Monday, April 27, 2020

Living the Good Life

Russet tending our garden
Living the Good Life

“What a wonderful life” a time traveler unfamiliar with our world might exclaim, seeing me tilling my garden on a sunny spring day, as robins peck for worms. But we all know it isn’t.

Like the rest of us, I’m sequestered at home, sheltering in place, because of the Coronavirus pandemic – which has already killed in 9 weeks, almost as many Americans as the entire Vietnam war. I’m sheltering here alone because my partner in crime, Russet, has been in California for the last two months and will be there for the foreseeable future, caring for her son who has developed a life-threatening condition.

I feel like one of the characters in Nevil Shute’s novel, On the Beach, who might appear, at first glance, to be blissfully happy, taking an evening stroll down a breathtaking beach in Australia. But, once again, things aren’t always as they appear.

The protagonists in Shute’s book aren’t thrilled vacationers, but scared souls looking inward, mulling their mortality, as they await the arrival of a deadly radiation cloud circling toward them from a nuclear war on the other side of the world.

Like them, I mull my mortality. And, in the process, find myself reviewing my past.

The soil I am tilling today, I know intimately.  I built my house here on this 21 acres in the 1970s, part of the Sixties back-to-the-land movement. That was a time, like now, with intense polarization brought about by the endlessly festering Vietnam War, coupled with an explosive cultural war between establishment figures and the counterculture about what we should believe and how we should live. 

The back-to-the-land movement wanted to escape that political turmoil and the cookie-cutter, suburban malaise of the 1950s. Personally, I was worn out for being both a participant and protester in the Vietnam war. Parts of the country were an environmental disaster zone with major cities made toxic by thick smog and rivers so polluted they caught fire. 

I was a disenchanted graduate sociology student, chafing at a department that valued statistics more than people. I was sick of ingesting abstract theories in my cubicle and craved the here-and-now reality of the real, physical world. 

Following counterculture guru and farmer Gene Logsdon, I saw success in terms of the independence that comes from “how much food, clothing, shelter, and contentment I could produce for myself rather than how much I could buy.”

I was a perfect recruit for the back-to-the-land movement, inspired by “Living the Good Life,” by Scott and Helen Nearing;  they had quit their professional jobs in NYC and moved to Vermont to live a sustainable life, building a simple house from rocks found on their property and growing their own food.

My mentor in the garden was J. I. Rodale, a major advocate of organic gardening in the sixties and rightfully considered to be the godfather of the locavore movement. He despised industrial agriculture with its reliance on mono-crops and pesticides.  His motto was, “we must go back to nature, if we wish to live long.”

And, I can’t leave out Steward Brand, visionary and creator of “The Whole Earth Catalog.,” a counterculture magazine and product catalog, that covered topics like self-sufficiency, ecology, and learning how to do things yourself. But, his primary focus was on “access to tools,” for which he had a broad definition, including clothing, books, tools, machines, seeds…anything that promoted independence.

Brand was intent on building a more ethical and sustainable world. He did not sell any of the products he listed, only simply listing the vendor’s information, along with a review of the product. 

But that altruistic 1960s ethic, as with other positive aspects of the 1960s,  soon went the way of the passenger pigeon. By the 1980s, a new mantra ruled the day, attributed to Malcolm Forbes: “He who dies with the most toys wins.”

This new transactional model soon spawned Amazon. In a very distorted sense, this internet supplier resembles the Whole Earth Catalog. But rather than promoting sustainability and empowering local businesses, Amazon encourages over-consumption and creates value by pitting one supplier against another in a race to the bottom. The ultimate winner is the owner, Jeff Bezos, who is now the richest man in the world – undeniably the guy with the most toys.

Pondering the state of the world, waiting for my peas to come up, I have to question society’s judgment that our sixties generation were  self-indulgent and self-absorbed losers. 

Just imagine, if our values had triumphed over materialism and corporate greed, there would be no climate crisis today – and possibly no pandemic. We would all be having fun together. What a wonderful life!

Just imagine.


Saturday, April 18, 2020

We Are Small, Wet Miracles

Reflections 2011
Note: You can see the reflection of me, the observer, 
at the back, as I snapped the shutter

Defining Who We Are on Earth Day – and Beyond

“We are survivors of immeasurable events,
Flung upon some reach of land,
Small, wet miracles without instructions,
Only the imperative of change.”

Astronomer and poet, Rebecca Elson wrote this poem while contending with cancer that killed her at age 39. Just as Rebecca was confronted with her mortality by a life-threatening situation, so are we now forced to face our own impermanence in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. 

From her vantage point, spanning the worlds of science and art, she brings a unique perspective on what it means to be alive on Earth Day.

Although we humans may imagine that we are in control of our destiny and rule the Earth, when the moment of truth arrives – like the coronavirus – the blinders come off and we see ourselves as we really are: small, wet miracles without defenses or instructions. 

While the old gods have been largely consigned to the dustbin of history, new gods continue to mutate into existence through science. At each stage, humans as spiritual, flesh-and-blood creatures have been pushed further to the periphery.

Galileo robbed us of the illusion that Earth was the center of the universe.  Newton replaced God with the concept of universal laws that control the planets in an orderly process, like a giant, mechanical clock. Next, Darwin came along to show that, rather than being created in God’s image, we climbed out of the mud to become the crown jewel of evolution in an epic battle of survival between ourselves and all other species. 

Then along comes quantum theory which defines existence in terms of sub-atomic quarks and neutrinos whose nature is a matter of probability. At each paradigm shift, science has pushed spirituality, community, and what it means to be living, breathing person further off center stage.

As an antidote to this, I was gratified to read Kate Brown’s recent piece in The New Yorker presenting a scientific model, which, at first glance, appears the most radical of them all. The crucial difference is that this biological model celebrates community along with the squishy, realness of us humans in all our glory: sweat, snot, amniotic fluid and all. 

Brown presents a wealth of scientific evidence, demonstrating that the human body is not the self-contained vessel we think it is – just as a chair from the standpoint of quantum physics, is not a solid seat. Instead, a human being is more like a porous cloud: A microbial ecosystem swept “along in atmospheric currents, harvesting gases, bacteria, phages, final spores, and airborne toxins in its nets.”1

Rather than being a distinct, separate entity, we are more an assembly of species. In other words, each of us is a community! This notion has added relevancy in the age of Coronavirus.

Throughout evolution, the fact that each of us is a community within a community promoted health. In indigenous cultures, sharing microbes with other people, along with all other forms of life, was a good thing: the more we shared the healthier we got, the better adapted to our environments and more fit as a social unit.

But that all changed with the industrial revolution and the resultant explosion in the human population. Pandemics become more frequent when living things are forced together in denser proximity, allowing novel microbes to jump to new species. 

Perhaps most crucial, pandemics like the coronavirus are striking more often because of climate change. Warming and changing weather patterns shift the vectors and spread diseases. Heavily polluting industries also contribute to disease transmission. 

Studies have linked factory farming — one of the largest sources of methane emissions — to faster-mutating, more deadly pathogens. “The same corporations that exacerbated the climate crisis are literally helping to create deadlier diseases, more quickly, in a world that keeps changing how they spread.”2

So, under the cloud of the coronavirus, how do we celebrate Earth Day? First, buy local and support local farms. And, at the policy level, push Congress to generously fund climate and environmental justice in upcoming economic stimulus packages. 

For ethical and moral guidance, perhaps it’s time to “go back to the future” and meditate on the wisdom of Indra’s Jewel Net, a revered metaphor in Buddhism, illustrating the interconnection of all things. The metaphor is as follows.

Indra’s realm is a vast net that stretches infinitely in all directions. In each "eye" of the net is a single brilliant, perfect jewel. Each jewel also reflects every other jewel, infinite in number, and each of the reflected images of the jewels bears the image of all the other jewels — infinity to infinity. Whatever affects one jewel effects them all.

This Earth Day, let’s remember each of us, and all beings, is a jewel in her net.