Monday, February 21, 2011

The Magic of Urban Homesteading

I lived with a food forest for a while, in LA. It was my first foray into urban homesteading, an attempt to become food self-sufficient in my front yard. But it evolved into something far more interesting, just as urban homesteading, which was revitalized via the 60's civil rights and 70's "back to the land" movements (but has certainly been in existence as long as there have been cities) has now evolved into yet a new, passionate expression of nature appreciation and community.

Our food forest was magical and beautiful, a place I could get lost in, right in my front yard. It had a Bodhi tree, the tree that Buddha sat under to become enlightened, that I, too, would go and sit under to be quiet within myself and listen for wisdom, midst the sound of the dozens of birds which showed up after we planted the forest to explore its branches. In it, there were tangles of wild berries mixed with passion vine, fig trees, tropical flowers and strawberry guava. It had logs to sit on under big-leafed mulberry trees where you could watch painted china lizard bowls piled with rocks and filled with water, a cool home for lizards who darted in and out and ate insects who got too greedy for our fruit and veggies.

As the forest became more established, mushrooms began popping up at odd and unpredictable times and places. Black and white striped, or moon shaped, or blue, or beanie caps, they told us that the forest was happy and whole.

Every week, people came over on Sunday to hang out in the forest. We would meander through and taste bits of chocolate mint, allspice, bergamot, borage, sacred basil, and Indian curry. Nobody could guess what the allspice was on the first guess! Not one person! Hardly anybody knew that allspice was a plant - they thought it was a mixture of spices (wherever those came from :-) that went in Christmas cake. I loved seeing the wonder on their faces as they smelled things they never smelled before or had forgotten, somehow.

We marveled at our seemingly inexhaustible heirloom tomato crop - purple, green striped, yellow, and multi-colored varieties, each bite a unique burst of flavor, a pleasing surprise. We searched for tender baby snow peas in the wild snow pea bushes, fronds intricately and delicately spiraled around each other - a perfect home for fairies. We chomped the volunteer lettuce leaves hiding under the snow peas, somehow tastier and healthier than the lettuce planted in our beds. The magic snow pea search is what hooked my kids on the food forest. After that, my daughter couldn't wait to pick the juicy peaches for peach cobbler, peach smoothies, peach everything.

Whoever showed up on Sunday (and we never knew who would, but they were always "good peoples") shared fresh veggies and fruit, shared seeds and plants, shared stories and a budding sense of community. We offered our compost to guerilla gardeners for seed balls and plants, that were used to beautify random secret places around Los Angeles. We co-existed with raccoons by discovering their favorite food was grubs in the bottom of the pots with veggie plants in them, and we offered them a gourmet meal at the edge of our yard - of soil and grub-filled pots sans veggies, where they remained content. In an abundant ecosystem, there is enough for all living things. It is a matter of balance.

Our potted trees and seedlings became foundations for budding food forests in places like Pacific Palisades, South Central, Santa Monica, Sierra Madre and Arcadia. Seeds were spreading from the forest, both in thought and action.

Sometimes people would come to tour our garden, sometimes they came for the community, and sometimes they just had too much city and wanted to get their hands in the dirt. So we would give them a shovel and a wheelbarrow and they would disappear into the forest, lost in themselves and the leaves, reveling in the groundedness of worms and composted manure and wood chips that fed the forest.

We started this food forest because we were worried about the state of the planet and the future for our children, which seemed bleak, and scary. Because of the pressing urgency we felt about it, we reached out into the community to spread the word - the necessity of urban homesteading. At first, we spoke a dark tale of destruction which depressed both us and our friends, but spending time in the food forest midst the tangles and spotted shadows, the wild fruit and secret spaces and colors and spicey odors mandated a different story, a story of life, hope, renewal, growth, learning, community, and love.

Along with the forest, we planned ponds, rainwater catchment, rocket stoves, arbor loos, and adobe huts, but alas, we had to leave that place and move on to other adventures before fruition of those visions. Those visions remain dancing in our heads, though, and in the heads of others who shared them, and the story grows, and the forests grow - in many places - multiplying exponentially as each new forest shares its seeds and stories and spiraling tendrils.


Homesteading can mean going out onto a piece of land alone, or with your immediate family, and working the land to provide for yourself - to be self-sufficient. The word can evoke hardship, sacrifice, isolation and loneliness. But this is not how nature produces abundance! Go into any forest, and try to count the number of interactive elements in it - there are millions!

Urban homesteading has evolved into something much more interesting - an organic whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. None of us need be alone or isolated - we all are part of a greater whole, an intricate dance. The richness of interaction, the abundance of shared energies allowing the whole to grow much faster than any of us could do alone, is a lesson the food forest gave me which I will never lose or forget.

This culture encourages "rugged individualism" in all sorts of settings where it is inappropriate - in the midst of a valley inhabited by millions of people, like Los Angeles, pretending that you are alone in the woods is adventurous at best, delusional at worst.

In an urban setting, homesteading cannot and should not be done alone - it is simply not sustainable to do it in that way. If you are the only one in your neighborhood growing food, what will happen if a serious food shortage occurs?

Skill and resource sharing are essential if we want to transition to a more sustainable way of life any time soon. Sharing the expense, care and use of things such as a kiln or high end tools with trusted neighbors, for instance, allows one to expand one's activities and reach. This approach may entail a learning curve for those of us who have forgotten how to work within a community context, but it is well worth it - and quite rewarding! Aside from the obvious security issues, it is simply more fun and enriching to homestead in the context of a larger community. Way more fun, actually.

The food forest's alchemal magic and the community that grew and flowered alongside the shoots and blossoms of the plants have together taken root in my being, lessons learned through birdsong and laughter.


Friday, March 27, 2009



David Foster Wallace has some interesting things to say about operating with consciousness in community.

I love the concept of "default settings" - it's so easy to have these without even realizing it - all sorts of habits of thought and action that we have been influenced by and bought into without really looking at it - it sometimes seems a never ending process to strip them all away, but quite an interesting and rewarding game....

David Foster Wallace - Commencement Speech at Kenyon College (last paragraphs):

...Because here's something else that's weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.

And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship - be it JC or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some intangible set of ethical principles - is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.

If you worship money and things - if they are where you tap real meaning in life - then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you.

On one level, we all know this stuff already - it's been codified as myths, proverbs, cliches, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

Worship power - you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart - you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.

The insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default settings. They're the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that's what you're doing.

And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self.

Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation.

This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom.

The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the "rat race" - the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.

I know that this stuff probably doesn't sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational the way a commencement speech is supposed to sound. What it is, as far as I can see, is the capital-T Truth, with a whole lot of rhetorical niceties stripped away.

You are, of course, free to think of it whatever you wish. But please don't just dismiss it as just some finger-wagging Dr. Laura sermon. None of this stuff is really about morality or religion or dogma or big fancy questions of life after death.

The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death.

It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:

"This is water."

"This is water."

It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out. Which means yet another grand cliché turns out to be true: your education really IS the job of a lifetime. And it commences: now.

David Foster Wallace - Commencement Speech at Kenyon College

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The nature of money


The below article resonates with how we, via our volunteer group Create Clearwater, are attempting to respond to the economic, environmental and social mess this country is facing- with joy, aesthetics and community, not fear and desperation. I find the current economic crisis (or whatever label one wants to put on it) a huge opportunity to return to a more sane way of life - an open door to freedom if we only can cooperate with one another. It has brought people to a need of change in many cases and is getting them to question the way we do things which is always an opportunity.

The author brings up an important point: We have lost sight of the whole purpose of money - to facilitate our quality of life, not to enslave us within its out of control machinations which have taken on a life of their own. What would it take to bring money back under our control and have it serve us and our truest needs, instead of us serving it?

I found parts of this article beautiful and profound.

Excerpt: In the face of the impending crisis, people often ask what they can do to protect themselves. "Buy gold? Stockpile canned goods? Build a fortified compound in a remote area? What should I do?" I would like to suggest a different kind of question: "What is the most beautiful thing I can do?" You see, the gathering crisis presents a tremendous opportunity. Deflation, the destruction of money, is only a categorical evil if the creation of money is a categorical good. However, you can see from the examples I have given that the creation of money has in many ways impoverished us all. Conversely, the destruction of money has the potential to enrich us. It offers the opportunity to reclaim parts of the lost commonwealth from the realm of money and property.


Friday, February 13, 2009


Communication is a good thing. Without it, people can misinterpret each other forever. If you communicate long enough and sincerely enough, it can solve almost anything. It is only useful if it results in a better understanding though. To achieve that, you really have to listen to each other and have the intention to understand the other person. That’s more important than being understood yourself. Maybe that’s because most of us care more about being understood than in understanding the other person’s view so that other side needs some conscious focus to achieve balance.

To truly effectively communicate can take a lot of virtue – things like compassion, honesty, responsibility, patience, courage, humility, unselfishness, and willingness to genuinely consider the other person’s point of view, even if different from one’s own, can be crucial to achieving real communication.

In hindsight, where I’ve had the most trouble communicating is when I expected something, or was trying to get something, rather than being there and listening and seeing what there was to see. There is no real starting point to communication without that action being there .

I recall a particularly difficult relationship I had with someone and looking at it now, can see that my expectations – the way I wanted things to be, my vested interests - made it impossible for me to see almost anything of what was really going on. Perhaps I would have gotten more of what I was seeking if I had been less concerned with getting it. Communication can be most difficult when it is most important, where there is passion and real caring. There seems to be so much at stake, and it’s true, there is. But stepping back and looking at the whole thing as an outsider might view it can be extremely helpful, even necessary, to resolving things in any sort of positive fashion.

Some people don’t really want to communicate. They’ve had failures at it, they don’t think it will go anywhere, or they are simply afraid. I have seen very unnecessary tragedies and destruction occur because of lack of communication, and miracles happen with real understanding – you may be able to think of some examples, too. It is really worth it to make that happen.

Communication can be very healing. Sometimes it is the only thing that will really heal a situation. Regardless of the risk, regardless of what might occur as a result, when that is the case, one may have no other ethical choice but to communicate and to ensure that understanding is really occurring. Sometimes that means clearly spelling something out for a person, especially if there has been misunderstandings and miscommunication in the past. A mystery can stick someone's attention quite severely and is worth clearing up.

You know, any problem, no matter how tough or impossible it may seem, can be solved with communication. Anything, if one wants it badly enough, can be resolved. That is something that one may need to experience to believe but it is worth trying.

Good communication can take practice and conscious effort and lots of thoughtful observation. It's a necessity on any road to real sustainability of a culture, and in relations with other living things.


Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Heart of the Matter


The times I’ve gotten in the most trouble in my life, the times I’ve been the most victimized, upset, confused or oppressed are those times when I have lost sight of compassion.

I’ve been having conversations about compassion lately with friends, looking at it from various angles and it's sparked some thought. For instance, why is compassion so hard sometimes? We’ve been told a lot of things about why it’s hard:

“Nice people get hurt.”

“You’ll get taken advantage of.”

“People will just take and take from you if you let them, and not give anything back.”

“People will never learn if you let them get away with it.”

“You have to keep people in line.”

You can probably think of a dozen more examples. The strange truth is, that the more compassion you have, the less possible it is to hurt you or take advantage of you. If you get hurt by showing compassion, then it is not really compassion – it is something else. But bear with me because I am redefining compassion here.

Webster’s 1828 Dictionary defines compassion as:

“A suffering with another; painful sympathy; a sensation of sorrow excited by the distress or misfortunes of another; pity; commiseration. Compassion is a mixed passion, compounded of love and sorrow; at least some portion of love generally attends the pain or regret, or is excited by it. Extreme distress of an enemy even changes enmity into at least temporary affection.”

Though it can be really nice to be understood so deeply when one is experiencing suffering and to know that someone else cares, this type of compassion can sometimes end up making two people feel bad, instead of just one.

We all know of stories of effective demonstration of compassion that have touched us – something that was done, not just felt. A recent YouTube video has been circulating about a dog that risked its life to pull another dog off a freeway after it was hit by a car. Some might argue the dog was operating from some animal instinct that had nothing to do with sorrow or love, but I don’t think that anyone would argue that the act itself could be described as compassionate in its results (per the video, the rescued dog lived).

We could redefine compassion as an action word – a conscious decision and resultant action that creates effective, positive change for both giver and receiver alike. Though feelings of compassion often inspire such actions, it can also work the other way around. A decision to act compassionately can give rise to any number of positive feelings from everyone involved.

Compassion could be described as responsibility – the willingness to take responsibility for what the other person does as well as what you do. It could also be described as knowledge. If you’re willing to experience anything – because you understand why it is happening and you take responsibility for your choices that led up to that, there is nothing in this universe that can harm you.

To the degree you are truly able to face something, you can be compassionate about it. It is a viewpoint and a decision – a discipline and practice that one can get better at. We all know people who are just “naturally” compassionate, and we tend to admire those people a lot for being able to do that, but the only difference between them and anybody else is that somehow, they made the decision to be compassionate at some point. Sometimes it was a conscious decision, more often it was not. They were given reasons to be that way that made sense to them, while people who find it difficult to show compassion were given reasons they shouldn’t be, like those listed above.

We’ve all been betrayed and screwed over, in some fashion or another. In many cases, we can look at those incidents and recognize some point where we knew better, where we could have turned the tide and avoided being a victim. Sometimes it’s really hard to see it - sometimes it’s really, really hard, especially when one is stuck in the middle of the hurt. But that point is there, where one had a choice to become the adverse effect, or not. That point does not necessarily have anything to do with whether one chooses an emotional feeling of compassion or decides instead to harden their heart. It can have something to do with right action, right speech, and correct assessment of the situation so that one is not taken by surprise. Compassion is not necessarily a feeling, though feelings can certainly go along with it. It is a viewpoint and a decision, a discipline and a practice.

Compassion is a natural state of being. We teach ourselves to hide and suppress compassion, because we have been blindsided and tricked. It is not because we showed compassion that we were blindsided though. That is the big lie. It is because we did not look at what was in front of us that we were injured. We were careless. Our prediction of what might happen was inadequate. And because we did not fully see the shortcomings of the person, their capability to be imperfect, and therefore became upset when it manifested, we were not showing true compassion. Do you see how it is not compassion that hurts us, but the opposite?

Real compassion makes a being strong and powerful, not weak. If you are practicing true compassion, you cannot be victimized. Bullets, hate, treachery, none of it can touch you. This fact goes beyond physical universe appearances into the metaphysical. It is not something that is necessarily real unless you have experienced it for yourself. Try it, and see if it works for you! But keep in mind that it is a gradient thing, there are many levels of compassion, as there are levels of awareness.

We can all think of examples of highly compassionate people who have been cut down because of it – Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King. But were they really hurt, in the larger scheme of things? Their legacy lives on far more powerfully than those that attacked them, who are remembered only because of the greatness of the men they tried to harm. There is a strength of soul that comes from being compassionate that makes life far more rich and beautiful than living in fear or defense against potential harm. That quality may very well be more valuable than anything one may be protecting by suppressing a compassionate viewpoint.

I am far from being able to be compassionate at all times – I consider myself a baby on the subject. But I’ve experienced enough of it from multiple angles to know that it is truly one of the most powerful weapons and healing antidotes that exist.

There have been many beautiful things expressed about compassion throughout the ages. Here is one of my favorite essays on the subject, a classic written by L. Ron Hubbard, who, by all evidence, is a man who practiced what he preached quite thoroughly - "What is Greatness?":

A community is a great place to practice effective compassion, and how much stronger is a community that practices such things?...


Sunday, January 18, 2009



Get Into The Forests Again

When we get out of the glass bottles of our ego,

When we escape like squirrels

Turning in the cages of our personality

And get into the forests again,

We shall shiver with
cold and fright

But things will happen to us

So that we don't know ourselves.

Cool, unlying life will rush in,

And, passion will make our bodies taut with power,

We shall stamp our feet
with new power

And old things will fall down,

We shall laugh, and institution
will curl up like burnt paper.

D.H. Lawrence

What role does nature play in community? It is a great teacher, perhaps the best one to teach us about how life works through simple observation. Permaculture is one science that has learned from this teacher. Natural sciences have compiled vast information about that world, but the information too often stops at the edges of the subject, and doesn't translate to our daily lives.

Permaculture takes the laws of the natural world and plunks them down in the midst of our square houses and square asphalt streets, our frantic plastic creations. What happens is surprising to many - working with nature instead of against her always results in more abundance, more choice, more freedoms.

There is great power in nature, great healing, great peace. Even people who are oblivious to the intricate dance of the natural world will show up at a camp grounds with their fully loaded RVs and their TV set blaring. Somehow, on some level, they know they are better off doing that stuff in the midst of trees. They are healthier for it, even if they can't be there without props.

We have created a reality where nature has no part in it. One can conduct one's life without ever setting foot in it, without ever having to deal with it, really. We even insulate ourselves from the weather, with our automatic car starters and parking garages and buildings heated by cutting down mountains for coal. But yet, we cannot live without the natural world - everything that surrounds us comes from it ultimately, in some form or other, as altered and unrecognizable as it may be. We pay for our ignorance of the abundance amidst which we live - not only the personal price of being disconnected from its power and grace, but a group price - what other culture has been so willing to poison itself and its lifeblood in the name of a game that involves exchanging pieces of paper or electronic bits in order to see who can hoard or acquire the most?

Historically, a community that doesn't understand and embrace the natural world is doomed. Every civilization that has ignored nature has sooner or later been buried by it. The jury is out as to what this culture is going to decide to do - there are many discouraging elements, but also signs of change.

The exploding trend toward organics has made it off the grocery shelves and into our backyards, with record interest in growing our own food. A garden is a gesture toward the natural world - a controlled edge between nature and our square constructs. A food forest is a better edge. But somewhere both within and surrounding a community, there must be wild things, left to their own devices, left to create themselves in concert with their wild world. A place where we can go and be our wild selves and learn from our wild cousins.

How do we return to a true understanding of this world? Each of us has our own path, our own affinities and dreams that lead us there.

Coyote is often the one who leads me. Standing patiently, energetic alert being, he looks at me nonchalantly, with wind eyes. They tell me he will take me into magic realms, far from silly rules and square boxes. He knows what I need, and taunts me to reach for it.

He is an edge creature, one who can live in many worlds. He always returns to the deep wild though, where his cries blend best. He looks over his shoulder, and waits for me.

I think it's time to go for a walk in the woods...


Friday, January 16, 2009

Conversation with God


One of my favorites

A conversation between GOD and St. Francis about Suburbanites

GOD: St. Francis, you know all about gardens and nature. What in the World is going on down there in the USA? What happened to the dandelions, violets, thistle and stuff I started eons ago? I had a perfect, no-maintenance garden plan. Those plants grow in any type of soil, withstand drought and multiply with abandon. The nectar from the long lasting blossoms attracts butterflies, honeybees and flocks of songbirds. I expected to see a vast garden of colors by now. But all I see are these green rectangles.

ST. FRANCIS: It's the tribes that settled there, Lord. The Suburbanites. They started calling your flowers weeds and went to great lengths to kill them and replace them with grass.

GOD: Grass? But it's so boring. It's not colorful. It doesn't attract butterflies, birds and bees, only grubs and sod worms. It's temperamental with temperatures. Do these Suburbanites really want all that grass growing there?

ST. FRANCIS: Apparently so, Lord. They go to great pains to grow it and keep it green. They begin each spring by fertilizing grass and poisoning any other plant that crops up in the lawn.

GOD: The spring rains and warm weather probably make grass grow really fast. That must make the Suburbanites happy.

ST. FRANCIS: Apparently not, Lord. As soon as it grows a little, they cut it, sometimes twice a week.

GOD: They cut it? Do they then bale it like hay?

ST. FRANCIS: Not exactly Lord. Most of them rake it up and put it in bags.

GOD: They bag it? Why? Is it a cash crop? Do they sell it?

ST. FRANCIS: No, sir -- just the opposite. They pay to throw it away.

GOD: Now, let me get this straight. They fertilize grass so it will grow. And when it does grow, they cut it off and pay to throw it away?

ST. FRANCIS: Yes, sir.

GOD: These Suburbanites must be relieved in the summer when we cut back On the rain and turn up the heat. That surely slows the gro wth and saves Them a lot of work.

ST. FRANCIS: You aren't going to believe this, Lord. When the grass stops growing so fast, they drag out hoses and pay more money to water it so they can continue to mow it and pay to get rid of it.

GOD: What nonsense. At least they kept some of the trees. That was a Sheer stoke of genius, if I do say so myself. The trees grow leaves in the spring to provide beauty and shade in the summer. In the autumn they fall to the ground and form a natural blanket to keep moisture in the soil and protect the trees and bushes. Plus, as they rot, the leaves form compost to enhance the soil. It's a natural circle of life.

ST. FRANCIS: You'd better sit down, Lord. The Suburbanites have drawn a new circle. As soon as the leaves fall, they rake them into great piles and pay to have them hauled away.

GOD: No. What do they do to protect the shrub and tree roots in the Winter and to keep the soil moist and loose?

ST. FRANCIS: After throwing away the leaves, they go out and buy Something which they call mulch. They haul it home and spread it around in place of the leaves.

GOD: And where do they get this mulch?

ST. FRANCIS: They cut down trees and grind them up to make the mulch.

GOD: Enough! I don't want to think about this anymore. St. Catherine, you're in charge of the arts. What movie have you scheduled for us tonight?

ST. CATHERINE: Dumb and Dumber, Lord. It's a real stupid movie about.............

GOD: Never mind, I think I just heard the whole story from St. Francis.