Archive for the ‘community & culture’ Category

Vermont and… Omega-dness – a wee detour to New York!

Burlington, Vermont

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The Basin

On Kate’s urging, I headed north to Vermont through scenic Franconia Notch. This mountain pass, an entrancepoint to the 3,500km Appalachian Trail, has historically drawn visitors to its natural rugged beauty.   Thoreau wrote about the storied landmarks around Franconia Notch, probably contributing to their oversized fame.   But that day the clouds were sunk low; pelting rain and harsh winds whipped through the valley. I briefly visited the Flume and the Basin, unique canyons carved by the path of water over millennia.

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The Pemigewasset River in Franconia Notch

I pulled over to see if I could glimpse the famous Old Man of the Mountain, a distinct profile of an old man’s face jutting out of the rock high on the peak. But I learned that even on a clear day, I wouldn’t be able to see the Man – years ago, his face broke suddenly due to erosion, the official symbol of New Hampshire crumbling down the hill. All that’s left is the lonely decaying infrastructure of a cheesy tourist stop.

Driving across Vermont was a pure delight, twisting through the rolling hills dotted with dairy farms and rusted silos from a bygone era. Roadside sugarhouses lured me in to buy maple cream and taste test various syrups from the nearby maples. In these sleepy New England towns, the original brick buildings and stately white clapboard homes with black shutters have remained for a century or sometimes two. Pumpkins and dried cornstalks decorated the entranceways.

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1200 pound pumpkin

I was still struggling my way through Walden, and I have to admit that I absorbed only a small fraction of his careful words. Our patterns of speech and word choices have changed so much. Thoreau would be horrified to know that I was attempting to listen to Walden rather than read it. One section of the book that stood out was a longwinded explanation of his disdain for the spoken form. Reading seems to be one of the few things he approved of. He spent most of his free time engaged in reading the ancient Greek and Roman classics, or writing about the importance of reading them.

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Gnarnia, my Burlington home

I arrived at my Burlington couchsurf destination to find a cooperative household of nine people around their twenties, with chickens in the garden and a stocked bike repair shop in the backyard. This intentional community is decidedly urban. Will, Alex, Elora, Amalia, Nick, Jakob, Hannah, Chris, and Noelle share the space with a constant flow of couchsurfers curling up in the cozy attic nook. They have weekly meetings and a complex system of rotating chores, including things like baking bread for the household, and buying shared groceries at the co-op. Homebrew beers, fermented krauts, and homemade herbal preparations stock the shelves.

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Lake Champlain sunset

I pinpointed their home by searching the word “permaculture” on the Couchsurfing site. It turned out that most housemates had taken their permaculture design course through the University of Vermont – exactly the kind of students I’d been hoping to connect with! It was interesting to see what kinds of goals and choices they were making in their lives. Several were involved in local food initiatives like establishing public orchards, doing garden education with kids, or work trading with local farms for a truckload of cider apples or a quart of kimchi.

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Megan and I, reunited at last!

Burlington is renowned for being dripping with cyclists, locavores, outdoor adventurists, and a bustling arts and culture scene. It didn’t disappoint. Immediately after my arrival, I was dancing up a storm with my housemates to the funky R&B of local sensation Kat Wright and the Indomitable Blues Band. I was excited to visit my friend Megan, who lived in Victoria for many years and had just recently returned to New England. We swallowed some strong local brews on the shores of Lake Champlain, watching the sun set into the streaky clouds before gobbling Vietnamese pho and wandering pedestrian-only Church Street, where it seemed every second building was a bustling pub.

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Painting Will’s wall mural

The last night, I stayed in to get to know Will’s story while we painted a community mural on his wall. Will linked me with several folks to visit and stay with, and I’m grateful for the connection.

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Edible landscaping at University of Vermont (yep, that’s dinosaur kale!)

Right. About the permaculture stuff. I had the fortune of joining a University of Vermont PDC class as they practiced site analysis at Rock Point School. After walking the grounds – a mix of maple forest, conference and education buildings, community gardens, and rocky coastline – a design charette ensued. Groups created base maps of the land outlining the permaculture zones, sectors, flows, microclimates, infrastructure, and the vibe or sense of place in various points on the landscape. I shot footage for my video and watched their presentations with excited nostalgia, remembering my own PDC. I could tell they were already starting to read landscapes differently.

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Greenhouse on wheels

One highlight was visiting Keith Morris, a permaculture designer who is well-known in the region (ie. everyone I met in Burlington seemed to know him). The founder of Prospect Rock Permaculture, Keith toured me around Willow Crossing Farm. He’s been doing a lot of tree research with hazelnuts, chestnuts, pine nuts, walnuts, pecans – and some new-to-me hybrids: butternuts, “buartnuts,” “butter-buarts,” and “hicans.” Oh the joys of genetic diversity!

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Geodesic dome greenhouse at Willow Crossing Farm

His farm also seeks, as he says, to make an example of profitable reforestation of river corridors while creating wetland habitat and stabilizing riverbanks with native and multipurpose trees. At least 10 feet of earth disappeared from the crumbling riverbank bordering his land during a serious flood last year. It’s just steps away from the yurt classroom, the composting toilets, and the solar outdoor showers used by his PDC students. Keith has a lot at stake in this experimentation, using vegetation to hold down the riverbank over time with their roots. But there’s also a focus on the other uses of the trees like coppicing for firewood, or structural poles for building materials. It’s a great example of how permaculture design can help to solve real-world land management challenges while producing a yield of food, fibre and energy.

The Omega Institute

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The Omega Institute

Keith imparted to me another gift: an invitation to the Northeast Permaculture Retreat at the Omega Institute! I’d already had great success with my interviews, capturing good film footage, and having a ball with my new couchsurfing buds. But this last-minute trip to New York state really blew my expectations for this trip out of the water. I got to spend three days living in a rustic cabin, eating three tantalizing mostly-vegetarian, mostly-local and mostly-organic buffet meals a day, steaming in the sauna, and learning Tai Chi at dawn. And instead of trying to cram in visits to folks all over the region, they all came to one spot, allowing me to connect with over thirty permies from Pennsylvania to Maine! There were CSA farmers, mushroom cultivators, environmental educators, horticulturalists, community organizers, leaders of successful permaculture design businesses, and some folks who actually teach permaculture in the academic world. I was in heaven.

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The Center for Sustainable Living

The highly regarded Omega Institute is an intentional community that hosts workshops on the beautiful site of an old Jewish summer camp near Rhinebeck NY, and is a frequent destination for retreats from New York City. Unlike the very white, homogenous towns and intentional communities I visited elsewhere in New England, the attendees were ethnically and culturally diverse. The gathering was held in Omega’s Center for Sustainable Living. This building meets LEED Platinum designation and the Living Building Challenge requirements, which are much tougher than LEED – a building must demonstrate that it can actually help to restore the environment.  Shifting from being “less bad” and the concept of sustainability to being regenerative is a key idea in permaculture.  Included in twenty imperatives relating to a healthy environment and habitat protection are requirements that virtually all waste from construction and operations must be eliminated, that the building must generate all of its own energy with renewable sources, and that it must capture and treat all of its own water.  This follows the permaculture philosophy that there’s no such thing as waste – only stuff in the wrong place.

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The Lagoon – part meeting space, part sewage treatment facility!

The building’s water cycling system is the most fascinating part. It was designed around Omega’s desire for an educational – and aesthetically pleasing – example of ecological water recycling onsite. Grey and black water are piped down to holding tanks where a complex web of microbial agents voraciously devour the nutrients. The water enters the “Lagoon,” a beautiful indoor paradise, where it feeds the roots of tropical plants along with another set of microorganisms and insects. By this time, the water doesn’t have the faintest odour. It is then released into a rocky constructed wetland, where the water will continue to be purified as it sinks into the ground, recharging the aquifer and ultimately being re-pumped by the well to rejoin the cycle of use. Can you imagine if all infrastructure operated like this?

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The Lagoon’s constructed wetland

Our gathering was designed to reflect how the most valuable moments at retreats often don’t occur in the sessions at all, but over evening tea, or on walks together in the woods. I was inspired by the collaborative approach to facilitation, consensus-building, active listening, and negotiation that characterized its organization. Actually, very little had been organized: we held two days of open space sessions, in which the agenda and topics for the day were generated each morning by anyone who wanted to convene a session, and attended by anyone who felt like showing up. We talked about the nuts and bolts of the design biz, the future of the Permaculture Design Certificate, decolonizing permaculture, and including diverse and marginalized communities. I soaked it up, hoping to bring back my learnings and renewed energy to fuel creative projects back home.

Feeling supported to rub up against my comfort zone, I decided to convene a session on permaculture in higher education. There were a lot of people interested in this subject! We shared an engaging discussion on the challenges and opportunities of bringing permaculture into the academic realm, and what it might mean for the teachers and students involved. My sense was that people in the group generally supported the idea of integrating academia and permaculture. I made key connections during this retreat with folks like Abrah Dresdale at Greenfield Community College, and Steve Gabriel at Cornell University, who is working to connect people involved in permaculture research and education at universities.

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The Omega garden

Being there really reinforced my sense that this kind of network building is a need and perhaps a niche looking to be filled further. I’ve been thinking a lot about how my research can be utilized for its highest use in the permaculture world. As you can imagine, I’ve been feeling pretty grateful lately. I’ve had many folks thank me for doing this research and for articulating to me that it is important and needed. It’s not to toot my own horn (the usefulness of the results is yet to be determined!) but rather a noticing that not every Master’s student gets to hear things like this regularly, and to combine their passion so closely with their research. And have some pretty sweet travel adventures to boot!

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To Plymouth in the Plymouth

Boston

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Harvard University

Early Sunday morning, I stumbled sleepily off the plane in Boston not knowing where I’d go next. Thankfully, I found a last-minute couch with a gal named Mónica, who looked very close to the airport on Google maps. Slow and sweating, I shuffled with my two heavy backpacks to her house in East Boston. Mónica welcomed this exhausted couchsurfer with a wide, infectious smile. We went straight to Harvard Square’s Oktoberfest, where I wandered around the grand old buildings of Harvard University and joined the massive street party. Several cordoned-off blocks were lined with jam-packed beer gardens and kiosks of mouthwatering foods from around the world.

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HONK Festival + Oktoberfest

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Les Muses Tanguent, an all-female Parisian marching band at HONK Festival + Oktoberfest.

Strangely, the streets were also filled with brass marching bands. Sprawling troupes of mostly aging white people in outrageous costumes belted out big band renditions of jazz hits, rock oldies and Nirvana. They generated spontaneous dancing crowds reveling in the chaos. This was part of HONK Festival, combined for one day only with Oktoberfest! I learned this from an all-girls’ band from Paris, France uniformed in zebra and leopard print (smoking profusely, with a large contingent on the French horn).

I enjoyed a local brew with a wonderful couchsurfer named Aden, who also took me to the Museum of Fine Arts for their free admission day. I wandered a section of the Freedom Trail that glorifyingly presents key sites where the American Revolution began. Being a history geek, it was actually pretty cool to see all the grandiose buildings with delicate stonework and the cobblestone streets. It just happened to be Columbus Day (a.k.a. colonial genocide day), so there were extra tour guide performers clad in period attire walking around pretending it was 1775.

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Street performer festival

Having reached my intake limit of Indigenous history-erasing US patriotism for the day, I checked out a street performer festival at Quincy Market and the historic Faneuil Hall. There, I watched a guy do a front flip over the backs of a line of eight terrified bystanders. I think I landed in Boston on the best two days humanly possible!

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Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market

Spending time at Mónica’s was a highlight. Her home and her whole philosophy is about community – even though she just moved into her place, it was filled with couchsurfers, AirBnB-ers, and co-workers painting whimsical pictures and eating Mónica’s mouthwatering meals.  She’s about to launch a new café in East Boston – a worker-owned co-operative – with a friend she met through Couchsurfing. La Sanghita Café is based on the principles of food as medicine and empowerment through community and education. It aims to make nutritious meals available to low-income residents of the neighbourhood. I was so inspired by what they’re co-creating – and the fact that it was Canadian Thanksgiving – that I roasted a pumpkin and made small-batch pumpkin pudding with silken tofu, yogurt, maple syrup, and cardamom. It was a big hit!

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Mónica, me, Haroldo from Brazil, and Adryn, couchsurfer-turned-business partner.

Plymouth

I picked up my next rental, a rusty 1998 Plymouth Breeze, and headed for Plymouth, New Hampshire. On the outskirts of Boston, I had to stop at Walden Pond where transcendentalist and philosopher Henry David Thoreau famously built his cabin on the land of Ralph Waldo Emerson. His two years there is recorded in Walden, first published in 1854. It’s considered one of the founding pieces of literature sparking the American conservation movement. His memoir reflects on the virtue of living simply in nature, practicing self-reliance, and spiritual self-discovery.

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Walden Pond near Concord, Massachusetts

It was truly a serene scene, with golden fall hues dotting the woods. Swimmers basked on tiny strips of beach in the remarkably warm mid-October sun. I sat and reflected awhile. My new couchsurf friend Aram was a student of a Thoreau scholar, and he had carefully explained to me some essential ideas in Walden, urging me to visit the pond. I’d encountered bits and pieces of Thoreau as an Environmental Studies student. A while back, I had downloaded an audiobook of Walden without necessarily thinking I’d get around to listening to it. Now, it was clearly time. So I hopped in the car, hit play, and began my New England road trip.

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I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.

And see if I could not learn what it had to teach

And not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

– Thoreau (from Walden, 1864, at the site of Thoreau’s cabin near the pond)

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The Pemigewasset River beside Plymouth’s main street.

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Plymouth State University knows how to enjoy the fall colours.

I did honestly feel like I was driving back in time. Tiny Plymouth, with its Victorian houses and pillared colonial style brick buildings, looked like it had barely changed in two hundred years. I headed straight to the EcoHouse, which greets town visitors at the roundabout on the historic main street. It’s an old clapboard house that has undergone an eco-efficiency makeover and now acts as a hub for Plymouth State University’s sustainability initiatives. Green-minded students reside at this “living laboratory” which features a solar hot water system, permaculture gardens, and a toolshed built completely with local wood and recycled materials.

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The EcoHouse at Plymouth State University

Next, I visited the beautiful homestead of permaculture teacher Steve Whitman. His home has been refinished with natural clay paints, upcycled and local building materials, and solar hot water. Outside, his “bioshelter” is like a glorified greenhouse, with hopvines curling upward enveloping the south-facing structure. It’s designed to regulate its own temperature: the sun warms water, which heats the ground underneath its raised beds. These rows of baby greens will feed Steve’s family all winter. He’s also experimenting with rice in colourful terraced paddies. Steve’s property shows how permaculture design can make a space as aesthetically pleasing as it is functional.

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Raised beds inside the bioshelter

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Multicolour rice paddies

Steve waxed poetic about the many uses of the black locust trees onsite. The tree improves soil by fixing nitrogen, accumulating nutrients, controlling erosion, and reestablishing degraded landscapes. It provides edible flowers for humans and nectar for honeybees. It’s a source of high quality hardwood timber that is very quick-growing and resistant to rot and water. The wood burns very hot and slow, making it excellent firewood. It’s pretty much a superstar!   Too bad the tree is considered an invasive pest in this region. Rather than labelling plants as being “bad,” why not cooperate with those that grow well in your climate and utilize what they have to offer?

This moralizing perspective has grown out of a historical tendency in the conservation movement to uphold a myth of nature as pristine wilderness in need of preservation, rather than a dynamic system in flux. I wonder what Thoreau would think if he knew what kinds of thought and policy his book would lay the foundations for.

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Steve’s house on the right, with the glassed-in bioshelter on the left.

D Acres

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Pigs clearing the land for new plantings

When I recounted my day over red wine by the woodstove, my lovely couchsurf host Kate – who grew up in the area – insisted that I visit D Acres Permaculture Farm. Kate’s home was full of housemates and couchsurfers and one of them, Mike, tagged along. The farm’s been in the family for a few generations, and is now being managed by a fellow named Josh. Josh greeted us with an invitation to help him load his truck with buckets of gravel. Pretty soon we were unloading the buckets at his destination down the road and receiving our next invitation to help him haul sand.

Bracing ourselves on the back of the pickup, we got a “driving tour” of the farm. We wound our way through several huge sloped fields with terraced fruit and nut orchards, greenhouses, annual beds and grain crops. Pigs were being utilized to clear new sections of land. They rooted around devouring the existing vegetation, leaving the soil manured and broken up, ready for planting.

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Mike checking out the gardens from the truck

To our mild chagrin, we proceeded to spend the next hour hauling 5 gallon pails of sand from a pit in the woods. Water squished around in my tiny Toms slippers as they disappeared under the thick carpet of leaves. The one day I didn’t think to wear my leather boots. My arms and shoulders would ache for days. On the bright side, we had lots of time to ask Josh about the farm and his perspective on bringing permaculture into higher education. Though many school groups visit D Acres, there was a distinct air of skepticism in Josh’s voice about institutionalizing permaculture in these formal academic spaces, predicated as they are on bureaucracy, authoritative structures, and profit making.

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Josh in front of one of the many treehouses at D Acres.

I sympathize with the many permies who’ve decided that working with universities is not a good use of their time.  What’s the point of reinforcing the very institutions that are part of the problem? Is it worth it – for permaculturalists, for students, for schools – to engage at this glacial pace of change, when we’re in the midst of a planetary emergency? That question is at the core of my research.

As we munched on juicy orchard pears, I questioned Josh about the ownership and governance of D Acres. I have a particular interest in how intentional communities function at the human and social organizational level. Planting fruit trees and designing landscapes is relatively easy – it’s the human element that always gets in the way of cooperative working and living, it seems. They say that 9 out of 10 intentional communities fail.

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Directions to everywhere.

Josh explained some of the broader challenges, a common story. A huge responsibility largely falls on the one or two people who actually invested in the land, while a revolving door of newbies leave after a season or a few years. This reinforces the main steward’s role in carrying through the knowledge and memory of the land. This can leave the founder without a clear exit strategy and result in little room for others to take ownership of their work.  “Founders’ syndrome” plagues many organizations and communities.

Design for succession is a key permaculture principle. In the same way meadows give way to herbs and shrubs, which are ultimately shaded out under climax canopy trees, groups need to engage in succession planning to ensure healthy evolution and transition over time. But it’s much easier said than done, often leading “sustainable living” to become, in reality, not very sustainable. I’m still looking for a community that has successfully cracked this nut. I’ll be posting about my visits to more intentional communities, so stay tuned as I finally reveal all the ultimate juicy secrets to success… 😉

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Mike in the kitchen garden.

Permaculture and dark horses in Colorado

Welcome to my latest attempt to share my writings on this blog! Big gaps of time seem to elapse with this space acting as little more than a holding pen for the articles I’ve written this past year for SocialCoast. But that era has come to an end (thanks to the SocialCoast team for all the wonderful work they did in the community!). So I need a new impetus to write. And I figured spending five weeks visiting permaculture teachers and demonstration sites, intentional communities, organic farms and cooperatives was a darn good reason to fire it up again. If for no other reason than to remember this stuff when I’m 64!

Kat Zimmer picBut if you’re reading this too, thanks for following me on my latest journey. I hope you will find some intriguing threads weaving through my permaculture tour of the USA. A bit of backstory: I’m doing my MA research about permaculture in higher education. So this fall I’m interviewing professors and permaculture teachers who have offered permaculture design courses (henceforth called the PDC) at universities and colleges, and students who have taken those courses. It was really important to me to meet the people and connect with the places in person, because permaculture is very much about the relationships, the connections to place and community, and the sensual/experiential dimension of one’s presence in nature, garden and landscape.

I feel like I hit the jackpot, because I get to spend two years learning and researching about one of my big passions – permaculture. And I get to connect with people who are doing things that inspire me and that create big yields in their communities. Oh, and I’m also shooting footage to produce a mini-video about permaculture in higher education! But beyond that, my ulterior motives are to see what “permies” (permaculture folk) are up to in different bioregions across North America. How do they live? What choices do they make and how do they design their own spaces? There is much here for me to learn and apply at my own urban micro-homestead and in my life. So this blog series – which will be shared in several parts – is not about what I find in my research (stay tuned for that!) but about the experiences I encounter in my travels.

So without further ado, here’s Part I: Colorado.

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Boulder sunset

Boulder

My flight into Denver set the tone. All it took was an awkward shuffle into my window seat and a quick “So, are you guys from Denver?” They were. Well, actually he was from Guinea in West Africa, a master teacher of African dance and drumming. She was a young charter school teacher from Phoenix. It didn’t matter that we didn’t know each other at all. Two hours of hysterical laughing and breathless storytelling later, we were best friends. This was followed by the Boulder taxi driver, who engaged me in a heartfelt conversation about the possibilities of migration to Greenland, and the folks who jumped in the cab and paid for my ride. But they were one-upped by the Boulder bus drivers. One stocked me up with bonus transfers; another pulled over his bus full of passengers who sat waiting while he called in to make sure there were still buses running where I wanted to go, and another who got off and walked me to my transfer stop to make sure I didn’t get lost. Everyone was startlingly friendly.

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Pearl Street, downtown Boulder

So it wasn’t a surprise when my couchsurfing host, Corey, turned out to be dripping with hospitality. We (mostly he) practiced Spanish over strong Boulder microbrew and homemade grape and pear pizza. A videographer, he primed me for my first experience filming interviews. We went on an epic cycling tour along the city’s marvelous bike paths beside Boulder Creek (yes, it is quite bouldery). It’s a very bike-friendly city, but it still felt weird not to be wearing a helmet for once!   I also accompanied Corey to one of his favourite stores, a shop that sells medicinal herbs the way only a Colorado store can. It was a surreal experience for the first five seconds – until I got kicked out for not having my passport. I felt like I was getting busted for underage drinking, even though I wasn’t there to buy anything.

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Starbuds dispensary

The first schools on my itinerary were University of Colorado Boulder and Naropa University. While CU Boulder is only just starting to offer permaculture education, Naropa has apparently been at it for a few decades. This is pretty unusual. Then again, Naropa is a tiny private university with flagship programs like the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics and the BA in Traditional Eastern Arts. So fitting the mold doesn’t seem to be their thing.

It’s also the only school I’ve found that makes Introduction to Permaculture a requirement for all Environmental Studies majors. In my conversations at the school’s geodesic dome greenhouse, I wondered whether requiring students to learn about permaculture – or any environmental topic, for that matter – is a good idea. The idea of making any kind of education mandatory seems a bit draconian. Then again, compared to a lot of other “mandatory graduation requirements”, it’s my very biased opinion that permaculture and sustainability would rank higher in importance.

Salida

It was time for a little excursion to the mountains. I rented a Honda Accord through RelayRides, a peer-to-peer car rental network in the US. Canada is so far behind in this realm!  It’s a lot more affordable and flexible than renting from a company, and I love that it involves a connection with another human being through the share economy – like Couchsurfing or AirBnB.

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The river in downtown Salida

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Public art created by Sandy’s friend

From the flat sprawl of Denver, the highway cuts briefly through steep foothills cut with jagged edges, then abruptly twists upward into the Rockies leading toward high plateau farm and ranchland. At 7,000 feet, Salida is a tiny town with startling taste. It’s a historical mining town that has seen a surge in cultural and artistic regeneration in the past decade. Street after street downtown, refurbished buildings painted in bright, funky hues are filled end to end with art galleries, bookstores, cafes, curiosity shops, and stores selling local and handmade products. There are public works of art on every block. The experience reminded me of driving into the Rockies from Alberta and making a B-line to Nelson.

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But of course, I was mainly there to talk about permaculture. I was visiting Sandy Cruz and her gracious host of a husband, Gene, who moved to Salida a few years ago and started a high altitude food forest just outside of town. Sandy was practicing and teaching about high altitude permaculture long before its popularity began to spread. Though the winters are long and cold and frosts are frequent even in the warmer months, the sun is persistent in Salida and Sandy is growing a wide variety of useful perennials including peaches, apples, berries, asparagus, sunchokes, comfrey and other medicinal herbs.

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Sandy in her garden

We visited her good friend across the road who is growing similar polycultures in the forest gardens surrounding her beautiful straw bale house. Even though it was late in the season, her greenhouse was in full production with little winter seedlings. There is so much more you can do in cold climates than people generally believe is possible!

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High altitude forest gardening

Denver

Back in Denver, I visited the GrowHaus, an urban farm in the northeast corner of the city. The neighbourhood is a forgotten area of decaying infrastructure surrounded by meat packing plants, factories, and freeways. A lot of undocumented workers live there, and the poverty is starkly apparent. The GrowHaus provides fresh organic produce at affordable sliding scale prices. They distribute low-cost weekly food boxes of local produce with a goal of providing 150 local residents access to 5 servings of fruits and vegetables per day. They also offer cooking classes where residents can learn how to prepare the food box veggies and share in a community meal. The space is a hub for permaculture design courses, youth leadership programs and farm education internships.

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Aquaponics at the GrowHaus

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Hydroponic greenhouse production

Adam Brock, the operations manager, gave me a tour. The GrowHaus was converted from a crumbling flower greenhouse into a welcoming space with the financial help of a developer interested in local food production.   The massive aquaponics facility grows thousands of food plants at a time in a closed loop system with freshwater fish. Tilapia and bass eat the waste greens, and the fish poo fertilizes the veggies. It’s a no-waste system that uses only 10% of the water used in regular farming. Solar thermal equipment and gravity-fed water systems radically reduce the energy footprint. The newest growing edge of the facility is a mushroom cultivation enterprise. There are multiple independent businesses onsite but the spirit is all about collaboration and a focus on social justice and food access. It’s a really successful example of what can happen when people with a permaculture background set their intentions toward responding to the unique needs and yields of their own community.

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New curbside fruit tree guilds at the GrowHaus

My last Colorado stop was couchsurfing with Aram, a marvelously skilled woodworker and student of philosophy. Over local brews, margaritas and delicious Mexican ceviche, Aram and I shared about the books that have shaped our ways of thinking, talking at length about the opposing forces of apathy/cynicism and solutions-oriented action, and the prospects and problems of trying to create a more sustainable existence. We spent the day wandering downtown Denver, a vibrant city that reminds me of Vancouver with its cycling paths and riverside parks surrounded by hardcore gentrification.

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Aram by the river

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Pallet Fest

We visited Pallet Fest, a new free festival celebrating upcycling and the many uses of, well, pallets. There was a pallet parkour course, a giant pallet maze, even a pallet pirate ship under construction. On the pallet fashion runway, local artisans showcased quirky clothing and creative wares made from recycled materials. I love that this is a cause for celebration these days!

Aram was kind enough to drive me to the airport for my late night red-eye flight. I said goodbye to Colorado in the dark, just as I had arrived. Perhaps appropriately, my last glimpse was of Blucifer, the famous red-eyed horse of the Denver airport, maniacally waving farewell.

horse

Blucifer

O.U.R. Ecovillage in transition

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After twenty-five years of dreaming the impossible and fifteen years of precedent-setting work to reimagine living and land use in BC, people are still surprised to hear that a living, breathing ecovillage exists a scant 45 minutes from downtown. And it all started right here in Victoria.

O.U.R. Ecovillage is the result of a landmark cooperative effort spanning the community, organizations, government, and business. This effort to take on zoning led to the creation of a place that is at once a farm, a school, a protected park, a campground/B&B, a space where independent businesses can thrive, and a neighbourhood of affordable homes. It’s a test site with far-reaching implications for Canadians, even those who don’t necessarily intend to live in an ecovillage themselves. This alternative model offers vast potential for communities, businesses and landowners alike.

The village is a place where people engage in creative experimentation every day. In this laboratory for sustainable living, permaculture, and natural building, there are many lessons and mistakes to be embraced. Intergenerational living and working in community is an art that has largely been lost in this day and age. The struggles of learning this again can be challenging and so enriching at the same time. Throughout all this, there runs a deep questioning of the idea of sustainability, and what it would mean to truly achieve such a thing.

Stepping into the village, one can feel the depth of intention that has nurtured its creation. I’ve never felt so close to where my food comes from than when I lived at the village. Children climb trees and pick berries. Whimsical dreams are etched into colourful earthen walls made from sand, clay and straw. I remember the feeling of these materials squishing softly beneath my toes as I mixed it to the perfect consistency during the construction of a new home. Once, I learned to build a microclimate heat wall from this “cob” mixture to encourage succulent sweet fruits from a peach tree. Telling stories around the campfire. Walking meditatively through the labyrinth. Showering in the greenhouse with rainwater warmed by the sun. Breaking down old values and patterns of thought through the truth and healing of council circles. Upcycling everything. That’s the village.

But those who have experienced O.U.R. Ecovillage understand that it is so much more than a place. It’s a feeling. It’s a vision and an idea. It’s an open invitation to be part of something that is unpredictable and challenges what we deem possible as a society. We need the village because it’s an example of the courage to do things differently. The village is often described as a square peg in a round hole. It’s precisely because it presents such a radical challenge to the capitalistic modes of relationship and conventional ways of defining value that we’re used to that the village has inspired so many, but also had so much difficulty over the years securing co-operative ownership.

As I write this, the co-founder of O.U.R. Ecovillage, Brandy Gallagher, is critically ill and recovering from recent high-risk surgery for cancer. Brandy and her family are in need of the community’s support now and into the future so that they can be together during her recovery without added stress. The village is in need of the broader support of the region to assist in its transition toward full co-operative ownership, a new Executive Director, and a sustainable social food and education enterprise. To support this transition, they have a critical need to raise $150,000 through mortgage and community RRSP investments, sustaining monthly donors, and special events and courses.

At the village, I’ve had the opportunity to learn from world-class teachers like Starhawk and Mark Lakeman, as well as a host of local experts in sustainable living and regenerative design. But the value of courses offered by this educational non-profit goes far beyond the cost. Creating access to co-learning is the overarching principle. Those with limited ability to pay are routinely invited to find another way to redefine value. There are many ways to contribute, through work trades and other kinds of service, that add value to the village. It’s a chance to discover or hone skills and talents often lying just below the surface of our abilities. Time and again, I have observed Brandy weaving a web of relationship, aiming to make connections that would be beneficial and fruitful beyond the life of the village. In this community, I have been shown a different way of being – one of relationship. It’s about paying it forward, and also giving back.

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O.U.R. stands for One United Resource – it’s a statement that we’re stronger when we work together. I’ve lived, worked, and volunteered at the village, and I’m hooked. Throughout all this, Brandy and the community have offered me an unfathomable amount of support for my continued learning at and beyond the village. I can truly say that the life I am currently living is the direct result of a path carved from my relationship with the village. Anyone who has shared a gratitude circle with me before a meal can attest to this.

There’s a way for everyone to be a villager, and you don’t have to live onsite. The opportunity to be part of a new movement for cooperative land ownership, sustainable community investing through RRSPs, and even a regional option for green burial are all exciting ways to join. But you can also become a monthly sustainer, take a course, join the CSA, spend a weekend at the B&B, take a tour, or simply start with a meal at the Zero Mile Eatery. You never know who you’ll sit with at your next meal – a CEO, a writer, a documentary filmmaker, an academic, a child, a long-haired young farmer, a high school student, an elder with a word of wisdom. Strike up a conversation. And don’t forget to wash your dishes.

Times of crisis are times of growth, renewal, and regeneration. They’re opportunities for the community to come together. This is an opportunity to take responsibility for O.U.R. community, to protect this special place and what it represents, and to launch it into the next stage of creation together. Join us in the transformation.

Living the New Economy

An industrial landscape has dominated the part of Songhees territory known to most people as Vic West for at least a century. In its heart, there’s an unassuming and drafty brick building called the Roundhouse. Now surrounded by high-rise condos, it’s slated for redesign as a marketplace to serve the swelling crowd of urban dwellers. Over seven days in December, where railway workers tinkered with the train cars of a century ago, a new economy was being midwifed into existence. “Living the New Economy” was an exuberant convergence of visionaries and idea jammers who are working together to create and articulate this new economy.

Living the New Economy

The old economy is crumbling: globally, this has been obvious since at least 2008. The old models just aren’t working anymore, and many have started to realize they probably weren’t worth saving in the first place.

What does the new economy look like? This city’s dilapidated heavy industrial base is being transformed into a burgeoning knowledge economy of tech firms and services. In Victoria, at least, the trend isn’t toward globalized chains and big box stores: it’s small-scale entrepreneurs producing high quality goods for a niche market. It’s local renewable energy projects like the Art Turbine that are not only functional, but are truly pieces of art. It’s an explosion in DIY culture, with creative startups like the Makehouse and the MakerSpace, where makers of all sorts will share tools, resources, and knowledge. Or Remove and Reuse, an online hub where upcyclers and artisans can share salvaged building materials and reduce the need for consuming new. It’s people realizing that together, we can achieve so much more:Raven Wireless, a proposed nationwide co-operative telecom company, hopes to provide an alternative to the “Big Three.”

The new economy tastes like dark and thick microbrews handcrafted locally. It smells like locally cured and smoked meats, crisp vegetables harvested within a hundred miles, and specialty baked goods prepared in Victoria’s proposed new food hub, a shared kitchen space for local food producers. I took part in a collaborative session to redesign the downtown core with hubs for enjoying these delights together, in community. The vision is to create a vital space where people “live out loud.” In the new economy, shopping isn’t a substitute for this kind of creativity. The new economy feels like community being built in a thousand different ways. The Fernwood Urban Village cohousing project and O.U.R. Ecovillage are reclaiming what it is to be in community, while creating options for community to invest in community. It’s individuals moving their money to credit unions, which in turn reinvest it locally: Vancity’s support of “social purpose real estate” is a great example. It’s people stepping up to lend to each other through the Victoria Community Micro-Lending Society. A new Community Investment Fund being launched in 2014 by the Community Social Planning Council (CSPC) will finally give people an option for local retirement savings investments.

This is the power of raising local forms of capital: putting our money where our homes are. CSPC’s Sarah Amyot says that redirecting even 2 percent of the investment money that flows out of this region every year would allow us to reinvest 7.5 million locally.

But why does this seem so revolutionary? In the past few decades, we’ve made it virtually impossible to invest locally. People who are interested in doing so (apparently a very high proportion of investors) are discouraged by their advisors, who say there’s no money in it. Not so, says Stephen Whipp, a specialist in socially responsible investment. By grabbing the reins of large capital and redirecting it into local projects, Whipp says we can generate good income and make good local projects happen at the same time.

Yes, the cost of living is high, and most of us don’t have much extra cash lying around for making big investments. But we need to understand the incredible privilege we have in this region – despite the struggles – and recognize that we have a responsibility to use this privilege to make changes in how we act in the world.

Critically, it’s acknowledging that many of the struggles we’re facing – and the privilege we have – are a result of living in a colonial system. Without a radical shift in the Indigenous-settler relationship, colonialism can simply be re-entrenched by such new forms of ownership and economy. So asking for and supporting Indigenous leadership amid these rapid changes is going to be essential. This recognition was embodied at a session called “Indigenomics,” where we learned from Indigenous women that have modeled leadership in redefining what economy is. As Carol-Ann Hilton of the Indigenous business group Transformation pointed out, a new economy questions the pathway by which we came here: who was left out? Who’s included in the new economy? And will it be a decolonized economy?

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Ana Maria Peredo, Director of UVic’s Centre for Cooperative and Community-Based Economy, pointed out that the new economy is the OLD economy – and the REAL economy. It needs to be reclaimed from its brief sojourn into global market capitalism. There are many kinds of economy – green, sharing, collaborative, gift, social – that can bring value to society.

Peredo shared a story of a visit she made to an Andean village in Peru. Arriving hungry, she went to try to purchase some food to eat. Although she could see plenty of people with food, nobody could sell to her: for them, money wasn’t worth using because nobody needed it to meet their daily needs. People would ask how it was that, in their poor country, everyone had a home – yet in our rich nation, so many are homeless.

In most of the Western world, the economy is framed by those in power as the overarching structure of existence. As Peredo pointed out, the “modernization theory” of development says there’s only one way to approach economic development – and that’s to submit to the global forces of the market. This ethnocentric model perpetuates a narrative about developing an “entrepreneurial spirit” among Indigenous people that assumes they have none.

Meghan Champion of Cowichan Tribes debunked such mainstream myths. In her culture, Indigenous people have always had a very strong entrepreneurial spirit. Trade and forms of currency have been a feature of life on this coast for thousands of years. The potlatch ceremony was, in her words, a form of investment through a system of debt obligation and relationship building. The way people earned prestige was not by accumulating wealth, but by giving it away. As Champion points out, it’s pretty hard to practice your culture if you don’t have an economy to sustain it. But one thing that makes this new economy distinct from the old one is that reputation is key: in the age of social networking, it’s a lot harder to hide when you rip someone off. It’s about building relationships.

It’s with this in mind that Champion created the Cowichan Tribes’ Tetla Dollar. Community currencies keep value circulating within the community, rather than flowing out. Lately, the’ve been springing up all over the region: SeedStock in Vancouver, Salt Spring Dollars, and the Comox Vally Community Way. The fully digital Vancouver Island Dollar is in the process of being launched.

“Living the New Economy” aimed to be a living example of an economy that encourages us to redefine value locally and build inclusive community. After each session, people could receive 100% of their money back with no questions asked; they could hold with the original ticket price, or they could add an extra donation if they felt the event had particular value. Or, they could exchange the full dollar amount for the same number of Vancouver Island Dollars.

As permaculture designer Ethan Roland told us, we need to reclaim the real meaning of the word “entrepreneurship,” which is simply “to take on a project.” In the Andean community-based economies, Peredo says, the community acts collectively as both entrepreneur and enterprise. In this regard, it’s about every single one of us considering ourselves entrepreneurs.

One part of this involves changing our unhealthy relationship with money. And I don’t just mean becoming less driven by it. I’m also talking about the revulsion to money that many “do-gooder” types have: the way that when the word “economics” is used, many of us plug our ears. I’ve always had an uncomfortable relationship with economics. I don’t really understand it, and I know it causes a lot of harm these days. I also know that some kind of economy is essential.

We’ve forgotten that money is simply a tool – a very useful one. At “Permanomics,” a session linking permaculture and economics, Roland showed how redefining “capital” can allow us to meet human needs while increasing the health of ecosystems. Roland identified eight forms of capital: living, material, social, experiential, intellectual, spiritual, cultural, and – of course – financial. Understanding these many forms of capital can help us see how the system functions as a whole, and where the leverage points for creating society-level changes are. Roland says we need not abandon financial capital: we can use it to cultivate other forms of capital that it has been decimating of late. Financial capital can grow or decrease, as long as shared cultural capital and living capital (Earth’s life systems) are being regenerated.

Regeneration, as opposed to the much-abused word “sustainability,” was an overriding theme throughout the week. Through new kinds of enterprise, we can not simply sustain, but regenerate our communities and the natural world. It’s a tangible shift in what the economy looks like – social finance, green buildings, cooperatives, and cohousing projects.

But what’s going to truly make the difference is a shift in the interior dimensions that what we can’t always see: the stories, the culture, and the values. It’s the community.

Kat gratefully acknowledges a prize from SFU’s Certificate Program for Community Economic Development, which allowed her to attend the week of events.

Closing the loop at O.U.R. Ecovillage

Closing the Loop at O.U.R. Ecovillage

Our fresh group of learners stared wide-eyed as the ecovillage gardeners heaped layer upon layer in the compost pile. Nutrient-dense stalks of comfrey and nettle, soggy spoiled hay, kitchen scraps, and six brimming buckets of liquid cow manure each waited their turn to join a steaming process of organic fertilizer production. Renegade chickweed and miner’s lettuce stretched out in all directions from cracks in the split wooden bins. The buzzing and chirping of pollinators signaled health in the community.

“Our community is about building a different kind of culture,” our tour guide, Patrick, explained. A bushy ponytail poked out from under his rainbow-streaked knit hat, bobbing with the smirking little girl who clung to his shoulders. “At O.U.R. Ecovillage, we’re intentional about the relationships we want to create, and being in community helps us learn how to live sustainably.”

Community – one of those nebulous concepts open to infinite interpretations that my gut nevertheless roars for. The concept of being “in community” was a new one for me, and yet I would find it offered by many residents when prodded about what brought them to the village. I began to suspect this was why we were really there, although the premise of our stay was a permaculture design course. I was thrilled when Marc, my partner, signed on too. Two weeks of early summer camping at an ecovillage while learning about sustainability sounded way too tempting to pass up. As I would come to realize in the weeks and months to follow, it was a good thing we chose to encounter permaculture together. It shifted both of us onto new paths, leaving behind our identities as green environmentally-minded folks, and uncovering an entirely new layer of ecological consciousness.

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Permaculture is another slippery concept whose founders even proclaim not to know exactly what it is. Out of many definitions I have heard, one of the few that has really stuck with me is “learning how to take care of your own shit.” This can take on multiple meanings. It can mean learning how to build your own house using materials from the landscape in which you live. It can mean setting up systems to take care of your own energy and water needs, or growing your own food and medicine. It can mean learning how to “take care” of your natural and human community by taking care of yourself and taking responsibility for your actions. And it can mean taking care of your own shit. Literally.

I quickly learned this lesson in action at the Credit Union, the ecovillage’s composting toilet. With unlimited deposits per day, and only one withdrawal per year, the entire community profits from the value generated by the Credit Union. Our individual investments are returned in the form of a safe, rich fertilizer that helps to create the food we eat. It’s called closing the loop, and it’s a perpetual cycle that humans have been a part of since time immemorial. Coincidentally, it’s how all other animals participate in the ecosystem too. Somewhere along the line, we forgot about this fact. We started building sewage systems that conveniently flush our unmentionables away, so that we don’t have to worry about dealing with the shit we create.

“One of the main problems with how our dominant culture operates is the false notion that there is an ‘away,’” remarked Brandy, a radiant earth mother in long flowing purple and co-founder of the ecovillage. “We don’t want our half-eaten dinner so we throw it ‘away’ into a black bag whose contents are hidden. The garbage truck removes it from our sight. But the reality is that it doesn’t go away, it always ends up somewhere, in somebody’s backyard. And in the process, we turn a valuable resource into pollution.” She described how the conventional sewage system uses one valuable resource, energy, to turn two valuable resources, water and excrement, into a biohazard that pollutes our waterways and oceans. The added effect of removing organic nutrients from the cycle is that we need to find other inputs to replace them in our food-growing areas. Without compost, these inputs become fossil fuel-based fertilizers, which – you guessed it – create more pollution and energy use. Seems crazy, doesn’t it?

I pondered this as we gathered with the ecovillage residents for our first meal together. People of all shapes and sizes converged from different directions on the outdoor kitchen. Marc and I followed suit as the group “circled up”: before each meal, the community holds hands in a circle. One by one, all the people announce their names, and share one thing they are grateful for. Reflecting the spin cycle my brain was still on, I offered, ”My name is Kat, and I’m grateful for finally being able to close the loop.”

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After a shared cheer of “Ho!” with raised hands, we lined up for one of the delectable dinners that O.U.R. Ecovillage prides itself on. “Mostly organic, mostly vegetarian, and mostly from O.U.R. garden,” as the community describes them, the meals reflect the non-dogmatic, common sense approach at the heart of permaculture practice. Tonight, we were havinga special treat: heritage chicken raised and slaughtered onsite, slowly simmered with onions and garlic from the garden. Roasted carrots and purple potatoes still on hand from last autumn’s harvest, sprinkled with freshly picked rosemary and thyme. Homemade kimchi for digestive health. And for dessert, blackberry crumble. Even though I was swimming in locavore bliss, I was still envious watching the resident cow-share members enjoy their crumble with freshly whipped cream supplied by Bossy, the ecovillage’s stately dairy cow.

My plate glowed. The dominant colour was green – the biggest assortment of greens I had ever seen in my food. Bright greens, light greens, yellow-greens, and blue-greens, set off by a smattering of edible flowers in hues of red, orange, purple and pink. Picked only an hour earlier from the garden, the leaves gifted me with an equally big range of textures and flavours – nutty, bold, peppery, crunchy, crisp and sweet. The chickweed and miner’s lettuce I had noticed earlier in the garden – maligned weeds in most landscapes – played a tasty role. In permaculture, unexpected plants are not thrown away as useless matter, but recognized for a role they can play in ecosystems that we often don’t understand. In a system designed with intention, it is possible to have no waste.

Admiring my dinner, I was truly grateful not to be wasting these nutrients. When I was done with them, I vowed, I would put them back in the cycle, so that future eaters could enjoy them too.

Special thanks to O.U.R. ecovillage. Photos supplied from their website athttp://ourecovillage.org/about/photos/

The festival scene: a review of Burning Man

Preparing to Burn

“What the hell are we going to do about this!?” In disbelief, I kicked a super size McDonald’s cup back toward the junk pile beneath the overflowing trash bin. How ironic. The one time in my life when my eco-despair – about litter, of all things! – was so overwhelming that I had to pull over on the highway.

Driving home from an electronic music festival, my partner and I had stopped on the crest of a hill to sit with our sorrow about the sea of trash on the forest floor discovered with the rising sun in its wake. It was just one of three festivals over the summer that had smashed my assumption that the gatherings in this environmentally-minded corner of the world were getting greener. If we couldn’t even figure out how to celebrate together without leaving behind an embarrassing mess, how were we supposed to tackle the really daunting environmental problems?

“Are we turning into frivolous festival junkies?” I agonized, worried that my activist self had finally been substantively surpassed by my inner pleasure-seeker. Worried because we would soon be on our way to Burning Man, the holy grail of grandiosity and hedonism – a journey with a giant ecological footprint. Marc, too, was distraught at the consumption and waste we had found ourselves complicit in that summer. Though we had long desired to experience Burning Man, now that the time had finally come, so had the guilt.

“We should set an intention,” he proposed. That way, we would have a way to channel our feelings into positive action. As we resumed our journey home, we agreed that we would participate in Burning Man in a way that was not wasteful and consumerist, but helpful. Our unspoken hope was that this would give Burning Man a meaning that redeemed the venture – and ourselves – in our critical eyes.

I quickly learned that our intention was easier said than done. I soon began stocking up on all sorts of gear: utility belts, dust masks, canvas tent, giant tarps, blinky LED lights, dust-proof rubbermaids, prepackaged dinners, more liquor than I had ever bought in a single purchase, and thirty gallons of my arch-nemesis: bottled water. I lost track of the number of thrift store trips for furry coats, hot pink cowboy boots, purple tutus, outrageous hats from bygone eras, and anything leopard print.

A few days before we set out for the Black Rock Desert, I met a young American couple in a workshop on sustainable living skills. They were ecstatic to hear I would soon be making my first foray to the burn. I interrupted a tirade on their favourite memories on the playa to ask their opinion of the environmental footprint of the event.

“Oh, it’s horribly unsustainable!” she bellowed. It would be their fourth burn. This, I would find, was a common story. If Burning Man was so wasteful, what exactly was it that kept conscious folks returning year after year?

Black Rock City

The moment we entered Black Rock City, I began to understand. “Welcome home!” the greeter shouted, pressing fat pocket-sized books into our hands. We opened them up. Tiny blue writing revealed the hundreds of events to choose from on any given day. Yep, hundreds. Camps with names like Rancho Sparkle Pony and Dr. Scrote’s Circumcision Wagon and Calamari Hut offered their talents and gifts, expecting nothing in return. I couldn’t help but wonder how much energy went into the naked bacon cook-offs and the cupcake decorating parties. But for every offering of a pickle cocktail or a root beer float, there were five offerings of a healing herbal infusion or an electrolyte-replenishing bowl of miso soup. We could have come completely unprepared and relied on the playa to provide.   All we really needed was our bikes: in the rich bike culture of Burning Man, transportation looked like cruisers dripping in neon fun fur, and carriage-style tricycles pedaled by men in silken vests and top hats. The bike-friendly layout centred on village hubs with dedicated gathering places to encourage interaction. Whenever a flat tire or a dust-riddled chain slowed us down, around the corner there was always a community cruiser to borrow, or a bike repair camp where grizzled veteran burners patiently revived them. If all cities were designed like this,I thought, we’d be miles ahead in sustainable transportation.

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The more we saw, the more we marveled at the civic responsibility that greased the wheels of this temporary city – a healthy, optimally functioning organism. The closest I have come to describing Black Rock City is that it is like being inside a Salvador Dali painting with sixty thousand other people. I couldn’t believe how many people traveled such great distances just to give free buzzcuts, tango lessons, deluxe foot massages, and Jewish motherly advice to strangers. Workshops for lovers to improve their relationships, healing circles for victims of abuse, and support groups for burners with addictions and mental illnesses hinted that a genuinely caring community existed on the playa. Speaker series, conferences, film festivals, and even educators’ consortiums provided spaces to share ideas on activism, ecology, community, spirituality, and philosophy. Burning Man even had its own newspaper and community radio station. VegCamp hosted enviro films and the Ask-A-Vegan booth, while Recycle Camp collected the empties. Workshops on constructing solar ovens, growing medicinal mushrooms, and building alternative energy and water systems abounded. All week, my garbage goggles were on. But I could hardly find any MOOP – Matter Out of Place – litter and wayward objects were snatched up too quickly.

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What genuinely troubled me, though, was an unbelievable amount of energy and resources used up for fleeting entertainment purposes. Hundreds of mutant vehicles and art cars packed with partiers wandered the playa day and night, blaring psy-trance and Frank Sinatra. A metal octopus several stories high shot gigantic balls of fire endlessly into a glowing sky criss-crossed with laser beams. Amateur conductors composed orchestras of fire using motion detectors. Hundreds of thousands of LED lights and throwaway glowsticks blinked across the playa. Dozens of brightly lit outdoor stages rattled with heavy bass. Beginning midway through the burn, colossal wooden art projects that had involved months of preparation went up in flames. It was Burning Man, after all.

We stumbled one night onto “Super Street Fire,” an installation modeled on a video game. Marc and I overheard the host boast to the crowd, “We’re going to burn five hundred pounds of propane tonight, ladies and gentlemen!” Sickened by the thought, we cycled back to camp for a reprieve from the madness.   We were just in time for an annual playa art walk with our campmates from Victoria. We bundled up in our fuzziest garb and struck out in a plodding mass of strange shapes in the cold desert darkness.

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Time slipped away as we wandered amongst the endless art projects scattered through deep playa. We scaled giant preying mantises, lost ourselves in sparkling spiral mazes, and jammed on skeleton percussion sets. One by one, as tour mates were drawn away by the wonders of the night, our group shrunk and we began to get to know our fellow regional burners. Our tour guide was Lovely, a crude talking ringleader in a cherry Bo-Peep dress with blond pigtail braids and a shepherd’s crook bedazzled in glowing blue. This annual art walk was her gift to the community. Swimming in puffy pink bunny suits, Gano and Jen had braved the harsh desert several days early to set up the camp. Every day, they organized our camp’s festivities and offered up smooth, funky beats for everyone’s enjoyment. And of course there was Oz, a lanky black-caped creature and a longtime friend who had invited us to the camp, helping us navigate the complex planning process integral to the Burning Man trek.

Hours later, we found ourselves at the trash fence. At the far reaches of deep playa, the orange snow fence was intended to snag any stray MOOP that had blown away in dust storms. There was zero trash to be seen. At that moment, one tiny plastic wrapper blew up in the wind.

“Grab it!!” Oz and the others yelped simultaneously. I grinned, plucking it out of the air.

Our troupe collapsed together in a dusty cuddle puddle. Looking back across the three-mile expanse of Black Rock City, it was quiet for the first time in days.

“Congratulations,” barked Lovely, “You’ve made it to the beginning of the art walk.”

Shaking in laughter with the rest of the pack, I felt then as though I really had come home. Surrounded by old friends and new who all had something to share with me, I wanted to contribute back to the community that had welcomed me unconditionally. There was no doubt that Burning Man, despite its best intentions, was full of consumption and waste. But in reality, the impact of a day at Burning Man was really no different than a normal city day in the Default World. And there was a lot that the world could learn from the culture of Burning Man, built on community and a gift economy – something unheard of in our capitalist system. I wondered what would happen if, like Burning Man, festivals in my world truly worked to build a Leave No Trace culture. What kind of change could be possible if we actually brought home the core principles of Burning Man – radical self-reliance, self-expression and creativity, participation and collaboration – to our own lives? I thought back to the intention that Marc and I had set before embarking on our journey. At that moment, I finally knew how I could give back.

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