The Call, Column 101 – Designing for Resiliency in the Urban Farm

12 08 2018

(August 12, 2018)

The Urban Farmer

Designing for Resiliency in the Urban Farm

How important is it to design a system to be resilient, as opposed to working to avoid the worst stressors that might test its resiliency and cause it to fail? This was the central question of a particularly interesting conversation in our last meeting of Climate Action RI, the environmental group that I am a part of.

That conversation really focused on the effects of climate change, asking whether we put more effort into infrastructure and other projects – projects that will protect our coasts and people from the worst effects of climate change – or instead, more effort into legislation and other changes to prevent those effects preemptively.

We reached a sort of consensus, somewhere in the middle of the two extremes. But I think this discussion is useful in a broader sense: we can apply it to climate change, but also to urban farming and life in general. That’s what I want to do today.

So what does it mean for an urban farm to be resilient?

To answer that, we first have to figure out what stressors an urban farm might face. A stressor is anything that would challenge the short- or long-term health of the urban farm system, testing the limits of its design and possibly causing it to fail. Pests, plant and animal diseases, neglect, and weather-related stressors (torrential rain, heat waves, drought, frost, etc) are all good examples of these.

There are a set of generally good gardening practices, all of which help to create some level of resilience against the above.

Keeping the soil well-mulched prevents a lot of soil-born diseases, makes it harder for pests to take hold, and creates a sort of time-water-buffer, so the soil doesn’t dry out due to high heat, lack of rain, or neglect.

Installing a basic irrigation system (drip or otherwise) definitely protects against neglect by ensuring the garden gets watered, even if you can’t make time or forget; also, well-watered plants are healthier and more able to fight pests and diseases.

Keeping perennials (and some annuals) well-pruned makes it harder to pests and diseases to proliferate.

These are just a few examples of practices that lead to resiliency in the urban farm. There is a basic distinction that I like to make, between elements of system design on the one hand, and constant inputs from the urban farmer on the other.

Things that are done infrequently, or just at the beginning of the season, like mulching or installing a drip irrigation system, are system design elements. You trade some overhead cost or effort for a higher level of resiliency throughout the life of the system (i.e. one layer of mulch can last for months, and improves the soil while protecting it from the above without constant attention on your part). These are the best types of methods to use (better than others, which require constant input from you), because they, themselves, are resilient against the worst stressor on an urban farm: neglect.

And that sort of brings me to the more general point in this column. In urban farming and beyond, it’s important to try to design our systems to be resilient to our own neglect. I am by no means good at doing this yet, but it is always on my mind when I make decisions and take on projects.

It is oftentimes the case that we are busier, or more tired than we anticipate, and that can mean our urban farms and other projects falter if they rely on our constant input. That’s why things like mulch are great, because they significantly reduce weed growth, pest and disease proliferation, and watering requirements, all of which make the garden more resilient against not only those problems, but against the urban farmer’s inability to monitor those problems.

As you continue caring for your gardens and animals, I urge you to give some thought to what types of methods you can employ to make those systems more resilient. I would love to hear about any specific ideas that you use, or come up with, that I haven’t mentioned here, so please shoot me an email. Until next time, enjoy the much-needed rain.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.

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The Call, Column 100 – Don’t Let the Perfect Be the Enemy of the Garden

29 07 2018

(July 29, 2018)

The Urban Farmer

Don’t Let the Perfect Be the Enemy of the Garden

            Can I let you in on a little secret? I really dropped the ball with my garden this year.

I prepared (well, had the chickens prepare) and mulched the soil pretty early on in the season, for which I will give myself a cold, curt pat on the back. But that’s the last one I get.

Because, since I did that, I have had the busiest few months of my life. My friend and I joined an environmental group, Climate Action RI, and I took on a leadership position; I am part of a few other boards and organizations (DWC and Autumnfest being among the most prominent); I spent a bunch of time lobbying on a few bills in the state house, and as legislative session ended I have begun to help out on five-ish political campaigns; I have traveled a few times this spring, and I’ve actually maintained my social life better than ever before.

All of this, on top of work and other obligations, left me a little short on time, patience, and any shred of motivational energy. So as the spring went on, the weeds took over and the garden went unplanted. And this unfortunate reality wasn’t helped by the fact that the straw that I had used to mulch apparently wasn’t properly heat-treated…so thousands of tall, grassy plants quickly filled the beds where tomatoes and peppers were meant to be.

Needless to say, this left me more than a little overwhelmed. The end of May came much more quickly than I had anticipated (isn’t that the story of getting older, though?), and my garden was in no fit state to be planted. I had a decision to make: do I buy some plants and muster up some as-of-yet unforeseeable burst of energy to plant them (and then do that over and over to maintain the garden), or do I forego the vegetable garden altogether this year, instead focusing on my perennial fruits, chickens, and compost?

Instead of committing, I guess I kind of chose the worst combination of both options (story of my life). I bought a ton of vegetable plants in the first week of June, and did not get around to planting them until two weeks ago…in mid-July.

Ouch. I spent like six hours outside that one Sunday, weeding the entire garden – paths and all – and planting all but two beds with tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and various types of squash, which had all seen better days (like, six weeks earlier when I actually bought them from the nursery). All of that said, though, they have actually grown quite a bit since I planted them, and I will probably start harvesting late in August or early in September. It won’t be a banner year in my vegetable garden, but it will do.

So why the title of this column? What did I learn?

One of the first lessons of this year is that being overwhelmed is a huge, driving de-motivator for me (and probably for a lot of you, too). You can ask my family or any of my close friends (and especially the friend who joined CARI with me): I’ve been a monster in the past couple of months. I have the tendency to spread myself way too thin, in no small part because I have no internal concept of the limitedness of my own free time. This is probably a defense mechanism that my brain developed, since the ticking away of time was the most pronounced stressor that I experienced while growing up (I’m not really sure why).

Whatever the reason though, I have the tendency to say “yes” to everything, and the only metric for whether I have time for something is whether that block of time is already booked in my calendar or not (meals, relaxation, and free time need not apply). This was taken to the extreme in the past few months, and it kind of got to the point where I would be stressed out and triggered by even the thought of quieter, less impactful, “on-my-own” type activities…especially those that required manual labor, like my garden. And so, overwhelm translated to complete lack of motivation.

But the second lesson seems to be that, if we don’t approach activities like gardening with a strive for perfection, it removes a lot of the baggage that can make them so overwhelming. I got to the point where I literally did not have the contiguous block of time I knew it would take to weed my entire garden. And the thought of being out in the summer sun for that long, and somehow moving around or canceling my other (honestly, much more exciting) obligations, all to plant a garden that I knew would ultimately perform pretty poorly given how neglectful I had already been…it all gave me the intense feeling that it wasn’t worth it.

But this year’s garden – like every year prior – could never be perfect. That’s not how nature works. That’s not how urban farming works. That’s not how human endeavors work. I was so sapped of the motivational energy (this is an actual thing, an actual, designated store of sugar in one’s cerebrum that is used to motivate intention, action, and strict adherence to plans) that the fact that my garden would never be perfect was enough reason to just keep neglecting it.

These are things I have to work on. But once I finally dedicated my time, effort, and motivation to actually weeding and planting my garden, it felt really good. Even if I don’t harvest as much as other years, this year’s garden represents a bit of deeper emotional growth. I chose to not let the perfect be the enemy of the good – nor the enemy of the garden – and with each tomato and pepper I eat, I will remember that lesson.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.





The Call, Column 99 – A Radiant Green Speck of Hope

10 07 2018

(July 8, 2018)

The Urban Farmer

A Radiant Green Speck of Hope

The universe is estimated to be about 15 billion years old. The Earth formed about 4.5 billion years ago. The first bacterial life appeared around 3.8 billion years ago, the first animal life around 540 million years ago, and the first human-like primates just a couple of million years ago.

Only 200,000 years ago did the first modern humans evolve, and only around 10,000 years ago did they begin agriculture, and form civilization. And in that short 10,000 years, this species has recorded history, developed math, science, art, and philosophy, and made huge strides in physics, cosmology, and evolutionary biology, so much so that we can accurately be called, in the words of the late cosmologist Carl Sagan, “a way for the universe to know itself”.

And in that short 10,000 years, that species has expanded to a population of 7 billion, covering the entire planet, and exhausting stores of natural resources – fossil fuels, fossil water, fossil topsoil, and even (as I’ve termed it) “fossil atmosphere” – that took the Earth its entire  lifetime to create.

And we’ve done all of this, and created massive technological development which has, among other things, now extended our lifespans beyond what they were prior to starting agriculture, largely using borrowed resources and borrowed time; we’ve done all of this by working our Earth, our land, and fellow members of our species to the point of near exhaustion, so much so that we can no longer be certain of our continued existence on this planet beyond maybe 100 years.

Depending on whom you ask, we owe our entire existence either to the random formation of complex systems during the expansion and cooling of the universe, or to the deterministic sequence of events following the big bang, or to an intelligently overseen creation process.

Whichever of these you believe, we know for certain that the universe began as a single point of light, progressed towards the development of sentient life, and currently harbors beings which are capable of performing science, creating art, experiencing love and sorrow and anxiety, sustaining their own existence indefinitely into the future, and destroying themselves completely in the span of no more than a few days. That’s pretty flipping important.

You are pretty flipping important. You are part of the greatest story ever told – maybe the only story ever told – which has been told for 15 billion years, and is told continuously by the spin of electrons, the making and breaking of chemical bonds, the replication of DNA, the existence of biological life, and the joys and sorrows experienced by every one of the nearly 7 billion human beings that live on this planet.

You are part of the most important experiment in the history of all of existence. A planet-wide…no, a cosmos-wide creation process, wherein by some (we might call it “divine”) mystery, the material world was made able to look back on itself, and experience itself, and know itself. You are the universe, you are the Earth, and your brain is somehow able to understand these things of which it is a part…and worry about them.

And therein lies the rub. The human brain is arguably the first material thing, in the history of all of existence, that is capable of perceiving itself and the Earth and universe of which it is a tiny part, and knowing how to change these things, and having moral and ethical and intellectual and spiritual motivations to try and cause changes. Human beings possess the knowledge of good and evil, and the further we drift from our elemental roots as animals, as hunter-gatherers, we seem destined as a collective group to choose evil.

You are given one Earthly life, and as far as you or I or anyone else knows, every single iota of meaning that can and will ever be attached to your consciousness and free agency and very existence is defined by the things that you use that life to do.

As far as any of us know, we on the surface of this planet are the sole instance of biological life that is, ever was, and ever will be in existence in the universe. Somehow, the material world is able to create and sustain life – big sacks of chemicals, that themselves are capable of love, compassion, goodness, intelligence, and hope. Whether you believe this happened by random accident, or deterministic materialism, or theological design, and whether you believe that this existence has meaning or not, and if so, whether that meaning is intrinsic or made-up, doesn’t really matter in terms of how it affects your basic conduct.

You are part of the most advanced species of the most complex type of chemical system, living on the most intricate planetary surface in the known universe. This may be it: our sole opportunity to get it right, to understand and maintain and preserve and sustainably expand biological life – human life. We may not get another shot, and as I said above, you live at a particularly important moment in history, where we can no longer be certain of our continued existence on this planet beyond 100 years.

We have decisions to make, big ones, and maybe tough ones. Decisions about the collective sacrifice of some of our freedoms – the freedom to be bad, the freedom to take advantage of other people, the freedom to exploit natural resources and destroy natural commons which do not belong to us as individuals, the freedom to act solely and boldly in defense of individual prosperity at the expense of collective prosperity – in order to protect our species as a whole.

We must make those decisions in order to ensure that human greed, 7 billion times over, doesn’t rob the universe of this only known instance of life.

What we do now, matters. And what we don’t do also matters. If we ignore the degradation of topsoil, if we ignore the depletion of freshwater, if we ignore the cries of children in cages and disadvantaged people around the world, if we ignore the destruction of natural landscapes to make way for further development, if we ignore the melting ice caps and warming atmosphere – we have only ourselves to blame when we can no longer take for granted the planet we call home.

We are a way for the universe to know itself. We are a way for the Earth to know itself. We are a way for the topsoil, and water, the air, and the single-celled prokaryotic organisms from which all life originated – to know themselves. And we know that we are collectively choosing to destroy it all.

Environmentalism, conservation, “woke-ness” – these are no longer fringe choices. They are no longer political beliefs (as if they ever should have been). They are moral imperatives. We have no right to destroy this which does not belong to us, and we know enough that we have no excuse to let it happen. We are educated enough, capable enough, and obliged enough to fix the problems we have caused.

Let’s start acting like it.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.





The Call, Column 98 – An Early-Summer Gardening Checklist

24 06 2018

(June 24, 2018)

The Urban Farmer

An Early-Summer Gardening Checklist

Happy Summer Solstice! This is a great time of year: the days are long, the weather is warm, the garden is growing, and the RI legislative session is over so we can start organizing for candidates…sorry, I just had to put that in here for the chuckles. But that’s not what today’s column is about.

It’s primetime on the urban farm, so today I want to talk about a few important tasks that we should all be taking care of in the next few weeks.

  • If you haven’t already, plant your garden. I’ll admit to being very late to plant my garden this year, so maybe we are in good company. But it isn’t too late. We had an odd start to the warm season this year, with a lot of cool days in June and very little rain. Hopefully it will level off for the rest of the summer, so now is probably a good time to plant in anticipation of that. All threat of frost has passed, so all of your warm-season crops – tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, beans, summer and winter squash, and cold-sensitive herbs are fair game.
  • If you haven’t already, prune bramble fruits (raspberries and blackberries). As I wrote about a few years ago, raspberry and blackberry bushes are some of my favorite plants. They require basically no maintenance, and each year they produce a bumper crop of incredibly healthy fruits. They are the epitome of a “Paleolithic crop” (if such a thing even existed).
    The thing is, they also try to take over your yard. They spread via a network of underground roots, with dozens of “new” canes (stems) popping up five or 10 feet from the rest of the patch. Thankfully, you can prune existing canes and pull these new ones pretty much at any time during the growing season, without much of a negative impact on the health of the patch. Remove any canes that haven’t started growing leaves at this point (they are dead), and either pull or mow over newly-sprouted canes that are spread too far beyond the boundary of the patch.
  • Keep your garden mulched and weeded! This is the time of year that you can get ahead of the mulch. The weeds are only just coming out in full force, so if you make sure to keep a nice, thick layer of straw, or grass clippings, or shredded leaves, or whatever you can get your hands on, on top of your garden soil, you can prevent the problem of excessive weeding later on. I mulched with straw this year, which worked great…other than the fact that one of the two bales I put down still had viable seeds in it! So while half of my garden beds are pretty much weed-free, the other half are full of some sort of grain plant.
  • Make sure to water. Rain is sparse and kind of irregular during the New England summer, especially as of late with the effects of climate change. This whole weekend is supposed to be stormy, which made me happy to hear (other than that fact that it limited what activities I’ll be able to do outside).
    If you keep your garden mulched, it will prevent a lot of the evaporation that necessitates watering many times each week. But I still recommend that you water maybe twice a week, especially if it’s been dry. Use your judgment, and base watering frequency on how well the soil has retained moisture, and what the weather looks like it will be in the next few days.
    Also, consider drip irrigation. I have yet to fully install mine, but a drip irrigation system saves you lots of time by watering your garden for you…all while using a lot less water, and spreading it over a longer period so that plants can absorb more of it before it percolates too far downward into the soil.
  • Clean out the chicken coop. If you have chickens, now is a great time to do a very thorough cleaning of the coop. You should be cleaning it out once every few weeks, but completely replacing all of the bedding/mulching on the ground of the coop is best to do before it gets too hot. They will thank you, and hopefully repay you with a bumper crop of eggs!

Clean out the accumulated junk. I’m sure that you, like I, still have seed trays and old plant ties and a whole slew of other materials from last year’s season, still lying around in your garden. It’s so easy to fall into that trap: you plant in May and June, and your garden – and life – get so hectic, and remain that way well into the fall, that you don’t get around to cleaning up the equipment and odds and ends…and then it all freezes over in the winter. And the next spring (or early summer), you’re preparing to plant again, and last year’s trays are still there!
Its ok, we all do it. I made a concerted effort, a few weeks ago, to clean up a bunch of that stuff (and isolated it in one corner, to eventually bring inside). It is definitely cathartic to do this; it makes you feel more organized in your gardening, and also makes it less likely that that stuff will get in your way while you’re planting and taking care of your garden.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.





The Call, Column 97 – Further Thoughts on Saving the World

10 06 2018

(June 10, 2018)

The Urban Farmer

Further Thoughts on Saving the World

I almost hyperventilated this morning. In my 25 years, that’s never (almost) happened as much as in the past couple of months.

You see, I was tending to my chickens outside, and realized how out-of-control my raspberry and blackberry patch has become – sprawling, un-pruned, and way-too-infected by weeds for my liking. And that realization spawned another, bitter thought: how comparatively little time I’ve given to my garden this year. There are so many things that I want to do in my garden, so many things that I “need” to do, but I’ve been so busy with other obligations that I haven’t yet been able to give it the attention it deserves and requires. And then, the heavy breathing began…

Why am I telling you this? In my last column, I waxed poetic on the virtues of saving the world. “Saving the World”…really? The point of that column was to try to deal with some of the anxiety that we as woke urban farmers will absolutely feel while trying to both contribute positively to the collective (environmental) good, and also enjoy our own lives…after first, of course, doing those mundane things required to keep ourselves alive. I never pretended to be an expert, but the two weeks since I wrote that have made it abundantly clear how my personal exploration of this topic is both incredibly important to my wellbeing, and ironically, woefully infantile. And also how important that exploration probably is to all of you.

So today, I want to talk about sustainability efforts as expressed by two distinct types of actions: individual/lifestyle changes on the one hand, and collective/legislative/political/community-wide changes on the other. I will preface this discussion with my view that both have a place in our society and each of our lives, but I think we need a lot more nuance in how we talk about, approach, and allocate time to these efforts.

What are the individual changes I’m talking about? These are things like switching to LEDs and other energy efficiency retrofits in your own home, buying sustainably-grown food, turning off lights and water when not in use, recycling, composting, gardening, refraining from creating plastic waste, etc. You get the picture.

They are the sustainability-oriented actions which make us feel the most accomplished – they require the most effort and time, produce the most tangible results, and make us feel more intimately connected with the systems we wish to change for the better. And relative to the 350 million people in the United States, and the 7 billion people in the world, these actions in isolation produce basically no positive effect towards our species’ move to sustainability…Ouch, bet you didn’t see that coming.

What about the collective changes? These are actions in the political and societal realm – lobbying for legislation, voting and otherwise working towards the election of environmental leaders, protesting, contributing to environmental lobbying and action groups, urban farming on a wider community scale, and volunteering. These actions likely produce the most positive change for the time/money/effort spent, but with the exception of volunteering, there is often no concrete, tangible outcome to celebrate. And so effort towards collective change can often leave us feeling empty or unaccomplished. Double “ouch”.

So what are we to do? How should we allocate our time on individual versus collective change, and how can we derive meaning from both? And what does that have to do with my unkempt raspberry bushes? Glad you asked.

The topic of this column was inspired by a couple of different things: an article that I encountered a few weeks ago, about the best solutions to climate change; a couple of very deep conversations with my close friend; and, naturally, a Facebook post about food waste and “sustainability-shaming”. I’ve been thinking a lot about this as of late, and it has actually sort of shifted and fine-tuned my views.

One initial comment, from that Facebook post: “sustainability-shaming”, valuing someone’s commitment to sustainability based on how well they recycle and efficiency-retrofit their home – is ineffective, classist, and ignorant of the actual problem. Climate change and environmental degradation are industry-level problems. You, reading this, did not cause climate change. Your neighbor, who works two jobs and doesn’t always have time to separate her recyclables, did not create the landfill. And your grandfather, who uses an entire bag of salt every time it snows, is not causing soil degradation.

Environmental problems are structural problems, largely perpetuated by the fossil fuel and other industries who stand to gain from (to quote that same friend from above) “internalizing profits and externalizing losses”. The fossil fuel industry’s business model relies on freely polluting the global environment – with particulates, NOx and SOx pollutants, and of course, fossil carbon dioxide – while making money off of you, a necessary consumer of energy who likely cannot reasonably produce it yourself. You, and your neighbor, and your grandfather were simply born into, and more-or-less have to participate in, this incredibly damaging economy. Be wary of anyone who frames environmental issues on the individual scale, because the very industries causing the problems stand to gain by making us blame each other.

Now, our approaches to change-making – the use of our time, money, and personal energy on things beyond our individual happiness – are influenced by two very different motivations. The first is efficiency: which actions produce the most positive change for each dollar, minute, or unit of psychological wear-and-tear they consume? The second is gratification: which actions make us feel most accomplished, give us the best “warm, fuzzy feeling” inside, and satisfy our deep desire for tangible outcomes as the result of our expenditure of money, time, and effort?

Ultimately, it is your personal values, socioeconomic situation, and mental/emotional/spiritual state that should inform how much you weigh each of these motivations, in deciding how to spend your “saving the world” resources. If you are already burned out – from trying to save the world or anything else – it may be better to focus on more actions that produce gratification (individual-level changes) to help alleviate that. If you are just starting out, or find yourself with more than enough time and energy, it may be better to focus on more efficient actions (collective changes). But most of us lie somewhere in between.

In fact, I made a pretty remarkable realization while writing the above: if your goal is to maximize the positive effect you have on the world, it may actually be necessary to divide your time between effective collective action, and gratifying individual action. Wait, what?

I think it may be something like a bell curve, where the extreme left side is hyper-focus on collective action, resulting from the efficiency motivation, and the extreme right is hyper-focus on individual action, resulting from the gratification motivation (any correlation to the political left and right is completely unintentional). Let me explain why.

If you hyper-focus on only efficient actions, especially ones that don’t produce adequate levels of personal gratification, you will probably burn yourself out. So while that next hour or dollar or ounce of emotional drive might be most efficiently spent at another protest or legislative hearing…if doing so then means you then have to sit in your car for an hour, screaming and swearing about how imbecilic certain politicians can be and how climate change is going to be our species’ downfall and we aren’t doing enough about it (definitely not speaking from personal experience or anything)…you aren’t really maximizing your positive effect. Alternatively, while the next hour or dollar or ounce of emotional energy might be most meaningfully spent watching Food, Inc with your vegan club for the 16th time…you aren’t really maximizing your positive effect.

Do you see my point? The truest, most effective way to save the world lies somewhere in the middle of that bell curve. Spend enough time on efficient, collective action to produce results that you often won’t see, but enough time on gratifying, individual action to motivate you to keep trying. I firmly believe that there is a balance that each of us can strike, which will keep us happily saving the world for the rest of our lives.

So that brings us full circle, right back to this morning’s almost-panic-attack. Do you want to know why my berry patch has become so unkempt? Because I have spent a HUGE amount of time in the past few months on collective action, towards climate change and other issues that are important to me. Judging by the fact that a few weeds (like many other things these days) had the effect of making me want to flee into the woods and live as a hermit…I think, maybe, I’m not doing enough of those gratifying, less-efficient actions, like sitting and watching my chickens fight each other over a worm for half an hour. If that’s what it takes to be willing to get up tomorrow and engage again in the political realm, then maybe that’s just what the doctor ordered.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.





The Call, Column 96 – How to Save the World

27 05 2018

(May 27, 2018)

The Urban Farmer

How to Save the World

There is something that most of you probably don’t know about me: I am an amateur painter. It started almost two years ago, when I signed up for a painting class at Michaels, at my mom’s suggestion. The second my brush hit the canvas, I fell in love.

I loved the subtleness of the techniques; I loved how I could convey feeling and emotion simultaneous to physical imagery through just the bristles of a paintbrush; I loved the power that I felt, being able to turn tubes of paint into art; and I loved how all of this combined, allowing me communicate so deeply with anyone who might see my finished work, even long after I’m dead.

This new passion, made on the coattails of my prior discovery that spoken and written words had value beyond just communicating facts, quickly formed the basis of my newfound appreciation for the power of art in all of its manifestations.

I have gone to these classes pretty regularly in the time since, and have painted a lot on my own. Then, sometime in mid-April, I found out that the instructor who taught me everything I know would be giving her last class.

This was sad, of course, but I was excited for Sylvia, since the decision was made as the result of some good changes in her life. And for our last, celebratory class, she decided we would do something a little different – painting on wooden signs, instead of canvas. I distinctly remember how important the decision felt, about what I should paint…I sat there for at least 10 minutes just thinking, while the others had already started fleshing out designs. And finally, I decided on a simple phrase, “Save the World”.

Now, it’s probably obvious to you that I spend a fair bit of my time working on various projects with the loose, underlying intention of fostering positive change in the world. But that moment, making the decision about what to paint and meditating over the idea as I actually painted it, was the first time I was able to really conceptualize this basic motivation of mine, the driving force that has increasingly compelled my passions and decision-making in the past couple of years.

I was very happy with the final product (depicted), and decided to give it as an “Earth Day present” to my friend Joe, with whom I share a lot of similar philosophies, motivations, and involvement in world-changing activities. But I also replicated it and hung a copy in my room, above my bed.

I have to say, this simple sign is hands down the most thought-provoking, emotionally-fulfilling thing I’ve ever made. The emotional basis for this sentiment has been swirling around the dark, deep ether of my mind for at least the last nine months, and it took this artistic expression of this nominally simple phrase to make me understand how truly, principally important it is to me to…Save. The. World.

That’s kind of an unrealistic request of oneself, don’t you think? It harkens back to this quote that I really identify with, by E. B. White:  “I get up every morning determined to both change the world and have one [heck] of a good time. Sometimes this makes planning my day difficult.”

And now, after 500 words of introduction, we’ve finally arrived at the main purpose of this column. How do we balance doing 1) the things we need to do, in order to keep ourselves alive, with 2) the things we want to do in order to seek fulfillment and happiness in life, with 3) any additional efforts to solve problems bigger than the confines of our own lives…to “save the world”, or at least to try? And how do we “try to save the world” at all?

I’ll be honest with you, this is still something I’m figuring out myself. So let’s first deal with those activities that we need to do in order to live. I’m the absolute last person to succumb to the flawed, boomer-era definition of that list – it certainly does not include manicuring our lawns, watching any TV, any form of conspicuous consumption (new cars or otherwise), or climbing the corporate ladder.

Rather, our basic survival is predicated on having access to adequate food, water, shelter, (arguably) clothing, energy, physical movement, and community. Barring exceptional circumstances, this list translates into a modern life in which we: work, in order to buy those things and create financial stability; perform minimal life-maintenance tasks like shopping, cooking, cleaning, and bill-paying; exercise; and maintain basic social relationships. Other than the last one, I firmly argue that we must minimize the amount of our limited time on Earth – not to mention our emotional and spiritual energy – used to perform these activities, at least in such a way that we can still gain most of the benefits of them. (Read the poem “Dust if you Must”, if you want a tear-jerking reason to believe what I’ve just written)

So, good: we’ve gotten that out of the way and can talk about more important things. Once we’ve done the minimum necessary to keep ourselves alive, how do we balance seeking happiness, fulfillment, and meaning, with putting in effort to try to save the world?

I don’t know. You don’t know. No politician, or doctor, or mechanic, or pastor really knows. But our life experiences, and the experiences of others, can help us to try to figure that out. First, let’s talk about what these activities actually are.

“Seeking happiness, fulfillment, and meaning” is pretty subjective. For me, those activities include spending quality time with my friends and family, traveling, spending time outside, being part of the process of producing my own food, reading, writing, painting and other forms of art, listening to music, building things, learning about and discussing ideas, engaging in progressive activism, and my theology. For you, the list may be completely different, but it’s a good thing to be explicitly aware of it for yourself.

On the other hand, there exists a good, if not incredibly generic definition of what it means to “try to save the world”. There are many well-defined problems in the world – environmental degradation, institutional discrimination and racism, systemic poverty and income inequality, excessive war, human rights violations, the existence of oppressive political regimes…the list could go on and on, and I would argue that most or all of this stems from fundamental flaws in the political and economic systems that we’ve allowed to control our societies. There is also the vague problem of general unhappiness, discontentedness, anxiety, and lack-of-fulfillment experienced by many of the people on Earth. (See how I just brought that full-circle?)

“Saving the world” can take the form of 1) uncovering and making known the problems which exist; 2) seriously discussing solutions; 3) working towards fixing the problems; 4) working towards putting in place systems which prevent these and other problems from arising again; and 5) creating things which add to the general richness and meaningfulness of peoples’ lives (to address that last problem above).

Journalism, getting involved in politics, making art of any form, protesting, lobbying for good legislation, community organization and involvement, conscious decision-making, any profession where you help people directly, engaging in sustainable production (full-scale and urban farming for example), philosophy, protecting wild spaces, volunteering, turning your thoughts and prayers into action, sourcing your food and other products from sustainable production models, being a good person…these are all examples of actions we can take to help save the world.

For a second, try to consider your personal list of things which bring you happiness, fulfillment, and meaning. It’s pretty likely that some of them overlap with this list of world-saving actions, huh? I know quite a few of mine do…and that isn’t an accident.

My recommendation, for balancing personal contentment with saving the world: find things that do both! I’ve taken to calling this “stacking”, and truly I’ll tell you, it has made me a lot more productive as a person. My work with political campaigns and organizations is both personally fulfilling (I am energized by public speaking and the social capital gotten from this involvement) and also helps to improve the world. Spending time outside, working in my garden or with my chickens, brings me an elemental happiness…and also contributes to the sustainable production of the food I eat. The creation of my paintings is emotionally fulfilling…and each of the (thus far, few) instances where I give one to someone, it is a form of solution #5 above.

Some other recommendations: For activities which cannot be “stacked”, you have to make a personal assessment of the relative values of enjoying yourself versus saving the world, and divide up your time accordingly; focus some of your effort on making positive change as part of a group, since it is generally easier than doing so as an individual; recognize that certain save-the-world activities are more effective towards the ends that you personally value than others, and choose appropriately.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.





The Call, Column 95 – The Mysteries of Nature

13 05 2018

(May 13, 2018)

The Urban Farmer

The Mysteries of Nature

Today’s column is a little different than my normal ones. It was inspired by an interesting series of events, starting around the time that I got back from my trip two weeks ago (I went to London and Paris with my friends).

If you remember back a few months, to my column about the human circadian rhythm, I mentioned that I’ve suffered a bit from Seasonal Affective Disorder. Well, between the winter, not spending too much time outside in the early spring, and being under circadian-disrupting blue lights all day, every week day, the SAD sort of persisted a little longer than I would have liked this year.

That is until I got back from my trip. The weather had finally broken, and I could feel my soul singing – at the feeling of the warm sun, at the circadian-realignment, and at the blossoming of the natural world around me. I kid you not, when I say that it felt like I woke up from a particularly unpleasant, 3-month sleep.

That was the week of April 30th. Fast-forward to last Sunday, when I went to a May Day festival in Tiverton that my friend was taking part in. Now, you can probably guess that the leftist/union undertones make May Day quite an appealing holiday for me. But beyond that, the naturalistic, (dare-I-explicitly-say-it) Pagan elements of the festival really lit up my soul as well. I could feel the intimate, spiritual connection that the people there had with Nature, and I could feel that connection in my own right.

And then, there was work this past week. After having been away for just 8 days, I was stunned upon returning, at how quickly all of my favorite early-season perennials had made their appearance. So this past Monday, I decided to cut some of my grandfather’s abundant, many-years-old, perennial spearmint, and bring into work. This was partly in celebration of spring, partly in personal continuation of the May Day festival, and entirely because I’m a (paleo) granola-crunching hippy that likes to make sure everyone around me knows of my unabashed, enthusiastically un-Western affinity for the natural world.

When my friend liked the mint and took a couple of stalks for his own desk, I decided that I would make it “a thing”. So Tuesday, I brought in lemon balm; Wednesday, oregano; Thursday I forgot; and Friday, lilac and wisteria flowers. It was pretty invigorating, to have those good smells, and something green and living sitting in front of me all day. And equally as thought-provoking, was watching the once-living plants slowly wilt over the course of the day, knowing that their ultimate destination was the compost pile, and all of the potential for rebirth that exists there.

I realized that my week-long custom was reminiscent of the original, pre-Christian one that we now call the Christmas tree. Pagans would take in trees and other plant material during the winter, both to keep the (natural) plant energy alive and in the process reinvigorate their homes.

So, you’re probably wondering where I’m going with all of this…

I’ve recently become very interested in some of the less-scientifically-rigorous, difficult-to-prove ideas that people use to explain the world around them. Things like personality tests and classifications, the horoscope and other facets of astrology, and “spiritual connections”, both interpersonal and between human beings and the natural world.

I’ve always had some sense of, and respect for these beliefs, but over the past year I’ve really started paying attention to how seemingly effective they are at describing the world around us. I’ll likely be tarred-and-feathered both by my Christian friends and my science-minded friends for saying this: but, I’ve basically decided to be open to – and even embrace – the possibility that certain ideas can be used as accurate descriptors of the world around us, even if there isn’t science to support them, and they are not directly the teaching of the biblical writings, and the Son of God, that I very much do still follow.

Now, in between imaginary bricks getting launched at my head for publishing the last two paragraphs, I want to try to justify all of this from the very (in my view) convincing perspective of biological- and environmental-consciousness.

Nature is very, very, very, very complex. It is the one thing shared by every human being, every living creature, every religion, and every recognized scientific fact that has ever existed…and yet there is still so much that we don’t know about it. And here, I mean both “nature”, as in the entire universe, and “nature” as in the ecosystem on planet Earth. (The shear, not-fully-understood complexity of Earth’s ecosystem is why I have and will always argue against our ability to effectively, sustainably colonize another planet, at least in the long-term. We will probably never know enough about how the ecosystem works, and how our bodies depend on interfacing with it, to recreate it correctly…which is all the more reason to STOP DESTROYING THE ONLY PLANET WE HAVE.)

Whether you view the natural world as the product of fully-knowable, naturalistic, cosmological processes, or as a divinely-created and –maintained mystery, or (as I would passionately argue) both at the same time…you need to recognize that not everything you know or believe about it is everything that there is to know or believe.

That last statement is absolutely, unabashedly true, in the case of every single “you” who is or ever could read this column…including the one writing it. And that is the basic foundation that allows for the newfound openness to less-than-obviously-supportable ideas that I professed earlier on.

A study, performed a few years ago, found a distinct increase in mental calmness when participants were exposed to views of natural landscapes, as opposed to views of artificial (built) ones. Do we know why that is? Nope. Does that make it any less true…? Does the fact that we do not know the specific visual and neurological processes by which a natural setting is interpreted as safe, and the evolutionary reasons for that…or the fact that the Bible doesn’t (explicitly) say anywhere that our highest mental peace is achieved in nature…does any of that make it any less true?

Does the experience of basically every human being on this planet mean nothing, simply because neither of the two most accepted methods by which we come to understand the world around us can produce internally-consistent justification for that experience? Nope. Nope. Nopety-nope.

See what I mean? If we go back to the circadian rhythm discussion, I’ll reiterate the fact that our brains – and the entire biosphere – literally align themselves to the flipping solar system, for God’s sake! We don’t understand much of how that works, or the extent to which is affects us and every living thing on Earth…but it’s real. And from a practical perspective, if I see n=1 anecdotal evidence that some negative health effect is related to circadian dysrhythmia, and seems to be alleviated by more exposure to the sun, then that’s what I’m going to do…even if no neurology textbook and no verse of scripture tells me to.

As far we know, we are part of the most complex bit of chemistry-magic that has ever existed in the Universe. So when some piece of commonly-held wisdom, or some observation by someone other than a scientist or priest seems to accurately describe something in Nature, including and especially when that belief lends itself to the idea that there is some inherent spiritual, neurological, cosmological, energetic, divine,…natural connection between all human beings, and between human beings and the ecosystem and universe in which they exist…I’m now, more than ever, inclined to believe it.

And speaking of Earth being the only home human beings can and will ever have, global climate change is still a thing that needs to be fixed by the people that caused it. This coming Tuesday, May 15th, around 4pm, the House Finance Committee will be holding a public hearing on the Energize RI bill, one of the most effective ways to fight climate change that we have. The hearing is in the State House, Room 35. I encourage you all to come, and testify if you feel up to it. Email me for more information.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.