Showing posts with label indigenous peoples. Show all posts
Showing posts with label indigenous peoples. Show all posts

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Stephen Gaskin 1935-2014

"Eventually, Stephen will be reborn as a great oak, standing atop this knoll."

Stephen Gaskin, at The Farm in 2013
I heard a voice from heaven, saying unto me, Write, from henceforth blessed are the dead which die in the Lord: even so saith the Spirit: for they rest from their labours.
— Book of Common Prayer (1662)

As the trailing “mmmm” in my ahhhAAauuuuMMmmm moving slowly from the back of my throat forward to pinched lips dissolves into the chorus of birds and tree frogs I am left again in their raucus company, listening only to my breath and their voices. It is difficult to rise from meditation here in this beautiful spot, so I have begun noting my thoughts.
It is one week today since The Farm bid goodbye to Stephen Gaskin. I am seated in a forest glade at the highest point on the western Highland Rim of Middle Tennessee — 1120 feet above sea level. The sun has just risen and the forest is alive with birdsong and butterflies.

I remember this place from 40 years earlier, when it was open field and we were cultivating it for wheat, corn and soybeans. I drove the two-horse cultivator here. In 1973 I moved off Schoolhouse Ridge, where Stephen was my closest neighbor, up to Hickory Hill, a short hike from where I’m now sitting. The oaks there, top-graded in the 1940s, are now bigger than two people can stretch around and touch hands.

The birdsong here is very diverse. It’s an emergent forest and these trees are no more than 30 years. The self-selection, after The Farm quit commercial agriculture in the mid-1980s, favors flowering varieties like dogwood, wild cherry, juniper and sumac, efficient resource scroungers in these ridge-top soils and part of the early succession stage that is reclaiming Shoemaker Field. Species common in early seres – growth rate maximized (R-selected) – usually focus on rapid extraction of resources and intense photosynthetic production even at the cost of efficient nutrient use. These colorful, scented and attractive pioneers will be replaced later by a more stable and balanced (K-selected) sere of locust, ash, sourwood, oak and hickory, much as we see on the other ridges. The bacterially dominant soils, useful for crops of vegetables and grains, will give way to fungal-dominant soils, and these speedy pioneers will be shaded out, die and decompose to provide space and supplies for succession.

All things garden. The rains will remove the traces of the clay that’s been turned when the grave was dug. Small saplings will send their roots down to consume any nutrient value in his body. Eventually, Stephen will be reborn as a great oak, standing atop this knoll, just near the summit of what the geodesic map calls Mt. Summer.

From Living on Earth by Alicia Bay Laurel
It was almost exactly 43 years ago this week that I stretched out on a giant boulder in Tuckerman’s Ravine in the White Mountains of New Hampshire and began turning the pages of Monday Night Class, a collection of transcripts of Stephen’s talks from 1967-70 published by a San Francisco co-op called Book People. What struck me as I read through the un-numbered, purple-inked pages was less about the philosophy or the Haight Ashbury scene than about a deeply penetrating sense of “these are my thoughts,” and “somebody has been having the same take on it as I do,” and “this guy is really good.”

A year later I was doing a through hike of the Appalachian Trail (a similar experience to that of Cheryl Strayed in Wild, soon to be a Reese Witherspoon film) and decided to stop at The Farm. I never left. I am here still. And the reason is something very close to what happened to me reading Monday Night Class. I was struck by how familiar it seemed. How right.

In a way that succession from R-sere to K-sere is an apt metaphor for The Farm and its relationship with Stephen. When we were probing for a way out of the militaristic mindset of the ‘50s, the exploitive brainfog of the adolescent ad age, with nihilistic consumerist growth madness auguring planetary ecocide, we found in Stephen amazing attributes of clarity, charisma (not a word he would've condoned), courage and willingness to step up to leadership and point us all towards a saner way to be, collectively. We pioneered, like weeds in barren soil, and birthed a new culture. We forged a steady-state, bioregional alternative to petrocollapse and the Venus Syndrome. We made it work, and we made it fun.

But that early stage of pioneering is no more sustainable than trying to live in a lifeboat. The juvenile growth phase is characterized by rapid morphological change (settling the land, building roads, water systems, schools, homes, businesses, etc., fighting off predators, and consuming your seed matter (our inheritances, our youth, our cheap fossil sunlight). For us, the limits to growth were slammed into by the early ‘80’s, and we found ourselves still inextricably tied to the larger economy (hospitals, energy, commerce, taxes), mired in debt (in no small measure from Stephen’s fearlessness — example: when on impulse he purchased a lemon semitractor-trailer without adequate inspection — and the Farm mechanics awarded him a Golden Bolt).

Historian Donald Pitzer has called what we experienced “developmental communalism.” Having a shared purse and not keeping score works great for R-sere societies, but once they have established they cannot keep growing without overrunning both resources and patience. At some scale they become less governable and corruption creeps in.

We had overgrown our rudimentary infrastructure and reached a crossroads — go back to something smaller and more pure by way of quaint example, or tune in, step up, and try to change the world by up-blending. As a rural commune we had made too many claims on underlying resources — a reckoning was required. Whether we wanted to be more mainstream or not, it had to happen. Given the mounting debts and legal threats, we could not keep the land otherwise. In 1984 we had our “Changeover” that revised the agreements. It was a new deck of cards.

When I first arrived in November, 1972, Stephen and his entourage were just leaving on a speaking and book/album launch tour. I spent most of that winter experiencing the trials and tribulations of an experimental community that did not have, nor seem to need, much leadership or organization.
I would say one of my perennial disagreements with Stephen was over his strong antipathy to organization. It was evident to me, as a young paralegal eager to see everything made legally robust and bulletproof, that Stephen was determined to undermine anything that smacked of central authority or codifed rules. He did not want community by-laws or covenants, but eventually allowed me to gather up our “agreements,” so we could list those in the Supreme Court appeal about cultivation of marijuana for religious use (the appendix appears in a book published as The Grass Case). It took more than ten years before we eventually formed a “Constitutional Committee” to draw up by-laws for The Farm.

The Supreme Court brief has a delightful hippy flair, describing the agreements of the religious society and showing early pictures of the community. Stephen, as head of his own legal team, insisted that no "legal technicalities" be employed in the defense strategy, even though he might well have been acquitted on the unlawful warrant and bad search. Instead, as the brief illustrates, he wanted to tell the "system" simply what the truth of the matter is — that government has no business interfering with how people come to God. He gave a year of his life — behind bars, in prison — for the privilege of raising the point in that way.

Like any man, he made mistakes, sometimes catastrophic, with consequences that affected the many who relied on his judgment. He excelled not just in strong leadership but in boneheaded stubbornness, which might work well in situations requiring courage under stress, but not when what is needed is to anneal energy in a fractious group. Stephen was just a man. But what an extraordinary man he was. When he died the remembrances came cascading in.

In Stockholm, Right Livelihood Award Founder Jakob von Uexkull reflected,

"Stephen Gaskin received the first Right Livelihood Award in 1980 for the work of PLENTY International. The name says it all: Stephen believed that there is plenty for all if we share. PLENTY aid projects have been very effective because they were run by people who understood the differences between misery, poverty and voluntarily living simply from personal experience. Stephen represented a different, hopeful vision of America. He has inspired several generations by showing how materially simple and spiritually rich lives are possible today and can guide us to a sustainable future."

Manitonquat (Medicine Story) said Stephen, whose Right Livelihood Award was in part for his work with indigenous peoples, was a "pioneer thinker and inspiration in our work to change the world by way of more human, more compassionate communities consciously created and fashioned to activate our human need to be helpful and make life more wonderful for all people."

Mark Madrid, a long-time resident of The Farm and part of the Muscogee Nation in Oklahoma, said:

“In our Mvskoke culture, there is the Micco (the one) the Empv'nvke (the Speaker) and the tvs'tvnvke (Security/ Enforcers). He was the Speaker, voicing the peoples mind.”
Dan Sallberg wrote:
“It was January, 1971 and I was 21 years old. My daughter was a month old. I was unemployed. We were living on welfare and food stamps. I volunteered to be a receptionist at the Pasadena Free Clinic, just for something to do. I found an interview with Stephen Gaskin in a copy of Mademoiselle Magazine. I’m pretty sure it had something to do with the school-bus caravan lecture tour. I know I read the whole interview. I forget most of it. But there was one part that changed my life forever. Mr. Gaskin advised anti-establishment hippies to get off welfare and stop mooching off the establishment, and to get involved in positive, alternative activities that would create a better world. A month later I was the graveyard dishwasher and janitor at a 24-hour a day vegetarian restaurant called H.E.L.P. (Health through Education creates internal Love which manifests Peace within) Restaurant on the corner of 3rd and Fairfax in Los Angeles. Three months later we got off welfare. I stayed in the natural foods business for another 15 years until it outgrew me and I eventually became a math and science teacher for students with special needs. Thank you, Stephen”
Apple Co-founder Steve Wozniak said:
"In every walk of life we take care of each other and owe all that we achieve to friends and family. How we treat other humans is much more important than creating products and wealth. Our principles in life should always be much more important than that. As much as we can teach others, our actions and examples pass on the goodness in our heads to others. Thank you for inspiration at a critical time in my life when I was deciding what sort of person I wanted to be."

Martin Holsinger, now a radio show host in Nashville, said:

“The Farm as ‘Stephen’s family monastery’ for all its imperfections, was the best home I ever had, an experience I have been trying in vain to recreate ever since it came unglued in the early 80’s. Thank you, Stephen, for helping me and so many others live in a better world, even if only for a few years, and thank you for pointing me to Buddhism, which in so many ways has carried on the changes in me that you helped initiate. Thank you for my first marriage, for my children, my grandchildren, and my soon-to-be great grandchild. My children, and their children, are here because of you. Thank you for encouraging me to maintain a friendly but uppity attitude towards authority/mainstream culture. I am who I am because of you, and I have always been grateful to you for that.

Lois Latman recalled:

“One thing I remember about Stephen is him giving away two houses that the construction crew built for him and his family in the early 70's. The first one that got built on second road, he wouldn't move into, but gave it to a group of single mothers. The second one, Kissing Tree, he gave to my Uncle Bill and his caregivers. Stephen remained in an army tent with his family, which he eventually replaced by a house on the same site. He did not want to live above the means of the rest of the community.”

Elizabeth Barger, who publishes The Farm Freedom Press, wrote:

“Many of us remember that he said he was not “the leader” but a teacher who might teach us something that would be useful to us. I think he did that a while ago. The Farm has been moving forward for some time since his retirement. The teachings are good and the spirit is strong. The place we call The Farm remains as a growing marker for the experiment to continue.”

Spider Robinson, science fiction author, wrote:

“Stephen spent most of every day scheming ways to make this world a better, kinder place—with an unusually high success rate. I consider him one of the wisest, most compassionate men I’ve ever met, and the most generous. Without him Jeanne and I would never have been chosen Celebrity Judges for the 2001 Amsterdam Cannabis Cup, one of the happiest gigs we ever had, and the first time we ever seriously impressed our daughter with her parents’ fame. Our own Nova Scotia commune, the Moonrise Hill Gang, basically existed because a bunch of us had heard about what Stephen was doing, and wanted to emulate it ourselves.  It didn’t work because we had no Stephen.

“But I suspect we may have to wait awhile before someone emerges to become the next Stephen.

“He was one of the best human beings I ever met, flawed like all humans, but fundamentally good to his shoes, and unless we get really lucky, we won’t see his like again soon.”

The “newsers,” as Stephen would call them, as usual, got the obits wrong. Some, like The Tennessean and the Washington Post landed not far from the mark. The Post quoted Stephen saying of the Changeover, “I’m a beatnik. I honestly liked it better when it was a circus… But I also like being solvent.” Others, like CNN and The New York Times were wildly disrespectful, hammering on the 1971 drug bust (ironically, since Tennessee recently became the 4th US State to legalize marijuana cultivation), the number of Green Party votes he got in the Presidential primary, or other distractions. In all, more than 100 newspapers around the world ran stories.

Those who knew the man well knew his heart was as big as the moon. You don’t have to take my word for it. Here is a short video clip from 1974. (If it doesn't display properly, go to

I think watching this video in the community center at Sunday services, just following the meditation, was the peak for me of many powerful experiences of the past weekend. Being someone who does public speaking now I am always watching moves and picking up on technique. That short talk defies any such dissection. It was from the heart from someone who was absolutely at the top of his game. The talk pulled together the "three-legged stool" of social justice, ecology and steady-state economics. It addressed ecological limits as though it were 40 years later. Remarkable especially when you put that scene in the context of Stephen in 1974, when he was serving time in the State Penitentiary. He walked out of the pen in cuffs, changed to that white turtleneck and embroidered jean jacket, was driven down to The Farm, spoke and then turned around and went right back the other way, into cuffs and stripes again, day-furlough ended. There was not the slightest trace of that context at all in the delivery, just the larger message, with sure, steady voice, straight from the heart. Awesome.

If I have any gripes about the uplinked video it I wish that it could have started 3 or 4 minutes earlier. Stephen says nothing. He rises from the meditation. He picks up the microphone. He looks up. He catches eyes here and there. He looks back down, seeming to think about what he might say. He looks up again, looks around. Breathes. Smiles. Looks thoughtful. Looks back down. This goes on a long time.  I understand why it was deleted but again, I am a public speaker now. I would find it very difficult to share so much “dead air time” with an audience. He had absolute confidence that people would forgive him while he gathered his thoughts to speak, and so said nothing. And then he was ready, and the tape begins.

After morning service in the community center, his partner Ina May hosted a reception at Stephen’s home, where he had passed quietly after being bedridden and in progressive decline for many months. He was still in good humor and wisecracking to the end.

At the morning service, his oldest daughter, Dana, spoke first, after the video.

“To say my father was charismatic is a gross understatement.  His compelling charm and strength of conviction is how we all got here, how this place came to be.  As a kid I thought I had to stand in line to be with him, take my turn like everyone else.  I was in my teens before he told me different.

Stephen and Dana, 1962
My dad shared his love of books and reading with me early.  When I got tired of kids books, he handed me Doc Strange comic books, Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse, the Tolkein trilogy, Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human, Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, and Parmahansa Yogananda’s, Autobiography of a Yogi, which read like science fiction.  I’m so grateful to him for introducing me to the joys of getting lost in stories and for sharing his favorites with me.

My dad loved heroes.  In the face of difficulty, he’d proclaim, "Here I've come to save the day!" from the Sergeant Preston of the Yukon radio show.  And he always tried to do that, save the day - "Out to Save the World" was his stated destination.  I’m grateful to have grown up around people who believed that making meaningful change is possible.  Plenty International, the Farmer Veteran Coalition, and many other farm-grown organizations continue that important work.

Most of you know that my dad was a Marine and served in Korea.  When he came home in 1954, he had the shakes, shellshock, what we know now as Post-traumatic Stress Disorder.  My mom says he tried drinking it away – luckily his stomach wouldn’t take that.  Marijuana helped him with stress relief for decades.  That and his favorite ‘trash:’ Candy Corn, Circus Peanuts, Red Hots, Necco Wafers, and Heath Bars, saw him through.  

My dad loved cars as much as he loved road trips.  I’ve been through every state but Alaska on road trips with my dad, and down to Guatemala twice.  He loved adventure.  I am comforted by the thought that this new adventure is just another road trip for him: The ultimate road trip.  Like Swami Beyondananda says, "The bad news: There is no key to the universe. The good news: It was never locked." 

Stephen confounded many in his family and the community by asking his son to carry his body deep into the forest and bury it in an unmarked grave. This place.

This is not a biographical sketch. Others have done that more will still do that. I cannot attempt that here. When I'm first got to know Stephen I was 25 and he was someone I looked up to, a wise elder who was not afraid to admit his mistakes or foibles. Now I am 67, and I know he was right most of the time. As someone who walked in his footprints to learn what he knew and was inspired to exceed even what I thought in my wildest imagination might be possible, I have nothing but gratitude.

All I can say is, goodbye friend, it has been really, really great. 

Saturday, May 10, 2014

The Cone Pit Method

"We wondered, before going to the expense of building a steel wok like they use in Japan, what if we build a pit like Josiah Hunt but shape it like a cone kiln?"

Charles Eisenstein, writing for Resurgence, says:
Please, my argument here is NOT “Various greenhouse-gas curtailment schemes have failed, so we shouldn’t even try.” I am, rather, proposing that these failures have something in common – they emphasize the global over the local, the distant over the immediate, the measurable over the qualitative – and that this very oversight is part of the same mentality that is at the root of the crisis to begin with. It is the mentality that sacrifices what is precious, sacred, and immediate for a distant end; it is the mentality of instrumentalism that values other beings and the Earth itself in terms of their utility for us; it is the hubris of believing we can predict and control the consequences of our actions; it is the trust in mathematical modeling that allows us to make decisions according to the numbers; it is the belief that we can identify a ‘cause’ – a cause that is something and not everything – and that we can understand reality by dissecting it and isolating variables.
What would happen if we revalued the local, the immediate, the qualitative, the living, and the beautiful? We would still oppose most of what climate change activists oppose, but for different reasons: tar sands oil extraction because it kills the forests and mars the landscape; mountaintop removal because it obliterates sacred mountains; fracking because it insults and degrades the water; offshore oil drilling because oil spills poison wildlife; road building because it carves up the land, creates roadkill, contributes to suburbanisation and habitat destruction, and accelerates the loss of community. On the other hand, many of the technologies I find beautiful might also be justified on climate change grounds: agricultural practices that regenerate the soil; restoration of forests and wetlands; smaller homes in higher density communities; economies of reuse, upcycling, and gift; bicycle culture; home gardening.
Yesterday our 2014 ecovillage apprentices, still caked with clay plasters from upcycling our Prancing Poet Ecohostel, helped us perform an experiment we have been inching towards for a month. Like most experiments, there was no real success or failure involved, just the harvesting of new knowledge. Still, we were grateful that it turned out even better than we had imagined it might, and now we are eager to pass along the results.

The problem we are addressing is multilayered. At its most general layer, there is an observable imbalance in Earth’s climate systems that is an existential threat to all of us.

... and lift-off
We attribute this imbalance, now calibrated with a high degree of certainty, to the corruption of “normal” atmospheric chemistry with a superabundance of waste elements from the biological processes of a single, invasive, overly fecund species, you know, the two-legged ones. Since this species shows no sign of going away before it causes irreparable harm to its host, we few revolutionary cells, acting as antibodies in the greater system, are working towards effective and timely mitigation by finding ways to reduce and reverse the damage wrought by our deluded or disengaged brethren.

The dilemma is, as Eisenstein opines, global, distant, distressingly measurable, and spawned by hubris that is seemingly intractable. Nonetheless, the way out is beautiful, elegant, sublimely local and relies on millions of farmers and gardeners awakening like a peasant permaculture army and simply doing what they do best — grow food.

One of the most promising (and most tested) ways we know to reverse the effects of runaway source emissions is to increase the strength of nature’s counteracting sinks. At the planetary scale, carbon has four mega-repositories: deep earth (including fossil hydrocarbons); shallow earth (topsoil and the subsurface microsphere); oceans; and vegetation. Deep earth is where half the problem originated, but returning carbon there once it has gone to the atmosphere, while technically feasible, is stupendously expensive (as we described here two years ago). The Ponzinomics of “clean coal” scrubbers, or artificial trees, may yet provide windfall profits for the 1%, but it comes at the expense of everyone else, and all our relations.

Oceans are the sink that has shouldered the greatest burden for the past century or more, but even oceans have reached their unfathomable limit and now, as they warm, not only will not accept more from us, may join us as fellow sources. Oceans, while remaining net sinks, are already starting to return excess carbon back to the atmosphere through methane effervescence and plankton die-off. This is a frightening, self-reinforcing feedback demonstrating all too cogently the penalties of our dalliance. Soon, only two viable sinks will remain — shallow earth and vegetation — to pick up the slack and get us back to 350 ppm or below.

We need to net sequester from 5 to 10 gigatons (or petagrams, or billion tons) of carbon annually to dial back the danger as quickly as we can. The only way to get plants and soils to perform that trick is to baby them with water, healthy microbes, and TLC. Burning soils with chemicals just adds deserts, to say nothing of driving the nutrition out of food. We need more organic gardens, more forests, and also — something that would assist in the creation of both of those first two — more biochar, or recalcitrant carbon, to work as an alternative to petrochemical fertilizers while intercepting short carbon cycles and replacing them with longer, slower, more earth-friendly ones.

For the five billion people on the planet who grow food, and the six billion who work in some fashion with the more than 50,000 species of bamboo, this is good news.

Growing Local

Each type of of biomass provides a unique cellular signature
At the Ecovillage Training Center, the apprentices have been busy since early March harvesting all of the dead culms of our bamboo left by an exceptionally harsh winter. Not all varieties are the same — some have lower temperature tolerance and did just fine, while others froze and died back. Having a wide variety is an excellent hedge for any grower.

Bamboo is the second fastest growing plant on Earth, after microalgae. It will double its biomass every year if conditions are right. Running varieties can expand as far out from their base in one year as they are tall, and do it again the next year, and the next.

Building a bamboo fence

The first use we made of our Spring bamboo harvest was for fencing around our poultry area, enclosing the chicken coop and duckling ponds. The second use came from taking the slightly larger widths — 2 to 3 inches in diameter — and splitting them to make plaster lathe for the building we are currently reviving. Some prime pieces ended up as walking sticks, garden stakes or finishing trim — or future bambitats — and then, finally, what was left became the scrap pile — whatever odd shapes and sizes were without immediate other uses — and that was set out to dry. It is now early May and that pile was sufficiently large and dry — 12 cubic feet — that the time had come to turn it into biochar.

Building a bamboo building (Pachamama, Colombia 2013)
We have been adding biochar to our gardens since 2006 and we swear by it. Bamboo biochar is especially great, because those big pores in bamboo’s cell structure translate into a heavenly microbial habitat when it is charred, charged, and dug into the garden. Just by way of example, we had a Discovery Channel crew here shooting a piece on biochar stoves in mid-March. We had a dozen small tomato starter plants — no more than 3-4 inches tall at the time — that we filmed being transplanted into 1-gallon containers. The lower half of the container was composed of biochar that had been steeped in urine for the previous 4 months, then turned with a mix of weathered sawdust, kitchen compost and composted horse manure before being deployed as container fill. The top half of the container was just the tiny, fragile tomato plant surrounded by garden soil.

Bamboo cup
Too bad the Discovery Channel was not able to return 4 weeks later, in mid-April, when we moved the tomatoes from the greenhouse out to our garden beds. By then they were chest high, all leafed out, and in need of stakes or cages to support their weight. No MiracleGrow or other synthetic fertilizers were used in the making of this testimonial. Just biochar from bamboo and a little compost.

Yesterday, with storm clouds gathering from our Southwest, we decided it was a good time to take the dry bamboo to the kiln. We could not get any more solar drying done this week and the summer garden will be wanting more biochar soon.


We have experimented with a number of stove designs, from oil drums to TLUDs, Beaners and Biolites to ceramic ovens, but lately we have been most intrigued by the large wok design used by the Hozu farmers cooperative in Japan to turn bamboo into biochar for their “Cool Vege” label.

Our friend Kelpie Wilson out in Oregon made one of those “cone kilns” and reported the results on her blog. In January she traveled to Simi Valley, California to see Michael Wittner’s BlueSky Biochar burn at the Simi Community Garden. Michael also used a cone kiln, and as he did the burn he narrated the physics of the process and described how the cone shape created an oxygen-free zone at the base. He demonstrated a layering technique that kept enlarging the zero-O2 zone until he was getting a smooth torus of flame with no appreciable smoke.

Some partially charred pieces reveal the source fuel
Two weeks ago, Kelpie described a test burn by Kamal Rashid, CEO at Zanjabil Gardens in Pembroke Township, Illinois, using a giant homemade cone kiln —  59" top diameter,  24" bottom diameter, and 24" high. The kiln made 133 gallons of biochar (17.7 cu ft) in about 4 hours, using cordwood. Kamal reports that it took 30 gallons of water to quench the kiln.

Some years back, with support of The Biochar Company's CEO Jeff Wallin, “Biochar Bob” Cirino went to Hawaii and made a video of another friend of ours, Josiah Hunt, who makes commercial biochar for the Hawaiian home market.  Biochar Bob is the spokesperson of CAFT: the Char Alliance for the First Tier. The First Tier represents organizations around the world that have working demonstrations and adoptable business models for using biochar in the developing world. Check out the Biochar Bob series on YouTube (Biochar Bob Goes to Haiti, Biochar Bob Goes to Costa Rica, Biochar Bob Goes to Brooklyn…).

In Josiah’s Hunt’s method, a shallow pit is dug in the earth, filled with woody biomass, ignited, and then covered to smolder. This is not much different than the method practiced by indigenous societies for at least the past 1000 years as related in The Biochar Solution.  It is pretty labor intensive and slow, but it yields a consistently large amount of biochar.

We wondered, before going to the expense of building a steel wok like they use in Japan or at BlueSky or Zanjabil (estimated about $400 in costs to fabricate), what if we build a pit like Josiah Hunt but shape it like a cone kiln and use the type of layering technique that Michael Wittner demonstrated?

That was our experiment, which we are calling Cone Pit method. We dug a cone-shaped pit — 54" top diameter, 24" bottom diameter, and 16" deep. The burn began with a single match and some cardboard boxes, along with a few small, very dry bamboo sticks. Within a few minutes it had grown to fill the bottom of the pit and we quickly started adding more and bigger bamboo to the fire. We watched for signs of it going white – indicating ash formation, and then we would throw on another layer of bamboo.

If we had more bamboo we could have probably made 10 times what we did, but we started with about 12 cubic feet of loosely piled dry bamboo and we used that in the course of the 12 minute burn. Then, with no more fuel, we started quenching at the edges and anywhere we saw white ash, and gradually worked the spray toward the center, ending the process after approximately 15 minutes. We quenched the fire thoroughly, left it out in the overnight rain, and then allowed it to drain into the ground for a full day before collecting and weighing what we had. It was 30 pounds dry weight.

The urine vat receives liquid from an ecohostel pissoir
From there the fresh biochar went to a urine bath. Even though it was quenched with water and was rained on during the night, biochar coming directly from a pyrolytic kiln will be hydrophobic – meaning it repels water. By soaking it in a vat of urine for some days or weeks before mixing it into our compost pile we can be certain to convert it from hydrophobic to hydrophilic. Now when it reaches the garden it will work like a sponge, soaking up water when it rains and releasing it back slowly to the plant roots as needed, along with all the minerals and nutrients being brought to the “reef” and stored there by the families of microbes.

It would have been better if we had found a good use for all the heat we generated in that 15 minutes — a good excuse for further experiments — but our fire was still relatively clean, producing nil carbon dioxide and keeping most of the plant carbon out of the atmosphere for the next 1000 years, hopefully time enough to change our renegade species’ wicked ways.

It may be, as Charles Eisenstein says, that the world is not going to be saved by international treaties or retooled economic initiatives that purchase megacorporate buy-ins, but by agricultural practices that regenerate the soil; restoration of forests and wetlands; smaller homes in higher density communities; economies of reuse, upcycling, and gift; bicycle culture; and home gardening.

Here is our short video:


Sunday, March 24, 2013

Climate and the Khans

"What we have to learn from Genghis Khan is that forests actually can work to bring climate back into a second Holocene. What we don’t yet know is whether they can provide sufficient food to support Anthropocene populations after petrocollapse."

There are periods in Western Civilization’s history that lack the glamor of the ages of empire or the steady march of progress that seemed to characterize the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans or other remarkably advanced societies. Between military adventures we tend see the periods of hiatus and re-consolidation as “dark” or “middle” ages. Nothing much was going on, we think.

These periods comprise a largely un-rediscovered history. The fascination of the dominant university narrative with militarism also leaves out vast areas on the periphery, where a lot of innovation began. We know about the Silk Road and the exchanges between East and West that it augured. We also know something of the slave and precious metal industries, and the cultural influences that flowed between North and South.

The Mongol Empire, established by Genghis Khan in 1206 and lasting through the 13th and 14th centuries — generally considered in the west as a part of the descent in the post-Roman world into barbarism — was the largest contiguous empire in the world, covering 16 to 22 percent of the Earth's total land area, and dominating a population of 100 million. Having that much land, as we shall see, can have implications for Earth’s biomechanical systems, depending on the management style of the small group of Khans in control.

We tend to think of the Mongol ‘barbarians’ the way we think of Klingons or Dothraki, but Genghis Khan (a title meaning “universal leader”) was elevated based on his policy of forbidding looting and sharing the spoils of war amongst the warriors, rather than sending it back home to aristocrats. He was thus seen as a loose cannon and an army was sent out from the Kurultai (general assembly) to reign him in, which he promptly defeated.

Genghis Khan came up with a number of military innovations that fueled his army’s prowess in battle. He organized his troops into cadres of ten men, divided his imperial guard into day guards and night guards, dispensed with most privileges of class and family, ended women’s slavery and permitted them to divorce, promoted religious freedom, encouraged literacy, and stopped internecine conflict in order to better concentrate on Mongolia’s external goals.

Khan’s sons and grandsons were just as ambitious but not as wise as their patriarch, and when he died in 1227, leaving them an empire twice the size of Rome, they expanded outwards in all directions and, rather than promoting social equality and other benefits for their new constituents, were more inclined just to massacre them.

This began in the campaign in Russia near Kiev in 1237 with the massacre of Ryazan, then extended into Hungary and Croatia, where the ironclad Templar Knights were defeated by the Golden Horde in 1241. With Eastern Europe laid bare, the Mongolian capital of Karakorum was adorned with a large silver tree that dispensed various drinks, crafted by Guillaume Boucher, a Parisian goldsmith. The aristocrats grew fat and wealthy again and internecine warfare between brothers’ and cousins’ armies once more became common. Religious intolerance led to massacres of captive Muslim populations, and famine and putting whole cities to the torch became mere battle tactics. When the Mongols eventually lost control of their empire, the chaos and reprisals that followed were not pretty, but the Turkic tribes that seized the western end of the Silk Road planted the seeds of the later Sunni Ottoman Empire, the native Chinese who overthrew the puppet Yuan Dynasty created the isolationist and artistic Ming Dynasty, and the Samurai who defeated the Mongols in 1280 unified Japan for its first time, spreading a samurai style of Zen Buddhism and the giddy notion that Japan was favored by God and could never be defeated, which persisted until 1945.

It is estimated that 30 to 60 million people were slaughtered under the rule of the Mongol Empire, roughly 30 to 60 percent of the Empire’s population at its peak. Bubonic Plague factored into the decline in Europe, but the populations of Russia, Hungary and China fell by half in fifty years. To speed their way towards future conquests, Mongols punished urban centers that refused to surrender. So, for instance, after the conquest of Urgench in present Turkmenistan, perhaps the wealthiest city on the Silk Road at the time, each of 20,000 Mongol warriors was required to execute 24 civilians. After the fall of the Mongolian Empire in China, 30 million were killed in the violent overthrow of the Yuan Dynasty.

If it is somehow imagined by right-wing US Congressmen, New York Times columnists, and other climate deniers that somehow we humans are the victims of natural cycles of sunspots and freakish weather, the legacy of the Golden Horde should settle that question. We, as a species, are profoundly entangled with planetary biomechanical cycles, including weather.

As we described in The Biochar Solution, the Colombian Encounter, which may have directly caused the deaths of 100 million native inhabitants of the Americas, wiping away all traces of their cultures, languages, and domesticated plants and animals, also changed the climate of the planet, triggering the Little Ice Age from the 16th to 19th Centuries, including three particularly cold intervals at 1650, 1770 and 1850.

According to studies performed by the ARVE Group in Lausanne, Switzerland,  the forests of the Americas, growing in the deep black earths built over millenia by native milpa agriculture, sequestered 35-40 GtC between 1525 and 1600 following the Columbian Encounter. These new findings, based on newer datasets and better models,  are considerably higher than earlier estimates and in the range needed to explain the 7-10 ppm CO2 drop observed.

We’ve referred to the work of William Ruddiman who first linked the Black Death to a decrease in agricultural activity that had climate-altering impacts. Ruddiman is author of Plows, Plagues, and Petroleum: How Humans Took Control of Climate, which propounded the "early anthropocene" hypothesis, the idea that human-induced changes in greenhouse gases did not begin in the eighteenth century with advent of coal-burning factories and power plants but date back to our early agrarian ancestors 8000 years ago. By 3000 years ago, cumulative carbon emissions caused by anthropogenic land cover change were between 84 and 102 GtC, translating to about 14-20 ppm increase of atmospheric CO2.

Clearing forests for hunting, gathering, and agriculture put carbon into the atmosphere, warming the world by small increments. And, whenever humans have disappeared from an ecosystem, en masse, reforestation absorbed back carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which cooled the world. Many recent studies of lake sediments, ice cores and tree rings now support the theory that depopulation in the Americas was a major contributing factor for the Little Ice Age. One example is a drop in carbon dioxide levels observed from ice cores taken at Law Dome, Antarctica.

Left to cyclical variations in the orbit and tilt of the Earth, we should by rights be on glide descent into another glaciation. Land use changes, beginning with the deforestation of Egypt and China, arrested that trend and ever since has kept us in the steady holding pattern we call the Holocene.
Eocene Arctic. That little creature with the furry tail
in the tree branches was our most direct ancestor.
Alas, the Holocene was too much of a good thing, and with the discovery of cheap, abundant energy slaves living close to the surface belowground some 150 years ago, the Age of Oil ushered in the Anthropocene, with uncertain prospects for survival of our civilization, barring some Deus Ex Machina.

The overdue glaciation has now been cancelled, and in its place has been scheduled the second coming of the Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum with crocodiles in the cypress and redwood swamps of the Arctic, palm trees in Greenland, Antarctica a subtropical rainforest, and sea surface temperatures at the equator within 5 degrees of boiling. Given the unprecedented slope of the rising exponential curve of change, and the sheer volume of fossil carbon now being withdrawn from land and banked in the atmosphere and oceans, the new PETM may be just a brief train stop on the track to Hell. Venus, move over, here we come.

Except, on that Eastern hilltop, surveying his battlefield, with eyes cast toward the setting sun, stands the great and mighty Khan.
According to a 2011 study by a group at the Carnegie Institution's Department of Global Ecology at Stanford University, when the Mongol hordes invaded Asia, the Middle East, and Europe, cultivated fields returned to forests, scrubbing some 700 million tons of carbon from the atmosphere.

We now have the example of two great genocidal conquerors turned climate heroes — Christopher Columbus and Genghis Khan. In both cases, the greenhouse effect was shown to have direct correlation to changing human population and land use. It should be no surprise that today, with a world population North of 7 billion, boosted by high-GHG-emission technological lifestyles, that we are experiencing a runaway greenhouse warming.

It should also be evident that the only viable way out is a forest path.

But what about clean coal or the Kyoto Protocol, you may ask?

The carbon sequestering techniques available to us can be divided between those that require further research and development, conventional financial methods of capitalization, or an industrial infrastructure that may not survive economic contraction (for example, ceramic honeycomb filters coated with immobilized amine sorbants deployed on coal-burning power plants), and those that require none of these and can be begun at the smallest scale, using few or no special tools, without benefit of loans, savings, or even an exchange currency.

Tree planting is a more viable strategy post-petrocollapse, than is the manufacture of artificial trees and their deployment over the scale of land area required to make a difference.

Forests also confer advantages not available to fossil-energy-made structures, such as resilience, self-repair, ecosystem services, preservation of biodiversity, etc.

What we have learned from Genghis Khan is that forests actually can work to bring climate back into a second Holocene. What we don’t yet know is whether they can provide sufficient food to support Anthropocene populations after petrocollapse. Can we have the regreening, without the gore?

Food forests are a frontier being explored by permaculturists, and while we can see that strategy already working to sustain large populations in the tropics, whether it can do so outside the tropics is an open discussion. Work in edible forest design by Eric Toensmeier,  David Jacke,  Martin Crawford and others is showing steady progress. Geoff Lawton and Brad Lancaster’s  pioneering work in greening desert-scapes will also contribute, as will the work of Alan Savory and Wes Jackson in productive savannah and prairie ecologies.

It may be a good thing that tropics and deserts hold the most promise for building food forests. We will be experiencing a greater abundance of both in the decades to come, until we collectively grasp these concepts and go back to gardening our planet, the way we always have.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Colombian Renaissance

"In Colombia, the ecovillage movement is ceasing to be seen as the alternative, hippy, or maladjusted parts of society, but rather are coming to be known as 'the people.' The are the 99-percent, the cultural center and point of reference."

After a 2 week permaculture course in southern Belize — the part that Guatemala is making noises about annexing — we returned to Colombia, a place we last visited at the height of La Violencia 15 years ago.

In the late-90s our hemisphere-wide ecovillage network had decided to host a series of meetings around Colombia and we were fortunate to have among us some skilled negiotiators able to obtain safe passage between the various factions, traversing areas where kidnappings and atrocities were commonplace. In one town where the mayor invited us to speak, he was killed shortly after we left. It was near there, in February, 2005, that a joint army/paramilitary “anti-terrorist” battalion funded by the United States moved in and massacred members of the peace movement, most of them displaced refugees, killing eight people, including 3 children.

Biogas from sewage
Less than a month later, then-President Uribe justified the killings, saying, “The peace communities have the right to establish themselves in Colombia thanks to our regime of liberties. But they cannot, as is practiced in San José de Apartadó, obstruct justice, reject the Public Force… In this community of San José de Apartadó there are good people, but some of their leaders, sponsors and defenders ... want to use the community to protect this terrorist organization.”

On February 13, 2013, Colombia’s constitutional court ruled in favor of the claims of the survivors of that massacre, who now urge supporters to send a letter to President Santos, urging him to use this historic court ruling to recover the relationship between Colombia and the peace community.

Since we visited and gave our first village design courses more than a decade ago, the ecovillage movement has been wedding Colombian grassroots organizations – the Campesinos, Indigenous and Afro-decendant people — into action-oriented environmental networks. The ecovillagers, Red de Ecoaldeas Colombia when we last visited, reformed 7 years ago into Renace Colombia. RC is developing a multilayered strategy for greater communication with other networks, sectors and movements in the country, as well as developing capacity to incubate new ecovillages and other varieties of experimental human settlements.

There are 16 ecovillages throughout Colombia, five or six of which are still in the formative stages. The longest existing ecovillage is 28 years old.

Some recent achievements of Colombian ecovillages:
  • Pachamama Ecovillage in Quindio is exporting full containers of their organically treated bamboo as building material in Spain and the Caribbean.

  • Aldea Feliz in Cundinamarca won the Fulbright Commission grant to build an ‘ecoshop’ with high green architectural standards. 

  • By the end of 2012, all the major ecovillages in Colombia will have their own Maloka — an ancestral house of gathering in the Amazonic tradition. 

  • Atlántida ecovillage in Cauca is the main training center for Latinamerica for leaders of Dances of Universal Peace. One of Colombia’s indigenous traditions is the “mambeo,” artistic decontamination of the world, merging the mind with the heart.

The movement is ceasing to be seen as the alternative, hippy, or maladjusted parts of society, but rather are coming to be known as “the people.” The are the 99-percent, the cultural center and point of reference. Another Colombian tradition is the “minga,” the whole community working together for a purpose, whether to build a house or make a garden — what those of us who live in Amish country call “barnraising.”

Renace brought the “Vision Council” (Consejo de Visiones) methodology to Colombia from Mexico in 2012, and changed its traditional annual ecovillage gatherings into an open space with clear facilitation for dialogue between alternative movements, of which the ecovillages are just one part. For the 2013 Vision Council, they decided to deliver 4 different parallel and simultaneous gatherings in 4 different bioregions of the country, as a contraction/expansion dynamic, to be introduced as a new national initiative in 2014.

We are also directly involved in the production of the first Ecovillage Design Education programme (EDE) in Colombia with the full 160 hours curriculum from Gaia Education, as a pioneer course offered sequentially in 3 different ecovillages. We were invited to instruct the ecological module and for that week we lived in the Pachamama village, just down the lane from the bamboo drying sheds. We also got to visit La Pequeña Granja de Mama Lulu, a one-hectare permaculture agroforestry project that rivals the best examples of futuristic eco-agriculture we have seen anywhere in the world.

Two of those attending the EDE were the founders of the EcoBarrios (eco-neighborhood) Project in Bogotá, Carlos Rojas and Anamaria Aristizabal. That program produced remarkable transformations in the lives of urban dwellers, with a period of government funding in 2000-2003 enabling 180 city-neighborhoods to plant gardens, create public art and develop seed exchanges, among other improvements.

The Ecobarrios Project convened hundreds of neighborhood leaders, provided training courses in each district, designed projects according to particular needs of a neighborhood, and employed transparent participatory processes and the labor of the community. A survey in 2003 showed an increase in social capital with new micro-enterprises employing some 15,000 people. While 70% of urban garden and similar projects gradually diminished without Colombian government financing and the continuity of a support organization, 30% were still operating ten years later and replicating EcoBarrio projects had spread to Venezuela, Mexico City and Chile.

Bamboo Drinking Cup
From 2003 until 2010, after the government suspended EcoBarrios’ support, Aristizabal and Rojas went to work in the creation of ecovillage Aldeafeliz near Bogota and Renace Colombia. Rojas is now one of South America’s delegates to the Global Ecovillage Network board.

Renace is in dialogue with several government branches and regional institutions about a project for the transformation of 100 indigenous villages that were victims of forced relocation. What is planned are 100 healthy and thriving ancestral ecovillages, combining the best practices of the native heritage with those of the modern sustainability movement.

Each member community of
Renace is building a
Maloca, the traditional meeting
hall in Amazonia.

After examining models of ecovillage networks in Brazil and Senegal, Renace sees their incubator program evolving into a non-profit, quasi-governmental agency, establishing quality standards and transferring technology and green enterprise models. In the fertile ground of post-civil-war social rebuilding, these young ecovillagers are capable of opening up historically closed circles of politics and economics, in a kind of reverse “disaster capitalism.” They have a plan, they are ready, and the opportunity is now.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Lucia Day 2012

"The North American continent, and much of South America, were cultivated ecologies, kept in near perfect balance for centuries by the subsistence economics and cultural norms of the American indigenous peoples. "

On December 12, 2012, Gaia Trust awarded the Gaia Award 2012, with a prize of 50,000 Danish kroner, to two global peace and sustainability projects, Global Ecovillage Network (GEN) and Gaia Education and their five early organizers. Quoting from the announcement, "Declan Kennedy, Max Lindegger and Albert Bates traveled five continents and created GEN networks in all parts of the world from 1995-2008. They share the prize with the present head of GEN, Kosha Joubert, who just set up an African network, and May East who for 7 years now has been at the head of Gaia Education and facilitated a network in South America. Together they have been important midwifes in giving birth to a new global culture."

Hildur Jackson, at the award ceremony yesterday in Denmark, said, "They get the award on the darkest afternoon, the 12th of Dec 2012, Lucia day. That day the sun starts its return in the northern Hemisphere culminating on the 21st of Dec, the shortest day. The shortest morning is then one week later. We want to acknowledge this major turning of our sun and celebrate the birth of a new culture." What follows are my prepared remarks for that ceremony.

Remarks of Albert Bates
On the occasion of receipt of the Gaia 2012 Award

Thank you for this recognition. I just wish it were more money!

Something Hildur Jackson said in announcing the awards I want to take a moment to speak about. She said,

“Let us think of this as the beginning of a new era—the Gaian Age with the Gaian Calendar, when a new global sustainable culture will be born, a new beginning for humankind. It will be the beginning of a new consciousness, a consciousness of Oneness where we are at one with nature, each other and the cosmos.”

In 19 days I will be 66 years old. I have been hearing talk about the essential oneness of everything since I was a child, going to church every Sunday.

In the early days of the Farm, working out in the hot sun hoeing weeds, we used to say at The Farm, “Work and Body are One; Body and Mind are One; Mind and Buddha are one.”

So I had that in my background and it was an intellectual construct that I accepted. I even had a meditation on occasion where I felt like my mind merged with the universal and it was all One. So you could say that for me it was also a revealed precept.

For the past quarter of my life I have been grappling with the climate issue and I’ve worried about how humans can possibly shift away from tropisms that are deeply embedded in our evolutionary biology, such as our insensitivity to long-term consequences of foolish or vain activities. That search led me deep into the Amazon jungle, to archeological excavations of civilizations going back 8000 years. And in that place I had a new insight about the butterfly effect, because I learned how these ancient peoples, in building their cities, may have added so much carbon to the atmosphere that they created the Maunder Maximum, a period of warming that brought the Moors into Southern Europe.

And centuries later, when they vanished from diseases brought to the New World by the Conquistadors, the amount of carbon drawn out of the atmosphere to create the Amazon Rainforest was so enormous that it may have triggered the Little Ice Age, and given Sweden the means to invade Denmark over frozen ice.

And I was reminded of something I already knew but now came to see as far more profound. That the North American continent, and much of South America, were cultivated ecologies, kept in near perfect balance for centuries by the subsistence economics and cultural norms of the American indigenous peoples.

The forest where I live was once hunted by Cherokee, Creek, Euchee and Osage. They never killed all the deer, only the old ones. If they found three ginseng plants, they would only harvest one. They kept the balance. And the Earth provided them a living. They received an abundance borne of respect.

That was a steady state economy that prevailed over at least half the planet for 50,000 years or more. Each year some fields were burned for the benefit of deer and bison. Each year forests were managed for stand improvement, species diversity and ecological services. The same for the bays, estuaries, lakes and mountains. Millions of people practiced sustainability, ecological restoration, and fundamental ecology, not as some abstract or unique way, but as normal. They were just normal.

Those millions of people achieved a profound balance with the biology of the planet, with Gaia. They created harmonious connection, and it gave them time to pursue deeper self-knowledge, spiritual powers, and a culture of dance, music and poetic discourse. They had no grocery stores but they did not starve. They had no refrigeration, internet or telephones, but they had happy lives, for thousands of years.

It was not always great. Bad stuff happened. But, by and large, they came into balance with Gaia. And Gaia responded, and gave them the Holocene Epoch, a period of profound climate tranquility and productivity. As long as they kept the balance, they could have that.

When Europeans came to the Americas and began to disturb the balance, they were warned by the indigenous elders of terrible consequences, but they ignored these warnings. These warnings have been being given for 500 years and are still being ignored. Offered a choice between heaven and hell, we have chosen hell.

Mother Nature is looking out for our interests, despite all the abuse we give her. Gaia wants to heal the planet. Gaia does that. And Nature will heal us, too, if we let her. She won’t do it if we continue the abusive relationship. We may think we are winning a battle, but Nature is winning. Nature will always win. All we really need to do is to surrender.

Thank you for this moment of sharing, and for all our relations. I love you all.





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