This week we were graced by the visit of Nick Hummingbird, a descendant of local Native American lineage, who shared with us some of his personal story as well as a great deal of indigenous knowledge, wisdom, and insight. I was again reminded of the terribly unfortunate, sad fate that fell upon the indigenous North Americans at the hands of European conquerors, and I was moved by a sense of deep responsibility to help heal and restore what that which was lost.
I have for some time now been studying forms of perennial agriculture, such as food forestry, which seem to me to be the most sustainable form of growing food that I have heard of or seen. Variations of “food forestry” are apparent in records of indigenous people around the world, from the Amazon, Southeast Asia, Africa, North America, and elsewhere, although they certainly did not call it that. Many anthropologists have suggested that these “horticultural societies,” as they have labeled them, occupied a very long period of human history and may have been a bridge between the classically imagined hunter-gatherers and agriculturalists. These societies, which still exist today, were intimately integrated into their natural environments, not only living off the land but actively participating in the management and general stewardship of it. This was certainly true of the native Californians as well. The current political boundaries of the state were and are home to dozens of unique cultural pockets, each with an adaptive strategy to live in productive harmony with the local biosphere. After Nick’s heartfelt talk on the subject, my interest in native flora and fauna has been piqued. Although I knew that native plants would certainly play a part in a Southern Californian perennial or food-forest system of agriculture, they (for whatever reason) did not seem to me to be capable of filling a central role. Now I am interested in learning more about indigenous Californian land management practices and how native plants might be able to play that central role. The oak tree especially comes to mind…
Perhaps the most profound idea I took from Nick’s talk was the idea of a culture of place. The Native Americans lived in different regionally distinct cultures, each molded to the needs and appropriate modes of behavior dictated by that environmental region. The environment, in fact, shaped their way of life. Of course, this is how any and all cultures originally took form, as expressions of the regions that gave birth to them. Human beings, according to the current mainstream anthropological theory, were conceived in Africa and later spread throughout the globe. Being the highly adaptive species that we are, we learned how to live in creative harmony with each specific region, or else were not able to continue. I say ‘creative,’ here, because the dichotomous idea of human adaptation versus human alteration (with regards to the environment), is not exactly true. There is a middle way, exhibited by numerous indigenous cultures, of human integration. They became an integral part of the environment they lived in through an active participation with it, not a total separation from it, a separation occurring either through staunch conservationism or radical exploitation (incidentally, the two ends of the extreme which we now see so often). The environment creates not only the bounds for living, but also the opportunities to engage it. Although among these traditional societies there is a great deal of respect for the divinity of nature, there is also a sense that humans are a part of that sacred dance, and that they play a crucial role in fulfilling its greatest potential; a compliment, not a detriment.
If there is anything wrong with the current society we live in, it is the one-size-fits-all, cookie-cutter, cut-and-paste, homogeneous, corporate, monopolized, centralized, globalized approach to life it takes. This “culture,” if it can even be called such, is destroying the true cultural diversity that it espouses to promote. By imposing its ways, beliefs, and attitudes on every other society it comes into contact with, it destroys the natural diversity that is the wellspring of life and human health. If our species was born on a uniformly cemented and sterile planet, perhaps this approach would make sense. But our planet exhibits the most exhilarating variety of topography, geography, climate, flora, fauna, and people. Why should we erase all of that for a vacuous ideals of uniformity, predictability, and standardization? The only possible future we may hope to imagine will be the return to the primacy of culture of place. Although much has been lost, and many wounds still remain in the collective psyche, we may yet form new communities of people, who, although different in background, culture, and knowledge, can create ways of life that respect the environments in which they exist while simultaneously entering again into the active dance of stewardship.
Every day I am learning how to let go. I am learning how to accept that which I cannot change, even though I so wish to do so. I am learning how to listen to myself, to let my true nature be what it will. I cannot force things ahead of their time; everything unfolds when it is ready. Transcendence of death can only be achieved by the full acceptance of it, and in a similar way, transcendence of life can only be achieved by an equal acceptance. In so many ways, I have been taught to dictate my life, to decide when and where and how the energy of my being should express itself. The teacher was often myself, or a part of me from which the origin is as mysterious to me as the cosmos, but which nevertheless I took part in. Could it be possible that there is nothing to teach? Could it be possible that my own being, in all its imperfection and confusion, is already complete? Is it possible that by enforcing and holding myself to the standards and ambitions of my finite intellect, to the ends of progressing and improving my state, that I will find no better way of impeding it?
More and more, I realize, the goals and accomplishments I wish to achieve will not be found through ardent self-discipline, bullheaded thinking, or pious denial of my own limitations and true nature. It will be found, rather, in the full embrace of my true life force, the energy which fills me and propels me through this matrix of reality. If it does not ring true to the very core of my being, it is not God’s will. If I must masochistically endure self-imposed structure to achieve an end, it is not the Tao. If I must sacrifice my soul for the future “good,” I am only selling it to the devil, and that future will only ever be an energetic dead end. The way forward is here. The key to the future is the present moment. The beginning of all growth is peace.
How much of today’s problems are created in an attempt to escape yesterdays? How much of the suffering so pervasive in our society is self-created? Perhaps the solution to our modern predicament is not a solution at all, but rather an acceptance. Perhaps solutions are the real problem. Our lives are already filled with solutions. Solutions for this, solutions for that. But solutions beget problems, and vice versa. Once your mind is oriented in this dichotomy, all you will ever see in life are problems, inadequacies. Yesterday’s progress becomes today’s anachronism. “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it,” the saying goes. How much of the world have we tried to “fix?”
This is not to say that there is no good and bad in the world, that there is no difference between right and wrong, or that life is futile. Rather, I am insisting that the only “right” way of living life, the only true way to any real growth, is by letting go of your need to control its direction. There is a path, a purpose, a higher thing which we are all meant to become, but only in total faith of our cosmic, divine being, in total trust of the self, will it be found.
As I prune the plant, I prune myself
The withered and old, the decayed and dessicated
It remains without attention
The whole will survive, but not thrive
I hang on to it, it does not wish to die
But I am already dead, for I was never born
There is nothing to fear
Let go of the rot, it is not you
Shed the fat, cut the excess
A new leaf, a new life
The same, but different
Hang onto what is living
Let it flow through you
The nutrients support and nourish
Nothing will be forgotten
But only in facing reality
Will you see what is dead, and what is living
Only you can choose life
If someone visits Sarvodaya these days, they will probably notice a peculiar new creature calling the farm home. Large swarms of big, iridescent green June beetles (aka the figeater beetle, Cotinus mutabilis) have dominated the air space around the crops. These things are incredibly clumsy, flying into fences, plants, and other objects, quite frequently smacking you in the face if you’re not careful! They have an interesting habit of swarming on crops, creating big, green beetle mosh piles; I have noticed this on the grape vines and rampicante squash, among other plants.
Researching this insect, I learned that their life cycle begins in the spring. After hatching, they pupate underground for several months until emerging as adults in the summer. I suspect that the large, white larvae that we have been finding in the soil and feeding to the chickens for a while now are probably this beetle. We were pretty good about feeding every larvae we found to the chickens, but the beetle population still managed to explode! According to Katie, this beetle is a farm pest, chowing on soft fruit like peaches, figs, and tomatoes, the latter of which seems to be getting attacked the most lately. Although not as destructive as its cousin (the true June beetle, Cotinus nitida, a southeastern species), our figeaters are still targets for occasional culling, so that the population doesn’t get too out of hand.
Although some would consider this insect an enemy, I rather quite enjoy them. Their beautiful emerald sheen gives a colorful addition to the myriad of colors already on the farm, and their droning buzz almost possesses a meditative quality. The jeweled swarms, while disturbing to some, really are a sight to see! This marvelous natural occurrence can only be enjoyed in the summer season, so I am happily taking in the experience while it lasts.
As the summer heat comes around, I am reminded of the the cycle of seasons. These are so important to the life of a farmer, or indeed anyone who must live in a natural environment, as the availability of solar energy and consequently of plant life change so dramatically. Living in an artificially air-conditioned, easy food-access environment such as many of us live in, it is easy to forget about these cycles. I am grateful that I have the opportunity to experience them.
Observing other phenomena of nature, like day and night, life and death, and growth and decay, I can see that all of nature is cyclical. One cycle in particular that I have come to terms with recently is that of action and rest. Over the past few of months, I have been trying to push myself to accomplish as much as possible in the time I have. I think this is because of a sense of urgency, as well as mild guilt at the thought of eschewing productive work. But this came at a detriment to my own health, and I could definitely feel myself burning out these past couple of weeks. I am now giving myself a much needed period of rest.
Another, more grand, cycle that I have been thinking about lately is that of cosmic time in relation to human civilization and consciousness. During this week’s intern class, Rishi commented on his belief that our current societal ills were part of a larger cycle, and that he was not worried about “saving” it. Immediately I thought of the Yuga doctrine of classical Hindu religion. Briefly, it is a cosmology that lays out four great periods of time, or “yugas,” marked by the rising and falling of human consciousness, specifically the prevalence of virtue, intelligence, truth, and harmony with the universe. According to the Vedic texts, this cycle lasts approximately 12,000 years and repeats itself going up and down, for a total of 24,000. Many believe that it is directly linked to the precession of the equinoxes, our earth’s cycle of rotational axis movement, which lasts approximately 26,000 years. Interestingly, this is not an exclusively Hindu idea, and can be found in religions and cultures around the world. The Greeks had a strikingly similar model – a four-period cycle of human “races,” labeled with the metals of Gold, Silver, Bronze, and Iron. Although the exact dates are disputed, almost everyone agrees that we are somewhere in or near the Kali Yuga, the lowest and least virtuous period. This would explain much about the systematic problems that we see around us, as well as the generally pessimistic attitude toward human nature that so many hold. The good news is that we are on the upswing, headed toward increased levels of consciousness and virtue, and in fact about to experience a major upheaval and transition into the next period. Whether or not this is “true” in any scientific sense, I find that this view of time, in comparison to the linear one our Western culture offers, makes a lot more sense. It provides a sense of context that allows me to let go of so many things that are ultimately outside of my control, and it also gives me hope that we are not headed for total annihilation, but rather a slow process of learning and growth. I am consoled by the notion that our very own minds, and the external patterns that manifest from them, are in tune with cosmic cycles in a way similar to the rising and falling patterns of plant growth that one observes throughout the changing seasons.
I would describe myself as someone who is highly intuitive. I prefer to lead with my internal emotions rather than thoughts (although I have many of those as well) in both perceiving the world and making decisions about how to act in it. This is both a strength and a weakness. Although it allows me to feel and experience the world in an incredibly beautiful and deep way, and often gives me very keen observational capacities, it can also hinder my ability to move forward. More often than not, I am inclined toward impulsivity, emotion, and laziness when confronted with responsibilities that I do not enjoy. Discipline is a skill that I have learned to cultivate in order to live in this world, but it does not come naturally.
Many people talk about the need for resistance in life, the need for struggle and challenge in order for growth. I tend to agree with this proposition, but I often think about the premises underlying it. It seems to me that this growth is only worthwhile, and ultimately possible, if there is a meaning in it. There must be a reason, a passion, a vision contained in the struggle in order for it to be productive and transformative. Otherwise, it’s just…stagnant. So often I feel a struggle inside of myself between my logical identity and my intuitive experience, when what I believe I should be doing does not feel like what I should be doing, or at least does not bring me the enjoyment that I expected. Am I simply impatient, pain aversive, and unrealistic? Or is my intuition telling me something, that perhaps this is not what I need to be doing at the moment, that I need to keep looking for that passion? Resolving this conundrum is tricky, to say the least.
If anything can be learned from the Taoists in this matter, it is that discipline for the sake of discipline is draining and depleting. Forcing oneself to be what one is not – fighting one’s own nature – is certainly destructive. And yet, humans are in this peculiar predicament of self-conscious participation. We must exert conscious effort towards some end; the question only remains, to which one? It is the lifelong purpose of every individual to integrate that which he feels with that which he knows, a development which I feel I am only just beginning.
I wonder if other life forms feel this kind of resistance. Looking at our basil plants, for example, some of them are vibrantly alive, healthy, and productive. Others seem to struggle, barely able to put forth any considerable amount of foliage. What is the difference? A scientist would give a rational explanation: some plants have more nutrition than others. A naturalist would give an environmental explanation: some plants are supported by their surroundings more than others. What would the mystic or the shaman offer as an explanation? Perhaps things like nutrition and environment play critical roles in the outcome of a plants health, but is it possible that there is also an element of conscious mind? I have to wonder whether each plant, when suddenly faced with external adversity, also must make a decision to fight, to overcome the resistance. Does health in a plant reflect the attributes of will and self-determination, while sickness that of resignment? Reflecting on this idea, I have to laugh at my overly-anthropomorphized and dualistic view of nature. Indeed, the plant, conscious or not, must be so in tune with its own natural rhythms that it doesn’t have to “choose” whether or not to struggle. It simply happens, or it doesn’t, and the plant doesn’t worries one way or the other. I could learn something from that basil…
I recently listened to an interesting podcast with the co-director of the war documentary “Restrepo,” Sebastian Junger, who talked about his experience filming in Korengal valley, one of the most active combat zones during the height of the Afghan war. His most salient feeling and observation from living with a close-knit group of army infantry was the sense of intense communal brotherhood. Despite (and probably due to) the incredible danger of living in a constant life-or-death situation, these men grew closer to each other than would have been possible in a stress-free environment. Junger described how more often than not, soldiers returning home from combat become depressed, not necessarily because of trauma, but because of losing a sense of purposeful community. Back in the heat of battle, they existed in a community of individuals who viscerally relied on each other for survival and were united towards a cohesive goal, but in the nerfed safety and complacency of America, they suddenly lost a sense of meaning. A similar phenomenon, he noted, was observed in post-hurricane New Orleans, where people would sometimes express a nostalgia for the period of devastation, but concurrent communal bonding, that occurred during the storm.
It seems that human beings are designed to exist under a certain amount of stress, which if completely removed, can result in imbalances in our psyche. Our ancestors lived in survival conditions much harsher than our own, surviving through the resiliency of social connection, helping each other when times were tough. Perhaps the most poignant ability that sets ourselves apart from other animals is not our intelligence, but our incredible sociality. Two brains are better than one, after all. You would think that living in a city like Los Angeles, where millions of souls live in such proximity to one another, that this sense of community would be stronger than ever. But sadly, the opposite is true. Currently, rates of depression, loneliness, anxiety, and suicide are at record highs, despite our ever more “connected” digital networks.
I think that the reasons for this are fairly straightforward. Our social networks (not the digital kind), have become completely disintegrated. Traditionally, people lived in more or less self-sufficient communities of about 50-150 people (or a few hundred in larger villages), where every individual was needed, relied on, valued, and appreciated. Living in such an interdependent community, you served a very important function, whatever it may have been. People needed you, and you needed them. You were all imbued with the same sense of meaning and purpose; it might have been spiritual and lofty, or perhaps simply practical, but it was shared. Each individual living in such a community certainly felt a deep sense of well-being, even if there were significant external challenges. In fact, these challenges may have been a crucial component for health. Even if this community was not fighting off bears, arctic temperatures, or chronic disease in order to survive, it still would have been intimately connected to and involved with the earth and the cycles of nature which supported it.
Nowadays we have managed to construct a world in which none of that is necessary in order for your physical organism to continue living. One no longer needs to rely on family, friends, and neighbors in order to eat, obtain shelter, or provide any number of basic living necessities. One can rely on completely externalized, hidden systems of support that require only a bare minimum of contact with other human beings. And if you are clever enough to generate some income through the internet, you don’t even need to leave your apartment. Living in this manner, I doubt that people can feel a deep sense of well-being or any kind of true meaning in life. No wonder our society faces an epidemic of mental illness…
Indeed, the happiest moments of my life have been when I felt I was a valuable part of some community. It is often hard to prioritize friends and family over such apparently important things as knowledge, money, or self-improvement, but these are truly secondary. The Blue Zones, a group of five geo-ethnic populations around the world with the longest lived people on the planet, share a few key components for health and well-being. A strong sense of purposeful community is one of them. Gardening is another. Regular combat stress thankfully is not :). Local community self-reliance through sustainable agriculture, a sense of interconnected purpose or meaning, and deep social connection is the future of humanity. Our technological toys may not need to be disposed of completely, and the the dream of a globally connected society through them may still be salvageable, but without local community, it will be impossible.
What is it that we have lost? Can you feel it? We have forgotten something. A collective cultural amnesia, it seems. When did the head trauma occur? The “fall,” some call it. Was it when we became conscious of time and our own mortality? When we began to divide the world with symbols? Or was it perhaps later, when our ancestors forwent a life of tending and gathering the wild and began to till and clear the earth instead? When comparing the human condition to that of animals, one can only envy the latter’s state – an effortless, carefree existence, spared from the haunting troubles of the human mind. But indeed, this is our natural place, for we exist to be aware of ourselves and our environment, and it is perhaps a fundamental quality of existence itself. This is not such a terrible thing, after all, when one considers the beauty, love, and joy that accompanies experiential life, and the deep satisfaction drawn from the dedication to meaningful purpose.
But the Western mind seems to be struggling the most, as of late, with this existential dilemma. Like most cultures, the West had at its foundation a spiritual tradition – Christianity – which rooted its individuals in a mythological framework in which they could understand the world. But in the pursuit of its highest ideal – truth- Christianity destroyed itself. By the time the philosophies of scientific materialism, empiricism, and rationality saturated Western culture in the 19th century, the existentialist philosopher Nietzsche had proclaimed, with much concern, that “God is dead.” He and other existentialists predicted, with frighteningly accurate prophecy, that the 20th century would see the deaths of millions as people attempted to cope with their loss of spiritual grounding and the inevitable nihilism which would soon follow. Without a spiritual foundation to orient itself from, the West turned to such crude replacements as Utopian ideology and empty hedonistic materialism.
Since then, our culture has been wandering like a lost child, stubbornly denying the need for an orienting philosophy, hoping that it can survive on its own arbitrarily defined values. In what appears to be a desperate attempt at self-justification, we have marched steadfastly forward in the pursuit of natural domination and material omnipotence. The achievements of such aims, especially the industrial, technological, “green,” and information revolutions, have been heralded as incontrovertible evidence for the progress of modern man…
And yet there is something missing. We all feel it, no matter how hard we try to suppress those feelings. What is it? To me it seems clear that human beings have a spiritual need as intrinsic and relevant as social, food, and environmental needs. I believe that our culture needs to be reconnected with a spiritual tradition, or at least regain a broad sense of interconnectedness (which is really the same thing). I think this is what we’re missing at a deep, fundamental level. No amount of rationality, Utopian vision, or material wealth can replace it, and we are slowly waking up to that fact.
What is the path towards regaining such a thing? The answer, it seems clear to me, lies in the natural world. For only there do we remember who we really are – sacred beings inseparably connected to the cosmos. Only in nature do we become filled with a sense of connection and meaning powerful enough to sustain the human condition. We remember that we are co-creators and caretakers of life on earth, and that ultimate fulfillment lies in carrying out this purpose. We observe that nature, although awesomely vast and complex, retains an intelligent order that does not need improvement. And we come to see that although we might not be capable of consciously understanding this process, it works within and through us, nurturing and giving all that we require.
Each day at Sarvodaya, I am incredibly thankful that I have been given an opportunity to partake in this life-giving process. Despite the suffering and confusion that so many of us feel in this bizarre world, I have faith in the healing potential that places like Sarvodaya have to restore a deeply needed sense of connection, and in life in general to maintain a state of balance even in the midst of such cultural chaos as we are now experiencing. Each day at the farm, my worries become less and less, while my optimism for a bright future grows ever stronger.
Gilbert Gottfried was an ordinary gopher living in the land they call Pomona. Here it is not an easy life for a scavenging rodent; Gilbert had to scrounge around the bleak landscape of concrete and waste to find a meager sustenance, and competition with rats and other large birds and mammals made for a tough existence. One day (or rather night, as gophers are nocturnal), Gilbert was scurrying around the city, when he stumbled upon an impossible surprise: Sarvodaya Farm, an oasis in the concrete desert. Gilbert could not believe his eyes. Plants of every edible variety stood before him, stretching as far as the gopher eye could see; a veritable gopher paradise. “My troubles are over!” Gilbert thought to himself, “I shall live like a gopher king until the end of my days.” He did not know how right he was…
So Gilbert set out immediately to scope out a new home. Eventually after much thought, he decided on burrowing under one of the tomato beds. “These shall make a fine meal!” he thought. After a couple days, the construction of his burrow was well underway. One night, much to the consternation of Gilbert, the other resident gophers made their presence known. They were generally very friendly, welcoming Gilbert to the farm (although gophers are normally solitary, these found utility in forming communal relations in order to survive in the harsh Pomonan landscape). But Gilbert, hoping to have found a territory for himself, was not happy. He did not show his displeasure, however, and instead feigned a cordial demeanor. “I’ll just steal their food when they aren’t looking,” he thought to himself. After many introductions and welcomes, the resident gophers gave Gilbert a single warning: “This place is abundant and very habitable for the gopher kind, but do not get greedy. If you take too much from the land, the iron snake will enter your burrow and remove you from the earth.” Gilbert thought this was nonsense, believing that the other gophers simply were greedy and trying to scare him from having plenty of food. Gilbert pretended to heed the advice, said farewell, and went on his way.
A few days passed, and by this time Gilbert’s burrow was completely dug out. He had several corridors leading throughout the tomato bed, and even a couple venturing into neighboring ones. “The land of milk and honey!” Life was good, he thought. So good, in fact, that he decided to have a private celebration. “I will need to stock up on several tomato roots, and after I have collected a bountiful larder, I will feast on my good fortune.” On the first night, Gilbert ravaged a single tomato plant. Taking a small bite, he rejoiced in the delightfully swell taste of the roots. On the second night, Gilbert took another plant. At this point, he could have survived for days without further scavenging, but he could not stop himself from taking even more. On the last night, Gilbert took a third and final plant. “Hah! I now have collected the delicious roots of three tomatoes! And not once has a silly iron snake given me any trouble.” As Gilbert finally began to feast on his hoard in the safety of his main feeding den, he noticed a peculiar smell. “What’s that?” he querried, “It almost smells like…peanut butter?” Intrigued by the possibility of a novel food, Gilbert dropped his roots and followed the scent. Scurrying around for a few minutes, he tracked it to one of the longest corridors in his burrow. Facing him was a plate smeared with a fat helping of, as he guessed, peanut butter. “What luck! This will make a terrific desert!” In one swift movement, the thrilled gopher lunged forward and sunk his teeth into the scrumptious mass, and as soon as his little rodent brain was able to process the taste of the treat, two great iron fangs snapped together, embracing Gilbert’s throat and removing him, as the other gophers had warned, from the earth that he so willingly pillaged.
Among the Sarvodaya gophers, Gilbert’s fate is well remembered. As legend has it, his corpse was fed by the great giants to cats. His story is enshrined in the local culture as a warning to all, that gophers must live in balance and harmony with the land, lest they should face a cold, sudden death at the hands of the iron snake.
Last week wrapped up the bulk of our orientation as new trainees at Sarvodaya. We got a rundown of the nursery, assisted in building a big, beautiful compost pile, and learned how to take care of the chickens and their grazing rotation in the orchard. The first position bestowed upon my team and I is field operation, and I am excited to take on this new responsibility. I feel like a real intern already!
Some days, when I am around friends and family who are less aware of the problems (and likely solutions) that I see in our world, I get down about the prospects of our culture remedying its errors. But I am always re-heartened by individuals who are showing us how we can live in harmony with the earth through creative example. One such individual, Ernst Gotsch, was the subject of a video that Traci shared with us last week (thanks again Traci!). He is actively involved in restoring Amazonian rainforest in Brazil, using dynamic agroforestry techniques to turn denuded mining and logging land into productive, healthy, and life-supporting food forests. This was one of the most inspiring regenerative agriculture projects that I have seen to date, and I hope that one day I will be a part of a similarly incredible endeavor to heal the earth. Ernst says that this type of agriculture can be applied anywhere on the planet…why not here?
Having such grand dreams for the future, however, mixed with an unfortunately American sense of rush and urgency, can make me feel impatient. I often feel as though I am not developing my knowledge quickly enough to “save the planet,” as it were. I must remind myself that I am still at the beginning of my journey, and that these things take time. Trees do not grow to full maturity in a season, and a lifetime of work, study, and dedication may be necessary to truly master the skills I am after. I must let go of my human limitations, and accept that not all is up to me. Perhaps that is a good thing, lol….In the meantime, however, working at Sarvodaya satisfies my thirst for meaningful action. At the farm, I am centered and grounded in place where the universe works through me to achieve its purpose. Here I belong. Already I am gaining confidence in my abilities and intutions. Every day, the plants grow inside me a new sense of connection, and I as well in them; I am sure of it!