Monday, May 31, 2010

ETC Voices Podcast 005

Albert Bates describes the difference between "organic" and "biodynamic," and why people might still be drawn to the ideas of Rudolf Steiner in an era when less woo woo but equally effective options exist.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Reality of Death

I recently drove from Tennessee to Maryland to visit my two sons. When I returned to the Ecovillage Training Center, I found the non-human ranks of the  ETC sadly diminished. We lost Gordon, our roster, and one of the hens to predators, and closer to everyone's hearts, Jupiter, the venerable ETC cat, died of seemingly natural causes. She was at least 15 years old and had lived a fine life here on the Farm.

Predators have broken into the hen house repeatedly since we first brought the chickens to the ETC, and inn-keeper Merry and apprentice Garrison have repulsed multiple attacks from opossums and raccoons. These most recent losses required no breaking and entering. The shared duty of making sure that the chickens are secure in their nocturnal fortress fell through the cracks one night, and it wasn't until the sounds of violence brought everyone running that anyone realized the lapse.

I have kept chickens in the past, and on occasion I have neglected to lock them up at the start of the evening and scrambled from bed in the middle of the night in response to the sounds of barnyard struggle and violent death. I remember feeling terribly guilty about it. The implicit deal between humans and chickens is that the humans provide food and protection from predators, and the chickens provide eggs and, in the fullness of time, their bodies in exchange for a comparatively easy death. I remember feeling as though I'd defaulted on my solemn obligation when I didn't do as much as I could have to protect my chickens.

In addition to his battles with OESs (Opossums of  Extraordinary Size), while I was away, Garrison killed a very large cottonmouth snake that had taken up residence right outside the Inn. The warm and fuzzy (if not very practical) Farm ethic concerning the denizens of the forest is to live and let live, but when a large poisonous snake parks himself in a high traffic area where chickens forage, children play and city slickers get a theme-park taste of rural living*, responsibility trumps well-intentioned naivete. When it comes to the relationship between humans and the non-human creatures who share this space and whose needs on occasion conflict with ours, sometimes an even-handed assessment of the needs and rights of all parties prompts sensitive, ecologically-minded, compassionate human beings to mete out violent death.

I remember reading a fluff piece in the margins of Tricycle magazine several years ago in which a sample of  American Buddhists were asked if their Buddhist commitment to compassion and non-violence extended to cockroaches in their homes. I remember one respondent who said that she told the roaches, “May you be reborn a Buddha,” just before she squashed them. That idea has stuck with me for years, and I sometimes say the same thing to mosquitoes and ticks before I usher them out of this existence.

When I lived on five acres in rural Arkansas and kept 25 chickens in a pen, my family and I arrived home one morning after an overnight stay with friends to find my neighbor's two dogs in the pen killing the chickens. The pen had been secured against predators, but one of the dogs was a 200 pound mastiff, and the door to the pen proved no match for his bulk. As my young children looked on, the other dog, a boxer, killed our chickens one by one. The mastiff stood guard and kept me from killing the boxer with my bare hands. I actually picked up a brick and went out to do battle with the mastiff, but my wife pleaded with me to come back inside.

We called the sheriff's office for help. The woman who answered the phone told me to shoot the dogs. It made no sense to her that I would pick up the phone rather than a rifle at such a moment. I'm glad that I could not see the facial expression that accompanied the silence that was her response to my admission of helplessness. We didn't have any firearms in the house.

An animal control officer arrived on the scene an hour or so later. As he surveyed the carnage, he asked me, “Why didn't you just shoot the dogs?”

The idea that someone would move to the country and try to keep chickens without arming themselves struck my rural Arkansan neighbors as ridiculous. Stupid. Life in the country leaves no room for the conditioned expectations of suburban life which allow us to live (mostly) removed from the reality of death; not unless you moved to the country to live a super-sized suburban existence with an extra-large helping of house, yard, and commute. If you're actually there to inhabit the land and keep animals, you will realize, eventually, that you will either kill predators or those predators will kill your animals.

The Farm allows no firearms, and the ETC allows no dogs. The ETC is not a functioning ecovillage, and the chickens are here as much to provide atmosphere as to provide eggs, and so we can afford to simply replace them as the local opossums, raccoons, weasels, foxes, owls and hawks harvest them. Other Farm residents also keep chickens, and they do not always take such a nonchalant attitude toward the loss of the their birds. One of them brought us a live-capture trap that he used recently to catch 7 raccoons in 8 days. He drove each animal that he captured several miles from the Farm and released them. Rather than kill those predators, he made them somebody else's problem. I don't blame him. He was faced with the choice of respecting the rules of his community and doing what needs doing. I have also heard stories of another Farm resident who recently beat an opossum to death in order to save his chickens. Even within the borders of enshrined orthodoxy, the reality that in order to for us to live something else must die finds its way in. 

Industrial civilization along with mechanized agriculture allows suburbanites and those who live in the country but remain firmly tethered to very long industrial supply lines the comforting illusion that they can live without taking life. In allowing themselves to live with this palliative illusion, they trade the immediacy of death close at hand for the immensely magnified but comfortably removed violence that industrial agriculture visits upon the biosphere. It's an expensive delusion; one that requires the rapacious apparatus of petroleum-fueled industrial civilization and the myth-machine of modern media to sustain. As we adjust to the realities of energy decline we will, eventually, discover that it is a delusion that we can no longer afford to maintain.


* Most of the people who pass through Inn here at the ETC are really cool, and most of them are quite competent to look after themselves in the country. The oblivious ones are most at risk and can therefore be listed with kids and chickens.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010


I'm in Maryland, and I won't be posting any essays or screeds here until I return to Tennessee. In the mean time, if you're keen to keep up with the doings at the ETC, check out Merry's blog entry about the new ETC ducklings:

Warning: Those with an acute sensitivity to cuteness should consult a physician before viewing the embedded video.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

On the road

No long blog post or ETC Voices Podcast this week as I'm just about to hit the road. Wish me safe passage.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

ETC Voices Podcast 004

KMO talks with Site Manager, Jason Deptula who starts out talking about constructed wetlands for waste water reclamation and goes on to introduce the biography and ideas of Viktor Shauberger, the Austrian Water Wizard. KMO reads feedback from listeners about the tension between permaculture and vegetarianism. Albert Bates describes gardening as a literally cosmic experience. Music by Luke Who.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Vegetarian Apostasy

I am not a vegetarian. Not anymore.

For a time, I self-identified as a vegetarian, and then for many years, after I had incorporated fish and fowl back into my diet, I identified myself as someone who did not eat beef or pork. Then, shortly after the turn of the century, when I was doing a lot of foreign travel, I made a deliberate effort to start eating meat again. It was distasteful and kinda creepy at first, and on a few occasions, a mouthful of meat went back onto my fork rather than down my gullet after a bout of chewing because the texture threatened to invoke my gag reflex, but over time I worked my way up to the point where I could eat a steak and keep it down. I haven't put that to the test recently, but I'm pretty sure I could pass for normal at any sit-down meal with mainstream industrial eaters.

Why would I endure discomfort in order to adopt a less healthful diet; one that is harder on Gaia than was the  vegetarian diet it replaced? Simply put, I never wanted to be an ungracious guest and reject home-cooked food that had been prepared for me. I cannot overstate the importance I place on food rituals and food traditions for creating and nurturing the bonds of community and family. I never made it to Provence or to any of the Mediterranean food havens, but I did partake fully of some home-cooked meals which, in an earlier dietary phase, I would have sampled selectively while rattling off my usual schpeel about grain fed to cattle and the correlation between meat consumption and heart disease. That's all good information, and I would like to see more people incorporate it into their understanding of how the world operates, but I've done my tour of duty spreading that gospel and repaying hospitality with indiscriminate ideological spillage and implied moral criticism. No more.

Earlier today, I followed a link from the Facebook page of a C-Realm listener to an essay by Daniel Vitalis in which he explains how he went from being a fervent vegan and raw foodie to someone who signed up for and attended a class in “hunter safety.” The first of the user comments included the following:

I am sure you are sincere, however how sustainable would it be for 7 billion people to eat wild animals? There are simply not enough to go around! In neanderthal times, it was perhaps appropriate however for today's world we cannot afford to continue eating any kind of meat. We are eating the planet to death. An environmentally conscious person would never recommend eating animal products for this reason, irrespective of whatever health benefits you claim from your animal diet.

Groan. Would that we could eat righteousness. I'm reminded of the interview I conducted with Colin Tudge, author of the book Feeding People is Easy.

Colin: Now a lot of people would draw a line there and say, “Well you can, in fact, feed people completely on plants,” that an all-plant diet is best, and that an all-plant diet is very efficient. And many people say, “We should just be vegetarians if we really want to feed ourselves.”  And I say, and a lot of other people say, “No, this just isn’t actually true, because however much, however efficiently, you can farm just using plants, you can always farm even more efficiently if you put in some animals somewhere.”

And basically you break the animals down into two classes. There are those that eat grass and browse, which means the leaves of trees, and you can raise them on places where you wouldn’t normally be growing arable crops or horticulture; in other words cattle and sheep and things like that, you grow on grass in places including up mountains, where you can’t really practice arable farming and horticulture. And then in the places where you can practice arable farming and horticulture, you also have pigs and poultry which feed on the leftovers and surpluses and so on.

So if you are really trying to feed people well and provide a maximum amount of food easily, you finish up focusing on the arable, fit in the horticulture in the best places, and then you just fit in the animals where you can. If you do that, you finish up with a lot of plants, not much meat and maximum variety.

Collin Tudge describes this style of feeding people as “Enlightened Agriculture.” I imagine ideologically-motivated vegetarians taking offense at that. To them eating animals  probably seems about as “enlightened” as infanticide or counting coup, and I have no interest in disabusing them of that notion. My only interest here is to point out to you, my broad-minded reader, that people interested in feeding all of Gaia's humans and keeping them healthy and minimizing the toll that doing so takes upon Mother Earth will reject fundamentalist vegetarianism along with industrialized factory farming.

Given that I mostly practice, but do not endorse, vegetarianism, mine is a curious circumstance. At present, I'm living at the Ecovillage Training Center on the Farm in Summertown, Tennesse. The Farm was founded in the early 70's, and vegetarianism was one of the primary tenets of the shared belief system held by the original Farm residents. The goals and sensibilities of 21st  Century, ecologically-informed, “enlightened agriculture” and 1970's Hippie idealism (to the extent that I understand either worldview) seem to co-exist happily in some places and to rub each other the wrong way in others. I see vegetarianism as a potential source of friction between the two worldviews.

This kitchen here at the ETC is a vegetarian kitchen (no meat allowed, though dairy and eggs are okay), and the food co-op which feeds me and the permaculture apprentices provides only vegetarian fare, and yet none of the people living on site here at the ETC are vegetarians. Most every time the apprentices and I seek a meal off the Farm, everyone takes the opportunity to grab a meat fix. Everyone but me.

Again, I'm not a vegetarian, and I do love the taste and texture of chicken, but I can't bring myself to order chicken that I know was raised under industrial conditions, so even when I leave the Farm, I maintain a de facto (but not an ideologically-motivated) vegetarian diet. While I love chicken, I also love chickens, and I suspect that my experience of keeping backyard chickens has highlighted the connection between the mental category 'chicken,' which refers to a standardized industrial food product that is measured by the pound, and the mental category 'chickens,' which matches up with an image of living domesticated birds.

Here at the ETC, we have four hens and one rooster. We keep the hens for egg production, and we keep the rooster for the hens. The Farm, on which the ETC is located, does not allow the raising of chickens for slaughter but does allow Farm residents to eat chicken. A cockerel who spends six months scratching in the dirt under the sky in a backyard flock, following his mother at first but quickly gaining confidence and striking out on his own to explore his environment, and then gets the ax after six months and, as Michael Pollan quips, “Has one bad day,” lives a sweet life compared to a cockerel raised for slaughter under industrial conditions. I won't dwell on the details. Suffice it to say that life for animals raised for slaughter at the human scale is much kinder than for animals raised at the industrial scale.

So long as humans continue to eat chickens, I want to see more of those chickens living their (admittedly short) lives at the human scale in backyard flocks and fewer of them suffering in factory farms. The ban on raising chickens for slaughter does the opposite. Every chicken raised in a factory and then purchased and consumed by someone prohibited from raising their own might have lived a kinder life but for the prohibition.

My point is not to criticize a particular policy of a particular community. I use it to illustrate the blowback that seems to accompany any effort to force people to conduct themselves with morality, decency and good sense. This is because people disagree about what constitutes morality, decency, and good sense. When faced with this sort of disagreement, people in positions of authority can try to persuade or try to mandate. Neither guarantees success. Requiring people to behave as if they believed what you believe, even when they don't, inevitably produces negative unintended consequences. Persuasion requires more time and attention than legislating morality, but it 's worth the effort.

I think. Maybe. Isn't it?

I sure hope so, because I don't want to live in a universe where forcing people to do what you want them to do really just does produce better outcomes than trying to win them over to your way of seeing things. Wouldn't that suck?

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

ETC Voices Podcast 003

In this third installment of the ETC Voices Podcast, KMO and permaculture apprentice, Nilsa harvest shiitake mushrooms after two days of torrential rain. Later, Doug Lain of the Diet Soap Podcast joins the conversation to compare contrast high-energy municiple waste water treatment practices with the low-energy alternative of humanure composting.

Music by Luke Who

Saturday, May 1, 2010

May Day

It's a rainy first of May here in rural Tennessee. I went to a May Day celebration which took place under the newly covered dome next to the Farm store. There, Farm residents and visitors wove ribbons around the Maypole to celebrate the end of winter and the beginning of new growth and vitality in the spring and summer seasons. Today is the ancient Celtic festival of Bealtaine which sits opposite the autumn commemoration of Samhain which has worked its way into American consciousness in the form of Halloween.

Alayne, one of the ETC staff, started the festivities off by reading the Song of Bealtaine:

I am the calm, I am the quickening,
... I am the intoxication and the force
I am the silence, I am the singer,
... I am the stallion galloping to its source.
I am the bright pavilion and the feasting,
... I am the wedding couple and the bed,
I am the morning chorus and the heartbeat,
... I am the goal to which all paths are led.

After the festivities, I asked her to tell me more about the traditions surrounding this day, and then I asked her if she knew about its political associations. She did not. To her, May Day is entirely wrapped up with the Earth, the ancient traditions, and the changing of the seasons.

I called my fellow podcaster, Doug Lain of the Diet Soap Podcast, and asked him about his associations with this day. He has a different take on the day. Here is a bit of our conversation:

DougMay Day is an interesting holiday that has both elements that I try to highlight on the Diet Soap podcast. It's this spiritual pagan holiday about rebirth, but to me it's the political holiday that comes first.  It has to do with the Haymarket affair... the Haymarket riot, which itself was part of the struggle for the 8-hour work day.  After the riot there was a political kind of show trial where eight anarchists were charged with the murder of a policemen.

Basically, there was a protest. On the third of May there'd been a strike outside a factory in Chicago, and the police had fired into the crowd. Two workers were killed. The organizers called for a rally at Haymarket square to protest the actions of the police and to demand the 8-hour work day.  Someone threw a pipe bomb there, at Haymarket.  When the police marched in formation to disperse the protesters somebody threw a pipe bomb at them.  That's where the idea of a bomb throwing anarchist comes from actually.

I don't know how many people were killed.  I know one policeman was killed, and maybe a dozen workers were killed.

Then they took eight anarchists who were organizers and put them on trial, and I think four or five of the people who were charged with the crime... not really for throwing the bomb. They never made any strong case that there was any connection between the people they put on trial and the bomb thrower, but just for being anarchists really, were eventually hung by the neck until dead.  They executed four people pretty much for having the wrong political ideas.
KMO: And they were protesting for an 8-hour work day? What was standard before that?
Doug: I think anything they could get away with. I don't know. Let me look.

Doug reads from Wikipedia:

The eight-hour day movement or 40-hour week movement, also known as the short-time movement, had its origins in the Industrial Revolution in Britain, where industrial production in large factories transformed working life and imposed long hours and poor working conditions. With working conditions unregulated, the health, welfare and morale of working people suffered. The use of child labour was common. The working day could range from 10 to 16 hours for six days a week.
KMO: Wow.
Doug: Yeah. So, they were struggling for something they really needed; some sort of cap on how many hours a week they could be asked to work by the new bosses of the industrial revolution.

The conversation turned to the topic of population overshoot. I summarized a portion of a conversation that I had recorded the previous day with SF author David Marusek.

David: I do believe that we are, at this point, already over-populated. We've exceeded the carrying capacity of the globe, and it's only a matter of time. (…) I just saw Paul Ehrlich, the author of the Population Bomb on TV the other day. When the book came out in the late sixties, Ehrlich was predicting that by 2010 society would already have collapsed because we wouldn't be able to feed everybody. That hasn't proven to be true... yet. Agriculture as a science has matured quite a bit in the meantime, and we are feeding a lot more people. Not everybody. What is it? A billion people who go to bed hungry every night? But we're doing it. We're feeding people at the expense of the Earth, and I believe that we are living on borrowed time.
So, yes, I believe we must be at Peak Oil, but we're also at the peak use of this planet. We are living not just on borrowed time but on borrowed resources.

I summarized David's comments for Doug, and he responded with:

Doug: When I think about overshoot, I think it's really unfortunate that we've come to this time where so many problems that require the best of us and the most intelligent and humane aspects of us are facing us at the same time the intensification of the current system is happening where we have less and less control and less and less ability to address those problems. So, rather than hunkering down and trying to protect as many people as we can, trying to put as many people in charge of solving technical problems and social problems as we can and dispersing power out and using our best selves, we are seeing more and more power and money going to fewer and fewer people and getting more and more concentrated.
And that process itself has a horrible impact on people's everyday lives, and it's seen as murder in the Third World because people are starving. It's hard to parse out what's real resource depletion and what's just this process of the intensification of private power and wealth. And that's why the story of Haymarket is important even now to remember because if we're going to have any hope of adequately and humanely dealing with overshoot, the principles that you see at work behind the Haymarket riot and it's aftermath and the memory of May Day are going to have to be a part of what we do.

As much as I admire that sentiment, I think that Bealtaine has a much better shot at an enduring place in human consciousness than does Haymarket. The seasons will continue their cycle, and when the Earth starts to stir from its winter torpor, people will perform rituals and ask the source of fertility and renewal for the gift of Her bounty. I hope that humans will remember and honor those of their ancestors who resisted coercion and rebuffed the efforts of the Machine to mine the cantankerous human spirit  like an ore. I don't have any confidence that the names of the fallen will be remembered or that their contributions will be appreciated, but I'm pretty sure that humans will be clued into the change of the seasons for as long as there are humans on this planet.