Tuesday, January 30, 2018


In recent months, since I retired from teaching and moved across the country to Oregon, I finally have gained the leisure time I need to pursue my aspiration--to transform my own small, suburban property into a model Permaculture garden, to take the Permaculture Design Certification course offered online by Oregon State University, and to use all my communication skills to help others propagate Permaculture theory and practice throughout my new community of Salem, Oregon, and everywhere else as well, right up until my last breath.

My first discovery, of course, has been that I have a steep learning curve in all of this. Although I had my own modest summer vegetable garden for many years in Virginia, I know little to nothing about gardening, since I spent my professional career as an English professor, doing little with my hands besides typing on a keyboard!  So I decided, before I attempt a Permaculture Design Certification course, to take a crash course in basic gardening knowledge and skills through the OSU Extension Service's Master Gardener program--a rigorous curriculum consisting of 12 weekly all-day classes, followed by a comprehensive exam and some 66 hours of volunteering in various capacities before I can be certified as a Master Gardener.  And this has been well worth the effort: I am learning a vast array of conceptual, procedural, and contextual knowledge of basic botany, orchard pruning, weed control, plant diseases, water management, beneficial insects, and all sorts of other skills necessary to be able to offer others sound, research-based advice when they call into the Master Gardener's hotline. I have also made a lot of new, knowledgeable friends, with lots of good advice.

I have also volunteered, in March, to team-teach a free six-week course offered by the local food bank, called "Seed to Supper"--a basic course in Vegetable Gardening 101 for low-income residents--and I have made friends with the manager of a community garden near my home as well.

But now that I am gaining a footing in serious gardening, I have another practical challenge: in order to achieve my dream of converting my lawn into a full-fledged Permaculture garden, I face a lot of heavy lifting--digging up my lawn, laying out flagstone paths, creating keyhole gardens and raised beds, composting, mulching, building Hugelcultur mounds, etc.  In a Permaculture design, most of the heavy labor comes upfront, in laying in the "hardscape" or infrastructure for the thriving, integrated garden to follow.  And at 68 years old, with declining upper-body strength and a bad back susceptible to painful spasms when overworked, and with little to no experience or manual skills, I face a fearsome uphill battle.

This is where the delightful concept of "Permablitz" comes in.  It is a recent coinage--I don't know who invented it, but etymologically, it is a felicitous oxymoron, meaning, roughly "Permanent Lightning."  And it refers to the Permaculture community's equivalent of a barn raising among the Amish: an event where a large group of "Permies" converge upon one person's garden, to pitch in and help take up their monocultural lawn and lay the more complex infrastructure for the Permaculture garden to follow.  In return for this service, the beneficiary agrees to participate in Permablitzes for others to follow. Here is a delightful videoclip from New Zealand that illustrates a Permablitz in action. Note how they begin by laying out a set of specific tasks, and then the participants learn and teach each other by doing, throughout the day, so that everyone is enriched with new knowledge and skills, even as they help one of their members get off to a running start.

What I love about the Permablitz concept is that it is a vivid illustration of the truth embedded in a slogan I came up with some time ago:

Grow Gardens...
Grow Community...
Grow Awareness...

In short, the minute you undertake, seriously, to grow a garden, you start creating community almost immediately. First, you get into conversations with neighbors and passersby, who are all too willing to share insights and information about local growing conditions--what grows well, what doesn't, etc. And a Permablitz will accelerate this process of community-building enormously, as participants learn and teach one another the skills they are implementing on behalf of one of their members.

Finally, through such bonding and community-building, everyone's awareness is raised of both the guiding ethics of Permaculture (Earth Care, People Care, and Fair Share) and of the challenges they share in healing the landscape and community. In effect, a Permablitz is a practical and visionary way of creating a convivial Gaian culture from the ground up, for the fruits of it will be more thriving Permaculture gardens along with greater reciprocity, shared problem-solving, and conviviality throughout the community--taking care of everyone, and abandoning no one.

It is a vivid illustration of the benefits of reciprocity--of sharing knowledge rather than hoarding it, of working with one another rather than for a boss or employer. A Permablitz illustrates the truth embedded in the Chinese concept of Guanxi --their traditional social network of reciprocal gifts and obligations within an ever-expanding community. As a Chinese proverb goes, "Guanxi is better than money."  Likewise, through the expansion of Permaculture, people may yet discover as well that Gaia is better than Glomart--that working together, sharing ideas, and restoring topsoil, ecosystems, and bioregions is far better than competing, exploiting, hoarding, and polluting. As Permaculture guru Geoff Lawton put it, "You can solve all the world's problems in a Garden."

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Renewal--A Fantasy?

Imagine, as Western Industrial Civilization goes into its terminal phase, with corporate oligarchy displacing democracy, workers' rights giving way to corporate slavery, hordes of environmental refugees destabilizing societies, and gangs, militias, and warlords battling it out on the streets in every city, and hateful, vicious demagogues like Trump running rampant, all while climate change wreaks ecological havoc and starvation sets in--as the rich and powerful recede behind walled and gated compounds, fiercely defended by security guards, while swarms of the poor and destitute besiege their walls...

As our earth careens toward ecological, economic, and social collapse...

Imagine a soft-spoken, gentle, but intense young man or woman leading a weekly Dharma Gaia Circle, a meditation/study group whose members work together, practicing the Dharma Gaia Mantra (Breathe-Observe-Let Go-Be Well-Do Good Work-Keep in Touch-Learn-Teach-Heal-Create) and studying the Three Essential Disciplines: Tonglen, Satyagraha, and Permaculture...

And this group catches on and buds off, creating similar Dharma Gaia Circles elsewhere, all of whom stay in touch...

And they manage to pool their money and buy land, creating Dharma Gaia Practice Centers, where other people are invited to learn the Three Essential Disciplines in concert, and train others in them as well...

And as time goes on, Permaculture projects begin to restore devastated communities to flourishing, as Satyagraha practices neutralize aggression and convert antagonists to supporters, one by one...and some form of mindfulness practice becomes embedded in the lifeways of every civilization, coupled with the threefold Permaculture ethos of Earth Care, People Care, and Fair Share.

And in good time, even their most resistant enemies--Republicans, or Christian and Muslim fundamentalists--begin to see the immediate and long term benefits of Gaian practices and adapt them to their own ideological purposes.

Could it happen?  Perhaps something like this could happen, with luck. Similar mass movements have transformed the consciousness of whole civilizations before--e.g. Confucianism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam--and even (for a while) Communism. But could this happen without polarization--without "us" vs. "them" arising in any form, with predictable violence and bigotry to follow?

Even the devoutly Buddhist culture of Burma, after all, is currently engaged in an appalling genocide campaign against their own demonized Other--that is, the Rohingya Muslim refugees whom they see as a threat to their culture.

Is it possible for people to call themselves "Gaians" without the tribal instinct arising, in which they pit themselves against, and demonize "Anti-Gaians" (or perhaps they might be called "Glomartians")? Even if we build into a Gaia movement the idea that we are all Gaians, conscious or unconscious, this differs little from the core idea of Buddhism--that everyone has a Buddha nature within--or Christianity (loving our neighbor--whoever he is--as ourselves). Yet this deep spiritual insight of Oneness common to most religious cultures has done little to curb the factionalism, the bigotry, or the violence that these religious cultures inflict on one another. Perhaps, as humans, we are simply not good enough to live up to our own highest ideals, when we feel threatened.

Gandhi, after all, had scarcely succeeded in peacefully throwing off the long, oppressive yoke of British imperialism before a nasty schismogenic split arose between Muslims and Hindus, the former breaking off to form Pakistan, and all involved in bloody, persistent intercommunal violence. And when he tried to make peace between the warring camps by traveling to Pakistan, he was assassinated by one of his own--a Hindu ideologue for whom peace with Muslims was treason.

So perhaps such tribalism is in our genes indelibly. The minute we posit an "us" we simultaneously must create a "them" by which to define ourselves (and of course, vice versa--the "them" would then demonize "us" in turn).

This raises a larger question: if an ideal (such as universal brotherhood, sisterhood, tolerance, and care for all living things) may be impossible to achieve in actuality, does that negate the value of striving for it?

The short answer, for me, is NO.  We all routinely strive for what I like to call asymptotic ideals--that is, ideals which, like an asymptotic curve in mathematics, are an approximation to which we can draw ever closer without actually realizing it in full. I would go even further in saying that ALL ideals, worthy of our striving, are inherently asymptotic. For any one of them, there are likely, and inevitably, to be setbacks--periods in which we backslide from that ideal, rather than drawing closer. An obvious example is the recent regrettable transition from the Obama era, when Dr. King's dream--the image of a nation that had finally abandoned racism--finally became conceivable, to the current, toxic Trump era, when ugly, vicious racism has crept out of the shadows and is cropping up everywhere.

Yet when a nation backslides so grievously from its own highest professed ideals, that is all the more reason for us, as individuals, to recommit ourselves to those ideals, with mindful, strategic, and relentless determination. But real change happens, not from the top down, (as with Obama) but from the ground up. Even if Trump destroys our American democracy, the ideals at the founding of our nation remain inviolable, and always available to us as individuals both to proclaim and practice.

But I would go further than this.  The rise of Trump and similar hateful demagogues throughout the world, and the retreat of liberal democratic values, may also signal that the era of the nation state itself has reached its horizon of efficacy, and that as our nation and its institutions dissolve into corporate-sponsored tyranny, violence, corruption, and chaos, we must plant the seeds of a worldwide Gaian culture close to home--in our own backyards, and in reaching out to the destitute, threatened populations within our own communities-- refugees, immigrants, minorities, and all threatened and demonized "others"--to stand in solidarity with them, to teach them how to garden, and to create communities based on the three core values of Permaculture--Earth Care, People Care, and Fair Share.  America is (or may well be) dying; long live Gaia!