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.

Back to the Garden

medieval image of deer

Livre de chasse, ca 1407

[This is the first post in a new series.]

Lately I have been thinking about that old Joni Mitchell song, Woodstock, where she says:

We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

We’ve got to get ourselves back to the Garden.

This idea haunts me. I find references to this song, to the Garden and gardening and Eden everywhere I turn, as if the universe is whacking me upside the head, saying, “Pay attention!”

Genesis tells the tale of humankind’s expulsion from Eden. It is a myth. The definition of a myth is a tale which is not factual, but which is true. In our age of empiricism this can seem like a contradiction of terms, but it isn’t. A myth is a truth which is always playing out beneath the surface of things. It isn’t a past-tense event, it’s the current state of affairs. Every day we are Falling. Every day we chose to leave Eden.

Once we did not consider ourselves separate from nature–we walked with it and in it. And then something went terribly wrong and we fell out of balance with the rest of the world. We fell out of right relationship with the world and all the other beings which we’d once loved. We imagined ourselves the masters of the world, and to make up for the pain and loneliness of our estrangement from which we once loved, we used our creative intelligence to pillage all of the resources of the world. Like greedy children we demanded more and more toys, and then broke them all. Now we sit in the debris of our own wastefulness, wanting still more. We want more because we are empty inside, and we think power and things can fill that lonely space in our hearts.

Some people think humans are an evolutionary mistake, a sort of rampaging virus which is destroying the world. I think we are doing a good job of destroying the world, but I don’t think that was ever the path we were meant to follow.

When we look at the natural world we see how every living thing, from lactobacillus to elephants, have a role to play in the dance of life. I’ve often wondered where humans were meant to fit in the dance. We are such odd creatures: naked, bipedal, abstract thinkers far too clever for anybody’s good. It’s easy to imagine that the world would be better off without our interference. But I don’t think that is the case. I think the world needs us, has always needed us.

Intelligence runs throughout creation, and I never underestimate the intelligence of other creatures and even plants, but human intelligence is unique. A falcon will distinguish between a lark and a rabbit, but only we can imitate both the lark and the rabbit. Only we can craft images of them, make up songs and stories about them, and weave those stories into the meaning of all things.

I’ve had only a few visions or epiphanies in my life, things I believe with all my heart, though I cannot prove them to be true. This is one of them. Our role is to celebrate Nature, to witness it, to love it. We are Nature’s mirror and Nature’s poets and Nature’s guardians.

cave painting of lion heads

Cave lion drawings from Chauvet Cave, France

The cave paintings of our paleolithic ancestors show an astonishing familiarity with the animals they represent, a close eye for detail, for movement and physiognomy, for the subtle differences between males and females of the same species, for instance. No one knows exactly what the paintings were for, but for me it is enough to know that we were reverently engaged with the world around us. And while we didn’t paint mice or mushrooms, I’m sure we were as deeply engaged with all of the plants and animals within our range. I can’t even imagine the tales and songs we must have shared when we were in this deep relationship with the world–when we were in Eden.

Eden? You might be saying. Hardly. Life was brutal and short back then. Well, yes. We died under tooth and claw, and from raging infections and long winters. But I don’t know that anyone is qualified to say that our ancestors did not have lives full of meaning and joy. I don’t know that if we brought one of them forward to our time that they wouldn’t pity us in turn.

Nonetheless, I don’t want to go back to that world, even if it were possible–but do I want to get back to the Garden. And I think that is possible. We just have to change the stories we’ve been telling ourselves.

I’ll have more to say on our role as caretakers of nature, and how that fits into home gardening and much more,  in my next post.

Thanks to Father Mark R. Kowalewski for inspiring me bring some of these ideas together.

Nextdoor: Monetizing Your Neighbors

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How would you like to work for free? And while you’re working for free, let’s say that your boss deliberately orchestrates a state of mind of anger, distraction, idle chatter and gossip (see our post on Acedia). Now let’s say that boss is someone you’ll never meet, never see face to face and who dines in all the finest San Francisco restaurants, drives a sports car and assumes no personal risk for the business he or she operates.

This is exactly what happens when we use social media. We work for free while our Silicon Valley overlords harvest data to sell to marketers. I need not mention Facebook or the even more vile Yik Yak. We all know their pitfalls and, I’ll acknowledge, their benefits: staying in touch with family and friends and creating opportunities for small businesses to market themselves. But I’m really beginning to question whether those benefits outweigh their flaws.

I’m particularly angry this morning about a social media application called Nextdoor. When it began I thought it was a good idea. My neighbors even used it to organize some parties that got us all acquainted. But the Nextdoor folks started dictating to us what the physical boundaries would be of our neighborhood. Those boundaries got too big. Then heated and tedious discussion threads started up. Racist comments appeared. Recently Nextdoor asked Kelly to moderate questionable comments, framing this as a privilege rather than a scheme to get her to do their work for them. This disturbed her, because she couldn’t tell if racist comments would remain posted if she didn’t step in and do something about it. Yet she didn’t want to accept that unasked for responsibility, either. She unsubscribed from Nextdoor today.  I stopped subscribing to comments some time ago.

Right now Nextdoor is burning through venture capital money in the hopes of someday being an alternative to Craigslist.

And by the by: in 2014, the CEO of Nextdoor was charged with hit and run driving (and later convicted on a lesser charge).

Thankfully it should be easy to create an alternative to Nextdoor using tools provided (ironically) by other questionable Silicon Valley companies like Google. I’d like to create a Google group for our neighborhood with a set of, admittedly, draconian rules:

  1. No discussions that would not take place face to face, i.e. nothing that would be offensive to anyone in the group.
  2. Offering a few things for sale is o.k. but running an online business through the group is unacceptable.
  3. No real estate agent promotions.
  4. Political discussions relevant to the neighborhood can be facilitated through the online group but they must take place face to face. That is, if we need to get together to support or oppose something we need to have those discussions in person.
  5. No idle chatter or gossip.

The kinds of things I’d like to see handled by the group are straightforward and factual: Invitations to neighborhood events. Questions about utilities (Why wasn’t the garbage picked up? Is there a power outage?). Referrals for professional services. Security concerns, like suspicious cars or vandalism. Lost and found pets. Giveaways of furniture, plants, excess fruit, etc.  Everything else is just noise and distraction.

We’d all agree to the rules before signing up and there’ would be a small committee of three that would moderate comments.

My question for you, our dear readers, is have you been a part of a neighborhood email group? How has it gone? What benefits and pitfalls have you experienced?