Monday, June 30, 2014

Enchanted Forests

In college, I majored in “Saving the Enchanted Forest.” That was the title of my thesis.

It seemed like a good idea when I barreled out of a semester in the woods and created my independent project merging environmental studies, philosophy, and creative writing. My plan was to examine how the history of Western philosophy has landed us with the environmental crises of the present day. I read enough Edward Abbey then to fall in love with wild places, never mind immersing myself in whatever wild place I could find. 

I thought if I could write well enough about how lovely the woods, the mountains, the ocean, the night sky, the world truly is, maybe I could re-work the enchantment of the forest, undo the evil spell of historically mistreating the natural world as our rightful resource, and bring everyone as under its charm as I was and am still—then we could all together protect the wilds of the world for itself and ourselves.

By the end of college, I became embarrassed to admit that I love the world, that I could be so naïve and hopeful as to believe in the power of stories and fables and enchantments. I had bookcases full of reports of environmental statistics and ecosystem degradation and pollution levels and climate change data and Superfund sites and all sorts of mean nasty scary things that seemed more pressing, more urgent than the innocent hope of charming people back into love with the world as a means of salvation. Protectively or snidely, I was the first to laugh at the title, when I wasn’t mortified by the nakedness of my heart those words alone exposed. It wasn’t cool, by the time I was all of twenty-two, to still cling to that. It seemed babyish, like hugging a doll or crying or believing in magic.

These days, I believe in sunlight and love, which amounts to the same thing as believing in magic. But I come by it pretty honestly, and not for lack of putting in the hours of searching for magic, anywhere. 

When I was six, my mother read me The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. I’ve been checking the backs of wardrobes ever since, just to see if I could find a way into Narnia. I played dress-up and make-believe and lived out a thousand separate fantasy lives with my sisters growing up. I read nearly every book I could find, and then acted them out, somehow. We set up tents in the backyard, found secret best places in the woods, and I always hoped that I would some how fall through into someplace where good and evil were clear choices, and where the good guys—fawns, hobbits, wizards, pirates, sleuths, elves, mice with swords, boys with hatchets, girls with wolves, dragons and princess-librarians—all found each other and beat back the darkness. 

I’ve been beyond lucky to find—in pockets of this world—enough of those places and people to rekindle what was almost lost—the ability to witness wildness and my core belief in the enchantments of the world. The moments of beauty I have collected, the string of pearlescent memories of light and love and laughter and the faith I trust as much as my own hands that such magical times are not fairy tales to be put away and forgotten. These are ways to live, if you’ve able to look and live parallels between worlds.

We don’t get to fall through rabbit holes or walk through wardrobes or sail to the Undying Lands or cut into other worlds with subtle knives to meet our souls—we can’t live in fictions and fables. But we can live here better, and with more of the lightness that comes from storybook worlds.

I loved what Salman Rushdie wrote in a New York Times Book Review after Gabriel Garcia Marquez died:
“The trouble with the term ‘magical realism,’ el realismo mágico, is that when people say or hear it they are hearing or saying only half of it, ‘magic,’ without paying attention to the other half, ‘realism.’ But if magic realism were just magic, it wouldn’t matter. It would be mere whimsy—writing in which, because anything can happen, nothing has effect. It’s because the magic in magic realism has deep roots in the real, because it grows out of real and illuminates it in beautiful and unexpected ways, that it works.”

There are books and worlds I have been so immersed in and enamored of that putting the book down was like drowning. This spring I read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and came gasping back to reality, feeling off balance and squinting at piles of burlap beside a farm field as if they would become bedraggled hobo magicians with shifting prophesies on their skins. Not as such, but that burlap is now decomposing in a compost pile, in the wings of another stage of being, of filling something like prophesies. Or at least stomachs. That is the magic of reality. 

I believe we must allow ourselves the grace of enchantment, of stories and fictions and possibilities within this world. 

The other pieces of my studies, the ones that look at how we’ve treated the natural world—and why we divided the world into natural and us, in the first place—leads me to believe that when we strip mine and dissect the woods, the mountains, the oceans, when we tame anything wild, we put everything from our souls on out in great peril.

I don’t know if falling in love with the world, if permitting ourselves and relearning the emotional grace of enchantment, can truly undo the damage centuries of dissection and separation have wrought. I can’t prove that this will work.

That, though, may be the root of the trouble. We’ve become overly reliant on logic and proof, rather than trusting the magic before our eyes.

How can anyone look at the world and not be enchanted? What better proof and reason that our eyes and hearts?

When I look at the light of sunset or the stars, when I smell balsam fir or salt water, or hear white-throated sparrows or hawks or any of it all, I cannot imagine how I could have let myself throw that enchantment even briefly aside.

As an environmentalist with an active heart and informed mind working for the salvation of the world, I am stronger with the hopeful eyes of fiction and magic, than I am without.

I believe we all are.

(colored in drawing of Lucy and Mr. Tumnus from

Monday, June 23, 2014

Organic and Sustainable

Let’s split hairs.

I’m delighted that labeling any product “organic” seems to be the greatest thing to hit food marketing since sliced bread. That Walmart, for example, is using its position as a powerful economic bully to mass market what amounts to thousands and thousands of acres of organic fields is superb. Think of all the chemicals, fertilizers, and overall crap that are not being leached and run-off into the global water cycle, into the skin and lungs and eyes and endocrine systems of field workers across the world! That cleaner, cheaper food is also getting into more people is also a great success and relief.

However, it still feels more than a little gross that a megacorporation gets to use the word organic. Sure, an increasing number of their vegetables are produced in accordance with national standards of organic growth practices, but there is something about an international giant business model built on expansion and growth and profit and world dominance and denial of workers’ rights that seems decidedly against the spirit of the word. The organic certification process is a strangely regulated minefield, and often, too expensive and absurd for smaller farms to participate in. Agribusinesses, however, have little trouble making the grades, and I imagine that the agribusiness lobbyists are rather more aggressively persuasive of our national policy makers than the organic lobby.

A few nights ago as I listened to several architect friends—all of whom have a strong interest and background in sustainability and green design—swap horror stories about various firms in their field, I got hung up on how misused “sustainable” is as a term. It may be officially green and sustainable to ensure the VOC levels of the paint and the new carpets in your LEED and historically certified restored structure, but when employees are working 80 hours a week, eat at their desks, and maternity leave is scoffed at, it seems dishonest to use the word “sustainable” or “eco-friendly” to describe the work. I am all in favor of creating more energy efficient spaces to live and work, but light bulbs and solar panels alone are not enough.

It may come down to the fact that I just don’t trust anything that seems based primarily on profit and status, rather than on kindness and common sense.

In pointing the misappropriation of these words and good intentions out, I am being fussy, persnickety, elitist, snobby, greenier-than-thou, and best of all, idealistic and demanding. What do I want the world to be, perfect? For food to be grown in ways that is safe for the workers, the planet, and the consumers—in that order—by workers who are paid a living wage and have appropriate voice and agency in their workplaces? For consumers to be self and world aware and make the best choices their souls and budgets allow? Do I want all companies to treat their employees as humans first, and as employees second, so that there is time and money to be informed and make those choices? Do I want the fossil fuel, coal, and natural gas industries to wither and die from disuse as we turn towards renewable, cleaner and more efficient ways to power our way of being within the world?


I don’t care about buzzwords and labels. In fact, when those words start to get bandied about, I tend to get quiet and angry. Or I just leave, and go about my life, refusing to buy into and be judged by a set of beliefs that I find harmfully ridiculous. It’s Walt Whitman, leaving the astronomy lecture to go look at the stars.

What is actually green, organic, and sustainable cannot be quantified or labeled or certified by a third party, or by any temporarily powerful authority. Is it more sustainable and better for the planet to ride my bike to Whole Foods and stock up on organic everything, or walk to the Shaw’s with the solar panels on the roof? What if I take the bus to Market Basket where the prices are cheap and any random aisle is alive with more human diversity than my entire hometown? Or I could do research and drive to whatever grocery store treats its employees best and pays them decently. Shall I only eat what I can grow, hunt, forage, and barter for in my eco-system?

No one can answer that for me—there is no third party for these questions. There is only me to answer to and for. And, among those choices I am lucky to have, there are no bad or wrong or lesser answers. No one best answer, either—there are no platinum, gold, or silver certifications for how to be. The right answer is what I find to be right, that day. All answers are better than dithering in indecision, waiting for someone else to say what is right for you to do.

True metrics of sustainability are pretty close, I find, to the metrics of our morals—what is sustainable is what feels the most right to how we each wish to be in the world, and how we wish the world to become, and what small steps are part of the larger journey towards that goal. While, chemically at least, organic does have a more distinct meaning, in the larger and smaller sense, what is organic is also more personal, what is organic is what feels most appropriate and natural for you, trying to maintain a connection to the big beautiful everything.

What is more organic than trusting and following your own heart out into the world?

It is a knife-edge between self-awareness and narcissistic-aggrandizing. Cleaving devotedly to the joyful path of your heart is the sweetest thing, but there is a danger in becoming blind to how your life and choices and path interact and crisscross others, how everything collides and connects. People who fuss about only eating organic, or only feeding their children organic food, irritate me in this way. They focus so much on the precious temples of their own bodies that they don’t seem to have energy left to see how their being fits in with the rest of the world. When we all “discovered” quinoa a few years ago, there was a shortage in the Andes, where it has been a staple basically forever. (And, yes, there is quinoa in my pantry and organic milk in my fridge—I am a little of what I despise. Aren’t we all?)

Friends, the revolts against the green-washing and untrue articulations of the words are sprouting. The revolution is, sweetly and practically, in progress. The farm I work on is organic, but at present the farmers seem disinterested in pursuing the official label—the price and process takes too much time and energy away from the work itself, of growing the vegetables in the first place. My architect friends have mostly left the firms with rigid hierarchies, where the young are eaten by the male dominated leadership, and have forged greener pastures in workplaces where families are supported and collaboration and creativity are valued. In academia—from kindergarten to Phd. programs—other friends find and make and teach more interdisciplinary and connected worldviews. And so goes the quiet shift of paradigms, of values over profit, of doing right things for our own right reasons.

Everywhere, in so many ways, we are putting our hearts first, and refusing to play by rules that are twisted away from what we each know to be right and true. What we’re building and growing by doing so, each of us in our different fields and ways, with the decisions of our hearts and talents, is beyond any label or standard. We are organically making the defiant and joyful worlds that cannot be defined and will be sustained.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Compasses, Choices, and Happiness

“To secure one’s own happiness is a duty,” are about the only words I remember liking from Emmanuel Kant’s Groundings for the Metaphysics of Morals.

Skimming through the furiously highlighted copy I’ve saved from my first philosophy class, I am trying to remember what it was that rubbed me so far the wrong way about Kant. I think that it was, probably, all the talk of duty and law. At least, that is my gut reaction when I hold the thin volume between my thumb and forefinger, like I do a horn worm in the tomato patch.

It seems that I have long taken issue with authority, with any attempt for an outside force to dictate my moral compass or how to be in the world. Granted, there is a great deal of Kant that takes the golden rule and transposes it onto society—and I’m completely on board with that and wish mightily and try a little to live more kindly and treat the world more as I would like to be treated—but he has a preachy tone of what one “should” do that just sets unsettles my stomach and clenches my fists.

And yet, lately, as I weigh and balance the choices I am making in how I live, the steps I take as steps themselves and as steps along a path towards something always better and kinder and cleaner, I have been thinking of Kant and securing one’s own happiness as an ultimate duty.

My friend and fellow rabble-writer, Laura, posted a sweet response to the previous Granite Bunny ramble. I think her words are brilliant, and made me see so sharply how all of our lives are built out of our choices and priorities. She’d love to farm, but does not, in part, because of her rich community in the city and moral stance against cars. And so, she does paid work that doesn’t satisfy, yet leads a life that is rich in different ways than my own. She is jealous of my farm work, I am jealous of her centralized and rooted community—my glorious people are scattered like a wonderful and expansive constellation but I never have quorum of my dearest ones all in one place, and I wander a lot looking for the right fit—geographically, socially, personally—to root and grow with.

The grass isn’t greener on the other side of anything—it’s all green, all the time. And it is important to remember that, I think. That the choices of your life are because of the loves and quests and answers you’ve currently got.

For example, my need to put hands in dirt and body in service to something tangibly greater than myself so that my heart and brains and fingers can pound out these words to offer what I can to the world trumps all other priorities at present. There have been times when I have needed to wrap myself up in the people I love above all other needs, and times when I have shunted myself as far off a grid as I could find. Like all things, these choices and balances will shift, and I am coming to expect changes and not try to anticipate what they will be. I do not know where I will be one year from today, what adventure the priorities of my heart will have sent me on. To me, today at least, this is more exciting than frightening. 

To be poetic, I say these things are matters of my heart, my soul, my moral compass. However, it is my graceless stomach that is the real ethical barometer. There is a certain feeling of unbalance and sickness when I am doing the wrong thing, my wrong thing, when I cannot put my daily actions in context of my deep beliefs of how to be in and a part of the world. When I “secure my own happiness,” as Kant would say, my stomach is calm. When I am off my course, I feel it deeply, physically. In this way, I don’t always feel like I make my own choices, so much as my choices make me. If I made my own choices, if the compass of my guts didn’t drive me, there are a host of things I would likely have done differently. If I didn’t listen and adhere as carefully to my guts, chances are my life would be more secure and predictable and perhaps less overwhelming. I can hope that I would be happy with that, but there seems to be something I inescapably love about being kitty-corner to whatever normal milestones and benchmarks are for our society.

I don’t think I could be me if I did anything other than obey my moral compass and choices of my heart, soul, and stomach.

And so, I follow my instincts, because at all costs, the priceless joy and satisfaction is worth the struggle, and the worry and pain I may—with extreme regret—cause anyone else. It is worth my own dark times, bouts of loneliness, sleepless nights and scrounging months. And, I know the smack of selfishness that rings through this—if anyone other than my dog were dependent on me, my life would need to be different. But sustaining anyone that close would have become the right thing for my love and energies, I suspect.

My dear friend Shannon advised me recently to “treat everyone as if they have Asperger’s, and a broken heart.” As a somewhat tactless person with bleeding hearts pinned all over my sleeves, I do love this—it helps to swath interactions with a gentleness that is often lost and always needed. Too, I would add to assume that everyone is doing the best they can by whatever compass their morals abide by, that they are making choices, and being made by choices, in ways which make intricate sense to their soul, but perhaps not to the outside world.

I recognize that my efforts at farming—where I drive about an hour a day, alone, time which could be spent nurturing relationships closer—run afoul of my desire to rid the world of the scourge of fossil fuel dependence. I am not trying to justify or balance this: 120 CSA members at the farm times X pounds of carbon kept out of the atmosphere due to people shopping local and organic divided by 5 hours of driving plus 37 kinds of sunlight on 1,038.2 shades of green in the fields…there is no equation. Joy does not compute.

What I am doing, though, for now, is reminding me that I am an active part of something greater than myself. There are so many ways to do this. I believe it is the sweetest duty and happiness one can attain, however the effort manifests itself in your own life. As long as my daily life can be placed in context of, in compliment to, the demands of my soul, I think that happiness is present. I will likely not farm forever, but I will forever seek this sense of being in and of and engaged with the world. This is the happiness that is my duty to secure. And I am happier still to share it.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Love, Dust, and Transitions

The air is thick this month with blooming flowers, graduation speeches, and wedding vows. So many people in June set out on new journeys, change something deeply in how they are in the world, or make manifest the truth of their own hearts.

It is glorious, all of these transitions and freedoms and changes and ways of being and of love on the brink of being explored and made visible in the world.

I’ve attended enough weddings at this point to come to the happy conclusion that love is not rare. How people come to find each other, how they recognize that their independent lives would grow richer with the graft of their beloved’s life and leap on that faith, and that their mutual priority is to build a life together, that is always unique to the people being celebrated in fields and tents and city halls and beaches and other places made holy with love on any given weekend. But that is not the sum and total of love—love itself is the biggest and grandest and most diverse thing we can find and share and abet in this world.

Similarly, all of the predictable and traditional tripe of graduation speeches and rituals would have you believe that the path of how to be in the world only unfolds for you at eighteen and twenty-two, that only then can you come into the world and make of it what grows from its reality and your dreams.

We, too often, come to mistake the rituals for the thing. We think, perhaps, that our slates cannot be cleaned, that we cannot start again as new graduates do. We forget that weddings are only one very public example of how the love in the air can be grabbed hold of, how a life can be built on love.  “There are more things in Heaven and Earth,” says Hamlet—a prime example of a desperate Romantic trying to practically follow his heart through the mess of being human—“than are dreamt of in your philosophies.”

I worry about how stuck we get in our philosophies, in our culturally narrowed ideas of what life “should” look like and be. If you believe mainstream cultural influences—and they are perniciously hard to avoid—marriage is the one and truest expression of love, opportunity and adventure and new beginnings are exclusively for graduating students.

We dangerously break our own hearts and wall up our souls with such little thoughts and static ways of being.

When you take the time to behold the sunset, the phases of the moon, the crisscross journeys of the stars, the tides, the sunrise, all that thrums with birth and life and death in the living world, it becomes beautifully clear that new beginnings, new opportunities, are as common and lovely as dirt. When you look at all the different ways in which people live—and I believe that our deepest loves root and dictate how we spend our precious time, and so how we are in the world is fused to how we make our days and lives—then it becomes clear that love is more common than oxygen, and just as unremarked on, often.

I’ve been thinking of love, lately, as something that you could reach out and catch with your hands, hold and twist and shape as you see fit. We swing from one sure handful of love across abysses to the next with not much explicable certainty. I believe love is a force to be interacted with, not to be passively waited for. It is the “Dust” of Phillip Pullman’s novels, strands of energy running through our lives that we can make what we will out of. The combination of such common material with the amazing multitudes we each contain is too potent an opportunity to be ignored or limited in whose turn it is to take part. We are all, to borrow from Hamlet again, quintessences of dust.

And boundlessly so, if we can remember that, live into our best understandings of what that means.

Farming is teaching me more about patience and cycles and transitions than anything I may have ever done before. I see, almost daily, how the labor of my body—led by the love in my heart for the world and my place therein—interacts with the plants in the ground. On Friday, I pounded tomato stakes, hoed potatoes, weeded chard, broccoli and kale, helped uncover beds and beds of cabbage, ate the fruits of last year’s harvest for lunch with the farm team, hoed squash and cucumbers and basil, hand weeded dill, listened to the plans made for the coming weeks, and cleaned the tools at the end of the day. While I worked, I thought of the students I knew who graduated that day and stepped into the world for the first—not last or only—time, I thought of my wonderful and wise sister whose birthday it was, I thought of the friends whose wedding was the next day and all the people I love who would be witnesses to the ceremony and celebration, and was overwhelmed by the dynamic opportunities for being amalgams of love and dust and labor abounding in even a single second of life in this world.

There is always time start again with how you want to be in the world. And to open your eyes and heart to the love and potential that stem from and surround us all. The world will not pass by those who act on the love to be part of it all, at any age, in any month, of any year.