Sharon November 6th, 2009

Two weeks ago, my husband called me in frantic muddle, on his way home from work, apologizing for being late, and he knew I was waiting the kids’ bedtime, but he had to go back to work because he’d forgotten something and he was so sorry, and he hadn’t meant to leave it… but …Ranjan died. 

I stopped him.  Ranjan died?  Our Ranjan?  Ranjan was Eric’s college roommate and best friend.  Eric gathered himself  and told me that that morning, Ranjan, on his way to work in Mumbai had collapsed and died of a heart attack.  He was young, in good shape and vital and he simply died, the way sometimes people do.

Ranjan was 40 years old, just a year older than Eric.  He had two young sons, 3 and 6, and a beloved wife.  The last time they’d visited, before they left to spend a few years working in India, Ranjan had told us that his favorite thing in life was simply to be in the kitchen when Roopa, his wife, was cooking.  The two were deeply in love, and looking forward to the day when Ranjan could give up his job and afford to try his hand at filmmaking - and have more time at home, more time in the kitchen.

It has been a long time since Eric and Ranjan lived close enough and had enough free time to watch art films together, and argue about capitalism and music, and tease their wives, but it had never, ever occurred to either of them that there wouldn’t be time, someday, eventually, when things slowed down.

Eric is heartbroken with the loss of his friend, and also, his sense that we are still in a place of security.  Until now, the hard times he teaches about, the difficult things that we all know are coming - both in the world at large and the difficult cycles that come with all lives, all of them seemed firmly in the future.  But if Ranjan, so alive, can die, anything can happen - or so it seems in the throes of grief.

I knew and liked Ranjan, and grieve his loss, but for me without the long, deep history with him, what strikes hardest is my identification with Roopa.  This is my nightmare - that someday my husband leaves, and does not come back, and I’m left alone, to go on, but I don’t know how.   I’ve always worried about it. Now I know more viscerally that it can happen, and I am not enjoying the knowledge.

On another discussion list that I was on, someone asked us how we will go on when the really tough stuff hits - when people you love die, or when there’s visible suffering all around you.  And of course, some people are already there, in my country and all around the world.  People die already because of climate change - 1 million a year or more.  People die already because of hunger and disease.  Beloved people die of tragic things and ordinary things all the time in all of our lives.  Among my readers are people who have already endured unendurable grief - the loss of children, of siblings of beloved people in their lives, suddenly and slowly and painfully. 

I don’t like to think about death, or about the darker implications of my own work.   I do, but I hate it.  Someone recently asked me what I thought the “endgame” looked like - and he did not ask from prurience or morbid curiosity. This was a deeply thoughtful and passionate person asking me honestly whether I could bear to think about unchecked climate change, and what I imagined.  And I told him - because I can think about it some, I can get part of the way there.  But there are things I decline to consider in advance of necessity, and I don’t think that’s bad.  When I asked my interlocutor the same question, he didn’t answer it - he told me what he hoped for instead - and that’s ok, fixating on ends is not always necessary. 

John Michael Greer observes that when we make a distinction between problem and predicament, the ultimate predicament is death.  Problems can be solved.  Predicaments, well, we can only choose (and choice only goes so far) how we respond, and imagine and address it.  We cannot solve the problem.  And in many ways, that’s a hard thing - because we are so accustomed to the world-as-problem.

We cannot solve the predicament of grief.  However we address our feelings, or however they play out without our intention, it does not go away.  I would hurry through this emotion because I don’t want to experience it. I would hurry Eric through his because I don’t like his being in pain.  But grief takes its own sweet time, and I do no one any favors by pretending that while we are dealing with sorrow and fear, they are not dealing with us. And we go forward, as best we can, when we can.

I usually don’t answer questions about how we should deal with things - because I’m not convinced that we *will* deal with things as we believe we should.  In the end, I think we’ll do what we do now - mostly keep putting one foot ahead of another, mostly keep doing what we need to, except when we can’t. 

For my husband, this is the first time he’s known the grief of the loss of someone who simply should not be dead.  Before this, loss came in good time, for grandparents and people who were ill for a long time.  He’s fortunate - he made it to 39 years old without this kind of sudden sorrow.  And this knowledge comes to all of us in the course of lifetime - all we can do is pray and hope that we don’t have to learn it too often, or too hard.  And remember that if we have been fortunate, if we haven’t had to face the deepest sorrows, we should bend down and thank whatever diety or good fortune has permitted that, and set to work redoubled at easing the sorrow of those who weren’t as lucky.


Speaking of Growing in Community…

Sharon November 5th, 2009

You’ve got to see Aaron’s map of his neighborhood in terms of potential growing space, garden friendly neighbors and potential food customers.  It is a great idea, and would be useful to a lot of people!

Everything Old is New Again

Sharon November 5th, 2009

There’s an interesting post over at The Oil Drum, by a high school teacher who uses this chart (scroll down the post to the end before comments) to illustrate something of the future to his students.  I’m very taken by the clarity of this piece, although I understand some of the criticism of it - the leap to the old ways seems a little fast even to me - I suspect the transition to low tech will be more gradual, and “cobbling together temporary tech solutions” more prevalent. 

 I think perhaps he’s conflating different time scales, and probably different effects for different people.  I think there will be a lot more gradual a decline in many respects - and that we’ll be using a lot more of the industrial infrastructure for various things.  But overall, I think it is a useful thought exercise.  What do you think?  Do you have a list?


Growing in Community

Sharon November 5th, 2009

I think the question of land access may end up being the central political issue of the coming century.  In both the rich world and the poor world, we’ve systematically deprived people of easy access to land.  We have driven up the price of land in the rich world by encouraging sprawl, and thus forced out agrarian populations that previous fed cities.  We have pushed people into cities in the name of globalization and industrialization, and claimed their land for speculation.  The system is no longer working very well - there are now a billion hungry people, and the bust cycle is upon us - but land access remains constrained.  The poor sent to cities who can find no jobs can’t go home again in many cases.  The moderate income people who need land most to sustain their families no longer have access to the credit necessary since prices were artificially raised.

As time goes on and energy and resources are more constrained, the anger of people who cannot access land against those who can is likely to be an issue - it always has been through human history.  We have pretended over the decades that land was no longer wealth, that there could be such a thing as an information economy, but we are still caught in the old material economy, where the earth and its resources are the root source of our wealth - and they are increasingly controlled by fewer and fewer people, who care little about the future.  This makes those without access angry indeed.

But as yet, most people at least in the rich world, do not see these issues as political - whether you can afford to buy a small house with enough dirt under it to feed your family regardless of the state of the economy is deemed to be a purely personal question. 

So we are brought to the question - how do you grow food if you don’t own land, or don’t own enough land?  How do we get access to land if we are poor, or if prices are out of our range?  I meet people by the dozens and hundreds who want to own land, who are saving for a day that may or may not come - and it is good that they are. But not owning land is not, for most of us, the end of the story - but the beginning.  If you want to grow and don’t own, there are places to begin.

Whatever you do, remember that allies are the key to success - you can do many of these things alone, but you don’t have to.  Chances are that if you care about the beauty and food security of your neighborhood, at least a few other people do too.  If you’d like a garden, a few other people may never have thought about it, but would be glad to see one and would like to help.  If you are struggling with landlessness, look around you and see who else needs access to land - poor college students, immigrants, the working poor - all people who may well want to grow, even need to, but can’t do it by owning land.  Seek allies among the powerful - sometimes they don’t care, but surprisingly often, they get it - they care about food security, they just haven’t had someone pushing them to put it on the priority list. It may not be as hard as you think to change the zoning laws, to get that land reallocated, to resist development, to start an easement program, etc…  Civic engagement counts.

First is the obvious - community gardens.  In some places, starting to garden is as simple as going and signing up for a plot.  In others, it may be more complicated - in many areas, community gardens are under assault from development and regulation, or there are long waiting lists.  But they are a starting point.

If there is no community garden in your community, then you’ll need to start one.  Begin looking for likely public spaces, and researching what you will need to do (contaminated urban spots, for example, may need you to truck in safe soil or do substantial soil remediation).  Talk to your city council and zoning officers. Or, skip over public lands and go to private owners - talk to businesses on large lots and churches and synagogues.  Often offering to donate a portion of the produce is a possible solution.  Private large landowners may be interested, or you may be able to raise money to buy land for a community garden by soliciting donations.

Don’t assume hostility - right now a lot of cities and towns are strapped for cash, and civic improvement that can be done cheaply (and three community gardens are a heck of a lot cheaper than a stadium or a conference center or even a new courthouse) and with volunteer labor are attractive - couch your proposal in benefits for the community, for local food security and improving the neighborhood.  Point out that last year there were 8 *million* new gardens in the US and that vegetable gardens are a sign of a good neighborhood.  Remind them that no one is building new houses anyway, so you might as well beautify that old industrial spot, or talk about conservation easements.

If you can’t get permission, consider doing it anyway.  Guerilla gardening allows you to start growing in untended spaces *now* - you can plant ornamentals or do soil remediation by night. Yes, there’s the risk of being run off and losing your investment - but often property owners or the city are happy to see run-down, abandoned or underutilized areas transformed into liveable ones.  Think big and small - that place where the big box store got demolished, or that old parking lot, but also traffic circles and the strip of grass that runs along your sidewalk that doesn’t officially belong to anyone.  Look around - are other people doing it?  Once your eyes are attuned to food growing, you’ll be surprised.

Guerilla gardening and these other techniques aren’t just for urbanites - there are rural dwellers without a lot of land.  In many rural areas, you can rent a few acres for very little money - a few hundred dollars a year, and you may well be able to run livestock and garden on that land.  Some farmers will barter with you.  Or you could consider guerrilla farming - I know people growing vegetables in state forest land (yes, they are vegetables!)  and in areas with absentee landlords.  Just make sure the local culture isn’t “shoot first” for trespassers.

You could consider growing other things than veggies and herbs - what about tree crops. Your city probably plants dozens or hundreds of street trees and park ornamentals every single year.  What about a campaign to replace ornamental trees and shrubs with fruiting ones - and a matching gleaning campaign to make sure the fruit doesn’t become a nuisance?     

Or talk to your neighbors - yes, you have a tiny lot and so do they. But four lots together make a nice sized garden - you probably have neighbors who don’t have time to grow food, but would like a small share of produce for the use of their yards.  You can get to know your neighbors and expand your garden at the same time.  You might even begin a commercial farm this way - growing in multiple yards, each being given a share of the produce, with some to sell.  Consider marketing this to the city as a solution to a small portion of the local hunger and unemployment problem, and you may have more help than you know what to do with - the city can offer incentives, help and even tax breaks to property owners who participate!

What about foreclosed properties - many cities have an abundance of these and it costs the city a lot of money to maintain them, and they cause a lot of frustration by lowering property values and calling on resources the city doesn’t have.  Offer to maintain a couple of them - mow the lawn and trim the bushes in return for the right to grow food there.

While not every resource in your community will be helpful, nor everyone you contact will aid you, you should remember that there are some remarkable resources out there.  For example Soil and Water Conservation groups often have grants to help bring water to rural areas, or to protect wetlands - you may be able to draw on these.  Your local cooperative extension agent can help you with everything from finding other chicken owners with whom to get together to change zoning to helping you figure out how to grow mushrooms.  They are a resource past price, and if governments did no other good, they’d be worth a lot.  Your local university may have allies in agriculture, ecology and other programs. 

Your local non-profits may be interested in helping as well - food pantries and religious groups invested in food security issues can help make the case for local community gardenings, or they may have sources of funding or land to donate.  Remember, many people don’t actually oppose growing food - they just haven’t thought about it much. 

The reality is that sooner or later, all gardeners need community - it is never a wholly solitary pursuit.  We need other gardeners to trade seeds and plant starts with.  We need other gardeners to share stories and advice with.  And most of all we need a community of people who recognize that the disdained and disregarded soil under our feet, whether in cities, suburbs or the countryside, cannot be allotted only the rich and fortunate.  We need to find ways to bring the untended land back into the hands of people who preserve and nurture it, and we can do this only in community with one another.


Best Books: Building and Home Repairs

Sharon November 4th, 2009

Hi Folks - Way back a long time ago I mentioned that the forthcoming AIP book needs an updated and improved bibliography, and noted I’d be asking for your help.  You all came through with a great list of cookbooks, and now I’m getting back to the writing, and it is time to do some other topics. 

So tell me - what are the best books you’ve seen about ecologically sound, low impact building, insulating, home repairs and woodworking?  Got some favorites?  Please list author and title and why you think it is worth having.  This is an area where I particularly need some help - the last time I did any major research was almost 8 years ago, so I’ve probably missed a lot of new material. 

Thanks so much!

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