Archive for the ‘community & culture’ Category

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.

burningman

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.

talkin’ story

It’s been a week of rich cultural exchange, and I haven’t even had to leave home. We’ve been hosting the Global Vigil Fire, a semiannual gathering of energy workers and shamanic practitioners who come together to light a fire that lasts for three days and is mirrored by similar actions around the globe to weave their energies together for the benefit of the world. Despite days of pelting rain and intense windstorms, they managed to get the fire roaring and welcomed us Hui folks to join in. We got a chance to listen while the local Hawaiians were “talkin’ story.” Hearing about the history of the island as passed on through the generations, I understood more why the people on Molokai are so dynamic and strong-willed in maintaining the culture and undeveloped nature of the island.

After the fire lighting ceremony, in which we all offered a blessing or intention into the fire, a Hawaiian energy healer and close friend of the Hui began the first session by toning with the participants. Zelly’s didgeridoo was covered from head to toe in a single snake skin, and she moved slowly as she sent the deep vibrations of the didge directly into the hearts of each person in the circle while others drummed. She played beautiful old Hawaiian songs on the ukelele and helped people to interpret their experiences so far in some of the sacred places on the island.  The wild winds we’ve been having here this week didn’t seem to surprise Zelly in the least: we found out that there are hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of Hawaiian names for different winds on this island.

Later, we returned to listen to more Hawaiian music under the stars. We had heard that Lono, one of the island’s finest and most known musicians, loves to talk story so much that his music tends to become a side act. This was just fine with me, as I sat with ears wide open listening to fascinating stories of Lono’s life and of the land and people. Lono’s grandfather was a Menehune, the little people of legend who were the size of dwarves and who lived deep in the valleys and forests of the islands. With heavy lava rocks, the Menehune were said to have built the island’s more than 60 massive fishponds centuries ago, the remnants of which are still visible today just offshore from Kaunakakai. This amazing feat of human organization and cooperation allowed the Hawaiians to corral ocean fish into the huge enclosed area to catch them more easily.

Lono’s deep spiritual knowledge of the island has been passed on to him over several years through the teaching of one of the old kahuna (powerful Hawaiian priests). The Hawaiian spiritual traditions recognize three levels of being: the subconscious, the conscious, and the superconscious. It is said that Molokai is the belly button of the universe, and correspondingly it is recognized as the spiritual centre of the islands. Way back around 600 AD, the Hawaiians built the Ililiopae Heiau, a learning and teaching centre. Kahunas from all the different islands would travel there to be tutored in the sacred Hawaiian ways. Lono told us a story of the attempted Tahitian invasion of Molokai around 1100 AD. After successfully invading the other islands, the Tahitians turned their boats toward Molokai. But all of the kahunas came down from the mountain to the shore and were able to use their collective spiritual force to turn back the Tahitians before they came ashore, protecting the people and the land. With this rich history of responsibility to the traditions and sacred places, the people of Molokai have much to be proud and protective of. No wonder they’re so willing to put up a fight when more contemporary powerful interests come to town.

Molokai is also the birthplace of the sacred tradition of hula, said to have been passed down from the goddess Laka to her people. The hula tradition was shared by DJ, another Hawaiian who also has both Chinese and Japanese ancestry, which speaks to the diverse cultural dimensions that characterize Hawaiian reality. The conventional image of hula–wide smiles, carefree ukelele music, and a context of performance/entertainment–is a contemporary adaptation that evolved alongside the tourism industry. In contrast, the traditional way involves chanting and drumming. Smiles are scarce as each movement is made slowly with great intention, representing a particular element of an ancient story or spiritual expression. DJ gracefully weaves old tradition with modern aspects, playing Molokai music created by Lono and using traditional gentle movements to tell a story. Through the hula, we learned about DJ’s life. At the end, he offered gifts to everyone in the circle. Each of us received a long, magnificent pheasant tail feather–a collection he had been keeping for a long time in anticipation of the right moment. Each person also received a bag filled with five things: a shell, which represented his sister; a kukui nut, which represented his father; a grain of rice, which represented his mother of Chinese heritage; a macadamia nut, which represented his other sister; and Molokai sea salt, which represented himself–the protector of his family.

These offerings reached into us with the knowledge that we are all one interconnected family. This week reminded me that though spiritual beliefs and expression can be vastly different from one person to the next, it is possible to come together in our diversity to celebrate and learn from each other, and to share a common vision of peace and light in the world. If we can learn anything from Molokai history, it’s that collective intention has the power to make peace a reality.

Below are some shots of DJ doing the hula and sharing music..

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These are some shots of a hike Marc and I took on the cliffs… a few mushroom friends below:

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A really cool tree we found – its trunk separated into branches that rejoined together into one solid branch..

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Marc overlooking Kalaupapa, standing on a tiny outcrop attached to a 2,000-foot cliff

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Rainbow over Kalaupapa

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Late afternoon sun looking west along the faintly visible cliffs

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Cutie patuties

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Moi

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Another beautiful tree in the late afternoon sun

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Me staring in awe at the famous phallic rock, a sacred site on the cliffs where many a couple has spent a night and woke up expecting a child. We didn’t stick around very long…

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The Makahiki, hellos, and goodbyes

It’s been a busy week here at the Hui. I feel as though I had barely settled in before things started changing again. Connie left on the Maui ferry on Monday to return to teach a course on Vancouver Island, so I’m officially The Gardener now. In just a few short weeks, I’ve gone from total novice to managing a full-scale garden and seed house providing gourmet food for a well-to-do retreat clientele and I’m about to jump into 10 days of leading a garden work camp team. Whew! And I have Connie to thank dearly for this. I’ve learned an incredible amount of knowledge from this expert who has been not only my teacher but a mentor, roommate, and friend. It was sad to say goodbye, but I feel very prepared to take on this exciting challenge and I am looking forward to continuing to learn from my work here and from Connie in the future (check out http://www.gardensonthego.net/apps/webstore/products if you’re looking for a great garden course on VI, or if you want to do an internship like me here on Molokai next fall/winter!

On Saturday, we spent some of our last down time together watching the Makahiki on the playing field in Kaunakakai. Here’s one description of this old Hawaiian tradition: “The Makahiki is a designated period of time following the harvesting season when wars and battles were ceased, tributes and taxes were paid by each district to the ruling chief, sporting competitions between villages districts were organized and festive events were commenced.” What a beautiful tradition to be able to halt conflict and celebrate in community. I feel like there’s something that other cultures can learn from this! It was an amazing sight: graceful hula dancers in flowing white with long, wild hair; elder women in colourful flowered dresses, drumming; youths holding long poles draped with ceremonial cloth. During the opening ceremony, three men in white loincloths with traditional tattoos stood in the centre. Groups of kids from different schools took their turn singing in procession and handing the men gifts of sacred plants and traditional foods like taro. In slow ritual, the eldest man received the gifts, who handed them to the next-eldest man, who handed them to the youngest man, who placed them among a circle of rocks as an offering. The most surprising part was the last group to pass up an offering. Three officers in naval attire brought up a gift to be placed among the others. The stark contrast between cultures and yet the beauty of this symbolic gesture of peace was astounding.

It was an incredible honour to be able to watch this annual celebration of a tradition that is strongest on Molokai. Kualapu’u school, a mile from our home, is the only public school on the islands that has a full Hawaiian immersion program. We watched and the children screamed as little first graders went head to head in traditional games. In one game, two children held up one foot behind their backs with one hand, and locked onto each other’s palm with the other hand, each trying to cause the opponent to fall or to drop the held foot to the ground. This is the 32nd year of the revived tradition, and our hearts leaped when the MC took to the mic to talk about this year’s theme: food independence. He spoke of the issue that Molokai imports nearly all its food, which is not only difficult to afford, but increasingly unreliable: “We need gardens, and we need them in schools to teach our keiki how to grow their own nutritious food.” It’s truly a time of awakening here, as it is in other parts of the world that are realizing our food system is cracking.

Reinvigorated by this marker for cultural revival and resilience, and motivated by Connie’s imminent departure, we put in long hours doing last-minute instruction in the garden. I learned about irrigation, sheet mulching, banana harvesting, and macadamia nut cracking (what else would you expect in Hawai’i?) It felt really satisfying doing some final walk-throughs of the garden together. This month has been tough on the plants, heavy harvesting coupled with the nematodes and short day lengths has resulted in little growth among our salad greens. But it’s incredible that after every rain, the whole garden looks bigger. There is some kind of energetic enhancement a rain imparts that just doesn’t happen with irrigation. The same goes for eggshells, as we found out when Connie decided to try loading them around the broccoli. The first time it happened, both her and Sabine were shocked to see the plants stand up straighter. I tried it myself the other day, and sure enough, within just a few hours the slightly wilty plants were taller! As the day lengths get longer, we can tell the plants are already starting to grow faster again. It truly nourishes the soul to watch a little seed grow up into a beautiful, strong plant.

I’m also looking forward to some nourishment from the human realm. Tomorrow, our household of twelve staff will swell to thirty-four people, as the Great Fullness Winter Camp is upon us. Twice a year, the Hui hosts friends, family, and past retreat guests for ten fun days of working on team projects, building, planting, painting, co-creating, and sharing. Needless to say, my posts might be slim for a while. With four of us on the garden team, I hope to finally get ahead of the game and able to breathe for a bit afterward, because as soon as it’s over, another person is joining the Hui family: my wonderful partner, Marc. He’ll be here for two months working on the native plant restoration project. I’m counting down the days soaking up gratitude that we’ll be able to be in this place together, and amazed at the possibility that this experience is about to get even better!

Connie and I in the native plant nursery, with the shadehouse in the back:

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The Makahiki opening ceremonyImage

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Idle No More Rally in Honolulu

Mahalo to Connie for sharing this video with me, it’s another video of the rally that Vandana Shiva was speaking at – from the perspective of some in the Idle No More movement. It’s so inspiring to see this movement make such big waves in this short time!

the energy of this island

Yesterday I experienced firsthand the colourful and dynamic community on Molokai, famed for its seeming love of controversy. The day did not disappoint. Connie and I went to the Energy Festival in Kaunakakai, the main town on the island. The organizer was I Aloha Molokai, a grassroots group that seems to be a voice for a myriad of development concerns, including plans for an industrial scale wind turbine project. But wait–isn’t wind a progressive, “clean” renewable energy? Well, along with problems like noise pollution, endangerment of native species and sacred sites, increases in electricity rates, and decreases in property values, the main issue on Molokai is who controls the development, and who will ultimately benefit. It turns out that the energy would not be destined for this island at all, but for powering Oahu’s bright lights in the tourist hub of Honolulu. No wonder the locals are pissed.

Here’s what their response looks like: a cheery group of people of a variety of ethnic backgrounds wearing grass leis and Hawaiian shirts, engaged in passionate, articulate discussion about Molokai’s energy future and the sovereignty of the Hawaiian people. I discovered that the entire island’s electricity is produced by a giant diesel generator! No wonder people are looking for island-based solutions. A guy from the Big Island recounted the horrors of industrial geothermal development in his neighbourhood. In short, don’t try to build a ‘closed-loop’ system full of heavy metals and toxic gas beside a residential neighbourhood in an area of constant volcanic activity (in Canada, steam geothermal doesn’t pose the same risks, but it’s salient to remember that a one-solution-fits-all energy policy just won’t work).

One of the talks was a group from the Quechan Native American tribe, who discussed their experiences challenging a big wind farm slated to be built on the graves of their ancestors. As the Idle No More movement gains steam on the mainland, I have to reflect that from a historical perspective, it’s only very recently that panels of Indigenous movement-builders would talk openly about the occupation of their lands and the need for education and the reclamation of their culture, and that a crowd full of haoles (white people) would show up to listen with nodding heads. Though there is a long road still ahead when it comes to justice for Indigenous peoples, we have to stop and celebrate such successes. There seems to be a complicated tension here between Indigenous Hawaiians and haoles that I’m only just beginning to understand, but parallels can be drawn with the challenges in the territories I’ve resided in over the years. Poverty, abuse, and addiction live here–as they do in every community, but like back home, their cruel touch seems to be more pronounced among the Indigenous population. The destructive legacy of colonialism is alive and well here, but there are a lot of inspiring native Hawaiians I listened to yesterday that are motivated for change–frequently using words and concepts from their own language, they are serious about keeping their culture alive. And there does seem to be a lot of haoles who are committed to changing the dynamics of this relationship for the better.

In fact, there’s something everyone seems to be able to agree on: solar energy. If there’s one thing Hawai’i has in copious amounts, it’s sunshine. Even the smallest homesteads by the highway have rickety solar panels on the roof. Although solar is not without its problems, the technology is moving incredibly fast, and many on the island are poised to take advantage of this. At the festival, we examined a working homemade solar hot water heater, built with salvaged parts. From what I heard there, the major appeal of solar is that it empowers people. Instead of giant wind farms or dangerous geothermal plants owned by people who don’t have to live with the local consequences, solar allows people on the island to become more energy independent. A few speakers hit on a subtler effect of this kind of independence: the will of an individual and of a community gains strength, and becomes a more difficult force for outside interests to trample on.

I promised pictures, and I figure it would be fitting to share some of Molokai’s glorious sun. Here are some favourite sun shots from my beach adventures this week.

 

This is Pohaku Mauliuli at sunset (I mistakenly called it Kephui beach in my last post)

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These are from Mo’omomi Preserve at sunrise. The world’s highest coastal cliffs are just barely visible in the background.

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ImageThis is Papohaku beach, Hawai’i’s longest white sand beach.

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Ube, Kulolo, and the all-star Gotu kola

I’m sitting on the front deck of the lodge, watching long, drawn clouds blend into the calm  water as they meander across a pale peach sunset. The workshop guests are snapping photos in the quickly dimming light. Yesterday after lunch, I went for a drive with Connie. It was the first time I’d been off the property since I arrived! Our first stop: the Molokai post office. I waited for Connie to post-a-nut to her grandkids. Posting a coconut from Molokai is a classic visitor routine–the coconuts are free, you just have to decorate them and pay for shipping! As I waited, several locals passed through, each offering a friendly hello. The post office worker shuffled about, smiling as she slowly typed in each order. People here move on serious island time, allowing you to soak up the richness of each moment and interaction. I feel right at home.

Next, we went to Hikiola’s: the co-op garden store. We sailed past the RoundUp and checked out the organic fertilizers. The labels showed different mineral ratios, just like the chemical fertilizers. Connie explained that it’s not a great idea to go by the ratios: as soon as you start tinkering with the level of one mineral, you throw other levels out of whack. The solution? Skip the fertilizer and add more quality compost. Connie sometimes gathers kelp from the ocean. It has the most balanced and bioavailable combination of vitamins and nutrients (and is excellent for munching too!).

Connie walked me through the long list of impressive-sounding ingredients. Bat guano? Taken from an ecosystem where it was probably an important food source. Blood and bone meal? A slaughterhouse byproduct of the factory farm industry. Fish fertilizer? Not simply the scraps from fish processing: the scale of the fish fertilizer industry in South Africa is so massive that the harvest of fresh kelp is no doubt leaving a whole in the marine food chain. Not to mention how far all this stuff traveled to be processed, repackaged, and shipped here. If your food shouldn’t travel thousands of kilometres, why should your fertilizer? The solution? You guessed it. More good old fashioned compost.

On Mondays and Thursdays, the barge comes in, carrying literally everything to supply the island (talk about food security…) so the stores were buzzing. After stopping at the grocery store (where everything costs twice as much as it does back home, and the avocados under the sign that says “Hawaiian Grown” have “Product of Mexico” stickers on them) we did what any sane person on the island would do on a Monday: we got two scoops for the price of one. I ordered the two most exotic ice cream flavours I could find: Ube (Hawaiian purple yam) and Kulolo (taro, a traditional Hawaiian staple). They were delicious!

Yesterday, something wonderful happened: my first seeds sprouted! It was so exciting!!! After worrying that I didn’t water the lettuce enough right off the bat, perfect rows of tiny sprouts appeared. It truly is a miracle. They felt like little babies (sure enough, last night I dreamed I had a baby…Too close of a parallel for comfort!)  Connie also showed me how to save lettuce seeds today–it was sunny and windy, so the seeds would be as dry as possible. It’s really easy, and it’s so important to save seeds from varieties that work well where you live. Saving and replanting the ones most suited to local growing conditions helps to continually improve the yield and the plants’ resistance to pests. We plucked off the fluffy seed heads and rubbed the pods open to drop the tiny seeds into a paper bag. Once they’ve dried out more, we’ll separate out the seeds and store them in the fridge. Seeds need to breathe just like we do, and keeping them cold helps them last longer by slowing respiration.

To top off the afternoon, I was introduced to another Hui ritual: 3pm green drinks. For this, I harvested fresh collard greens, yellow chard, parsley, and gotu kola. Gotu kola grows like crazy in the garden. It’s been called “the fountain of life” for its incredible array of medicinal uses in South Africa and the Asia-Pacific region. I blended these with ice, green veggie powder, rice milk, fresh lemon juice, and a bunch of papaya, mango and banana. The ladies loved my concoction! I think I’ve found the easy way to everyone’s hearts…

 

 

my first Hui day

I’ve officially landed at the Hui Ho’olana Retreat Centre and the first thing I have to say is: they were right. There is definitely some special energy on this island. Everyone I talked to who had been to Molokai before had tipped me off to this already, and I can feel it. What else could explain my incredible amount of energy here on the first day? I should have been recovering in bed after several 3am nights in a row aiming for the Vancouver airport from icy Saskatchewan, followed by a night sleeping on concrete in the Maui airport baggage claim area. I almost fell asleep while my body banged around in the bumpy Cessna, but as dawn over Maui became a sunny morning on Molokai, I stepped off the plane and Connie greeted me with a warm hug and a lei of beautifully scented plumerias. Feeling immediately welcomed here, I promptly forgot about my lack of sleep and dove in.

Over a strong, creamy coffee, I got to know Connie–she is the kind of person who feels like an old friend right away. Connie is from my bioregion back home, and has several decades of experience teaching horticulture and organic food production. I will be learning one on one with her for the next month, and after that I will be managing the veggie garden that feeds the retreat guests and staff of the Hui. It’s a lot of responsibility, but I’m excited for the challenge. Not to mention the immaculate garden is a food grower’s dream! Raised beds, tall sunflowers, pungent herbs, tropical fronds swaying in the wind, and a love nest (shaded lounge bed) right in the middle. It’s not going to be hard to spend all day here.

The crown jewels of the garden are, without a doubt, the leafy greens. This is partly the reason for the name of this blog. My main job here is to plant greens, grow greens, harvest greens, and….grow more greens. The Hui folks eat tons of leafy greens, and we need to provide at least a giant bag of salad every day from what we grow. Looking at the garden, you wouldn’t think there would be enough for everyone. There are huge spaces between the plants, and most of the salad greens are very young. It used to be much thicker, but when Connie arrived, she started gardening her way, and I am fascinated to learn how this can be done.

After an afternoon seeding Devil’s Tongue lettuce till my eyes were crossed, I joined my fellow staff and volunteers for dinner. I couldn’t believe my eyes–Beef burgers and free Rogue Pale Ale for the taking! I hardly ever eat beef burgers these days, because it’s hard to get happy meat that I can afford, and because meat production has such a huge environmental impact. But this was certified organic, biodynamic, grass-fed beef from a family friend right here on Molokai! My taste buds rejoiced.

To burn off this wellspring of energy, I joined the others in their Thursday night ritual. The Hui runs on a two-week cycle: one week there is a retreat, the next week we breathe and prepare for the next retreat. In two days, a photography workshop will begin. So tonight, we trickled down through the darkness to the yurt. Eli’s Yurt is a beautiful circular building where many of the workshops take place. Tonight we turned it into an ecstatic dance space. For some, this can be a spiritual practice; for others, it’s a fun sweaty workout. We danced around wherever and however our bodies moved us, to tribal beats, Hawaiian a capella, slow fiddle notes, and Simon & Garfunkel. With an opening and closing circle and many deep stretches along the way, it was the perfect way to drop my body, mind, and spirit into this community. I was definitely meant to come here. I’m home.

 

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