This is a formal invitation to the new Elaborate and Beautiful Failures Club. You’ve already joined. We already started it with high hopes and ambitious plans and it already fell completely apart. There’s nothing else to do around this. It’s going back into the ground now. We can all relax about it now.
I am learning the dizzying trust the thread learns to feel when the needle leaps out from the cloth again and again.
Here two weeks away from two years of porous living, slowly learning to track the animating questions home to their weird heart, sometimes finding precious zero in the storm and other times senselessly jumping up and down in the tiny rowboat because it just hurts to see the sea so calm when somewhere someone is sinking and somewhere someone is waking up, we ride out this gift of a life in our weathered canvas home.
I started writing two years ago to leave a record of our journey to this life within the limits of earth. Along the way I’ve written about the connection between the land and myself. Just as I’ve been taught how to let the completion of an old oak grove show me my own completeness, the mothering patience of a beech tree welcome me as nourished and nourishing, or the blistery pokey teacher vines at our forest edges teach me about boundaries and skin, so is some great empathy working quietly behind each day to bind me to the whole of this place that has been plowed, logged, eroded, cut, hunted, trashed, and also loved, relied on, blessed, remembered, protected, and again regrown, all of it in cycles depositing strata of people and plants atop the grinding migrations of behemoth plates forever going home. I detect but don’t understand that in some important way what happens here happens to me. The more I learn to see that my home is alive and had a life long before we ever met, the more our relationship becomes as potent and vulnerable as a marriage.
In loud moments last year I’ve cursed my home for not being able to keep me safe and for echoing my every failure back so loudly and in quiet moments last year I’ve utterly relied on the patient exactness of our place and let myself sink free into its playful peace.
In both kinds of moment inner hands work silently braiding something durable inside while I get to work building another small shelter in the woods.
Murmuring along the margins of the track of this unfathomably weird and often measurably rough last year, there’s been those great patterns like continental plates I could almost walk slow enough to see, waiting mammoth outside the tiny admittance into that small adorned hall where words dine.
And me, this last year I mostly stayed there in that safe room of rote language because in living outside and often feeling off balance, I deeply needed comfort. I stayed in the small room of words I knew best. This, that, because, must, should, always, never, you, me, big, small, OK, not OK, cause, effect, right, wrong. Chair, curtain, dresser, television, fridge, blanket, bank balance, bed.
When Old Original Language built the ancient room of words, the fashion was to build beautiful and leaky. Beauty and leaks were both quipus – memory knots left in the strands of age. Things built that way you could hold in your hands and count home again to zero.
All that year while I huddled in the room of words, full moons punctuated the visits of teachers, friends, weather patterns, animals, and the sudden radiant disorienting miracle of a great loving family. Each gained unsurveilled entry to my old room of words. Weird blessings wearing stolen work uniforms stood at the threshold announcing, “Plumber!” “Cable repair!” “Exterminator!” and me knowing we don’t have plumbing or cable and we adore our bugs and it’s the middle of the night but that even so I could use the help I made no attempt to refuse their work.
One-by-one in suspiciously beautiful and ill-fitting work clothes they set up shop in the dark corners where the vocabules play with bones and they took out their gnarled tools to secretly make the large leaks in the small old room of words larger. They made the leaks larger in the midst of the rainiest year on record. And there I am, feet in blazing water like seemingly the whole rest of the earth while the words and me peer together through the growing leaks, only to see looking back at me at age 36 the impossible kindness of my grandmother’s unfathomably tender eyes. And again life is real, mystery is generously spacious, and every bend of the road is utterly worth knowing. That is where I still am right now.
Rumi’s beloved Shams threw his favorite wisdom books in the fountain. In the slow fountain of our Yome, they just mold out.
Rumi also once told the loud ducks quacking over his teaching to please quiet down and they did. Ours hear my voice and start quacking louder.
I lost a forest canopy of a friend this Friday who had again and again taught me just by being himself how love can be easy, how a single smile can speak the whole book of life, and how touching the circle of a drum can build a nest in air for firebirds to roost. A week before losing my friend a candle and a sweetgum ball taught me how to mend a terrifying rift in my marriage. And a week before that, I dwelt in sudden startling ease with my lost biological father and all the deeply kind, lucid branches he left behind as I was welcomed mess and all by the missing lovable intensely recognizable other half of my life.
Somewhere in the days before and between each of these gates, I wandered alone through the nights driven crazy by a neighbor’s new suffering dog barking endlessly through the bitter cold nights, afraid like I get afraid and alone like I get alone cold down in by the creek bed at the end of the land. And at the threshold of each gate, I was sure again that I had to leave the land. And in between that, I was sure again that I am home, I am supported, and every grain of sandy soil I sleep above is the sand of the path I somehow chose to walk the day I was born, long before I entered that leaky beautiful room of words.
The way I was taught to make cordage involves bringing together again and again the thumb and the finger. The hand encloses a precious portion of emptiness. The emptiness is mother to the durable. In braiding the durable, I sometimes need to spend months just holding that thumb and finger together having no idea what I’m doing. No new twine is made, nothing visible moves. All I can do is keep that pressure against the pulse in my thumb, exhaling. Other times, I move. The pliant inner skin of trees moves in my hands. Strands become rope. Rope becomes bridge. Where is there to go but across? What is there to say but thank you?
to my dear friend: I’ll watch for you across the bridge we were building together until it’s my time to cross. in the meantime across the way you’ll hear me playing the rhythms you taught me. thank you, thank you, thank you.
and to my lost biological father found: who knew what a familiar friend you could be to me without us having ever met. you’ve left me a life where I’m triply blessed. thank you for this wild chance to be. i love you as you are.
in the Piedmont in the early 2010s….
… we were suddenly starting to see the cliff we were walking towards. We had been rushing around late for something with our heads looking down at our new screens, transfixed by the low-level panic of coffee, social media, and the background awareness of a deep hopelessness. Our attention spans were in tatters. Our hearts were tired. We knew it was bad but didn’t know how to change things. We still thought that probably, solar or wind or even nuclear power would somehow save us.
For many of us, a techno-fix was easier to believe in the early 2010s when people who seemed sure of themselves were still confidently publishing things from ivory towers or silicon valleys saying that something like the increase in driving route efficiency of people using smartphone mapping apps would be the kind of thing that reduced emissions enough that a lot of us could keep on going to jobs in air conditioned office buildings where we learned new productivity software to maximize some output. Whole Foods would ban plastic bags and somehow we’d be fine.
It was possible to think that Elon Musk or some other techno capitalist hero would create some kind of battery that defied the limits of growth and kept the show on the road. It was all really hard to think about for long and still easy enough to guess someone else, smarter than us, really rich, and with a lot more time than any of us seemed to have, knew what to do.
Some of us too had been sure there was going to be some kind of great shift in consciousness. We’d reassure each other at festivals that some great awakening was about to happen. The world would soon look like one big ecovillage.
Even the climate scientists collecting the data counseled each other not to say how bad it was in fear it would render people paralyzed, unable to take the very steps that those same climate scientists privately admitted probably wouldn’t matter anyway.
In the Piedmont in the late 2010s…
…many of us finally decided to stand up and look over the precipice. That election happened and many of us learned to loosen our grip on hope. We let ourselves learn in how many ways we were too late and we watched the world move further away from any kind of meaningful remedy. We learned more about methane under the permafrost and cascading runaway events we’d already set in motion. We started to see what would now almost certainly happen just in the lifetime of our children and the children of our friends. We became sick and dizzy. A great rift tore our hearts in two.
The reality of how we were too late for so much we’d already missed made many of us so dizzy that we started to trip and fall. Some of us didn’t get up. Just when we were about to make a home in despair, isolation, bitterness, addiction, medication, and digitally reinforced numbness, we found each other. We found each other and we took each others’ hands. We found a connection to something greater than hope or fear, success or failure, loss or gain. We learned to flower as the people who were already too late. We dedicated ourselves to all life.
This dedication to life meant every day we would weep and bleed with the wounds of the land, we would suffocate with the dying coral reefs, and we would suffer with the billions of people yet to be born; it also meant we would become woven inseparably into the life of all of it. Because we would let ourselves feel the wasteland of a tilled up field and the anger and sorrow of our great grand children, we could also feel the yearning of a spring shoot and be held by the vast open palm of space, familiar and kind. We could know the love that births stars and our hearts would be the wholeness of a forest. We could come to love ourselves and each other with no hesitation remaining.
Nothing had forced us to change yet, but our awakening to the life of mother earth made it harder and harder to keep doing the things that hurt her. We shed international vacations, went through the awkward miracle of getting to know our neighbors and letting them know us, and created ecstatic local community celebrations that could wake the dead and left us with far more than travel photos and debt; we slowly with the support of each other and the living earth got off our medications and learned the art of following the feelings we’d criminalized to the grove of mystery in our heart they had always been beckoning us to; we gave up screens and learned to be musicians, poets, dancers, storytellers; we stopped buying shit and our hands came alive with making; we stopped always looking for a cooler town so that the patient ground beneath us could finally wind its tendrils into our veins and claim us jealously; we canceled all subscriptions, traded air conditioning for earth walls and swimming holes, careers for livelihoods, and we accepted hopelessness as the complement to a newfound fearlessness. We did this all kindly together non-judgementally and piece-by-piece simple as leaves shedding water because we were in love and we wanted nothing more than to give gifts to all the forms of our true and one wild love.
In the Piedmont in the 2020s….
… knowing hopelessness and knowing we had no chance of succeeding, a wild idea began to root in us: what if we approached the ending of all life as we know it with style? Like the flowering of generosity we sometimes create in the face of a terminal illness: what if we came together to give, regardless of outcomes and with hands empty of hope, the most beautiful gift we can imagine to the future?
We came together. We decided to focus on land because it could connect so many needs and create the greatest reduction of atmospheric carbon and the greatest health for people and the wild. To do it, we wouldn’t have to wait for politicians or corporations to get it. We could act and so we did.
We were activists, novice and storied farmers, immigrants, scientists, unkillable ancient locals, people of faith, high schoolers, oil war veterans, concerned good hearted humans, and a lot of permaculturists. Somehow – maybe because we all knew the hour was so late – we managed to agree on something like a plan.
Economic shocks in the 2020s meant a lot of small- and mid-scale farmers were having to sell their land. The kind of farming that had gone on and long been unsustainable ecologically was now unsustainable economically too. Big developers and automated mega-scale industrial agriculture corporations were going to buy all this Piedmont land by the thousands of acres for almost nothing. California’s droughts had made it less arable and with lands at these prices and subsidies coming from an even more corporate corrupted government, automated big-ag could make a profit by selling the last of our area’s fertility as exported pork and soy. Wastes would run into the river and new chemicals into the bodies of the rural poor and big-ag had been permanently protected from lawsuits by the corporate state.
It was hard to begin, but the rapid threat of seeing all this already abused farmland right in our backyards become further destroyed pushed us to leap. We decided to stand up exactly where we were. We used all the decision-making and cooperation tools we knew to bring people together to use the lie that is land ownership and the poison that is money to buy thousands of acres of Piedmont land. We hoped this would be the last time the land would ever be bought and sold. We covered the land in covenants, agreements, and prayers. This land became the ground for our beautiful gift as the people of the Piedmont living in the time of too late.
We spent the 2020s learning to cooperate, planning, researching, acquiring land, finding allies, developing our permaculture skills, and laying the groundwork and agreements for the plan.
In the Piedmont in the 2030s…
… We had reached fifty thousand acres to be collectively managed as a heavily carbon sequestering air and water cleaning wildlife sheltering cooperatively controlled commons to serve life in this region.
The biggest difference between our collective land and existing conservation projects was that we would work with land intensively to also meet human needs as part of restoring the ecosystems so that those needs didn’t have to be met through degrading other land or participating in the industrial growth economy. We wanted skilled humans everywhere in the fields and forests helping all life to thrive including themselves and their neighbors.
We trained each other. We did everything possible to make sure that the small farmers and people of the rural Piedmont, as well as anyone in a disadvantaged situation who wanted an opportunity to live this way was invited to learn. In some ways, people who knew little were a blessing. They didn’t have to unlearn anything. In other ways, we benefitted immeasurably from the wisdom of farmers who had been here for generations.
We studied soil health, no-till, silvopasture, watershed regeneration, coppice agroforestry, natural building, regenerative grazing, seed and animal breeding, fire management, appropriate technology – as well as racial equity, anti-oppression work, consensus and sociocratic decision making, non-violent communication, emotional intelligence, cooperative living.
We made our projects economically viable, knowing we lived in the time of transition. The pastures we converted to silvopasture were more productive than they had been and needed fewer of the inputs which were quickly rising in cost. The permaculture orchards took a while to be productive but eventually became overyielding polycultures. We made medicines out of medicinal mushrooms and plants. We created fast-rotation bamboo biochar for ourselves and other farmers.
Importantly, we secured public and private funding for carbon sequestration. Lots of money was being thrown internationally at climate change and while most of it was going to corrupt contractors on pie-in-the-sky techno fixes, the amount our farmers needed to be viable was a drop-in-the-bucket compared to that. We could prove that we were sucking in thousands of tons of carbon with our land management approaches and we got paid for it.
We also cut our costs of living down to almost nothing. Being part of this collective, now hundreds strong, meant almost total autonomy but also required keeping certain agreements. Among them – we would help each other. Since we created our own food, fuel, fodder, fertility, fun, medicine & building materials, we ran collective schools, we lived in small collectively built and intelligently designed passive home, we shared tools and cars, and we shared elder and child care, the cost of living became less and less each year. Meanwhile, our skills kept increasing and the yields of our perennial crop systems did too.
This was more important every year as automation of jobs increased and corporations consolidated control. We recruited a lot of our next wave of forest tenders from the vast swaths of unemployed and from those whose corporate employers seemed daily to engineer graver and graver insults to human dignity for less and less pay. The life we offered was sometimes a terrifying leap even for the most renegade of us; but the life the industrial growth system offered was becoming worse by the minute. The spread of private debtors prisons sent a lot of would-be college students to learn tuition-free from our flowering fruiting wilds instead of risking lifetime corporate servitude.
We had a health care plan and maternity leave, too, when almost no one else seemed to anymore. Being part of the collective meant that we would take care of each other. If someone was sick or a new parent, we worked their part of their project. If someone was going through a crisis and just needed to fall apart safely, we helped them do it and welcomed them back when they were ready. We were a village for each other.
Because we were a collective and managed so much land with so many different strategies, it was always possible to connect any land’s “waste” to another part’s need. It was possible to raise water tables and heal whole watersheds. Because we were so many people, we soon had an expert on everything who could teach everyone else.
We gave tours and taught workshops. As climate change ravaged our area, our recharged water tables, heirloom seeds, irrigation-free growing, windbreaks, perennial crops, and fungal no till soils meant we sometimes had crops that were the only survivors of the kind in the region; and when the staple foods traditionally grown could no longer withstand the extreme weather and unpredictable dance of insects and diseases, our diversified forest farms and silvopasture polycultures backed us up each year with something nourishing that could carry on. As oil costs went up, we were the ones who could show how to grow copious food without plastic, industrial products, or mined inputs. When peak phosphorous finally drove the price of phosophorous inputs inaccessibly high, our diligent mineral cycling saved us. We shared everything we knew with an increasingly interested populace. Some of the farmers who originally thought we were crazy had started to hang around at our barbecues and we were everyone of us the richer for it.
In the Piedmont of deep time…
… I don’t know if we saved anything. What was going to happen happened; but along the way, more and more of us started to be claimed by this great flowering being beneath us, the foothills of the Appalachians, the oaks and hickories, the gentle roadside weeds. Our effort was the prayer that Something old and kind had been longing to hear again and that was Enough.
Acting so strongly like we did without any real hope of success never really made sense. We gave and gave knowing that some day we would have to lose it all. In this way, it was exactly like falling in love.
If you think a plant is “bad” or “useless,” it just means you don’t know how to work with it.
If you read this, I don’t want you to feel judged or to judge yourself; to feel like you’re not good enough or not doing enough; I want you to help me hold this question and help me understand what it means to be human in this time.
We live in the woods and try to each year reduce the number of corporations and industrial systems we rely on.
Part of my reason for doing something this comprehensive is that there were all these truths that kept coming into my awareness that I couldn’t ignore. There were consequences of my American lifestyle both far reaching and immediate that, once I knew about them, I could no longer live with.
The Questions Your Soul Asks at Midnight
There are simple questions you can answer for yourself and there are the questions your soul never stops asking. Soul questions may have been with you since birth or may have just run into you at a crossroads one day years ago and asked to tag along for a mile. That mile turns into a lifetime. You know those questions will be at your death bed, eyes still in askance of you.
One of the questions of my soul can be expressed like this:
“What does it do to us to push the suffering of others out of our awareness? Do the people around me know about what I know about the suffering our lifestyles cause and are making choices based on that, or are they unaware?” .. and really under all this, there is maybe this one simple question: “Am I alone?”
To remain a whole person when I become aware of the suffering my choices cause, I have to address it. I might address my choice by saying, “I will change this,” or “I don’t know what to do about this,” or by saying, “I am not ready to act on this yet,” or even by admitting, “I am not the kind of person who can change this and I am sorry,” but I can’t say nothing. I have to answer the living humans and wilds that are suffering as a result of my actions with something more than silence.
Years ago, I read things like this:
Five o’clock in the morning and the young woman’s eyelids are drooping. All night she has been removing spots of dust from Amazon smartspeakers with a toothbrush. Time seems to crawl. Now she is overwhelmed with exhaustion.
She works on, more and more slowly, until she can do no more. She looks around the workshop. Other workers have rested their heads on the bench. She slumps forward and falls asleep.
Dozens of workers are arriving, casually dressed in jeans and T-shirts. Most are young and there is a good mixture of women and men. Ahead of them lies a 60-hour week, eight regular hours for five days, plus two more of overtime each day and another 10 on Saturday. They will be expected to hit tough targets and must ask permission to use the toilets. The overtime – up to 80 hours a month – is far in excess of the 36 hours stipulated in Chinese labour laws, but companies can and do seek exemptions and workers want the overtime, to boost their basic pay.
“I was already so tired and my movements grew slower,” she writes later. “I brushed with less and less force. There were 20 or 30 speakers building up in front of me that I had yet to brush clean.
“The speakers that remained to be cleaned kept building up in front of me. The line technician came over and told me to brush faster and that my movements were too slow … but I no longer had any strength.”
Another day she chats to an older woman sitting opposite her.
“The woman across from me said that she had been brushing for so long that her hand was growing numb, her neck was sore, her back was sore, her eyes couldn’t see clearly, and her vision was getting worse …”
Another worker tells her she, too, is suffering: “While working at the same work position and doing the same motions over and over again each day, she felt exhausted and her back was sore and her neck, back and arms could barely take it any more.”
Alexa’s diary makes no happier reading the following day. A woman of about 45 tells her how she has been scolded because she is not fast enough: “It might be because she was getting older so her speed was slower and her reactions were slower. When the line leader was telling her off, she started crying. After I returned to the dorm, an older woman … said that last time the line leader told her off, she also cried.”
She describes long nights of repetitive and relentless work, with fellow workers close to falling asleep on their feet. During a break about midnight she sees that “many people were resting on the assembly line and sleeping, while others had pushed together some chairs and were sleeping on those. Some had even stacked together some foam boards and slept on top of them.”
That’s all from Amazon’s production line in China which makes the Echo and Kindle.
From America & the UK:
Amazon equals Walmart in the use of monitoring technologies to track the minute-by-minute movements and performance of employees and in settings that go beyond the assembly line to include their movement between loading and unloading docks, between packing and unpacking stations, and to and from the miles of shelving at what Amazon calls its “fulfillment centers”.
at Amazon’s center at Rugeley, England, Amazon tags its employees with personal sat-nav (satellite navigation) computers that tell them the route they must travel to shelve consignments of goods, but also set target times for their warehouse journeys and then measure whether targets are met.
All this information is available to management in real time, and if an employee is behind schedule she will receive a text message pointing this out and telling her to reach her targets or suffer the consequences. At Amazon’s depot in Allentown, Pennsylvania (of which more later), Kate Salasky worked shifts of up to eleven hours a day, mostly spent walking the length and breadth of the warehouse. In March 2011 she received a warning message from her manager, saying that she had been found unproductive during several minutes of her shift, and she was eventually fired. This employee tagging is now in operation at Amazon centers worldwide.
Whereas some Amazon employees are in constant motion across the floors of its enormous centers—the biggest, in Arizona, is the size of twenty-eight football fields—others work on assembly lines packing goods for shipping. An anonymous German student who worked as a temporary packer at Amazon’s depot in Augsburg, southern Germany, has given a revealing account of work on the line at Amazon. There were six packing lines at Amazon’s Augsburg center, each with two conveyor belts feeding tables where the packers stood and did the packing.
Machines measured whether the packers were meeting their targets for output per hour and whether the finished packages met their targets for weight and so had been packed “the one best way.” But alongside these digital controls there was a team of Taylor’s “functional foremen,” overseers in the full nineteenth-century sense of the term, watching the employees every second to ensure that there was no “time theft,” in the language of Walmart. On the packing lines there were six such foremen, one known in Amazonspeak as a “coworker” and above him five “leads,” whose collective task was to make sure that the line kept moving. Workers would be reprimanded for speaking to one another or for pausing to catch their breath (Verschnaufpause) after an especially tough packing job.
The functional foreman would record how often the packers went to the bathroom and, if they had not gone to the bathroom nearest the line, why not. The student packer also noticed how, in the manner of Jeremy Bentham’s nineteenth-century panopticon, the architecture of the depot was geared to make surveillance easier, with a bridge positioned at the end of the workstation where an overseer could stand and look down on his wards. However, the task of the depot managers and supervisors was not simply to fight time theft and keep the line moving but also to find ways of making it move still faster. Sometimes this was done using the classic methods of Scientific Management, but at other times higher targets for output were simply proclaimed by management, in the manner of the Soviet workplace during the Stalin era.
This is just one part of consumerism’s life-destroying shadow. What Pickle and I are doing can seem like just two weirdos doing their crazy thing in the woods (and sometimes it’s just that), but under it is a response to this shadow.
If my lifestyle means I couldn’t face those factory workers, means I have to push them out of my vision and bury my awareness in order to function, then I am fragmented. I am building a life based on avoiding painful truths.
I think avoiding this stuff makes for a half-alive person. I think industrial growth society would have us all continue as half-alive. It makes us buy more.
My Naive Questions
What would it feel like for us if in the packaging of the new gadget we bought or Amazon streaming service we used, we saw the exhausted mother in the Foxconn plant falling asleep at 5am while brushing the dust out of our Amazon Smartspeaker only to be angrily woken up by a scared manager who might fire her on the spot?
What would it be like if every time we bought something on Amazon, we could feel the tension in our overworked bodies of knowing we have our every movement tracked by machines and managers, and to feel in the soles of our tortured factory floor feet that we’re disposable, we have nowhere else to go, and that the robots are on the way to replace us?
What if for our children and our neighbors’ children, factories and warehouses like these become the only job left they can get?
Would we still overnight ship that one last thing from Amazon? or would we finally begin the fearless asking of what we personally could do to create a world where we don’t need any of this?
I know I’m not alone, but these questions hang unspoken for me in so many moments leaving me feeling afraid, alone, separate, helpless. It makes a body want to go move to the woods and learn to eat weeds.
Dazzled by the rattling music of seed packets, you buy a bunch of seeds to start a garden. Maybe for your first garden you get twelve different kinds of plants.
For two of those plants, it turns out to be too late in the season. You can’t plant them now in this region. Oops. Four of those plants you place carefully in the rich well-drained soil keeping them evenly moist and yet, they never show a sprout; they stay sleeping in earth, faces unrevealed. Maybe three of them rise up and sprout but don’t ever really seem to “go” – they stay small, waiting for some encouragement you can’t figure out how to provide; or, they grow and grow tall, your hopes riding them to the sky, only to abruptly fall over leaving some twilight mammal to delight in their lilting remains.
Then there are the two that see just how out of your depth you are and decide to take care of you. Maybe it’s peas and an unkillable purple kale or a mutant okra reaching to pierce the sky and that one squash vine that laughs at your first attempts at a “trellis” and begins conquering your rain gutters instead, fruiting baskets of ancient fruits (that you haven’t yet learned to cure, cook, or enjoy) incidental to its takeover of your roof.
Saddened and maybe even peering over the cliff of despair at the unexplained failure of all your lost crops, the two kind ones that worked become your new mother and father and cradle you. They hold your shaky hand when you offer one of your weird small eggplants to a neighbor who of course has had a garden before where they grew dozens of varieties of eggplants all just like the pictures in the brochures and yet still they graciously accept your humble offering from the earth. It’s enough to keep you going and to secretly have conscripted you for life in an apprenticeship to Emerald Growth herself as she teaches you season by season to make a home for each of her seeds.
This year was the first “big” garden I ever grew. Having apprenticed myself to plants for a few years now, I still felt the anxiety of the seeds that never broke soil, of the kales that disappeared, of the beets that could barely feed a dieting grasshopper. What would happen?
This year, a great mercy happened. The garden grew.
In the compacted dry sandy soil that was formerly pine forest and is now of a tiny shady 1/8 acre gap in the woodland, the plants that had been carrying me to this moment decided to throw me a surprise party by all at once gloriously showing up.
For a beginner, our weather had been unspeakably merciful. Things took a little longer to germinate than I expected and grew slow at first with a kind of patience I struggled to have. Come April, the plants leapt up; into May, they jungled. Now in this, my first “big” garden, I have an embarrassment of friends around me.
I struggle to have the attention span to write a how-to, but I’ll include the brief recipe for this beginner’s permaculture garden because it has a few advantages:
- It has required very little weeding which makes it dramatically different from my forest Milpa garden, a dancing weird weed haven
- It started with very low fertility and super acidic soil
- It has required no watering except to get the seeds to sprout
- I did almost no digging and certainly no tilling
- It is space-efficient
- It has had slower bolting of cool weather plants than is usual in North Carolina
- All the plants seem very happy
Easy Sheet Mulch Garden in the Woods
- Choose an area and plan as many 3′ wide garden beds as you can fit. Consider spirals, keyhole shapes, curvy beds. There are secret advantages to these shapes.
- Let the tall weeds that want to grow up grow up. Let them get tall. In fall, cut them at the low part of the stem with a sickle or scythe. Don’t dig. Lay them down in the shape of your garden beds.
- Optional – broadfork where you want the beds to be or use a digging fork (slower)
- Cover the cut greens with cardboard and / or lots of paper and / or old cotton sheets.
- Get whatever bulk organic matter you can. I used free leaves from the city leaf pile and free spent mushroom straw from an oyster mushroom farmer – so, leaves and straw – but you could use woodchips, forest leaves, grass, newspaper, straw, etc. etc. Pile it up many inches high over the cardboard etc.
- Mix in wood ash and charcoal in decent proportions. I sprinkled on quite a bit of wood ash for the minerals more than anything.
- Optional – let your duckies (if you should be so lucky to have them) hang out on it. They’ll sleep on your fluffy bed of stuff and poop all day long. If you don’t have duckies, use your pee. If you don’t have the privacy to pee on the garden, consider a pee bucket you spill out onto the garden once a day. It won’t get stinky if you empty it once a day or if you add a bunch of charcoal.
- Let it sit until early Spring. Fence the duckies out then.
- If the bed hasn’t broken down into soil (ours didn’t), make a “trench” in the center of all that partially decomposed organic matter about half the width of the bed. Dig some native soil from the paths next to the beds and mix it with an equal proportion of compost (this was our only expense – one $30 truckload of compost). Add a little wood ash to counteract pH of native acidic soil (if it’s acidic).
- Plant into this! and once plants germinate, spread the mulch in the organic matter on each side over them.
- By Fall, this whole bed will hopefully be broken down enough to plant into all 3′ width of it; but in the meantime, you get a very well mulched nutrient rich aisle that seems to be able to support dense growing of plants.
This was enough to make a home for seeds and transplants that continue to nourish us each day.
This post is to explain what our local Dark Mountain gathering is about for any who may be thinking about attending:
Loosely: the Dark Mountain gathering is a small group of folks coming together since 2017 to practice being rooted and fully alive in the perpetual disorientation of the time of the sixth mass extinction.
Each gathering, we try to create a safe and intimate place to voice the questions we hold in our hearts but do not often speak. Community becomes the fire where the hopes and fears we are ready to let go of transform into the wilder nourishment of courage. Through this work, we support each other in living our individual appropriate responses to being alive in this time-like-no-other-time.
Why “Dark Mountain”? The gathering is called Dark Mountain because of the inspiration it drew from a movement of artists and activists out of the UK who collectively noticed that the cultural responses around them did not seem to be facing reality as they saw it. Their response was to create the “Dark Mountain Project.” The name more specifically comes from a manifesto some of them drafted called the Dark Mountain Manifesto. From that manifesto, here are their “Eight Principles of Uncivilization:”
We live in a time of social, economic and ecological unravelling. All around us are signs that our whole way of living is already passing into history. We will face this reality honestly and learn how to live with it.
We reject the faith which holds that the converging crises of our times can be reduced to a set of ‘problems’ in need of technological or political ‘solutions’.
We believe that the roots of these crises lie in the stories we have been telling ourselves. We intend to challenge the stories which underpin our civilisation: the myth of progress, the myth of human centrality, and the myth of our separation from ‘nature’. These myths are more dangerous for the fact that we have forgotten they are myths.
We will reassert the role of storytelling as more than mere entertainment. It is through stories that we weave reality.
Humans are not the point and purpose of the planet. Our art will begin with the attempt to step outside the human bubble. By careful attention, we will reengage with the non-human world.
We will celebrate writing and art which is grounded in a sense of place and of time. Our literature has been dominated for too long by those who inhabit the cosmopolitan citadels.
We will not lose ourselves in the elaboration of theories or ideologies. Our words will be elemental. We write with dirt under our fingernails.
The end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world full stop. Together, we will find the hope beyond hope, the paths which lead to the unknown world ahead of us.
You don’t have to agree with any or all of the manifesto to be a part of this gathering, but by sharing those principles as a starting framework, we can progress the conversation past the kind of surface analysis and debate we’re familiar with from the media into deeper work our culture rarely explores.
What happens in a gathering? Typically, we share readings, contemplations, discussions, meditations, and heart-felt experiences of being alive right now. We also invite the offering of poetry and songs, original or otherwise.
The gathering is lightly facilitated so everyone gets many opportunities to speak but no one is required to. We spend around 3 hours together in a dark place with firelight.
The group often presents opportunities (always optional) to move through grief, ask unvoiced questions, receive support for personal struggles, and connect with enduring kinds of joy that can sustain us through an unchartable future.
You are welcome. If you’re in the Piedmont area of North Carolina, you’re very welcome to attend. The group is new and your presence can help shape it. All you need to bring are your open mind and courageous heart.
Here are the main plants I imagine we’ll be locally depending on for food on our land by 2025. Notice what is not there – many of the delicious but increasingly hard to grow annual vegetables we’re used to. This is based upon my beginner’s understanding of growing food in our specific area and of how climate pressures will change what can do well without increasing amounts of time and material inputs. There are also of course dozens of other plants we’ll depending on more for medicine and so many other needs not listed here.
- Stinging Nettle
- Sweet Potato leaves
- Lamb’s Quarter
- Day Lily
- Sea Kale
- Lots of wild edibles I don’t know
- Smilax tips
- Groundnut / Hopniss
- Air Potato
- Sweet Potatoes
- Perennial Onions
Grains and seeds:
- Heirloom Wheat
- Perennialized grains
- Chinese Chestnuts
- Black Walnuts
- Asian Persimmons
- American Persimmons
- Asian Pears
- Wild Grapes
- Cultivated Grapes
- Paw Paws
Other wild plant foods:
- Pine bark
- The tips and shoots of some plants (e.g. Greenbriar)
- The flowers of many plants (e.g. Honey Locust, Squash Flowers)
- The young leaves of many plants (e.g. Basswood)