Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Door to Winter

As the last days of October wind down, the color is starting to fade from the trees. The sorghum is all in barrels and we've pulled from the garden all the vegetables that frost would ruin. We are in that period of grace between fall and winter, when the harvest is essentially done and the wood heating season hasn't yet begun. It's time to exhale, sleep a little later in the morning, linger over coffee, read during daylight hours, and otherwise savor the change of seasons.

For me this interlude has defined boundaries: it started when we stopped stoking the boiler for the final sorghum cook Thursday afternoon, and will last until this coming Thursday morning, when Ma'ikwe and I drive to Chicago, en route to Ann Arbor and the coming North American Students of Cooperation Institute, Nov 4-6. That will start a six-week stretch where I'll be on the road excepting only Thanksgiving week and Nov 15 (when I'll be home just long enough to say hello, do laundry, and have a warm dinner at home). When I return after that six-week run, it will be no-doubt-about-it winter.

During the next five days I'll have time to take a walk or two (where I'll be able to feel the Earth turning toward dormancy—it's not the same just looking out the window); to have unhurried follow-up conversations with Sandhillians who revealed tender personal tidbits during recent check-ins at community meetings; to go back and handle non-urgent administrative tasks that were set aside during the rush of harvest; to catch up on trip accounting that has been stockpiled since August; to get down on my hands and knees and scrub the floors clean; to enjoy a season-ending celebratory sweat with my community.
I'll also have the time to make a small dent in my Honey-do List at Ma'ikwe's house. While most of this will wait patiently until the winter, one thing needs attention right now.

The Door to Green Housing
The most pressing item is constructing a door to her greenhouse, which was the highlight of this year's construction season. She has a boarder interested in living in the greenhouse this winter, but that plan hinges on having tight door where there is now only a gaping hole. The greenhouse was built as an attachment to the southwest corner of her house, and will serve both as a food growing area and as a thermal buffer. The main entry to the house will pass through the greenhouse, as a glorified entranceway.

While others have constructed the earthen walls, put on the roof, and installed the windows, I signed up to custom build the door. The trick to a tight door is getting the sizing right, making sure the framing on the hinge side is dead plumb, and locating the strike plate accurately. This challenge is exacerbated by the fact that the concrete work upon which the threshold will rest has no relationship to level, and I have to be careful not to cut any of the wood to final dimensions before I know exactly where the threshold will be.

The construction sequence is additionally complicated by the greenhouse being at Dancing Rabbit—while the tools needed to shape things reside at Sandhill, three miles distant. It does not escape my consciousness that there is irony to handcrafting a door for a Green building by driving back and forth between construction site and tools. Fortunately, my embarrassment over this will be overcome by my successfully installing a sound door.

As someone who loves working with his hands, it will be my delight to make this door project the capstone of my last week on the farm before winter. It is metaphorically fitting that I intend to close the opening to Ma'ikwe's greenhouse concurrently with closing the door on fall. As a door builder—and inveterate constructor of metaphors—that symmetry appeals to me.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

When I'm 62

Three weeks ago I was over at Dancing Rabbit for a free concert by the local blues band that had been rehearsing for months to provide the musical accompaniment for the Off Grid Blues weekend slated for Oct 7-9. The building in which the event took place was the Casa de Cultura, erected in the record time of four months, and this was to be its inaugural event.

Mostly the audience was sitting on the floor (to maximize space for dancing), but as I was settling in along the east wall, someone came up to me and whispered discreetly, "We've reserved a chair for you along the opposite wall." My first reaction was, "Huh?" Why would I get a chair when there were only three available and we were expecting a crowd of more than 30? Then I got it—I'm one of the old folks. The combined population of the tri-communities (Sandhill Farm, Dancing Rabbit, and Red Earth) is about 80, but there are only a handful of us geezers in the over-60 crowd, and the gesture with the chair was meant as a respect-your-elders kindness.

Yesterday I turned 62—which doesn't feel nearly as old as I used to think it was. Last week I noted how tired and achy I was after finishing a food processing shift (canning last-of-the-season tomatoes and pepper relish) and wondered about whether this was what people referred to when lamenting the dark side of getting older. But then I realized I'd been in the kitchen nonstop for 10 hours, working straight through lunch and dinner, and I figured pretty much anyone would enjoy sitting down after that.

During a birthday breakfast that Ma'ikwe and I cooked together for a group of friends yesterday morning, I was asked to speculate on the greatest impact another year would have on my life. Without a moment's hesitation, I replied, "Priority boarding on Amtrak." At the larger stations (such as Chicago and DC), there is a preliminary call for seniors and passengers traveling with small children. I've now reached the age where I'm officially a senior by Amtrak's lights, allowing me to henceforth avoid the cattle calls for boarding. Yippee! (As this courtesy is extended to all traveling in my party, this is also a significant benefit for my 41-year-old wife whenever we travel together—which is a lot.)

The Leaning Tower of Paris
I spent the night before my birthday over at Ma'ikwe's, and together with her 14-year-old son, Jibran (who is homeschooled), we devoted an entertaining hour to perusing a copy of E D Hirsch's Cultural Literacy. Among other things, this book contains an alphabetical list of 5000 names, phrases, dates, and concepts that the author considers essential for what every American needs to know if you want to be literate. While the edition was published in 1987 (and therefore doesn't include anything that has risen to the standard of being essential in the last quarter century—such as, say, the internet), I was interested in seeing how well Jiban's free-grazing reading habits were preparing him for understanding what Hirsch felt was important. (Also, secretly, I was interested in learning how literate his mother and I were.)

For the most part, all three of us knew most of the 153
terms we considered (whew). There were, however, some interesting gaps in our knowledge, as well as some hilarious brain farts. On whim, we started with the letter P, proceeding from "Pacific Islands" to "phallic symbol" (which was hard to top for its potential for comic relief with a 14-year-old boy). Perhaps the best moment came when I read "Paris" (the city, not the Greek myth) and Ma'ikwe immediately blurted out, "The place with the leaning tower!" complete with waving hands, a la a palm tree swaying in the breeze. Jibran fell to the floor struggling for breath, he was laughing so hard. I was impressed that he understood at once his mother's gaffe.

All and all I had a great day yesterday. Following my power breakfast (with fried potatoes, scones, portobello mushrooms, crustless quiche, and fresh coffee), I was serenaded with a round of Happy Birthday at lunch (replete with four homemade beeswax candles—one for every 15.5 years—glowing atop a pair of flourless chocolate cakes with maple icing), got in a three-mile walk, shipped a couple Priority Mail boxes, read a handwritten birthday letter from Annie (yes, the Post Office still delivers those), answered my email, stowed a couple dozen pints of preserves on the shelves of our root cellar, took a happy-birthday call from my daughter Jo, bought some train tickets, cleaned and filled a five-gallon bucket with fresh sorghum for the neighbors, and worked a five-hour boiler shift (from 4 pm to cleanup)
down at Sugar Shack (where we were cooking this season's penultimate batch of sorghum)—which afforded me the perfect occasion to enjoy a maduro-wrapped birthday cigar and a couple fingers of bonded Old Fitzgerald. While I stoked the fire, the bourbon stoked me. All of that and I still had time for about eight hands of bridge and an IPA before bedtime. How good can it get?

While my version of the good life is perhaps a little different from Scott & Helen Nearing's, it's plenty good enough for me.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Art of Deescalation

One of the hardest challenges in interpersonal dynamics is how to stay fluid and soft (as opposed to armored and entrenched) when both people are in distress. Even though I understand what's happening, and the way through it, I find this maddeningly difficult to manage when I'm one of the players. I just can't seem to avoid falling into the pit of tat for tit, and I say some of the most damaging and regrettable (not to mention embarrassing and unhelpful) things when I'm caught in this whirlpool.

Here's how it typically unfolds. (While it's not hard to picture the geometric complications possible when there are many people in distress, it's enough for the main points I want to make to concentrate on the simpler, two-person version of this dynamic) Person A has a strong reaction to something Person B did (or did not do) or said (or did not say). Person B then has a strong reaction to Person A's expressing their distress, probably feeling unfairly accused, blindsided, or grossly misunderstood.

Now we're off to the races. Absent the ability for someone to get off the merry-go-round, both people then proceed to engage in a largely unproductive impromptu poetry slam, following the rhyme scheme of ABABABAB... ad nauseam. At its worst, the protagonists are exchanging blows, not information. People get hurt, and the pain of the initial reactions gets deepened. Yuck!

In general, when someone is in serious distress, the road to getting unstuck starts with a recognition to the distressed person's satisfaction of what they're experiencing. This means demonstrating to the upset person that you grok the essence of both their feelings and their story. It is not necessary that you agree with their position or have the same personal reaction; you just need to be able to show the person that you get what's happening for them. (Note: this includes getting the affect right, not just the words.)

The essential problem when both A and B are upset is who goes first. Each wants to be held by the other as a precondition to extending that same support the other way. The result is a stalemate. It is damn hard in the heat of the moment to unilaterally step back from your own distress, get centered, and reach out with compassion and empathy to the other person—the person you feel provoked by. And even if you can make the herculean effort to offer this, that doesn't mean it will be well received (or that you'll even get credit for the attempt)—remember, the other person is feeling provoked by you as well and is highly likely to question the authenticity of your olive branch. It's a train wreck.

This is hard even when you truly care about the relationship with the other person, and just about impossible with someone you find consistently provocative and don't have much relationship with.

What are your options? I can think of four.

1. Get help
If there's someone else nearby that's acceptably neutral to both parties, by all means ask that person to facilitate the deescalation. Hint: This is much easier to negotiate if there's an agreement about how to do this (such as I've tried to outline above).

2. Take a break
If help isn't an option, it may be best to simply stop and allow each other time to cool off. It's generally easier to find a softer place in your heart once you've had a chance to lick your wounds and reflect. Self care can be an incredible balm, yet you need to be careful here: sometimes people use time in a neutral corner to intensify the poison, only to return to the engagement with increased viciousness.

3. Call a truce
If this occurs often enough in a relationship you care about, you can make an agreement to name this dynamic and call a cease fire, expressly for the purpose of seeing to it that both parties get battlefield Rx to staunch the arterial bleeding before proceeding. The key here is making the agreement ahead of time, so that it can be invoked in the heat of the moment.

4. Name that feeling
One option to consider is learning to recognize distress as soon as it emerges in yourself and then reporting on that, rather than lashing out from it. Thus, suppose Person A starts things off with, "What do you mean we need to be leaving for a party in 15 minutes? Why the hell didn't you didn't you tell ahead of time? You know I hate surprises like this!"

Following this guideline, Person B might say in response, "I'm having a strong reaction to what you just said," rather than, "Goddamit, I did tell you last week that the party was tonight!" While there is no guarantee that the first sentence will land less provocatively than the second, it's got a better chance.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Fair Weather Friends

The past two weekends I represented Sandhill at area festivals, peddling our array of organic and tasty food products. Oct 8-9 I was at the Villages of Van Buren Fall Festival in Keosauqua IA. Lats weekend I attended the Historic Folklife Festival in Hannibal MO. While doing fairs is fun and remunerative, it also gives me a chance to observe humanity in action. What a trip!

o It's amazing how many small dogs there are in the world. When you attend country fairs, you get a better sense of it. What's more, only about two in three actually walk; the other third get toted around—to the point where it's not easy to tell who's taking who to the fair. Some travel in their own baby buggy; some in cages affixed to the front of electric wheelchairs; some ride boldly on the shoulders of their owners (the better to see what's coming); and some are tucked discreetly inside shirts or jackets, with just the inquisitive head poking out. I even saw a kid walking around with a stuffed dog being carried in his back pack, with the head jauntily leaning over his shoulder. I guess it's best to train dog toters early.

o More than one customer walked up to the table, pick up a jar of our mustard (which is school bus yellow in color), looked at the label—which has the word "Mustard" printed in bold letters, centered in the middle—and then asked, "Is this horseradish?" It is so hard to not be a wise ass in return. ("No, that's a petrified urine sample from our pet donkey, who died of despair after hearing one too many stupid questions from customers.")

o As sorghum syrup is our premier product, our top FAQ is "What's the difference between sorghum and molasses?" [The answer is that sorghum is a whole product, while molasses is the liquid residue of white sugar manufacture.] I was amused when one young fellow stumbled around trying to find the phrase "blackstrap molasses" (blackstrap is to sorghum as road tar is to motor oil) and the best he could do was ask about "back slap molasses," which, I suppose, is a sweetener so hearty that it induces the ingester to hands-on greetings with everyone they meet.

o While sorghum is just as sweet as honey, the flavor is distinctive and not everyone cottons to it right off. It's our policy to give samples of all our products and this leads to considerable merriment whenever a customer doesn't enjoy what they just put in their mouth. While no one is obliged to buy our products just because they tasted them, it's considered impolite to trash a vendor's offering and it can be awkward for the taster to find the right words to simultaneously express thankfulness for the invitation while conveying authentic displeasure with the experience. Perhaps the best line from last Sunday was a young woman who tasted sorghum for the first time, paused for a moment while her taste buds sent signals screaming to her brain, and then summarized her apologetic assessment with the firm statement, "I don't hate it." After chuckling, I advised her to leave our jars on the table unbought, for those who could muster up a stronger endorsement.

o One of the vagaries of fairs is where your booth is located relative to other vendors. This year in Hannibal we were lucky. The dominant sound near us was the amplified dulcet tones of Mark Holland
's Native American flute music—which is much more congenial then trying to cope with the raucous incitements from the rowdy bunch who hawk cowboy stew (a chili dish cooked with meat scraps) a little bit further down the road. It's exceedingly tiring trying to have conversations with customers while getting periodically drowned out by eruptions of "Are you a hungry buckeroo? Then come on down for some cowboy stew!"

• • •
Autumn fair weekends are a version of retail roulette. It all depends on the weather. This year, we were as lucky as you can get: lovely sunshine and mild temperatures for both days of both weekends. Since sales missed at fair weekends tend not to be recaptured later, good weather can double the income (plus adding considerably to the enjoyment quotient for the people sitting at the table all day). As we've been doing both fairs for decades, we're not always so fortunate. I can recall doing Keosauqua in rain squalls and Hannibal in the sleet—where the vendors outnumber the customers.

Over the years, it's a certainty that you'll get both good weather and bad. Being friends of fair weather is no guarantee that you'll have fair weather—or friends—at the fair. Which makes it all the nicer when we do, and we can devote more time to observing the quirks of humanity, and less on complaining about the quirks of the weather.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Wall Street Redux

After my previous posting (Up Against the Wall Street, Oct 14), I got some push back from readers. Craig Green wrote:

I enjoyed your recent blog reflection on the choice between being a builder-upper or a tear-downer. I'd encourage you to consider Occupy Wall Street to be more of a community building endeavor than your blog suggests. Below is a snip from an article I recently shared with Shannon
[the Virginia community where Craig lives] folks that illuminates a surprising parallel between Shannon meeting process and meetings at Occupy Wall Street!

“You wait till you’re called,” she said. “These rules get abused all the time, but they are important. We start with agenda items, which are proposals or group discussions. Then working group report-backs, so you know what every working group is doing. Then we have general announcements. The agenda items have been brought to the facilitators by the working groups because you need the whole group to pay attention. Like last night, Legal brought up a discussion on bail: ‘Can we agree that the money from the general funds can be allotted if someone needs bail?’ And the group had to come to consensus on that. [It decided yes.] There’s two co-facilitators, a stack keeper, a timekeeper, a vibes-person making sure that people are feeling OK, that people’s voices aren’t getting stomped on, and then if someone’s being really disruptive, the vibes-person deals with them. There’s a note-taker—I end up doing that a lot because I type very, very quickly. We try to keep the facilitation team one man, one woman, or one female-bodied person, one male-bodied person. When you facilitate multiple times it’s rough on your brain. You end up having a lot of criticism thrown your way. You need to keep the facilitators rotating as much as possible. It needs to be a huge, huge priority to have a strong facilitation group.”

Larry Rider wrote:
I think one aspect of the question was about the phenomenon of the self-organizing nature of the movement and the use of facilitation in a large group, not just your personal involvement. Yesterday in Seattle NICA [Larry is president of the Northwest Intentional Community Association] sponsored a Facilitation Training workshop with Tree Bressen. One of the participants was currently in Occupy Seattle, and said there was a need there for experienced facilitators. Do you have any comment on that?

I have three points to make today, this second time around.

First, I'm going to repeat a point I tried to make Friday: I think protest is a valid choice in social change work; it's just not my choice of where to focus energy.

Second, I think it's important that the way you do things be consonant with what you are trying to do. Thus, if you're objecting to a culture that concentrates power in the rich, then it's important that the protesters organize in ways that give everyone a voice, and not just recapitulate the dynamic you're objecting to in the interest of expediency (where protest leaders make all the calls about what to do). From the reports that I've seen, it appears that many of the Occupy groups are making a substantial effort to do just that—which is what Craig & Larry are pointing out. That is, to the protesters' credit, the groups are organizing as temporary communities and making a large effort to operate nonviolently and to pay attention to how they are making decisions. I did not mean for my Friday blog to denigrate this in any way. This is a heartening phenomenon.

Most intentional communities (including mine) make decisions by consensus. I have been a consensus trainer for more than two decades and believe deeply in cooperative decision making. It is not coincidental that much of the pioneering work to adapt consensus from its religious Quaker roots to a secular practice was achieved among antinuclear protest groups in the '70s (see the Clamshell Alliance as an example, or the seminal work of the Philadelphia-based Movement for a New Society). I want to make clear that much important work in community building and understanding cooperative group dynamics has been accomplished among protest groups, and it won't surprise me a bit if further advancement in these areas comes out of the current Occupy efforts.

Third, the energy of protest coalesces around something one is against. When it gels, it's because others agree with your analysis of distress. While I think that protests are sometimes sustained because the protesters come to enjoy and value the experience of working collaboratively with one another, the essence of the protest dynamic is unified energy in opposition. If there weren't a problem, there wouldn't be a protest.

One of the real dangers of protest dynamics is that you can get hooked on the energy of opposing a common enemy. (Think of the bloated military budgets that our government got us to swallow for decades by banging the drums against the evil of the Red Peril: global communism.) I get nervous about bringing people together in opposition because every step you take down that road must be retraced when building solutions—because at the end of the day there are no "thems"; there is only us. If all those faceless enemies are not rehabilitated into real people that you and I can authentically hold within the compassionate circle of humanity, what have we gained? Won't we have simply replaced their monster with ours?

As someone in it for the long haul, I'm interested in what happens after the protesters go home—even if they "win." What, for example, is happening in Egypt right now, after the protesters successfully ousted Mubarek last February? To what extent, if any, have folks there been able to harness that robust protest energy and focus on how to create a more responsive government or a better culture? I don't know. If it's back to business as usual, then it's an opportunity squandered, as another Mubarek will ultimately replace the last one.

Craig & Larry both wrote about the high value placed on skilled facilitators in the Occupy groups. Great. I train facilitators. As much as anything, that's my social change work. If the people I train are inspired to ply their craft among cooperatively-based protest groups, that's fine with me. Good work is only needed everywhere.

Why am I not on the streets facilitating protest groups? Because I haven't been asked. (And, to be fair, because it's not the work I seek.) I learned a long time ago that there's no point in pushing my services on people. The joke in the field of cooperative dynamics is that there's a huge need and limited demand. Since it doesn't make any sense to ram cooperation down people's throats, change work cannot proceed any faster than the invitations. And Occupy Wall Street hasn't called.

Look back at the paragraph that Craig quoted about how the Occupy meetings are being run. It describes in some detail the mechanics of cooperative meetings, but it doesn't describe at all the heavy lifting of skilled facilitation, which is working through strongly held, value-based disagreements in such a way that everyone feels heard and respected in both the process and the final agreement. It's not my sense that there is a surplus of facilitators who can bring that to a meeting—though I'm working as hard as I can to change that.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Up Against the Wall Street

A reader sent me this query the other day:

Okay Laird. Here's your chance. Please comment on the Occupy Wall Street organizing. Organic. Ad hoc. Fascinating. This is a lesson for us all who wish to bring about change. Your impressions please...

This is a good question, and I'm going to give the long answer. I see myself as a social change agent. That is, I dedicate myself to trying to be an influence for positive change in the world. That commitment doesn't particularly distinguish me from others, yet it's foundational for how I make choices about where to devote my energy. As it turns out, knowing that I have that commitment tells you almost nothing about what I do—because there are nearly infinite ways to make a difference.

I went to college during the years 1967-71. That was the height of the Vietnam protest era and I participated in a variety of activities as part of the general foment on campus. I did door-to-door surveying about racism in the middle class Twin Cities suburb of Roseville. I got arrested for joining a sit-in that blocked a draft induction center in Minneapolis. I got together in the
summer of 1970 (just before my senior year and after the spring of student strikes that erupted in response to Nixon's invasion of Cambodia) with other college students that I went to high school with, to talk with groups of angry and upset adults in the Republican suburbs Chicago (where I grew up), explaining why students were striking. (I had a low enough lottery number that it looked like I was going to be drafted after graduation and I was preparing the ground for the Conscious Objector status I intended to seek.)

Having taken the time to digest my various protest experiences over that summer, I recall vividly a conversation I had with classmate Doug Hanson once I was back on campus that fall. He and I played on the soccer team together and we were pausing between wind sprints to reconnect after not having seen each other for 15 months—he spent his junior year studying in Europe and missed the crescendo of campus protests at Carleton.

Doug asked me what I thought about everything that had been happening, and how I fit into it. I told him, "I've gotten clear that I'm more of a builder upper than a tearer downer," and that insight has stayed with me ever since. It was the right question at the right time.

Ever since, this realization has provided important guidance for where I invest my life force. To be clear, it is not my analysis that protesting (nonviolently, or otherwise) is wrong or misguided. Rather, I don't see it as my gift, and it rarely brings me joy. Instead, I've been focusing on what would be better (rather than convincing people how bad things are).

Similarly, I have tried to be deliberate in finding suitable venues for my focus. Once I became solidly rooted in my commitment to community as both a suitable model and a robust vehicle for social change work (that is, community simultaneously is a reasonable way to live—that doesn't diminish the opportunities available to others—and is a terrific platform from which to operate in the world), I can look back over the last 37 years (my tenure at Sandhill Farm) and notice the points at which I intentionally expanded my field of focus to something larger:

o 1974—Sandhill: creating a single viable intentional community.

o 1980—Federation of Egalitarian Communities: working with a network of 6-8 income sharing communities to make common cause.

o 1987—Fellowship for Intentional Community: creating a network for all stripes of intentional communities.

o 1987—Process consulting: working with other cooperative groups to help them function better.

o 1997—Dancing Rabbit buys land three miles away: recruiting an exciting forming community to be neighbors, enriching the social milieu without compromising the integrity of Sandhill as a family of friends.

o 2003—Facilitation training: pioneering a two-year program to teach the essential skills of running high quality meetings (which turns out to also be leadership training).

o 2005—Creating Community Where You Are: explicitly broadening FIC's mission beyond intentional communities.

o 2007—Blog: writing every three days about Community and Consensus.

o 2008—Teaching cooperative economics: expanding my teaching horizon beyond social sustainability.

As expansive as this progression may seem, it has proceeded in an orderly way and there are noticeable limitations. For example, I don't work off continent (I'll never run out of work in North America and this is the culture I know best), I only work in English (the only language I'm fluent in, unless you count algebra, or canoeing) and I've chosen to work outside the political system—not because the political system couldn't use help, but because: a) politicians aren't asking for my help; b) I don't trust politicians to tell me the truth (which severely undercuts my effectiveness as an outside facilitator); and c) I think the surest change is bottom up, not top down. I figure if I can change the nature of how problems are solved at the neighborhood level, politicians will essentially have no choice but to honor the integrated, cross-stakeholder requests that bubble up to government agencies, and get out of the way.

All of which is to say, I feel for the frustration that has fueled the protesters who've taken part in Occupy Wall Street, and wholeheartedly agree with the essentially analysis that our current system is not working well. Yet I don't focus my attention there. I'm a cooperative problem solver (I focus both on problems in cooperation, and on how to solve problems cooperatively) and try to spend as little time as possible complaining.

Mind you, I am not suggesting that we become callous to the pain (what kind of chilling world would that be?); I am suggesting instead that we have to learn how to both respond from the heart—to show that we get it viscerally what people in pain are experiencing— and channel those feelings into the energy needed to craft constructive responses. While there's no doubt that well-timed protest can be a powerful galvanizing force in the world, at the end of the day tearing down—or pushing up against the wall—is never enough all by itself.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Culture Forming in Northeast Missouri

When the two couples that arrived in northeast Missouri in 1974 to start Sandhill Farm, there were hints of alternative culture in the region, but not many and nothing that had any legs.

There was a rumor of a group called Rippey's Orchard located somewhere in the vicinity of Coatsville (on the Missouri/Iowa border northwest of Lancaster), but we were never able to locate them. There were also individuals scattered here and there who were hippie wannabes or early subscribers to The Mother Earth News, but as far as we could tell the nearest other intentional communities were more than 100 miles distant. We were essentially on our own.

We were trying to create a beachhead of cooperative living where there had been none before. (I think of it as the alternative culture equivalent of terra-forming.) While we had some tenuous moments our first five years—where a strong wind might have toppled our resolve to continue—we survived (mainly by a virtue of a potent combination of pluck and luck) and gradually became an established outpost.

As an amusing (in retrospect) aside, I recall our frustration when we had persisted for five years and were hopeful of a much-needed boost in attention from being listed in the 1979 Guide to Cooperative Alternatives, put out that summer by Communities magazine—the most robust directory of communities ever produced—only to discover that we were mistakenly listed as being located in Rutledge, Montana, a town that doesn't exist. As near as we can piece it together, someone unused to translating state postal codes must have thought MO meant Montana. Sigh. I can't tell you how many times we received excited inquiries from people looking for community in Big Sky Country, none of whom ever wrote a second time once we'd explained the mistake. What hurt worse, of course, were the people we never heard from because they'd dismissed our listing because they were looking for something in the Midwest.

In any event, we endured. While Sandhill has always been a small community (which we style a family of friends), it was apparent after two decades in the saddle that we didn't have as much breadth of relationship (choices for both friendships and partnerships) as people needed to thrive. In an effort to address that, in the mid-90s we entered the national sweepstakes to recruit Dancing Rabbit (DR), a nascent ecovillage, to locate near us. With the potent assistance of inexpensive land prices and no zoning, we were successful in our suit, and Dancing Rabbit bought land three miles away in 1997.

From their unpretentious beginnings in a rented double-wide, they have now become 60+ members living in about 20 custom-built eco-residences, with more people expressing interest in joining every visitor period.

When some DR members were unhappy about the community's adamancy about maintaining a high population density, they started the spin-off community of Red Earth Farms, on 76 adjoining acres in 2007. Red Earth is based on a more agrarian, homestead model of land development.

Through the miracle of cellular division, alternative culture is thriving in northeast Missouri. Today, Sandhill has the smallest population of the three communities, and it's a challenge just to keep straight the names of all the members of the tri-communities—much less the names of all the guests and work exchangers that pass through seasonally.

Dancing the Blues Away
While I fully expect more new forming communities to be drawn to the area (it's far easier to continue a successful trajectory than to launch one), I want to focus today's blog on the next major evolution of our collective culture: attracting others to experience alternative culture—not principally because they're prospective members, but because they want a taste, or an inspiration to bring back home. Kind of like going to Lourdes to drink the water. Not because we're holy, but because we're wholly.

This past summer, DR member Rachel Katz commissioned the construction of Casa de Cultura, a facility for events in the ecovillage. Completed on schedule, the inaugural event at the Casa was Off Grid Blues, a weekend dance instruction and performance opportunity Oct 7-9 that attracted 40+ people from all over, included top-notch instructors who donated their time in exchange for travel subsidies and the chance to push the envelope. The weekend was a huge success.

This coming summer, my partner, Ma'ikwe, is putting together a full version of the Ecovillage Design Education course (June 30-Aug 5), using the Casa as her main classroom (when the students aren't out in the ecovillage with their sleeves rolled up, learning by doing). It's notable that she's already getting inquiries from people on both coasts who want to be part of the teaching staff. I figure when you get people on the coasts clamoring to come to the Midwest in order to be on the cutting edge, you know the tide is turning.

Enrollment will be limited to 20, but I predict the course will be fully subscribed before the snow melts—both because northeast Missouri is hot right now (more than can be explained by global warming) and because we can offer this course at significantly lower costs and still compensate the faculty decently, because the cost of living is low here and the overwhelming majority of the faculty will be local.

Amazingly, northeast Missouri is becoming a destination site to experience alternative culture, the better to get off to the right start elsewhere.

Train the Trainers
Looking ahead of the curve, I think our next challenge is to parlay our burgeoning experience in teaching into teaching how to teach. My hope is that northeast Missouri will become a place where people will want to come to learn how to light a fire under others to become more sustainable—preferably before sustainability is thrust upon them. We won't be looking for people to simply emulate what the tri-communities have been doing, we'll be looking for people who want to understand the principles so that they can go home and do it their way, with the resources and people peculiar to their locality.

On the one hand, I'm dismayed at the enormous scale of the challenge ahead (it is overwhelming to contemplate how much energy it will take to turn the global culture sufficiently that our crash against resource limitations won't be catastrophic). On the other hand, I'm buoyed and inspired by how far we've come in 37 short years, such that I have the audacity to think that northeast Missouri may become a beacon of hope to guide us safely through the storm-tossed seas ahead. This may actually occur in my lifetime. Wow. Margaret Mead was right.

Saturday, October 8, 2011


There's a lot of attention these days on the concept of permaculture, but the term is somewhat misleading. It's not like perma press clothing (which never needs ironing) or permafrost (ground so near high latitudes and so far below the surface that it never thaws).

Permaculture has been promoted as an antidote to the dominant culture, which is decidedly impermanent. However, despite what the prefix "perma" suggests, permaculture is not geared toward permanent solutions. Rather it focuses on a steady set of design guidelines, aimed at adapting to changing conditions. While the principles (and questions) remain constant, the answers change with the factors—whether that’s climate, resources, population, or how many dogs are in the neighborhood. Thus, the application of permaculture thinking can lead to surprising array of developments. It’s a rolling reality.

What's intended is achieving a steady-state system, where inputs and outputs are in balance in a way that's permanently sustainable.

Downshift Happens
As we bump up against the limits of natural resources—oil, water, arable land, and many key industrial minerals—something's gotta give. And not just a little bit. Things are going to change a lot. The aim of permaculture is to help people figure out how to have the softest landing possible, where we shift our lives to depend mostly on local and renewable resources, while maintaining the best possible quality of life. This is not going to be simple.

When permaculture first burst on the scene in the 1970s (the principle articulators were Australians Bill Mollison and Dave Holmgren) the main focus was on ecological systems, and how much healthier for all species it was to think in terms of whole systems, such that everything fit together in an interdependent way and minimized outside inputs.

While inspiring, the concept has now been broadened to include social sustainability and economic sustainability. Thus, it's not impressive if you have a spiffy new water catchment system and super insulation on your house, yet nurture a grudge against your neighbor because you're downwind too many days when he's operating his homemade smoker. How sustainable is it if the triple-pane windows you've installed to stop heat loss were only affordable because of the inheritance you got from Great Aunt Betty?

The point here is that permaculture is a three-legged stool and you need all three legs to be strong or you don't have a very useful stool (or a very useful tool, for that matter).

As it turns out, embracing permaculture means embracing change on an unprecedented scale. It means objecting to adversarial dynamics, top-down hierarchies, global markets, materialism, and automatically placing "I" before "we." Figuring all this out is a work in progress. There are hopeful signs (intentional communities are the R&D centers for much of this), yet there is much yet to do. The results are preliminary, and it's clear that good intentions alone are insufficient to ensure success.

Stacking Fictions
One of the core permaculture principles is that it's a good idea to stack functions—figure out how to accomplish multiple goals through a single action.

For example, when we make tempeh at Sandhill, we try to use the oil-rich water that is a byproduct of cooking the soybeans to feed pigs instead of just pouring it down the drain. When we have community meetings, we often do quiet handwork while we discuss issues (labeling jars, peeling garlic, cleaning beans, seed saving, etc—farm work nevers ends and a number of the rote jobs can often be accomplished painlessly while our minds are focused elsewhere). When we thin oaks to improve our forest, we retain the larger chunks for shiitake logs, and use the smaller pieces for firewood. The wood shavings from our planer become just the thing for aerating and carbon balancing the humanure in our composting privy.

Going the other way, when I think about the decaying dominant culture, I believe the principle at work is "stacking fictions." Here are some examples of what I mean:

o Technology will save us
Even allowing for gains in efficiency, and new breakthroughs in nano-technology, there just aren't enough resources for all the world to live at current US standards. And as challenging as it is to figure out how to grow enough food for the Earth's steadily rising human population (nearly one billion more in the last decade), we'll exhausting our natural resources even faster than we're increasing the mouths to feed. I think technology is a good thing, but it's not a panacea.

o Supply side economics
This is the concept that everyone benefits a little if a few at the top benefit a lot, because the rich are the ones who will invest in new businesses more than the poor. There is absolutely no evidence that tax breaks for the rich lead to a better life for the poor. This is simply a myth to deflect attention away from equitable taxation.

o A rising tide floats all boats
Huge fractions of the Earth's population live in abject poverty, and the rich countries are happy to keep it that way. Perhaps not morally happy about it; but economically happy about it. It turns out that not everyone even has a boat, and rising water is not such a good thing if you're treading water. And it may not even be good to be in a boat if the rising tide comes in the form of a tsunami.

o Large farms are more efficient than small ones
It's perhaps true that large farms are better positioned to make the best use of investment tax credits and accelerated depreciation allowances, but they are demonstrably not more efficient in terms of what products can be produced per unit of human input. Large farms are only better at farming the tax code.

o Capitalism is the surest path to ecological solutions
In truth, capitalism is inimical to ecological sustainability. How can it be acceptable that $1 million spent on cleaning up an oil spill and $1 million spent on wind turbines counts the same (because they both contribute equally toward GNP)? It can't be right to reduce everything to dollars pushed through the system. Capitalism is about returning the highest possible returns to shareholders. The higher the interest rates, the more you can discount the future and focus on the short term. We've been steering this country under the influence of this particular strain of myopia for more than two centuries and it's just about time to pay the piper.

o Free trade leads to the most efficient distribution of resources
Free trade allows the markets in rich countries to dictate to poor countries how to use their natural resources, forcing them to devote their precious arable land to luxury crops for the rich markets rather than for feeding their own people—because rich countries can outbid the subsistence farmers for use of the land. How can that lead to a sustainable world? What free markets do is make sure that worldwide economic decisions are made on the basis of what returns the most on investment; not what is most humane or sustainable. Since free trade agreements (such as NAFTA) have been in place, the gap between the haves and have-nots has increased, and it is easier than ever for large corporations to out-source their labor needs, eliminating domestic jobs.

• • •
Let me close with a vignette that's telling on this topic. I was at the annual Fall Festival in Keosauqua IA this weekend, peddling a variety of Sandhill's food products. This event is about 50 miles from our home, and for the past two decades we've been offering a potpourri of high quality, homegrown food to area customers. One of those products is garlic bulbs, harvested from our fields in July. Given that garlic is not difficult to grow, it's somewhat surprising that we can sell very much to the locals. Mostly we grow it for ourselves, and make the excess available at the fairs we attend.

We're currently selling large bulbs for $1 each. A couple came up to our booth today and told me a story of chagrin. Earlier in the summer they'd bought a little net sack containing three bulbs of garlic
at a local grocery store. The bulbs were medium size and cost $2, which is approximately the value that we were offering. After they got home however, they noticed that the garlic had come from China. Yikes! Chinese garlic was successfully penetrating areas of the US market where garlic grows well. How can that be?

Think about how much of the cost of that garlic must be tied up in transportation to ship it half way around the world to a place where it already is locally abundant. This is a small, clear example of free trade run amok, accelerating how quickly we're using up our remaining oil, enabling garlic to be dumped in Iowa. How much money can the Chinese farmer possibly be earning on that sale (given that the shipping company will assuredly not be transporting products at a loss)? This is not market efficiency; this is market madness.

I figure it's about time to permanently change a culture. Or there may not be any left.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Go East, Old Man

In 1851, Indiana newspaperman John Soule admonished the young bucks of his day to "Go West, young man." This appealed to Horace Greeley, liberal editor of the New York Tribune, and he is widely credited with making that advice the catch phrase of Manifest Destiny. Horace was one of the most influential journalists of the American 19th Century and is remembered for more things than his championing of the Soule phrase (not to mention the sole phrase, or the soul phrase) associated with US western migration.

As readers of this blog know, I had recently migrated out West myself to participate in the FIC's Art of Community weekend Sept 23-25, followed by the Fellowship's fall organizational meetings. After completing my work out West, I had started the return journey at dawn Sunday morning in Berkeley, in a van packed to the gills with four people (Ma'ikwe, Ryan, Mandy, and me) commingled with innumerable boxes and luggage (for observations about my outbound trip see my Sept 23 entry, Strong Winds Possible). It's a three-day schlep, covering a hair more than 2000 miles.

Fortunately, we had safe havens for overnight stays in both Utah and Colorado, affording us the much-needed opportunity to unkink each night at low expense. Yesterday, after a hearty breakfast at the Becker residence in Loveland (Bill is the FIC's long-time Treasurer) we motored into the rising sun for the last leg of our trek home. Our loins were girded for a 750-mile trial-by-plains endurance test, across eastern Colorado (the flat part), all of Kansas (the long way), and the rolling hills of Missouri (in the dark). The journey didn't end until I collapsed into my own bed after midnight, bone tired.

Our spirits were high as we departed Loveland and the spectacular panoramas of the Rockies gradually receded from our rear-view mirror—the van had been performing flawlessly and this was to be out last day. We were equally eager to get home and to get out of the car.

About an hour into the drive, Ma'ikwe's cell phone rang. Uh oh. It was a 970 number and the four of us collectively groaned. We were driving in that area code and we figured a call that early in the morning could only mean one thing: we'd left something at Bill's. Ugh. We were already facing an ETA in the vicinity of midnight, and there was absolutely no enthusiasm for the prospect of tacking two hours onto what was already sure to be a looong day to collect whatever it was we'd left behind.

It turned out though that our guess was only partly right. While there had indeed been a packing error, instead of leaving something at Bill's that belonged to us, we'd taken something that belonged to Bill! In fact, we'd accidentally packed his briefcase. Yikes! In our haste for an expeditious departure, Ryan grabbed everything piled in Bill's living room and packed the van while I did dishes. Ryan thought Bill's briefcase belonged to me, and we had no idea what we'd done until the phone rang.

As our doom settled upon us, the mood in the van was not particularly upbeat. Then a miracle happened. Sometimes the Fates smile upon us, and yesterday was just such a day. As it happens, Bill works for Security Service Federal Credit Union and he was scheduled to visit one of their branch offices first thing that day—a stop for which his briefcase would be needed.

Unbelievably, Bill's first appointment was in a building that was less than one mile from where we were when the phone rang. After getting directions relayed from Bill, we merely detoured for five minutes, dropped off his briefcase ahead of his corporeal corporate arrival, and returned to our regularly scheduled drive. Wow!

Somehow, it seemed fitting that this 10-minute tragicomedy was staged in its entirety in Greeley CO, named after you know who. Yesterday, at least, it was exactly right for this old man to be going East, and I know in my heart that Horace is smiling on me from his grave as I journal about it.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Distaff Bullies

Someone anonymously left this message in response to my Sept 20 posting on the Beleaguered Bully:

This commentary hits my community's nail on the head. I would appreciate Laird going into more detail about the objective characteristics of bullying behavior (well studied by social scientists in the last decade) so they can be distinguished from behaviors which are assertive and appropriate. Here there are members who define as "bullying" points of view they do not agree with. It is used as a strategy to discredit the point of view and focus on presumed characteristics of the messenger. In addition, there are some women who almost invariably define men who disagree with them as "aggressive." Some discussion of gender politics would be welcome in these blogs but rarely appear. Why is this?

Nice topic.

First, I'll comment on the phenomenon of people labeling
pejoratively behaviors or viewpoints they don't like. This is a time-honored debate tactic, undermining the integrity and questioning the good intentions of those whose actions or positions are uncomfortable. It's evocative for me of how the term "cult" is often applied to groups that make lifestyle choices that the labeler finds objectionable.

Here's how it works in the instance of cults. Person X doesn't like what Group Y is doing, even to the point of repulsion. Leaving aside that nobody is twisting X's arm to join Y (or questioning whether X has accurate information), X falls into the casuistic trap of assuming that since: a) X doesn't like what Y is doing; and b) X is a thinking person (and who do you know who doesn't see themselves as a reasonable thinking person?); then c) the members of Y are there against their will or have otherwise been brainwashed into thinking Y's practices are acceptable. Therefore, d) Y is a cult.

This breaks down because X rarely bothers to test their hypothesis by actually asking the members of Y what they think, cleverly dismissing this step as superfluous because, after all, the members of Y have already been judged to be befuddled.

In fact, it's damn hard to brainwash people, and what you find—if you bother to look, which the FIC makes a point of doing—is that the people who live in groups labeled cults almost always are there by choice and are at peace with the practices and beliefs that the labeler finds so abhorrent.

The parallel in the case of bullies is that it's tempting to pull out the bully card if you feel threatened by someone's enthusiastic advocacy of a view that differs from yours. Not only is this a proven tactic (the best defense is a good offense), but it may actually be a fair representation of what the labeler feels. The trick here is discerning—in the heat of the moment—how much of what's occurring is attributable to the labeler's anxiety and how much is an attempt by the person with the differing view to pressure others into agreeing with their viewpoint. That is, how much actual bullying is going on?

Bullying is about intimidation and punishing people who object to the bully's position, simply because they object. As clear as that is however, it is not necessarily easy to distinguish bullying behavior from someone who is passionate about their viewpoint. If in doubt, the interesting question is how could the the speaker state their support for a dissenting viewpoint in a way that's both authentic and non-intimidating. It's something to think about.

Second, let's address the phenomonon of women disagreeing with men and how that relates to bullying behavior. In many cooperative groups, there's a feminist analysis that objects to mainstream sexism that favors men. As a consequence, it's not unusual for cooperative groups to adopt a culture that attempts to address this injustice through intentionally treating women differently and more favorably than men. Where this applies, a woman can be complimented for a degree of assertive behavior that a man would be cricized for.

When this kind of reverse discrimnation is in play (please understand that I'm not taking a position here about whether this is a good thing or a bad thing; I'm only observing that it happens), it can work in either direction:

a) If Woman W favors position P, Man M can be accused of bullying simply because he favors position Q (as it may be deemed to be automatically intimidating to W that M stated a different view, because of the sexism prevelant in mainstream culture).

b) Alternately, if Man M favors position P, and Woman W objects, offering the alternate position Q, the group may surge to support W simply because it is a woman objecting to a man (rather than by virture of the strength of W's reasoning or the natural advanatges of postion Q). The strategic concept here is that the group wants to safeguard against the possibility that the woman is intimidated by having to go up against a man, which the group views as an inherently unfair debate. (While this isn't a very flattering reflection of how the group sees the strength of its women, it happens nonetheless.)

Not surprisingly, in cooperative groups that function this way, some women learn to take advanatge of this reverse sexism to press their views when opposed by men. While I think it's an open question whether the benefits of reverse sexism (teaching men to be more mindful, and encouraging women to be more bold) outweighs its costs (enabling sexism to flourish in any form), I think the litmus test is whether the group can discuss the pros and cons whenever someone thinks sexism is occurring.

At the end of the day, the thing that sends chills up my spine is not whether sexist behavior exists—in either direction—but whether the group can openly examine the perception that it's occurring and people's uneasiness with it, without triggering a thermonuclear incident. You can't convince me that not talking about sexism is ever a good sign.