Archive for March 24th, 2009

Strengthening Rural-Urban Connections

Sharon March 24th, 2009

One of the things we point out in _A Nation of Farmers_ is how deeply similar the problems of inner city and rural cultures are.  In both cases, there is often a great deal of poverty.  In both cases, there is often inadequate access to decent food, since rural areas have lost much of their garden culture, and supermarkets are often far away for both populations.  In both cases, there are inadequate jobs for younger people, and often high levels of unemployment for those committed to staying either in the neighborhood or the country.  The ability to stay there, and transmit a local culture is thus very low.  Urban dwellers become completely disconnected from subsistence culture, while rural dwellers are brought to believe, often, in the superiority of urban life, and urban culture, and strive to mimic it in destructive ways.  Rural areas are colonized by industrial agriculture, polluting the area and reducing their ability to feed people in the long term, while urban areas are colonized by industrial business, and polluted and their environment degraded.

Nearly every society struggles, in some measure, with the disconnect between urban and rural life, but most societies have had more contiguity between the two than our own does.  Having a local future, and enduring local foodshed requires that we start rebuilding connections between urban and rural cultures – because in many ways, the difficulties that both have could be partly ameliorated by closer ties – economic ones, of course, but not just economic.

Many cultures have traditionally had much closer ties between urban and rural populations.  For example, in Russia, people often had small summer cottages that they retreated to, not just for pleasure, but to garden and forage in the woods. In parts of southern and central Africa, people have ties to the cattlelands, and even city people often keep a few cattle, usually tended by an extended family member, and return to the land for portions of the agricultural season. Northern native populations have fish or hunting camps, while even low income urban Londoners at the turn of the century would spend their summer vacations harvesting crops – hops or something else.  This has evolved into the bucolic summer tourist vacation, the vacation home or the hunting camp, most of which have little to do with subsistence activities (some urban hunters that we see hunt for food, but many do not).

While it isn’t that hard to figure out what rural people might get from a trip into a city – better shopping and trade, cultural events, etc… The fact that trips out to the land have been part of the culture help keep this from being a one-way colonial event. When urban people come out to rural areas to participate in food production and rural life, they are implicity suggesting that rural culture has something to offer other than a tribute of food to be delivered.  There is a reciprocity between the two cultures, a chance for people on both sides to begin to see the impact that they have on one another, to consider it, and most importantly, to build relationships.  Tourism does not do this – instead of introducing rural people to real urban life, or urban people to the realities of rural practice, one gets a sanitized and processed and fundamentally artificial version of life, for the most part. Agritourism is a growing industry, for example, but it transforms farms (usually by economic necessity) into carnival rides or sites of nostalgia, rather than sites in a cultural foodshed.

CSAs and farmer’s markets have had a powerful role in connecting city and country, farmer and eater, but they are only a beginning.   In order to, say, decide not to develop remaining agricultural land near a large city, or to understand the conflicts between watershed pressures in agriculture and city life, urban and rural dwellers have to understand each other well enough, and be invested in one another deeply enough to resolve their conflicts.  Large chunks of both urban and rural populations truly have no idea how the other half lives. 

Moreover, they really have no idea how they might improve one another’s lives.  The chronic problem of access to food, for example, might be solved by creating markets that help low income rural dwellers take a piece of the 300+ million dollars even the poorest neighborhoods pour into the economy each year.  Most of that goes to industrial corporations, and provides crappy jobs.  What if rural poor people, who, after all, buy clothes and toys for their kids and tools for their garden could find ones that are manufactured in their local cities?

More importantly, what if we were invested in each other’s lives – that is, if people realized that they depend on their food shed and the people who support it – both economically in the cities and physically in the country.  What if it were possible to make a decent living in both places?  But to do this, we must increase the connection between the two.

 I don’t have a full set of magical solutions for this, but one thing that occurs to me is that we’re going to have to find new ways to spend some time on each other’s ground, getting to know our food, water and economy-shed.


Indigeny Part I: Becoming Native To Your Place

Sharon March 24th, 2009

This weekend my family went to see a local showing of the film _Ancient Futures_ based on Helena Norberg-Hodge’s book of the same title.  For those of you who haven’t seen it, part of itit is available on youtube here: and here: and here:

In the film (and the superb book which I’d recommend to everyone), Norberg-Hodge explores the realities of an indigenous culture, which due to isolation created something imperfect, but sustainable, and the loss of sustainability caused by the importation of western modern culture. 

As a homeschool exercise, we went home and looked at other cultures that are, if not fully sustainable, generally dramatically lower users of resources than we are.  We talked about various indigenous cultures, about the stories Edna Lewis tells about life in Freetown, about our local Amish communities, about Green Belt work in Kenya,  and about peasant cultures around the world.  I gave my kids a child-aged summary of Wes Jackson’s superb book _Becoming Native To This Place_ and talked a little about this question of how we might live like that.  The idea is not to test them for pure sustainability, or a perfect life we’d like to emulate, but to talk about what they have in common, and how places that have lost idigenous traditions are reclaiming them.  

It is easy to imagine the goals of Adapting-in-Place are mostly goals of survival and getting through hard times.  I don’t think this is true, actually.  I think that the real goal is not so much to live through it (although that’s good too) it is to come out the other end of each experience with the ability to spare the next generation some of this suffering, and a way of life that offers something more than bare survival. 

I call the project “Indigeny” – that is, becoming local to your place, creating a culture that can go on, not just ’a bit after the fossil fuels run out” but for generations, and one that results in a life worth having.  Without this, we are merely minimizing losses – and all of us need more than that.

My next post is a meditation on what it would take to make my family more indigenous to our particular place.  But here’s our list. \

1. People mostly stay in one place for generations, and there is a pass down economy.  That is, in Ladakh, 90% of the population owns land – but no one buys it.  At one point, one man observes that he (now elderly) has seen 7 generations live in his house.  Because people stay, they can’t afford to degrade the region, nor can they afford to radically overpopulate it, unless there are available ecological niches being created.

2. People live in extended families, rather than nuclear ones.  This was the first thing the kids noticed about the Ladakh film – and the thing that Isaiah said he liked best, that the kids all lived with their grandparents.  There are many hands around to do the work.

3. The technologies the culture evolves are low input, and simple.  If the culture survives into the modern era, they must evolve powerful prohibitions against using other technologies.  These prohibitions must be part of the cultural identity of the group.

4. The identity of the group is both positive and negative.  That is, they must teach their children compelling stories about who they are and why it is good to be part of that culture.  They also must describe themselves against people who are not part of that culture – that doesn’t have to be a hostile definition, but “We don’t watch television because we don’t believe it is good for us” or “We don’t do this because it is part of our faith” must be part of it.  A purely affirmative self-definition that doesn’t say “no” to things seems not to be sufficient.

5. Children spend much of their time in their community and integrated into it – which some places do a lot of schooling and some a little, no successful indigenous culture sends its kids away from them all day.  Nor do they primarily educate their children to do jobs not needed in the truly local economy.  Immersion is the name of the game.

6. The local economy serves most subsistence needs.  That doesn’t mean trade or money don’t exist, but the more one moves primarily into the formal economy, the harder it is to keep up.  A portion, probably the largest portion of each household’s human resources are dedicated to subsistence activities.  This means that the people doing subsistence work are not alone in it, and the subsistence work is viewed as primary, rather than relegated to the inferior territory of household labor.

7. There is a high value placed on getting along, accomodating others, working together, sharing and resolving conflicts.  Traditions are built around these customs of sharing, and evolve for the management of common resources (despite the constant iteration of the “Tragedy of the Commons” commons are often extremely well managed).

8. People eat a truly local diet as their primary foodstuffs.  They eat what grows well and naturally in their regions, including foraging wild foods and growing in ways that do not deplete the soil.  Their crops and animals are not generally optimized – ie, they aren’t necessarily the biggest or best, but the best adapted to their particular circumstances.

9. It isn’t just food that is localized – architecture responds to local conditions, community practices respond to local conditions, and to evolving local conditions.  One of the reasons most indigenous cultures are so often thought to be “backwards” is that when confronted with modernity, their carefully evolved structures don’t work very well.  What serves beautifully in a harsh environment where little imported food is available looks scant and strange in a culture where the markets are full.  What keeps one warmer than average in a cold climate with only a small fire for heat seems drafty and weird when you can just turn the thermostat to 70.  As we evolve back from modernity, and deal with climate change, our local will change – what we need is broad resilience.

10. The culture creates minimal waste, and focuses much of it resources on making full use of what comes easily – rather than forcing what doesn’t come easily into a mold that doesn’t work.  Waste is shocking and disturbing to people. 

11. The culture has a long tradition of music, art, literature/storytelling and spiritual/religious production, as well as other projects that bring beauty and joy.  That is, it isn’t just focused on subsistence activities, but has pleasures that are available to all, that are participatory and fulfill human needs for good stories, song, beauty, uplift and a sense of connection to something greater.

 12. Having contiguity with your past is considered desirable, not bad.  Modernity reduces the past to a few heroic tales, and makes the past literally uninhabitable to the present.  Thus, those who came before us know nothing of value, and the ways of the past are archaic and foolish.  Sustainable cultures on the other hand, focus on the ways that the present future and past are linked to one another.

Now not every culture does these things perfectly – but we thought that some of these characteristics might provide a set of guidelines for the project of indigeny – and of creating a collection of indigenous cultures that can compete with the bright lights of modernity.