nature to remain healthy and sane. It’s not just about food or water or air quality, it’s about spirit. We are programed to be in relationship with the natural world. This is the subject of a whole different essay, but if you need convincing, check out books like Last Child in the Woods and Your Brain on Nature, or more immediately, articles on “nature prescriptions” like this one in Slate.

Embracing our role as gardeners and stewards of creation is a thread of hope in an otherwise grim time. It’s a way of telling a story which counters our prevailing narratives of hopelessness and destruction. It’s also something we can do on our own. Every bit helps, so you don’t have to wait for the government to clue in, or for your neighbors to agree.

We’re already gardening, as I’ve said. It’s not that hard to simply choose to be better gardeners. It starts with acknowledging our deep reciprocal relationship with the natural world. After all, if we’re looking for atonement with the natural world, it is well to remember that atonement literally means “setting as one” — at-one-ment. To heal the natural world we have to admit we are part of it, that we need it, and it needs us.

If we could restore this relationship, we’d be a long way toward returning to Eden.

In this I’m greatly influenced by M. Kat Anderson. (See my review of her book, Tending the Wild.), Tending the Wild is about Native American management of the the California landscape, an active management which was subtle enough to be invisible to European colonists, but so successful that it created a literal paradise on earth, a landscape rich with fish and game and meadows of tall grass and riotous wildflowers, shaded gently by spreading oaks.

None of this was accidental, or Providential, as the colonists believed. The land was rich because the land was loved and actively managed by the tribes to ensure that they had the food and materials they needed, while supporting the rest of creation to the mutual benefit of all. They were practicing a form of permaculture so advanced that we can only hope to emulate it one day.

This was not a California-specific phenomenon. People who we call “hunter-gatherers” shape and have shaped the land all over the world, even to this day–though the knowledge is dying, almost lost. This, for instance, is a nice short essay by Bill Gammage about the gardening practice of Indigenous Australians, which sounds very much what Anderson describes in Tending the Wild.

I’m not saying Native practice was perfect all over the world for all time, that they never made mistakes or got greedy, but I will hold on to a vision of humankind returning to a respectful, reciprocal relationship with the rest of life after a long, destructive period of exile. We can do this by becoming conscious gardeners, Edenic gardners.

I know we can do it because evidence says we’ve done it before. And I know we have to do it, if we want to craft a decent future for our children.

We have to do this if we want to ameliorate the effects of climate change, to cool our burning cities, to help the soil absorb the floodwaters.

And we will do this because we love the sound of the birds in the trees and bees in the flowers.

We will do it so children born today will experience the vibrant natural world as something more than a bedtime story.

We will do this because it is the right thing to do.

From here on I’m going to focus on gardening as actual landscape management, as opposed to our consumer choices and civic activities, though those are very important as well. People who own or manage land bear particular responsibility of caring for the land in return for their privilege.

But those who don’t own land are not powerless. First, they should remember that they can work with conservation groups to restore and maintain ecosystems as well as launch guerrilla and otherwise informal initiatives to heal the land around them. Second, remember that we are all influencers. As I said above, every time we vote, every time we buy something, each time we take a trip or choose a place to live, we are influencing the landscape and we are influencing people who have more power over the land than we do.

(An aside: At this point I suspect permaculture folks are going to say what I’m talking about when I say gardening is permaculture, and I won’t disagree. But I’ll also say that permaculture as a discipline can be intimidating from the outside and the cost of training prohibitive. In this series I’m going to be suggesting practices which align with permacultural ideas, but which are perhaps more immediately accessible to the general reader. I do believe people with permaculture training will be in demand and of much use in the coming years. )

The Loving Landscape

I propose a universal rethinking about how we tend our yards and public spaces.

The Old Way:

Lawn-based. Status seeking. Conformist. For show, not use. Value of landscape based abstractly on the value of the property. The yard chores are outsourced. Few species of plants are used (e.g. a front yard may host a total of 3 species: turf,  a specimen trees, a hedge). The species chosen are likely not local species, but exotics, so do not express any particular sense of place, other than a generalized sense of suburbia. The outdoors is kept as tidy as indoors: the grass is raked, the leaves and cuttings are thrown away, everything is rigorously pruned. Wildlife is not welcome.

This landscape is extractive by nature, meaning it is not self-sustaining, but reliant on biological and chemical inputs stolen from other locations, from fertilizer to weed killer to the gasoline and electricity needed to run the tools necessary to to keep the landscape trim, and in some climates, the water needed to keep the grass green.

It is expensive.

It is life-denying.

The New Way: The Loving Landscape

The Loving Landscape invites and encourages life at many levels. Its value is founded on its ability to sustain life in as many forms as possible, from microbes to humans. The focus is not on surface glamor, but on the invisible, but critical aspects of the landscape: the life of the soil and the path of the water. The active soil ecology supports the surface plants without need for store-bought inputs. Rain water is captured and channeled through a variety of means to both irrigate the garden and charge the groundwater.

The plants in the loving landscape promote biodiversity and the local ecology. They are largely native, but not dogmatically so. The landscape represents the unique spirit and history of the region. The plants serve the larger ecology, feeding insects and birds and providing habitat for small animals, birds and reptiles. Loving landscapes join together from house to house to form corridors and refuges for wildlife. There is room for human food crops as well, because abundance is a key virtue in the loving landscape.

The garden is a space of reflection and reconnection for the gardener and their family and community. The land is not always tidy, but it is always vital.

Next week we’ll start talking about how to craft this kind of environment.

Getting Those Bees Back to the Garden

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Johnny, of the superb blog Granola Shotgun sent me these photos he shot near Bakersfield, California. They show some of the millions of hives that are trucked into the Central Valley at this time of year to pollinate almonds.

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Somehow the press never questions the practices of these industrial beekeepers and the role these practices play in the overall health of bees. This is not even to mention the profligate use of water to grow almonds.

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Johnny said that these beehives reminded him of Stalinist apartment blocks he photographed on a recent trip to the Ukraine.

I don’t intend this to be an editorial against the Langstroth hive (I think you can use a Langstroth responsibly but certainly not in the concentrations seen in these pictures). Rather, it’s interesting to see how a reductionist approach to bees and people leads to similar outcomes.