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.

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  1. My neighbor moved in and barely spoke even though I was friendly, bought from her garage sale, and told her when was garbage day. When a church group came to help me with my yard, the neighbor came flying over, smiling all over and asking the people if they had come to help me. She thanked them for helping me. That was weird…like she cared.

    She had a lot of nerve when she asked them NOT to cut a privet in my yard, the only reason she came over. It seems my privet shades her house even though there is a pecan tree in her yard and a hickory nut tree and oak in mine that shade her house. I would have told the guy with the chain saw to cut it right then if I did not want the privet because 8 cardinals like it during the winter. I am allergic to privet and need to remove it! I told her that and she still wanted it to stay.

    That was two months ago, and she barely speaks except to get angry over the property line.

    As you say, some sort of relationship before a problem would go a long way toward making me feel compassion for her house and sun problem. I suggested she go to Lowe’s where her boyfriend works and get a tree and plant it this fall. She started whining and begging the guy not to cut MY privet. She left unhappy because I told her it would go eventually.

    She has privets spring up on her side of the fence just like I do on my side, so she can grow her own.

    As for the car on blocks, maybe the guy needs some help. Maybe you could plant sunflowers for him to obscure the car from your view. Heck, just surround the car with sunflowers. That would be pretty and he could eat the seeds.

  2. When I was suffering through a physical chemistry class (my opinion: Why water board a person when you could just make him/her take physical chemistry?), I deduced that a good teacher answers your questions clearly, while a great teacher can figure out, based on your question, what you don’t understand.

  3. it strikes me that much of what urban permaculture is about is building relationships with neighbors next door, down the street, in clubs, etc…

  4. This may seem like an odd recommendation, but have you read “Thinking in Systems: a Primer” by Donella H. Meadows?

    Asking the right question requires understand the particular system in which you are trying to effect change. Or, in Systems parlance, knowing the leverage points.

    The field of Systems adds scientific rigor to what you are describing here, and many other problems that stem from not understanding our environment holistically (such as treating the symptoms not the cure, the difference between a stable and a static environment and many more). Meadows’ book is a great introduction, and will leave you with enough of an understanding to apply this type of thinking effectively.

    • I’ve been wanting to read a systems theory intro–so many, many thanks for the suggestion.

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