Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Simple and Complex

Today, I accidentally broke the handle off the pull-cord of a tractor-mower while mowing around one of the newly planted fields of the farm where I’m working.

The broken cord whipped back into the engine. One of the farmers got out her tools and put it all back together.

Last week, we spent several hours ripping damp rotting muddy burlap out of fields that remain too wet to be planted. Other tasks have included unrolling huge sheets of what feels like enormous dryer sheets to cover newly planted seedlings and seeding fields in a palimpsestuous parody of every peasant to ever sow a crop. 

All in all, I couldn’t personally be happier with this mix of mechanical and physical and green-growing skills. Basic capability is assumed, which is the fastest way to grow it, I have found. I have entered complicated little worlds before and love them, although so much seems new that I am overwhelmed by the seeming complexity of it all. 

As the farm is in Concord, MA, I find the giggling ghost of Thoreau on the edges of the field. Particularly, his often quoted and misquoted advice to “simplify, simplify.”

With all due respect, I think this is bad advice. Or rather, just poorly interpreted.

Nothing is simpler than how we live, most of us. With enough money, really, I could get anything in the world delivered to my home, and make my home anything, anywhere I’d like it to be. There are ways to live without lifting a single finger.

What could be simpler than this?

It certainly seems that this way of living is viewed as a goal for many people. Simple, easy, microwave everything, drive everywhere, swaddle ourselves from any reality that might be disagreeable—from climate change to social justice to our own sneaking suspicions that this ease of living isn’t all that it promised to be.

For a semester in college, I lived in a cluster of yurts on the edge of a lake. We had solar panels and a water pump and it was as messy an experiment in off-the-grid living as I could hope for. Taking a shower was one of the most complex operations I’ve participated in. First, you went down the dock and grabbed a 5-gallon bucket of lake water. You lugged the bucket up to the main site, treading over short stumps set down to make footing easier—this had mixed results. At the shower stall, you poured whatever water hadn’t sloshed out into a very large pot and lifted it up to a propane burner. Five or four gallons of lake water takes a long time to heat up, and I rarely had the patience for more than tepid. When your patience ran out, you lifted the warm-ish water off the stove and poured it into another 5-gallon bucket. This second bucket had a nozzle in the bottom with a handle to control the water, and a slightly reinforced bucket handle so you could attach it to a pulley over the open-air shower stall and hoist to an appropriate height.

Once the water bucket was hanging over your head, you hopped into the little plywood cell, looked up at the hemlock trees, and fiddled with the nozzle until a weasel-drool thin stream of tepid lake water leaked out over you.

It is far simpler to take a shower at my apartment. And far more comfortable. The water is hot and plentiful and I can be in and out and clean in less time than it took to lug the water from the lake to the burner.

So, I think that “simple” is maybe the wrong goal to strive for. There was something in the labor of that system that connected me to the world, took me in as a member of a complex web of labor and time and effort and resource and reward.

I think the same as I learn how deliciously complicated growing food turns out to be—there are machines with gears and teeth and purpose. There are plans and equations and chemical compounds of dirt and seeds to compute. There are weather patterns to take into account and untold varieties of challenges to be met. There is my own body as a tool to keep strong and healthy to do this work.

None of it is pure or simple. Honest and clear and complex—these are better words of advice for how to be in the world, how to be with ourselves, perhaps.

On the radio last weekend, I heard a bit about Stanford University divesting their endowment from the fossil fuel industry. This is excellent. One of the sound bytes I caught was “climate change solutions must come from the private sector.”

How true.

Not the private sector of business and commerce—although if that’s where your gifts and passions and talents lie, go for it—but the deeper private sectors of our own hearts and minds.

The solutions are staring us in the face. They are simple in the clarity of their truth, their obviousness, their proven ability to make us less reliant on fossil fuels, to make our lives less crisscrossed with unseen, unknown costs and infrastructures. The solutions are in the moments of clarity and the imagination to believe in our heart of hearts at the times when the world and our places within it actually, briefly, makes sense. And in the courage to act in service to that clarity and imagination and hope.

What we need to do, what we are doing in so many ways and places and corners of society is the complex daily work and effort that brings these simple ideas to life. To our lives, and for the life and livelihood of whatever we each hold dear.

As Thoreau also says, "Things do not change; we change." Let's. And let's be clear and complex. And have fun. And save the world and ourselves. 

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