Seeking the Honey of Life

Essay BLANK

Seeking the Honey of Life


“There is much that man could learn from the bees, but he does not have the patience.” – Karl von Frisch

Having built a new home, filled the larder with food, and started a family, would you leave it all behind and set off on a journey with no known end?

For us, this would be extraordinary behavior. For honeybees, though, it is entirely natural. When a bee colony has prospered through the spring, filling the combs with honey and brood, the urge to swarm sets in. On a sunny day in early summer more than half of the colony may set off with their queen, leaving an infant queen behind, not even hatched.

A swarm appears as a wild, chaotic cloud; the beating of so many tiny wings rises from a buzz to a roar. There is little danger of being stung, for the bees are full of honey and intent on their task. Yet the sight of swarming bees almost inevitably inspires fear in us. We do not want to be reminded that we too must sometimes abandon our settled past, and seek an unknown future.

It is a kind of death, and bees are often associated with death in folklore; in Celtic tradition the soul was even thought to leave the body in the form of a bee. The custom of “telling the bees” of a death in the family was taken very seriously; if not solemnly informed of the event, they might leave their hives, never to return.

It is no wonder that bees should be considered guardians of that unknown country. Bees willingly “die” to their old hive in order that the colony may be reborn.  The drive for new life is the only law they know. We grasp what we already have, and become imprisoned by it; the bees give everything away, and are free.

When they swarm, their final destination is not yet decided. At first, they do not go far from the old hive, but will cluster nearby. This is the moment when beekeepers may recover the colony and settle it in a new hive. If left to themselves, they begin to send out explorers who search for a suitable home, returning to “dance” their findings on the surface of the cluster.

These movements, described by their discoverer Karl von Frisch in The Dancing Bees, enable the bees to communicate their findings to one another with incredible precision. The direction, speed, and liveliness of the scout bee’s movement all convey information that is received and interpreted by the watchers, who learn from her where to fly. Even when forced by obstacles to fly a roundabout route, they are able to arrive at the correct location, up to two miles away. How exactly these tiny creatures are able to calculate time and distance so accurately is still not understood.

This ingenious system of communication seems to embody what we usually do not attribute to other creatures than ourselves: “an intelligence independent of instinct.”1 Scientists are still baffled by it. The more we study what happens within the hive, the more an intelligent being appears to be at work, not in the individual bees, but between and among them. As we scurry about on our isolated, self-oriented quests, could we not stop to consider whether, if we let ourselves become aware of it, a higher intelligence might speak to us? As Karl von Frisch remarks, “There is much that man could learn from the bees, but he does not have the patience.”2

If not captured by a beekeeper, the swarm will settle in any protected place where they can build new combs and raise their young. In their new home, the bees dance again, this time to tell one another about food sources. They now must build up honey for the winter, or the colony will perish.

Though they knew nothing of the remarkable “language” of the bee dances, the ancients recognized the creation of honey as wisdom made manifest.  The Bible is full of it:

“My son, eat thou honey, because it is good; and the honeycomb, which is sweet to
………….thy taste;
So shall the knowledge of wisdom be unto thy soul…”3

It is notable that in gathering nectar, the honeybee need not destroy or injure any living thing. A Buddhist proverb advises, “As the bee collects nectar and departs without injuring the flower, or its color or scent, so let a sage dwell in the community.” Indeed, the bee not only does no harm, but performs a vital service in carrying pollen from one flower to another. The true seeker, she reminds us, is one who serves the whole.

After taking in the substances offered up by the plant, the bee further transforms them within her own body, not in the stomach but in a special honey sac. The honey is carefully spread in the comb so that water can evaporate; the bees know the exact moment when it is ready to be capped without fermenting.

The transformed nectar takes on an eternal quality, remaining sweet, fragrant and golden indefinitely without preservatives. It is literally food fit for the gods; it nourished Zeus in his cradle, and has been found in the tombs of the Egyptian pharaohs. The Vedas describe it as an attribute of the Asvins, twin gods of light. For the bees, of course, it is life itself.

Sweet things are no longer a rarity or a luxury to us today. But when we taste a drop of honey, we may try to recapture the reverence and wonder that once arose from this experience. It is the product of prodigious feats of navigation and tireless labor, a living symbol of the sweetness that springs from wholehearted entry into life, seeking only to transform what one meets and offer it back again. Truly, there is much we may learn from the bees.

References

[1] William Longgood, The Queen Must Die (New York: Norton, 1985), p. 203.
[2] Karl von Frisch, The Dancing Bees (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1966), p. 148.
[3] Proverbs 24:13-14.

About Lory Widmer Hess
Lory Widmer Hess is a writer, editor, English language teacher, and passionate reader who blogs about life, language, and literature at Entering the Enchanted Castle (enterenchanted.com). She considers her work with adults with developmental disabilities to have been her greatest learning experience. She currently lives with her family in Switzerland.

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Reconnecting Our Children to Nature

Essay Childhood

Reconnecting Our Children to Nature


We’ve been told a story that we are selfish, aggressive, and rugged individuals. But if that were true, we should have no problem with physical distancing and self-isolation. The pandemic showed us that this story is not who we are.

That’s because we evolved in cooperative bands of kin and non-kin where we were nurtured and welcomed by all members of the community. We lived together, we gathered food together, we sang together, and we danced together. We knew it would have been impossible to survive on our own. But together, we thrived.

Laura Aboriginal Dance Festival

Today, we are living in a culture that goes against everything it means to be human. Our culture emphasizes toughness over tenderness, isolation instead of togetherness, even for babies. As a result, we are depressed, anxious, chronically ill, and at the bottom of every international indicator for health. We are living in a trauma factory.

We are stuck in a cycle of competitive detachment where we feel disconnected from others and even ourselves, while at the same time feeling we have to compete for anything worthwhile. There is a way, not only to break this cycle, but to create a new cycle, one that reclaims our humanity and helps us heal ourselves and our culture. We can create a cycle of connected, cooperative companionship.

For most of our existence, we have created culture from the bottom up, from the way we raised children, and from the top down, from the stories we told one another (Four Arrows & Narvaez, in press). Children were nested in loving supportive village care, growing deep connections to and respect for the natural world. The stories they heard spoke of their relationships to and responsibility for the community and the earth.

In modern culture, children are raised with disconnection, with little concern for their basic needs and with an almost random set of relational experiences. They still hear stories, conveyed by various media, but they are full of put-downs, egoism and violence.

Babies require an external womb experience to grow and connect with others. They need calming affectionate care, immediate responses to keep them optimally aroused while rapidly growing brain connections. Without this early care, without meeting our millions-year-old biological needs for our evolved nest, babies learn a pattern of disconnection from the self, others, and the world, manifesting in self-protective mindsets and irritation with people from different backgrounds or with different ideas. We withdraw from social life because it is just too painful, triggering the traumas we experienced early on in life. We constantly seek to fill a void we were never biologically intended to experience.

The good news is that it is possible to break this cycle of competitive detachment and restore the cycles of connected, cooperative companionship. We can learn what our basic needs are and find ways to help everyone get them met. We can take steps that open our minds and hearts and build empathy towards others who are different from us. We can become aware and careful about where we put our greatest asset – our attention. We can build attachment to the natural world by immersing ourselves in its beauty and developing our connection with its aliveness.

Cultures can and do change. It begins with each one of us realizing that we are living in a culture that is at odds with our inherent nature to be empathic, flexible, and sovereign beings. We can take steps to heal and restore our core nature of sociality and connectedness.

Many of us assume that the culture we live in mirrors innate human nature. But today’s dominant cultures of competitive destructive detachment are rare and recent. Nearly every other culture that has ever existed during our species history over millions of years has been one of connected cooperative companionship.

Nurturing the wellbeing of community members characterized many First Nation communities over hundreds if not thousands of years. The ancestors of the San Bushmen, extant for over 150,000 years, provided contemporary humanity’s genes. Their longevity demonstrates the importance of aligning with Earth wisdom.

What does aligning with Earth wisdom look like? It means following evolved practices that promote wellbeing and sustainability, common in the traditions of First Nations around the world. Along with deep place-based knowledge, the Indigenous worldview is one of respectful relations with all members of the biocommunity, from plants and animals to waterways and mountains. Robin Wall Kimmerer described the “honorable harvest” principles that traditionally guide Native American communities. They include asking permission before taking the life of a plant or animal and respecting the answer; not taking the first or last; leaving at least half; giving a gift in return for life taken.

To embrace this orientation to kinship relations and not dismiss it out of hand, one must build a deep sense of nature connection or ecological attachment. As poet and activist Wendell Berry noted regarding honoring earth, “it all turns on affection.” To care for the earth, one must feel bonded to it. Many do not. Nature immersion from a young age avoids this ‘nature deficit disorder’ that is now rampant among children and adults in the USA. Ecological attachment can be built with daily practices of attention and immersion, along with cultural stories about our kinship with a sentient living earth.

Fundamental to growing an earth-respecting member of the biocommunity is our species’ evolved nest, a set of practices more than 75 million years old, passed on through our social mammalian line. Neuro- and social sciences are demonstrating the importance of each nest component for child and adult wellbeing. Soothing gestation and birth foster resilient social and emotional intelligence. Breastfeeding for several years stimulates proper jaw and brain development. Positive touch promotes healthy self-regulation. A welcoming social climate supports a sense of belonging and positive growth. Self-directed social play promotes friendship and control of aggression. Alloparents (other responsive caregivers) nurture flexibility and openness. Responsive relationships support healthy social and physical development. Nature embeddedness ensures a sense of placefulness on the earth. Routine healing practices offer ways to maintain harmony and healthy balance in self and relationships, including with the other than human. Societies that provide less of the evolved nest, like the USA, suffer from species-atypical outcomes that compound over generations—high rates of depression, anxiety suicidality, dysregulation and illbeing.

While critical for building humanity’s social brain in early life, nestedness appears to be vital throughout life for maintaining full humanity and an earth-based moral compass, as demonstrated by San Bushmen. To heal ourselves and our world, we simply must return to this way of nurturing children, adults and communities.

References

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1972).  Two worlds of childhood. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Eisler, R., & Fry, D.P. (2019). Nurturing our humanity. New York: Oxford University Press.

Four Arrows, & Narvaez, D. (in press). Restoring the kinship worldview: indigenous quotes and reflections for healing our world. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.

Fry, D. (Ed.) (2013) War, peace and human nature. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Fry, D. P. (2006). The human potential for peace: An anthropological challenge to assumptions about war and violence. New York: Oxford University Press.

Fry, D. P., & Souillac, G. (2017). The original partnership societies: Evolved propensities for equality, prosociality, and peace. Interdisciplinary Journal of Partnership Studies, 4 (1), Article 4

Garbarino, J. (1995). Raising children in a socially toxic environment. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Gilbert, P. (Ed.) (2017). Compassion: Conceptualisations, Research and Use in Psychotherapy. London: Routledge.

Gowdy, J. (1998). Limited wants, unlimited means: A reader on hunter-gatherer economics and the environment. Washington, D.C.: Island Press.

Hobbes, T. (1651/2010) Leviathan, Revised Edition. In Martinich, A.P. & Battiste, B. (Eds.). Peterborough, ONT: Broadview Press.

Hrdy, S. (2009). Mothers and others: The evolutionary origins of mutual understanding. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

Irons, C., & Beaumont, E. (2017). The compassionate mind workbook. London: Robinson.

Karr-Morse, R., & Wiley, M.S. (1997). Ghosts from the nursery: Tracing the roots of violence. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press.

Karr-Morse, R., & Wiley, M.S. (2012). Scared sick: The role of childhood trauma in adult disease. New York: Basic Books.

Kidner, D. W. (2001). Nature and psyche: Radical environmentalism and the politics of subjectivity. Albany: State University of New York.

Konner, M. (2005). Hunter-gatherer infancy and childhood: The !Kung and others. In B. Hewlett & M. Lamb (Eds.), Hunter-gatherer childhoods: Evolutionary, developmental and cultural perspectives (pp. 19-64). New Brunswick, NJ: Aldine Transaction.

Lee, R. B., & Daly, R. (Eds.). (2005). The Cambridge encyclopedia of hunters and gatherers. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Lanius, R. A., Vermetten, E., & Pain, C. (2010). The impact of early life trauma on health and disease: The hidden epidemic. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Midgley, M. (2010) The solitary self: Darwin and the selfish gene. Durham, UK: Acumen.

Montagu, A. (1971). Touching: The human significance of the skin. New York: Perennial Library.

Murdoch, Iris. 2001. The Sovereignty of Good. London: Routledge Classics.

Narvaez, D. (2013). Development and socialization within an evolutionary context: Growing up to become “A good and useful human being”. In D. Fry (Ed.), War, peace, and human nature: The convergence of evolutionary and cultural views (pp. 643-672). New York: Oxford.

Narvaez, D. (2014). Neurobiology and the development of human morality: Evolution, culture and wisdom. New York: Norton.

Narvaez, D. (Ed.)  (2018). Basic needs, wellbeing and morality: Fulfilling human potential. New York: Palgrave-MacMillan.

Narvaez, D., Four Arrows, Halton, E., Collier, B., Enderle, G. (Eds.) (2019). Indigenous Sustainable Wisdom: First Nation Know-how for Global Flourishing. New York: Peter Lang.

Narvaez, D., Panksepp, J., Schore, A., & Gleason, T. (2013). Evolution, early experience and human development: From research to practice and policy. New York: Oxford.

Panksepp, J. (1998). Affective neuroscience: The foundations of human and animal emotions. New York: Oxford University Press.

Prescott, J.W. (1996). The origins of human love and violence. Pre- and Perinatal Psychology Journal, 10(3), 143-188.

Rakel, D. (2018). The compassionate connection: The healing power of empathy and mindful listening. New York: W.W. Norton.

Schore, A.N. (1997). Early organization of the nonlinear right brain and development of a predisposition to psychiatric disorders. Development and Psychopathology, 9, 595-631.

Schore, A.N. (2002). Dysregulation of the right brain: A fundamental mechanism of traumatic attachment and the psychopathogenesis of posttraumatic stress disorder. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 36, 9-30.

Schore, A.N. (2013). Bowlby’s “Environment of evolutionary adaptedness”: Recent studies on the interpersonal neurobiology of attachment and emotional development. In D. Narvaez, J. Panksepp, A. Schore & T. Gleason (Eds.), Evolution, Early Experience and Human Development: From Research to Practice and Policy (pp. 31-67). New York: Oxford University Press.

Steyer, J.P. (2002). The other parent. New York: Atria Books.

Suttie, I. (1935). The origins of love and hate. New York, NY: The Julian Press.

UNICEF (2007). Child poverty in perspective: An overview of child well-being in rich countries, a comprehensive assessment of the lives and well-being of children and adolescents in the economically advanced nations, Report Card 7. Florence, Italy: United Nations Children’s Fund Innocenti Research Centre.

Wrangham, R. W., & Peterson, D. (1996). Demonic males: Apes and the origins of human violence. Boston, MA: Houghton, Mifflin and Company.

Young, J. (2019). Connection modeling metrics for deep nature-connection, mentoring and culture repair. In D. Narvaez, Four Arrows, E. Halton, B. Collier, G. Enderle (Eds.) (2019). Indigenous Sustainable Wisdom: First Nation Know-how for Global Flourishing (pp. 219-243). New York: Peter Lang.

Young, J., Haas, E., & McGown, E. (2010). Coyote’s guide to connecting with nature, 2nd ed.. Santa Cruz, CA: Owlink Media.

About Darcia Narvaez

Darcia Narvaez, Professor Emerita of Psychology, University of Notre Dame, researches moral development and human flourishing from an interdisciplinary perspective, integrating anthropology, neuroscience, clinical, developmental and educational sciences. Her earlier careers include professional musician, business owner, classroom music teacher, classroom Spanish teacher and seminarian, among other things. She grew up as a bilingual/bicultural Puerto Rican but calls the earth her home. Dr. Narvaez’s current research explores how early life experience influences wellbeing and moral character in children and adults. She is a fellow of the American Psychological Association and the American Educational Research Association and former editor of the Journal of Moral Education. She is on the advisory boards of Attachment Parenting International, Your Whole Baby, and the Self Reg Institute. She has numerous publications, including more than 20 books. A recent book, Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality: Evolution, Culture and Wisdom won the 2015 William James Book Award from the American Psychological Association and the 2017 Expanded Reason Award. She is president of KindredWorld.org which fosters flourishing for all. She blogs for Psychology Today (“Moral Landscapes”), hosts the webpage EvolvedNest.org, and helped create the new film, Breaking the Cycle.

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Glacier, Elder, Teacher

Essay Commons

Glacier, Elder, Teacher


I’m in tiny airplane, buzzing towards the South Pole. The ceiling of clouds fractures into daylight blue. Below, the plane’s shadow emerges—a tiny mote on the face of a glacier the size of Spain. A crumpled line of mountains appears to the east. Everywhere else, the curve of the Earth stretches into the horizon like the white of an enormous eye. The view is primordial. 

Many think of Antarctica as an alien place, empty and devoid of life. But Antarctica is a living place and points to the mystery of what it means for bodies—humans, planets, glaciers—to be alive, entangled, kin. From a distance, glaciers make human life possible. Here, Antarctica’s water animates my flesh and its wind becomes my breath—I am part of this place and my body doesn’t end at my skin.

On Earth, life perpetuates itself, unfolds in cycles. Even decay and death serve this marvelous purpose—through rebirth. Life on Earth is undergoing a great death of our own doing, a mass extinction and a warming climate. Progress’s promises, fueled by an inflated sense of humans’ power over nature, are failing us. To respond to the climate crisis, we must re-align our vision and be open to the Otherness of everything. Even a glacier—and maybe especially a glacier—can be our teacher in this.

As we descend, our shadow bloats and the glacier’s seemingly smooth surface reveals itself as sastrugi—coarse, demented waves of snow and ice, whose streaks widen and pattern geometrically, like a cuneiform language. 

Immanuel Levinas, a Jewish philosopher and World War II prison camp survivor, wrote that when we treat an ‘Other’ as an object, we reduce it, limit our experience of it. In a true encounter, the face of the Other returns our gaze—in it, we glimpse a trace of the infinite. The Other always exceeds us.

Some theologians and philosophers espouse the idea that humans are the universe observing itself. There is truth to this. We’re made of the same raw material that makes Earth, the moon, and stars. But this idea positions human consciousness—our awareness—as the peak of the universe’s evolution. We are Earth and universe and mostly water, you and I—and so are the glaciers, who exceed us.

The plane’s skis touch down and glide—then lift off. We whirl in the air and disturb the same place as if daring to stroke a feather on a great snowy owl. We test for crevasses one more time. The glacier allows us to land. 

Referees of anthropomorphism might blow a whistle here: “Don’t project!” We are comfortable with glaciers as inert matter, passive and subject to physics. Glaciers are informative and useful—icons for the climate crisis. As long as they stay frozen, they preserve our shore-loving civilizations and ways of life. But what if we opened ourselves to the idea of glaciers as creatures—as alive and intelligent in a way that we might not be able to comprehend? Our vision might expand beyond lazy anthropomorphism. Instead of focusing our apertures on ourselves, we might experience a true encounter with the Other.

The plane ascends and light mutes, smudging the horizon. The surface smooths into loose reflective silk, disguising whether light’s true origin is from above or below. We curve towards a spine of mountains that crosses the continent. We float into a valley, a marbled cathedral with no roof. On a human time scale, all appears still. But these mountains and glaciers are moving. 

Glaciers are incredibly responsive to life’s purpose, its continual unfolding. When conditions call for it, they grow—or recede. Earth’s current iteration of glaciers are dying in most places, but glaciers covered the planet thrice before humans existed. Some scientists speculate that the last ‘snowball Earth’ triggered the evolution of multicellular life, including ours. Glaciers, in a way, are our ancestors and worthy of respect.

Ancient ice holds arcane knowledge—the history of the cosmos—in its body. Some indigenous oral histories describe glaciers as sentient beings who respond to human behavior. Athapaskan stories describe glaciers responding to human insolence—like insulting elders and cooking greasy food nearby—with a deluge of water. Perhaps glaciers are responding to human insolence today.

Ample glaciers—sometimes smooth, sometimes dimpled—drape themselves on waves of mountains. Glacial bodies feel their way down the sides of elderly mountains into a massive current, whose patient splash onto the flat ice shelf wrinkles like loose skin. 

Calling glaciers ‘alive’ won’t stand up to empirical knowledge. But there are other valid ways to know, like through tradition and experience. We think of brains as the habitat of knowledge. But the human brain is in the body. Knowledge always happens in the body.

In Spanish, the words saber and conocer translate into English as ‘to know.’ But they aren’t interchangeable. Saber, ‘knowing facts,’ is intellectual, distant. Conocer is about familiarity and recognition; it’s personal, intimate, from experience. I can know about glaciers intellectually, scientifically—saber, yo sé. I can also know them through experience, relationship, my body—conocer, yo conozco. Feeling is a way of knowing, too.

Glaciers are skin. Layers of layers. Oceanic. Mesmerizing faces that hold depth itself. Skin: membrane, shell, hull, rind, fur, husk, bark, exoskeleton, crust, rocks, snow, mile-thick ice, a continent. Skin camouflages—and reveals. Skin is epistemology, a way we know. Skin protects—or tries to. Wounded, skin becomes scars. Scarred—especially scarred—skin is alive. 

Humanness is not the only measuring stick of aliveness, intelligence, and worthiness. Earth, and all of its parts, are alive. Humans will always be one of our own main points of reference; our gazes will never be perfect. But we can de-center ourselves from stories. Instead of merely looking, we can try to see.

We land on the ice shelf near the research station. The glacier holds me, lost mittens, shredded tents, skeletons, meteorites, stardust, microbes, fossils, ancient air, broken snowflakes, histories, possibilities, words, warnings, worlds.

About Stephanie Krzywonos

Stephanie is a Mexican-American writer who has spent six austral summers and one polar winter living and working among glaciers in Antarctica. She holds a degree in Philosophy and is currently a student of contemplative mysticism at the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Her essays on Antarctica have appeared in The Dark Mountain Project, Behemoth Magazine, and The Antarctic Sun. Stephanie will be returning to Antarctica in October and is currently working on a proposal for her first book, a memoir about descent, renewal, and the more-than-humans in Antarctica. You can follow her on Twitter at @StephKrzywonos.

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Into the Riptide | The Best We Can Imagine Together

Poem

Into the Riptide | The Best We Can Imagine Together


Into the Riptide

On the surface
the currents may look
almost silent, just a shimmer
in the flow. Underneath
are teeth waiting wide––
mousetrap-quick, snap
and bat, cat’s paw deft––
catching at keel and
rudder and oar

I too would conjure
a divinity for the relief
of having a name for my fear
were it not for all the
pre-existing options:
Poseidon and Neptune
Pontus and Triton
Charybdis and Scylla and Brizo

Did they know
when they spun the tales
of eddies in the healing pools,
did they know it is the movement
that brings life to the surface, that
it is change which revitalizes?

For all we know, Medusa may
have just been offering men their
deepest desire—to be hard
and unchangeable. Even he
who pursues pleasure melts to bones
at the Sirens’ feet when he refuses
to walk away, back into the wind

We must be willing
to lose it all, to be pulled under
learn to breathe with gills
but we may be surprised
at what we are allowed
to keep in the transformation
for the deepening is not just
in the furthest point down
one has braved or the upwelling
that rises to meet you but
in every floating moment
of the free dive into the dark


The Best We Can Imagine Together

If you wait long enough, I hear
the fireflies will start to blink in sync
though I’ve never seen this happen
My only trips to lightning bug country
were too early in the springtime
but I wonder—does sensation
stop at the edges of their own tiny bodies?
Or do those who flash together
feel the burn of their neighbor’s flame?

If you spend the night at sea
off the west coast of North America,
you may catch green flashes in the water,
green or sometimes an unnatural sort
of blue ––mercury flickering in the rain
I have witnessed this on the night watches
kept vigil with the ocean
as light flew through the air
off the tip of a dolphin’s fin
Minnows dart deep and leave
bright blazes in the water behind them
Nothing in the night needs
illumination to find its way

Is it painful to become the fire?
What sort of world is one where
light is the way the algae cries?
There is a shrimp, tiny as its name,
who flits so quickly through the water
the sound it leaves behind
turns luminous in its wake
Listen closely

About Bethany Lee

Bethany Lee, author of The Breath Between and Etude for Belonging from Fernwood Press, lives in Lafayette, OR, in a house at the edge of the woods. Her writing is often inspired by the space at the edge of things: her experiences as a hospice harpist, the year she spent traveling by sea, and the deep silence of her Quaker practice.

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How to Be a Soil Keeper

Article

How to Be a Soil Keeper


Just societies cannot grow in toxic soil. To build regenerative communities, we should look to how life flourishes in the natural world, of which we are an inherent part.

In this critical moment in our shared history, the call for humanity to evolve is growing louder. But what exactly does this entail? Transformational change emerges from deep beneath that which we can see. Our beliefs shape our identities, just as soil health shapes plant life, and culturally constructed paradigms shape social systems. Realizing the promise of a just society, the aim of transformational change, requires us to remediate inequities embedded in our soils, societies, and selves. However, ’systems change’ work often stops short of integrating each of these nested domains, hindering our ability to cultivate conditions conducive to life. Furthermore, many “transformational” efforts continue to center a Western understanding of how change happens. This phenomena demonstrates the pervasive force of colonialism, not only in terms of the social production of wealth, but more insidiously, as an imposed worldview. It seems these measures, well intentioned as they may be, fail to realize their liberatory potential to empower us to see the world, each other, and ourselves in profoundly different ways – prerequisites to realizing truly transformational change.

Many people trace the origins of injustice, and need for transformational change, back to colonization. Looking at the root of this term can help us understand these complexities and devise new healing pathways. The term colonization comes from the Latin words colere, meaning “to till,” and colonia, “the soil.” The Western imagination tends to associate tilling by mechanical plows as the hallmark of industrial progress and evidence of cultural superiority. However, Indigenous land stewards and a growing movement of natural farming advocates know that tilling soil destroys the very source of its power and regenerative capacity by severing the diverse web of relationships responsible for maintaining its fertility. By tearing soil’s social fabric, tilling disrupts life-supporting processes causing vital resources to become concentrated, creating disparities of power, wealth, and wellbeing. As a result, a destructive spiral of dependency is set into motion.

By tilling the soil of communities, colonization has had an equally damaging effect, severing intimate relationships between people and place, cultural knowledge, and each other, contributing to durable inequities. The resulting concentration of wealth disrupts life-supporting processes and generates an unnatural dependency on external inputs, such as philanthropy. Soil fertility, like justice, is a dynamic condition that enables life to thrive over time. Maintaining both requires a diverse web of entities to continually recalibrate how they behave in step with shifting circumstances and led by those most impacted by those changes. Collaborative learning that is context-sensitive enriches this adaptive capacity and supports the equitable distribution of vital resources, enhancing the wellbeing of the whole.

Fertile soil in the West Dry Creek Valley of Sonoma County, California, ancestral homelands of the Pomo peoples.
Fertile soil in the West Dry Creek Valley of Sonoma County, California, ancestral homelands of the Pomo peoples. Photo by Kiley Arroyo, 2020.

While it’s widely understood that a coordinated ecosystem of actions is needed to advance a just society, most sectors, organizations, and initiatives tend to work in isolation from one another and, at times, cross-purposes. Well-intentioned as they may be, these measures often stop short of realizing their potential to empower us to see the world, each other, and ourselves in profoundly different ways. The fractured landscape of social change work is a byproduct of a Western understanding of how change happens. This fragmentation underscores the importance of remediating the grounds from which this work emerges through intercultural exchange and collaborative learning experiences.

The practice of soil keeping provides individuals committed to realizing a just society with a compelling basis for imagining their work and recognizing the interdependencies between people, place, and planet. More specifically, the principles used to restore fertility to soil can be extended to heal communities harmed by the same underlying forces — supporting reparative justice, personal development, and collective self-determination.

Nature provides elements and contours of the just society to which we aspire. No one waters a forest or fertilizes a meadow, and yet abundance is everywhere. Living systems use a set of time-tested principles to share power and collectively maintain fertile conditions in which life can flourish. Healthy ecosystems demonstrate the kind of actors, distinct roles, relationships, exchanges, structures, and behaviors that enable systems to transform to support the vitality of the whole.

I’ve been exploring how the characteristics of vibrant ecosystems align to the levers contained in western systems change frameworks to deepen my understanding of how we can foster emergence — for example, trees to enabling institutional structures, nutrient cycling to circular economies, fungi hyphae to mutual aid networks, compost to culture, perennial renewal to liberation, and so on. In doing so, I’ve come to believe that soil keeping provides a compelling metaphor and practical lessons in how we can nourish radical imagination and facilitate transformative change, within ourselves and in relationship with others.

Soil keeping teaches the values of cooperation, trust, and subsidiarity in and intuitive and pleasurable way. Rather than imposing change upon the soil, investments focus on cultivating fertile conditions in which the actors closest to the ground collectively determine how best to circulate resources and adapt over time. Applying a soil-keeping ethos can democratize power, wealth, and wellbeing. Doing so generates a fertile environment in which new relationships, ideas, and ways to maintain justice can continually emerge. To date, however, this approach’s potential to transform philanthropy and socially motivated investment is not fully realized.

Entering into dialogue with nature, of which humanity is an intrinsic part, reveals insights those committed to actualizing justice seek. Many Indigenous cultures and wisdom traditions embody this knowledge, suggesting that a soil-keeping ethos can facilitate the deep cultural and social healing necessary for our collective liberation. By embracing a more expansive perspective that recognizes the power of diverse ways of knowing and being, the practice of soil keeping begins to remediate the mindsets that hold injustice in place, allowing equitable access to new tools and techniques.

How to Be a Soil Keeper

A suite of restorative principles can heal soil and enhance its regenerative capacity by ensuring power, wealth, and wellbeing increase over time. The resulting fertility is the energy that enables complex systems to experiment, learn, adapt, and continually discover how to care for the common good. This aliveness can only be created through diverse cooperation and collective willingness to evolve. I’ve mapped how these principles can enrich communities’ regenerative capacity and restore life-sustaining relationships with the land, culture, and each other. I believe these principles can inform more integrated investments, interconnectedness, and facilitate the just transition to which we are working.

Principle 1: End Harmful Disturbances

Soil restoration involves deep observation, listening, and honest accounting of the “disturbance regime” or pattern of harm that has impacted a particular place. Limiting harmful practices in community involves productive conflict and truth-telling from the perspective of those most impacted, which begins to reconcile our relationship with the land and each other. Culturally safe responses are rooted in community voice, values, and vision to ensure restorative practices acknowledge past harms, shift power, and mitigate future damage through meaningful accountability mechanisms. Identifying patterns that we wish to amplify and dampen reveals what needs to change to support life and bring a new world into being.

Example of no-till soil keeping, which protects the deep roots and diverse web of relationships responsible for maintaining its fertility, allowing power and wealth to build up over time.
Example of no-till soil keeping, which protects the deep roots and diverse web of relationships responsible for maintaining its fertility, allowing power and wealth to build up over time. Photo by Kiley Arroyo, 2020.

Principle 2: Rest

Colonization permits extractive practices such as industrial agriculture that traumatize soil. Hyper-productivity depletes soil of nutrients and relationships, eventually exhausting its life force completely. For soil to heal, it must rest, disrupting these patterns of harm.

Colonization produces norms and expectations about what constitutes appropriate behavior that often conflates labor with value. Some view habitual productivity as one such artifact of White Supremacy Culture. Tricia Hersey, founder of the Nap Ministry, suggests, “Rest is a form of resistance because it disrupts and pushes back against capitalism and White supremacy.” Rest provides spaciousness for healing and dreaming of alternative futures. As such, ease provides a critical counternarrative essential to liberation movements, including efforts to advance regenerative societies. By modeling new forms of creativity and care that don’t sacrifice our wellbeing, we can undo past harms and preserve the energy needed to realize our vision with pleasure and ease.

Principle 3: Protect

No-till farming techniques protect soil’s mutual aid networks and crop roots, providing future plants with easy passage to more distant nutrients, strengthening soil’s structure and fertility. Just societies protect diverse communities, providing safe places to live, dream, grow, and realize their fullest potential through caring relationships and a culture of belonging. Grassroots organizing protects communities; builds power and capacity for local stewardship of diverse forms of wealth – including cultural capital. As with water, we can ensure the equitable circulation of financial investments through structures like community development financial institutions and credit unions that recirculate capital through cooperative and culturally relevant governance. We can cultivate cover crops or entities and activities that intentionally protect vulnerable groups from oppressive systems, facilitate the robust flow of resources, ease mobility, and expand opportunities to enhance communities’ regenerative capacity.

Principle 4: Reforest

Trees are keystone species, nature’s anchor institutions upon which the health and biodiversity of complex ecosystems depend. Trees, working in unison, facilitate the robust circulation of essential resources and opportunities across diverse systems. Trees offer protection, prevent displacement, balance the climate, ensure we can breathe, promote beauty, and adapt in dialogue with local conditions.

In Marin County, the California Oak tree is playing a critical role in ecological restoration efforts, including the rewilding of public land in San Geronimo.
In Marin County, the California Oak tree is playing a critical role in ecological restoration efforts, including the rewilding of public land in San Geronimo. Photo by Kiley Arroyo, 2020.

Efforts to advance just societies invite institutions to act more like trees. Dissatisfaction with democratic institutions is shared globally. Many societies express frustration with institutions that impose an idea of the future, leaving little room for citizen participation. We need new organizational structures that encourage widespread civic engagement and amplify society’s most abundant source of ideas — its people.

Participatory processes that shift power and center subsidiarity enable inclusive governance and the emergence of imaginative interventions. Creating space for a more diverse range of worldviews to inform the shape and substance of public problem-solving helps restore trust and revitalize modern democracies. Future-facing institutions’ primary task would be to create fertile conditions that enable diverse entities to exchange ideas (seedlings), experiment, and continually learn how best to distribute vital resources so entire ecosystems thrive. In short, to facilitate whole systems care.

Principle 5: Foster Polycultures

Nature rebuilds soil fertility through awesome cooperation, enabling diverse elements to contribute to the whole’s wellbeing. This diversity of resources and expertise provides soil, and living systems more broadly, with limitless ways to experiment, learn, and adapt in service of the whole. Conversely, monocultures, like White supremacy, rob their environments of the fertility generated when diverse entities enjoy shared prosperity. Restorative practices for building community emphasize the cultivation of polycultures and equitable partnerships, particularly at the edges of systems, where dominant patterns are weakest and opportunities for transformation greatest.

 

This cycles demonstrates how creative strategies can foster emergence and facilitate transformational learning, which remediates the mindsets that hold injustice in place. This cycle mirrors the ways living systems operate.
This cycles demonstrates how creative strategies can foster emergence and facilitate transformational learning, which remediates the mindsets that hold injustice in place. This cycle mirrors the ways living systems operate.

In societies marked by division, efforts to advance regenerative cultures must include opportunities to develop meaningful relationships across all lines of difference and right relationship with this profound diversity. However, actualized justice does not end with the forging of new relationships. Rather, diverse relationships provide portals to accessing a more expansive array of worldviews, which can nourish radical visions of the liberated future to which we are working. Different ways of being and knowing offer limitless ways to frame, understand, and respond to the complex challenges that characterize 21st-century life.

Creative interventions that promote cultural rights1 support these processes by shifting the atmosphere, enabling individuals to encounter difference, engage in intercultural dialogue, develop critical consciousness, and find common cause — the foundation of imaginative collective action and whole-systems care. Cultural practices and radical imagination can also facilitate transformational learning, the means by which individuals can reconstruct their worldviews. Consequently, space must be preserved, both physically and psychologically, for this virtuous cycle to occur.

Principle 6: Grow and Nourish

Building soil fertility involves transforming death into life through decomposition, fermentation, and digestion, making nutrients bioavailable In Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings, Joy Harjo, an elder of the Muscogee Creek Nation, writes, “The land is a being that remembers everything.” Like cultural memory, compost enriches soil with place-based knowledge that supports learning, energizes adaptation, and nourishes future patterns of being. In fertile soil, transformational change does not result in loss, per se, but a repurposing of what was to energize what’s to come.

Regenerative communities leverage the evolutionary power of cultural diversity. Seeing the world through this lens can inspire the imagination and ignite the sense of agency necessary to transform one’s beliefs. By shifting our perspectives, we develop the cognitive flexibility needed to accommodate others’ truths and grow, individually and collectively. Embedded artists, designers, and culture bearers can facilitate these exchanges across groups, sectors, and disciplines — inoculating against attitudes and actions that enable patterns of harm to persist.

Inoculated compost enriches the vitality of soils in Sonoma County by transforming locally sourced elements into new life.
Inoculated compost enriches the vitality of soils in Sonoma County by transforming locally sourced elements into new life. Photo by Kiley Arroyo, 2020.

Principle 7: Impermanence

Finally, restoring soil fertility requires we embrace impermanence and the fallacy of infinite growth in a finite world. Successive interventions provide soil with evolving opportunities to access different types of nourishment throughout its restoration. Decomposition creates a revolving loan fund that enriches what’s emerging. This cycle of renewal presents opportunities to let go of patterns that no longer support the whole system’s vitality. Cultivating fertile conditions enables new relationships, ideas, identities, and behaviors to emerge today and in the future.

Embracing the possibility that solutions may not be permanent encourages curiosity, ongoing dialogue, and co-creation across multiple lines of difference. Centering community voice enables partners to continually learn how the world is changing and care for the common good. Transcending fixed notions of what’s possible invites us to reimagine our relationship with vulnerability — not as a weakness, but as a malleable space where we can continually reconstruct how we want to show up in the world.

Embracing impermanence allows us to inhabit time more spaciously and move in sync with nature’s rhythms. By slowing down, we can expand our consciousness of time and feel continuity with past and future generations. In seeing our impact on the earth and each other, we can begin to appreciate how our fates are intertwined. In recognizing life’s fragility, we can develop the capacity to practice whole systems care in the present and in ways that resonate across time.

Impermanence illuminates what’s been lost, but also what wants to be found. Humanity is on the cusp of recreating how we live in relationship with all life. This liminal space we’re moving through invites us to embody the future to which we aspire — this is the self-work of transformational change, and it’s within reach to all of us. Cultivating fertile conditions enables new relationships, ideas, identities, and behaviors to emerge.

Join me in learning how you, too, can be a soil keeper.

Notes

[1] Cultural rights are enshrined in Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which the US helped create and remains a signatory of. The article states, “Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.”

About Kiley Arroyo

After a decade of working as an educator, Kiley Arroyo founded the CSC, policy fellow with Demos and UNESCO, and Social Sector Practice Assistant with McKinsey and Company. She is a respected thought leader, known for my intellectual curiosity, foresight, business acumen, authentic spirit, and contagious enthusiasm. Kiley holds a Bachelor’s degree in Art and Architectural History from the University of Oregon and a Master’s in Public Policy (cultural emphasis) and Management from University College Dublin. She is a Salzburg Global Seminar fellow and has advanced training in agroecology, collaborative leadership, complexity theory, and racial justice facilitation.

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Slant | Vernacular

Poem

Slant | Vernacular


Slant

Lately you’ve noticed dust on the piano bench
as each day burns farther at both ends than the last,
the moon hanging earlier in the pale sweep of morning,

families staying later at picnics in the park.
Sunshine’s countable hours nearly equal dark’s,
but it’s the quality of light that changes you

like a pair of prescription glasses revealing a world
so crisp you’re waiting to hear it snap.
Palm-frond tinsel glitters overhead

and an anole’s throat puffs a red-brown ruff.
Even decay proclaims itself—
you’re drawn to bread-crumb garnets on the couch,

a gate dangling at a jaunty angle,
mold decorating a lemon with tiny cornflowers.
When a single chirp trickles through the window

at dawn, you rise and throw on a sweater
and step outside to see what color the sky is.
Last month you dwelled on the thinning of birdsong.
Now you follow anything that sings.


Vernacular

Month after month, we watched hibiscus varieties bloom
and repeated cosmic dancer, mandarin wind, painted lady, rose mallow

or just coined nicknames like rubber duckie,
mister pink, big red, and creamsicle.

Taking in any kind we could find, we cracked seedpods,
rooted cuttings, and hauled shrubs home in our two-door hatchback,

intent on spreading a spray of pigment over the backyard till coral,
cranberry, and egg-yolk yellow bumped heads

with ginger groves and bee-studded firebush spires.
Late summer brought an upsurge in those airborne petals we called

giant swallowtail, cloudless sulphur when we studied
the butterfly card and glidey thing, yellow flitty

when we were watching the fluttering confetti and winging it.
Effusing over this and that like we used to sweet-talk our cats,

we’d say, Good morning, little darty. Hey there, blue bee.
Nice flower, hardy biscuit. Snow queen, you are magnificent.

We fussed at aphids massed on buds as if combing fleas
from the scruffs of kittens, and the plants responded in kind,

feline in the sunshine, stretching out at midday all thick and glossy
and well-fed on our composted leavings and daily sprinkling.

The more blossoms widened and bugs flickered, the more
fluent we became, our language unzipping a whole new landscape,

so when Eta’s winds cycled through in November with a big-rig roar
and blankets of rain waterlogging every leaf, we knew her name already.

We looked upon our flooded yard and saturated colors
and thanked her for the dousing, and we meant it.

About Sarah Carleton

Sarah Carleton writes poetry, edits fiction, plays the banjo, and makes her husband laugh in Tampa, Florida. Her poems have appeared in numerous publications including Cider Press Review, Nimrod, Chattahoochee Review, Tar River Poetry, Crab Orchard Review, and New Ohio Review. Her first collection, Notes from the Girl Cave, was recently published by Kelsay Books.

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Our Animal Bodies and the Unitive State

Article Awareness

Our Animal Bodies and the Unitive State


If you study animals, you see that, for the most part, they are very relaxed. Think of a cow lying in a field, looking out into space. Her mind seems open and resting in the present moment, not preoccupied with past and future thoughts—looking out without seeming to focus on anything in particular. Cows are great meditators!

Even in the wild, even when hunting, hunted, or hungry, most animals are not whipping themselves into a neurological frenzy or stuck in some mental-emotional bog. They are calm enough to bring their whole being into alertness. This open, relaxed alertness, which we could also simply call awareness, is the basis of what we humans, whether two hundred thousand years ago or today, experience as meditation.

Hunting and gathering humans still exist on our planet in remote parts of Africa, Indonesia, and the Amazon. They are creative and intelligent, and they still embody this relaxed openness. Sitting quietly, they easily slip into meditative states. Of course, this stillness is punctuated by all sorts of activity and emotionality, but it seems that quietude is a baseline with which we “civilized” humans have lost touch.

The Hadza of Tanzania are a hunter-gather society that has survived into modern times.

Within this relaxed, open state, there is connectedness. Hunters and gatherers are deeply embedded in their world, at one with it. Whether we conceive of this as union with the spirits, God, the great spirit, the earth, or compassionate awareness, the neurophysiological state is the same. There is a family of related and overlapping states that we could call unitive. We experience these as a vast continuity. People in the unitive state still feel conscious of themselves to greater or lesser degrees. On the “lesser” end of the spectrum, we can experience states such as trances or deep meditative absorption. When we are more conscious of ourselves while in the unitive state, however, we experience ourselves as centered within “all that is.” This means when we are not busy maintaining awareness of ourselves as separate from all that is, then there is just a field of awareness, love, continuity—without a center or fringe.

In industrialized, technological cultures, most of us have lost this deep sense of unity. Some of us devote ourselves to rediscovering it through meditation, contemplation, prayer, devotion, nature, and community. The following is a part of a message from a culture still rooted in the unitive state, the Kogi people. The Kogi live in the Sierra Nevada in Santa Marta in Colombia. They write here to the rest of humanity, calling to us as their younger brothers:

From the Heart of the World: The Elder Brothers Warning

The Great Mother created the world in water. She makes the future in it. This is how she speaks to us.
We look after nature. We are the mámas and do this here.
And we mámas see that you are killing it by what you do.
We can no longer repair the world. You must. You are uprooting the earth.
And we are divining to discover how to teach you to stop.1

Though the Kogi are not purely hunters and gatherers, they are still living embedded in nature, as we all did for such a long period of time. Only in these last few thousand years have we created a serious rupture between ourselves and nature. The Kogi are calling on us, the younger brothers, to wake up to the havoc we are reaping on our mother earth. When we lose contact with the unitive state, we don’t notice that we are doing harm. We don’t notice the rupture, but we identify with the results. We feel forsaken by God. Many of us feel like isolated little people within a big universe. Or worse, we are obsessed with our own self-importance, ignoring all else. We become trapped in our egos, without a direct link to others. At this point, compassion becomes a mental exercise at best or is forgotten at worst.

Ten thousand years ago, humans began to settle in permanent dwellings. As cultural momentum surged, we became less connected to nature and probably more confused as to our place in the world. Organized, institutional religions emerged about three thousand years ago. Was their emergence at least partly in response to the rupture of connection, an attempt to repair it? Are religion and spirituality attempts to reconnect to our birthright, our ability to rest in meditative and unitive states?

Modern life is terribly stimulating and fast-paced. At times, it rides us like a mad demon. We are bombarded and distracted away from spiritual states. Yet, though we may be largely unaware of it, the drive toward spirituality is deep and innate within our physiology. It is a drive toward coming home. It doesn’t go away, it just becomes obscured. We find ourselves avoiding meditation, religion, prayer, yoga—anything that might lead us back to it. Our nervous systems don’t want us to let our guard down, to shift gears into a more open state.

Our nervous systems are in large part protective defense structures, committed to maintaining homeostasis. If they have been functioning safely within a narrow scope of awareness, then they have to be seduced into opening outward. Once we have a taste of a larger consciousness, then we have to ascertain that it is safe.

However, despite this resistance, most people have moments when they stumble into the sacred world. Whether it is cresting a mountain, making love, flying a plane, holding a baby—most of us have moments where everything opens up. There’s a stillness, a presence, a luminosity. Our hearts open. We feel full, and we let go of our striving. We are content; we are at one with our world. Yet if we leave such experiences to chance, if we fail to appreciate, study, cultivate, and practice them, then it is all too likely that they will become fleeting in our lives as we get more and more habituated to the disembodied norms of modern life.

Thankfully there is an ancient, tried-and-tested method for learning this fluency—the practice of mindfulness of the body. I teach this practice in an adapted form, encouraging more movement and expression than is traditional in many spiritual contexts. This practice manifests the spiral quality of the steps of embodied spirituality: out of the aspiration to open our hearts, we may commit to a practice of mindfully feeling our bodies; and as we move more fully into feeling our bodies, we begin to trust our bodies to express themselves more. This is the step of allowing. As we allow the sensations in our bodies to express themselves more fully, we may find that our hearts have begun to open of their own accord. At each stage, our connections with ourselves and the rest of the world deepen and blossom.

Reference
[1] Eric Lee, “From the Heart of the World: The Elder Brothers’ Warning,” May 21, 2016. www.sustainable.soltechdesigns.com/elder-brothers-warning.html.

 

From Heart Open, Body Awake: Four Steps to Embodied Spirituality by Susan Aposhyan © 2021 by Susan Aposhyan. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO. www.shambhala.com

About Susan Aposhyan

Susan Aposhyan, an accomplished meditator and psychotherapist, is among the leading figures in the field of somatic psychology. She is the author of Natural Intelligence: Human Development and Body-Mind Integration and Body-Mind Psychotherapy: Principles, Techniques, and Practical Applications. Based in Boulder, she teaches programs and retreats internationally and has been invited to speak and keynote at a variety of conferences.

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The Wonder of It All

Essay Universe Story

The Wonder of It All


Let us consider Earth and the community of planets as seeds broadcast into a field – in this case, a solar field. Just as plant seeds can find themselves in locations that are too dry or too hot or too cold for sprouting, so most of the planets in the solar field landed in conditions unfavorable for growth. Only Earth was in a promising situation for germination.

The Earth-seed, our living planet, began to blossom.

The Four Elements

Earth, water, air, fire, ether

Many cultures throughout history have viewed the world as composed of four basic elements:  earth (land), water, air and fire. In the West, in the 4th century BCE, Aristotle adopted and formalized this conception of four primary elements into a coherent system.

Aristotle interpreted our world as comprised of concentric spheres: earth (land) at the center, surrounded by a sphere of water; water, surrounded by a sphere of air; and air, surrounded by a sphere of fire. This was the prevailing worldview throughout the medieval era, taught at universities beginning in the 13th century. (No educated lay person or cleric believed the earth was flat.)

By the 14th century it was obvious modifications were necessary, since it was apparent the sphere of water did not entirely submerge the sphere of earth.  Scholars suggested there was dry land because the earth sphere floated like an apple in the water sphere, or that God miraculously held back the oceans. In the 15th century, Columbus, venturing west, had the impression he was sailing uphill. This traditional view is reflected in the term, ‘the high seas.’

With the voyages of Portuguese and Spanish in the 15th and 16th centuries and the discovery of new lands and seas, the old Aristotelian scheme of separate spheres was overturned. Earth was understood now as a single entity of combined land and water, a ‘terraqueous globe.’

Earth and Water

We know that Earth, like other planets of the early solar system, formed from the accumulation of material surrounding our Sun. And a prominent feature of Earth, distinguishing our planet from other members of the planetary community, is the presence of oceans, covering seventy percent of Earth’s surface.

Whence comes the water of our watery home?

For decades scientists thought water was delivered to Earth through the impact of stray asteroids and comets, with their cargoes of rock and ice. However, careful inspection revealed the water composition of those visitors did not entirely match the chemical make-up of Earth’s water. The origin of Earth’s vast oceans remained a mystery.

Until 2020, when researchers examined rare 4.6 billion-year-old meteorites, rocks from the inner solar system, from which Earth was formed. They discovered the water in those meteorites matched exactly the composition of Earth’s water. Earth’s very rocks contained its oceans!  (It is estimated there are three or four oceans worth of water residing within Earth’s mantle.) The emergence of water constitutes the first flowering of the living Earth.

How is water released from a young molten Earth? This much is known: Earth forms 4.5 billion years ago, the soon-to-be Moon impacts the planet 4.4 billion years ago, and there is evidence of oceans 4.3 billion years ago. Our Moon is midwife, breaking Earth’s waters and fostering the birth of living beings. Four billion years ago Earth brings forth the gift of sentience.

Sentience and Air

Sentience is life’s capacity for sensing, feeling, responding. This is a stunning dimension of Earth’s development, profoundly transforming the planet.  Sentience evolves into myriad forms of single-celled and multicellular life. Of life’s many consequences, the most far-reaching is the arising of photosynthesizing organisms.  Through these single-celled organisms and, later, plant life, a pervasive new entity, an original atmosphere, is created: Air.

Oxygen-steeped Air provides a protective ozone layer blanketing the planet, allowing plant and animal life on land to develop and flourish. An ocean of air becomes the medium in which surface life expands and complexifies, enriching Earth with the bountiful sensitivities of life.

 

Fire 

Four hundred million years ago, as life forms colonize land, and fernlike plants and trees populate the continents, Earth’s atmosphere brings forth a prodigious new energy. Air conjures Fire.

Consider: we require an entire atmosphere to light a single match. Fire cannot exist on the Sun or any other planet in our solar system. Fire reveals itself as an elemental presence through the marvel of an oxygen-rich atmosphere. Fire is an evolved power of Earth.

We can recapitulate the unfolding gifts of our living planet:

Earth releases Water
Water births Sentience
Sentience creates Air
Air unveils Fire.

This is the marvelous flowering of Earth.  And there is more.

For eons animals have known what to do when encountering fire – they run. There is safety in this strategy, a reliable response to a potent and dangerous presence. And so, it is astonishing that a million and a half years ago, a hominin called homo erectus confronted fire and did not run. Instead, this being was fascinated: fascinated with fire’s power, and also its possibilities.

In that early human, Fire evokes Imagination.

Imagination

With fire in hand, homo erectus is the earliest human ancestor to venture out of Africa en masse, traveling into Western Europe, the Near East, India, Indonesia and China. The imaginative use of fire shapes human culture. In providing warmth and protection from predators, fire becomes the first human domestication.  Campfires promote cooking, expanding the range of digestible foods, while extending waking hours for increased social bonding.

Fire thoroughly integrates into human life, becoming a biological inheritance. Significantly, homo erectus is the first hominin captivated by pigment: red ochre, the color of fire.

Imagination grows in early hominins and peaks among cave painting hunter-gatherer groups tens of thousands of years ago. In the deepest and darkest of settings, in womblike enclosures, a world of dynamic animals is re-presented in pigment and firelight. A vision once held internally is birthed externally on cave walls. The revelation is deeply stirring, momentous and numinous. Here is exhibited a full capacity to imagine worlds: humans manifest the dreams dreamed by Earth.

The Place of Humanity

The imaginative power of humanity belongs to Earth as completely as ocean or sky. Just as the planet’s life is expressed in rhythms of sleeping and waking, or inhaling and exhaling, a dynamic rhythm is displayed in cultural life as well. The world-imagining of humans reveals a vital pulse of separation/expansion and connection/enhancement.

Upon domesticating fire, homo erectus departs Africa, dispersing into new terrains. This movement becomes the template for succeeding groups of hominins:  separating from the homeland and expanding, ever expanding, until the entire globe is inhabited. Separation and expansion reach a zenith.

A new world-imagining ensues. Fifty thousand years ago, perpetual human wanderers commence merging with their landscapes. Settled and nomadic groups become indigenous, in reciprocal partnership with the shared environment of plant and animal, river and mountain, forest and tundra. A relational intuitive bonding ushers forth a sustainable nourishing culture. Connection and enhancement permeate indigenous living.

Gradually, eight thousand years ago, a unique system of crop-raising, class structure and economic inequality forms. Civilization, a configuration of humanity both highly inventive and exploitative, arises. The economic and martial power of civilization becomes a juggernaut, enveloping the world, accompanied by the destruction of much animal, plant and human life. A divorce from the ecology of the planet, for narrow human ends, results in the despoliation of air, soil, and water. Separation and expansion reach a zenith.

A Planetary Culture

We have gained access to Earth’s physical powers without understanding and respecting that these are sacred gifts.

As the decline of our global civilization begins, Earth elicits a new imagining, one that embodies our relation to the entirety of Earth’s being: it’s human and other-than-human dwellers, as well as its ecosystems. We are inspired to be co-creators and co-nurturers, in a mutually enhancing partnership with the planet.

Our task is to become indigenous to the whole of Earth, in the myriad ways that are possible. We are called to develop a planetary awareness, bringing all the gifts of humanity as offerings to Earth’s greater well-being.

This is the maturing of Imagination, and a fulfillment of Earth’s wondrous unfolding.

About Peter Adair

Peter Adair studied physics and philosophy at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, before entering into a ten year practice of Zen Buddhism at monasteries in Japan and the U.S. He is author of two books, ’Sacred Earth’ and ’Sacred Universe’ (information at adairbooks.com), and with his wife of thirty-five years, Caitlin, creates a magical abode and gardens in southern Vermont.

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The Web of Meaning

Conversation Worldview

The Web of Meaning


Nick Joyce | I feel such a strong resonance with the work that you’ve done and also such a deep reverence for the discipline and the dedication. To open a book of over 500 pages that has such deep inquiry into meaning, into life, into all of these traditions, and such a deeply spiritual orientation to it  – but also such academic and contextual and structured orientation, and to really break down some of these big concepts and ideas and make them available for different layers of conversation that different people are ready to have…I’m really blown away and I just want to start there. Thank you so much.

Jeremy Lent | Well, thank you, Nick that is wonderful to hear.

A lot of what the book is about is showing how, what modern science tells us, whether it’s systems thinking, complexity science, or evolutionary biology, or cognitive science, actually points to the same deep wisdom that some of the greatest wisdom traditions of the world have been telling us for millennia. Whether it’s Buddhism, Taoism or indigenous knowledge from around the world. Similarly, what the cognitive understanding tells us points to the wisdom of the hearts, of actually of our feelings.

Western thought teaches that our mind is totally separate from our body, and therefore our feelings don’t have validity. And the notion of an integrated intelligence is not to deny the importance and value of that conceptual thinking, but to look at how we can use that very special, uniquely human gift and apply that to this recognition of what I call our animate consciousness, or our animate intelligence, which is the intelligence that we share with all of nature. That’s the intelligence we see not just in other mammals around us, like dolphins, or elephants, or chimpanzees who are highly intelligent in ways that we recognize; but even in trees, and ecosystems, and even in single cells – the deep intelligence of nature.

Within each of us as humans, that deep intelligence shows itself in the ways in which we feel, especially when we’re interacting with somebody. But because of the fact that we’ve all been socialized and conditioned, it’s difficult sometimes to trust our feelings.

Nick Joyce | Yes, absolutely. The theme for this Kosmos Quarterly is Realigning with Earth Wisdom. I’m wondering if you could speak a little bit to how you think people can get back in touch with our animate intelligence.

Jeremy Lent | What I call animate intelligence, and Earth wisdom, is a very similar take on the same thing, which is this recognition that life itself has spent billions of years here on Earth, evolving ways of doing things and being healthy as part of bigger ecosystems and showing incredible intelligence. Again, from our mainstream thinking, we’re used to thinking of humans as being smarter than any other creature, and that ‘artificial intelligence’ is somehow way beyond anything that nature has ever done. And in the book I compare the two different ‘AIs’: artificial intelligence and animate intelligence.

What’s amazing is, thanks to science we’ve begun to understand in recent decades, that even at the level of a single cell – (and we have 40 trillion of them in our bodies) – one single cell is capable of ways of making sense of the world in ways even our most advanced super computers can’t actually do. A cell senses thousands of things at the same time, and goes through unbelievably complex processes of figuring out what it’s doing, and communicating with other cells around it. This is part of an unfolding of evolution of billions of years.

NASA model of a human cell

And when you look at things – what we think of as inanimate natural things – like trees or plants, we now know that, not only do trees or plants have multiple senses, over a dozen senses, more than we can even imagine or think about, they even communicate with each other through ecosystems, and what’s been now called the ‘Wood Wide Web’ by biologist Suzanne Simard.

So there’s actually true collective intelligence all around us that we’re only beginning to recognize. That’s the intelligence of nature. One of the great elements of that Earth wisdom that’s evolved over billions of years is recognizing the power of cooperation. We’ve been told from our textbooks, from Richard Dawkins, and The Selfish Gene, and all that stuff, that nature has evolved to be supremely competitive. The opposite is actually true.

This is not wishful thinking. This is the result of scientific analysis of how evolution actually occurred, that the major steps in evolution, from prokaryotes, to cells with a nucleus, to multicellular animals, to communities, to mammals and to humans… every step increases an organism’s learning to cooperate with each other, which has led to the rich diversity of life on Earth right now.

A lot of listening to Earth’s wisdom is to recognize what the Earth itself, what Gaia itself, is telling us about how life can actually be lived in a more flourishing way, both for individual organisms and to flourish as part of something much, much bigger.

Nick Joyce | Yes. It strikes me, throughout the book, speaking to indigenous and traditional cultures that are more connected to Earth wisdom, and also going back into looking at Plato next to Aristotle, that these very different orientations on reality have been around for thousands and thousands of years.

I’m curious how you make sense of the proliferation of the ‘story of separation’, this dominant Western worldview, as really coming in and having the power, very misappropriated power, to destroy and have significantly negative impacts on more Earth-centric traditions and cultures?

Jeremy Lent | That’s right. It’s a great point because it’s very reasonable for somebody to come into this kind of conversation and say, “If this is true, that this selfish separation worldview is wrong, how come everyone talks about it? How come it’s everywhere you go? There must be something in it, if it seems to be fully validated by the way the world works, what everyone says,” and I think it is important to look historically at how this all came about.

Steps arose, going back deep into history, of levels of separation that led to reinforcing feedback effects, which led to this story of separation becoming stronger and more dominant, even though it wasn’t actually a true story.

The first step of the separation coincided with the rise of agriculture 10 to 12,000 years ago.

People started to put fences up, and there was separation from what we cultivate from the wilderness ‘out there’, and then separation between humans. Like, somebody got lucky and was able to grow more crops, and then they could employ other people. Then they put up fences to keep their assets and their wealth separate from other people.

All this hierarchy has developed over time. But then, what is fascinating to look at, and the author, Riane Eisler, does a great job of looking historically, is how these, what she calls ‘dominator systems’, took over from partnerships systems. What you see is these hierarchers would come up with stories about how their in-group is better than other groups. For the first time, there was this ability to go and conquer some area next to you, and steal their assets, and take over their groups. When people did that, the ones that were more successful, got to tell the story of what happened.

We see these stories about the heroism of the warrior, and about how they were actually delighted to have massacred these other people. It was all about this kind of male bonding, and the hero story, and the warrior, and that got embedded in culture. In cultures around the world, it got to be that, people felt, if you’re going to succeed, you need to buy into this story of this kind of male dominance, basically ‘conquering’ as a set of values. But then in the West came a whole other layer of separation and domination with the rise of the scientific revolution in the 16-17th century timeframe.

There was this powerful sense of both conquering nature, through discovering that science can actually teach you to exploit the natural world, seeing nature as a resource to be exploited, and just as importantly, seeing other human beings, as resource for exploitation.

It’s no surprise that colonialism, and the scientific revolution of conquering nature, and capitalism, all began in the same period, in the same place. And this is this very, very powerful force of exploitation based on the sense of separation that has since taken over the world, mostly through brute force of colonialism over hundreds of years, and now through a combination of brute force and the more silent, but equally brutal power of financial and economic domination that the elites have, through capitalism forced on the rest of the world. So at this point, there’s almost no big media, no system, no national governments, no system out there that isn’t completely infiltrated by this story of domination.

Nick Joyce | And what is the solution? How do you see this moving forward into the future? Do you think there’s some insighting incident where we’ll have a planetary-wide moment where we recognize, “Hey, this win-lose game that we’ve been playing actually vectors towards lose-lose given the nature of us living on one finite planet together, and mutually-assured destruction and all of that,” – which became reality in the Cold War era? What do you see as a feasible projection into how cooperative culture can become a planetary norm?

Jeremy Lent | Yeah. One way of thinking about this is the overall ontological question: what is more powerful ultimately, these forces of destruction or forces of life? Of course we all know how true it is, how much easier it is to destroy than to build.

New growth, after fire

But we also see how life itself has this ability to regenerate and grow itself. In fact, one of the things I explore in the book is what I call the deep purpose of life. Because even though we’re told by mainstream society that life doesn’t have a purpose and that the universe itself is meaningless, actually, that’s wrong. Life, ever since it started on this Earth billions of years ago, has had the purpose to regenerate, to actually thrive and regenerate itself. And it’s done so successfully over billions of years.

So much so, that in fact really it’s more likely that the real issue is not what will survive, it’s much more a question of will human civilization survive this crisis? And how much damage will be done to life before it regenerates? Is it going to take tens of millions or hundreds of millions of years before it regenerates? Because it will regenerate. No matter how much damage we as a civilization do to it in this century.

But what I feel we need to do is also recognize that we, each of us, have life within us, and here is this potential to actually jettison this whole idea of being attached to a future, saying the future’s going to be like this or like that. But actually just put our lives in a shared commitment to life, to work towards that life-affirming future, a future of flourishing for humanity, a future of flourishing for life. And not be attached to the outcome – but be fully embedded in the process of what we’re doing. Recognizing we don’t know, none of us know how things are going to happen. But what we do know is, and what we discover in any analysis of complex systems is, there’s this nonlinearity to how things happen.

So when Greta Thunberg was sitting out there outside the Swedish Parliament by herself for days on end, nobody could’ve predicted that within a year or two there’d be millions of school children striking around the world and seeing her as their emblem of what’s possible in standing up for the transformation we need. And nonlinearities like that are embedded in our system. They’re happening all the time. They’re going to happen.

So what each of us then can take from that is not to step aside and say, “Okay. I’ll wait for that nonlinear event to happen. I don’t need to get involved.” But rather, this recognition that by us being connected with that transformation, each of us is part of putting in place the processes that could potentially lead to that nonlinearity.

Nick Joyce | Yes. Absolutely. I want to read something that was on your website that just summarized what you just brought forward so beautifully. Each part of the book on your website is broken down, and there’s a really beautiful header above a sentence, a dive into each chapter. This one was,

“Scientific reductionists claim the universe is utterly meaningless. Mainstream religious dogma has pointed to another dimension for the source of meaning. What if neither of these propositions are true? What if meaning itself arises from our interrelatedness? Modern research and systems theory, and cognitive science hints at a profound realization that wisdom traditions around the world have intimated for millennia. We enact meaning into the universe through how we attune to it. Meaning is a function of connectedness. Once we recognize our part in the web of meaning, we are called to devote ourselves to the flourishing of all life within it.”

I loved that. In the pandemic time that we’ve just gone through, we as a community here chose to keep meaning. We spent a few weeks meeting online and then really tuned into collective processes, probably about three circles the first three months of the pandemic, for really finding our relationship to death and finding the significance in the essential nature of the work that we were doing, which was coming together to grow food and find local solutions for meeting our needs. Looking at the fragility of global capitalism and saying, “Hey, this is definitely a moment to recognize and come together and address our concerns locally.”

But it also brought forward that when any part of this activist orientation or this standing for life is attached to outcome, there’s a false hope. Meg Wheatley talks about hope as a four letter word, and it’s actually the bypassing of the gravitas of the present moment to live in an illusion of hopefulness that the future will turn out ‘this way’. And that one of the more radical actions we can take is really to just act out our purpose through the connection with the web of meaning regardless of an attachment to outcome, but simply because it’s what life is calling forth from us.

I feel like it’s really not something I heard about until the last 10 years or so – letting go of needing it to be a certain way. Another elder named Pat McCabe had this profound experience where White Buffalo Woman came to her and said, “Your understanding of cause and effect is rudimentary.” Just pointing at this linear conception of how reality unfolds – that we’re so locked into – and that nonlinearity could also happen in the way of technological innovation, the techno-utopian track as well.

But for me underneath that, there’s still a core fundamental orientation to life and our purpose and role within it that techno-utopianism doesn’t address. The future I want to live in, if there is a future of civilization, is not one of everything being reduced and automated. It’s one of life resurging and working in right relationship. How we can we take the best of Indigenous culture and the best of the technological innovation and marry them into the most advanced civilization that we can imagine, and letting all of that be part of the conversation and the orientation, starting from within, regardless of outcome? What is my deepest calling of how I want to serve life?

Jeremy Lent | This is such a core thing, and it’s really important to look at it closely. I think anyone who has opened up their minds to what is going on in the world around us right now and who actually cares about things beyond their closed ego identity, who’s kind of opened that identity to something beyond that, looks at it and can’t help but be caught in this place of feeling this sense of troubled despair and wanting to feel that sense of hope. And then these camps develop.

Some people might be familiar with the Deep Adaptation Movement that was started just a couple of years ago by the environmental fellow in UK called Jem Bendell who looked at what’s going on and called it out in a way that many academics were unwilling to. And then suddenly he got this incredible viral response for what he was saying. I’ve actually a couple of years ago wrote some critiques to Jem Bendell saying that calling for deep adaptation – that’s his term – should really be a calling for deep transformation, because I was concerned at seeing people getting pulled into that orbit of just basically saying, “Okay. It’s already too late. Collapse is inevitable. What do we do from here?”

At the same time, we need to recognize that it can be exhausting to carry this hope and want something to get better. Then, see how bad things are and thinking, “How do I reorient around hope if it seems so unlikely?” And for those of us taking a look at this bigger context, these are feelings that really there’s never been any archetype or any historical wisdom tradition to feel into.

Ultimately it’s this place of giving myself to life, of asking each morning when I wake up, “What can I do for the greatest benefit of all life?” I have those words embedded on the wall right above my screen here as we’re talking.

By asking that question, it takes me away from the sense of doom and it also takes me away from any kind of sense of forced optimism. But it gives me the power and energy to really devote myself to what actually matters, to that life-affirming future that may or may not be there, but is there in my soul and spirit and there in the souls and spirits of millions and millions of people around the world. By being in that place, it can be enacted in the very reality of that shared experience.

Nick Joyce | Yes. Yes. From that place, I’d say is where I focus my time and attention. We work on a project here in Boulder called One Boulder. The orientation is really that level of service and devotion to life. It is such a powerful and pioneering declaration. Previously, I was traveling and teaching a lot. I’d get to this moment in these temporary contexts where people would awaken and have that experience. Then I realized that they were going back to where they came from.

So my orientation has been, “how do we actually build support networks and support structures for people who are having that realization so that we can stabilize each other.” My friend Charles Eisenstein talks about the purpose of community by imagining we’re under the ocean. And every once in a while you surface and you see the sun, and you have this moment of interconnection. This is the beauty of life. This is what feels good.

Then at some point you inevitably get sucked back under the surface. But when we come together and connect, and as long as one of us in our group of people who are committed to serving life is able to keep their eyes above the water, stay connected to the sun, we stabilize this awakening capacity within us. I’m curious what you see as those ways of us supporting each other in that declaration, in that choice to serve life, to step into that next octave of the collaborative context of that internal choice. How can we stabilize each other in that?

Jeremy Lent | Right. I love that analogy, surfacing to see the sun. In a way, we can actually think of the connectivity of all of us who are in that place together as creating our own light source, if you will, so that we become the sun in that metaphor. So it’s actually our connection itself that is what creates this potential for this flourishing future. I think that’s what’s so key, and that’s what we learn. We learn when we look at life, as I was describing before, the billions of years of evolution of life. That it’s when different orgasms learn to connect up that they actually were able to go to a whole new level of richness, diversity, and flourishing for all.

The same is true of humans. We’re told that humans are selfish and separate from each other. The exact opposite is true. Actually what makes humans differentiated uniquely from other primates is that millions of years ago our pre-human ancestors were there in the Savanna having to deal with these dangerous places they had not evolved to deal with together. They discovered that through community they could actually learn to empower each other and end up not just surviving but thriving.

What happened over millions of years is that we humans developed what are called moral emotions. It’s not just that we have to overcome our selfishness. We actually feel it in our hearts, in our guts, the sense of compassion – or shame if we do something wrong. That sense of outrage if we see somebody else do something to take advantage of others. The sense of fairness. All of these things we feel deeply because they’re actually part of our human heritage.

Another world is possible

It’s when we connect with those things and each other that we actually can create a force that is even more powerful than the force of money and violence and military power and all of those things that are destroying the world right now. Because if you think about it, every new human being that’s born is born with this evolution of billions of years of life and millions of years of human evolution. And as that infant grows up, their natural tendency is to be in community. Their natural tendency is to have a group identity. The natural tendency is to see life and want it to be rich and flourishing.

Now this conditioned civilization that we have right now only gets to have its way when it subverts the natural way in which a human being would grow and tries to tell them, “No, that’s not the way it is. Actually, you’re meant to be selfish. Actually, you should cut off your connections with others. Actually, you should be ashamed of any sense of vulnerability you have and show hardness to the world.”

So people have to overcome their innate tendency through their conditioning, and that is the secret weapon, if you will, that all of us have, the working towards transformation by connecting with each other and by offering love to each other and that sense of interbeing and compassion. By connecting with those deep human emotions, we actually offer this invitation to people everywhere – young people as they’re growing up, a different way of life that actually feels better, that actually feels right to them. What we have to do is actually help people to connect with their true intrinsic human living nature.

Nick Joyce | Yes. Yes. So this relationship between a society that is conditioning us to continue to demonstrate the dominant ways of being, and individuals who are awakening through whatever cathartic ecstatic experience into a recognition that there’s actually a more meaningful way of living…

I used to live in intentional communities. That was my background for a decade – land-based ecovillages and projects like that. Then at some point I received instructions to go back into the heart of a small city and to land what I had learned from that level of intimacy and that level of relating and start to pollinate that in a place where more people live, at a community center in the heart of a city and much more accessible.

But what I’ve noticed is there was a factor I wasn’t reckoning with, which was when you come into a city and you just have a community center as opposed to living off a piece of land together, everybody is still addressing their individual domains of human concern. How do I make money? Where am I going to live? Where do I get my food? And all of these aspects that were built into the more integrated model of an ecovillage are sort of making it more difficult for people to rise up against those odds and the life force it takes to address their concerns to live here and work on a collaborative project.

I know the last chapter is about where we are now and where we could be headed. Are you seeing possibilities for systems level, societal level, structures that can support people? I suppose an ecovillage is one, but I want to see these sprouting in more accessible contexts where everybody can get a taste and it can actually help them address those human concerns.

Jeremy Lent | I think that is super important and as you say, in that last chapter, I basically just touch into a vision shared by a lot of people around the world, what’s called an ecological civilization. This sense of, what if we would actually rebuild our civilization on a different foundation, one that rather than being based on wealth accumulation and exploitation is actually life-affirming? One that is based on the principles of life, the principles of what makes ecosystems flourish for millions of millions of years, often resiliently and richly. And so to your question, part of that ecological civilization would involve different ways of organizing at community levels. And I think one of the most important concepts that is becoming more and more discussed and understood is this notion of the commons.

For most of human history, we lived sharing resources in a communal commons where the resources were part of what the group had access to, and they weren’t even viewed as resources in the way that we do as something separate, but they were viewed as a living and symbiotic environment for collective flourishing.

Through millennia, and centuries of enclosure, and the rise of capitalism, the commons now, for most people, is this kind of quaint term about some sort of medieval village or something. But actually, there’s this notion of the commons as a new ancient form of actually organizing how humans act together.

There’s a radical commons thinker, David Bollier, who’s co-wrote with Silke Helfrich, a great recent book called Free, Fair, and Alive, which looks at the notion of the commons from a profoundly different point of view, that it’s not just the commons as a shared resource, like air or water that we have to learn to manage together, but it’s actually like a verb, commoning, and a person becomes a commoner as a whole different way of approaching life and community. And the wonderful thing about the commons is that it’s something that can be applied on the ground, as you’re saying, in a city, and it can be applied in real estate.

You know, a few people can get together and say we’re going to set up a trust in common with each other to buy a property or a few properties, and actually set the rules so that it doesn’t become part of this real estate buy and sell market game, but actually becomes a place where we can build community together, live, and actually serve each other with resources we have to offer. It can be things like solar energy. You can have a commons where you create shared communal structures, to help people to get solar panels on their roofs, or a shared solar farm within a small community or neighborhood where people can share electricity. This is so exciting because it offers a way for people to work together, to do what you’re talking about, that sense of shared energy and excitement of really making a difference and doing it with the power of each other and actually transforming our society from within.

So that, rather than have to talk about some revolution with all of the negatives of bloodiness and horrible trauma that goes with that, we can actually look at societal transformation from within, where the bad destructive structures of society can begin to just weaken and unravel, and we can actually build the future we want in our own grassroots and focus on what we can do together, and then connecting up with what others are doing elsewhere.

Nick Joyce | Beautiful. Yes. The primary orientation of what we’re up to here is we actually gamified the process of growing the commons and looked at both, it’s a cultural evolutionary process for people to become capable of stewarding collective resources. You know, there’s also been this theory of ‘the tragedy of the commons’, which is so steeped in this very worldview of separation and “the more I take the better for me” in this win-lose game dynamic. But there is a cultural evolutionary process for people to become stewards of a commons. And so I think a lot of what’s happened in the commons movement is there’s been a hopefulness or an idealism to it that like, “Oh, we’ll just call everything ours,” and yet you see the same kinds of tendencies coming up.

So, what we’ve been designing is a protocol-based commons where you’re actually able to track the contributions We use a social capital marker, it’s a points system. For example, I would send you points because it really helped me thrive to hear your understanding of this different way we can live together. And so it becomes a visible indication and reflection of the contributions of people into the commons and not just on a monetary level, but also just celebrating your devotion to life that I’m seeing and how that’s positively impacted me, and then reflecting that back transparently to the rest of the community.

Jeremy Lent | Beautiful. Beautiful.

Nick Joyce | Are you involved in anything where you live that’s moving in the direction of the commons, or what are you seeing popping up around you that’s exciting?

Jeremy Lent | Well, here in the Bay Area there’s all kinds of exciting commons based activities going on. I was talking about real estate and we have here in Oakland, close to where I live, a fantastic organization called the East Bay People’s Real Estate Cooperative, EBPREC. I think you can actually find them on that website where they’re doing similar to what I described and actually getting great funding and investments to basically take Oakland back from the developers and build communities. And the other example I gave of solar energy, it’s from a real live example on the ground in Oakland called People’s Power Solar, which is doing something very similar at the grassroots level. And there are tons of organizations around here. It’s a matter of connecting with them.

And so I think one of the most important things that any of us can do who are involved in these grassroots groups is put some amount of time to communicating out there to the rest of the world what’s going on. And there’s a lot of different networks out there trying to raise and amplify the message of that so people can actually get inspired by what’s going on elsewhere. And there are certain principles that can then be applied all around the world.

It is not so much about commodifying things, like McDonald’s, or Uber, or whatever it might be. Here we’re talking about what I like to think as basically fractal scaling – where the idea of a fractal is it’s a pattern that repeats itself at different layers, different scales, but each time is unique. So the principles might be the same, but each is a unique expression. So similarly, you can have principles of how you build a real estate cooperative, or a solar cooperative, or anything like that and they can be taken by others and then applied in a unique way to that particular place so it becomes unique to that place on the ground and also shared in terms of core principles that work for everyone everywhere.

Nick Joyce | Yes. Rather than designing and setting this concrete fixed franchise model that’s kind of dead and doesn’t have a flavor of the fractal nature of the local context, to reduce these models down into first principles that have served and can apply – sort of like permaculture or these other more pattern or principle based design methodology.

Jeremy Lent | This concept of fractal scaling is something that will be in the next book that I’m working on right now, which will actually be about the pathways toward an ecological civilization. And that’s where I’ll be exploring that in more detail.

My great hope for this book is that it could actually have an impact in helping a big swath of people who actually care about things, but have been so conditioned by media to not be aware of what’s really going on, to open their minds to both what is wrong and what’s possible for transformation.

I do hope that the book helps to inspire people and see where they are and what their work is doing within that web of meaning. And so, in fact, the way I finished the book is asking people to really sit back and consider to themselves what is that sacred and precious strand that they are weaving in the web of meaning, that recognition that none of us are going to do it by ourselves, that the work each of us does, on the one hand, is this tiny infinitesimal part of the transformation that’s needed. And on the other hand is connected in such a way that it is actually part of this great global transformation.

So it helps us to feel both freed, that we’re not trying to fix everything all by ourselves, and also feel a sense of empowerment, recognizing that what we’re doing is actually part of something that is truly going on around us, something that’s vast and huge and has the potential to transform our whole civilization.

Nick Joyce | Beautiful. This offering is a really holistic orientation for people to return to and remember that they’re part of this larger movement.

Jeremy Lent | Right. Exactly.

Nick Joyce | I guess one last question would be, as the author, Jeremy Lent, what’s your why?

Jeremy Lent | In simple terms I can share with you something that I kind of affirm to myself in my own internal meditation every morning, which is the simple statement that I am an agent of life and I am a beacon of light in the dark. And that’s really what I’ve given my life to.

And my intention is that everything I do regarding the book, regarding any form of interaction, both personal or public, written, spoken, or felt, is to do it as an agent of life, to really devote basically every breath, every element, every cell in my being to life, because to me that is the ultimate divinity that we have as living entities on this earth to give ourselves to.

Nick Joyce | Well, thank you so much for this time today and for that calling and the emanation that you are. Thank you for writing The Web of Meaning. I’m very excited to see more and more people reading it across the country and around the world. And thank you for your deep insights and your deep devotion to the unfolding of a more beautiful world.

Jeremy Lent | And thank you, Nick, for your deep thinking and this beautiful conversation that you facilitated.

 

Jeremy’s book:

The Web of Meaning | Integrating Science and Traditional Wisdom to Find our Place in the Universe

“A profound personal meditation on human existence and a tour-de-force weaving together of historic and contemporary thought on the deepest question of all: why are we here?”
— Gabor Maté M.D., author, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts

Publisher: New Society Publishers
Pub. Date: 2021-07-13
ISBN: 9780865719545
Format: Hardback – 464 pages

About Jeremy Lent

Jeremy Lent is author of The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, which investigates how different cultures have made sense of the universe and how their underlying values have changed the course of history. His upcoming book, The Web of Meaning: Integrating Science and Traditional Wisdom to Find Our Place in the Universe, will be published in Spring 2021 (New Society Press: North America | Profile Books: UK & Commonwealth). For more information visit jeremylent.com.

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About Nicholas Joyce

Nicholas Joyce is a whole systems designer and energetic architect. Formerly on the board of the Global Ecovillage Network and Foundation for Intentional Community, he now spends his time focused on ONEBoulder, a unique and gamified approach to introducing practices and principles of regenerative culture to a city of +100,000 people. With a decade of experience studying, consulting and even founding a couple intentional communities, Nicholas brings an exceptional depth and breadth of practical tools and applied wisdom to designing social systems and facilitating effective group process. Deeply attuned to the ever-present energetics of people and places, Nicholas has an uncanny ability to diagnose and repair complex breakdowns in the visible and invisible structures that underly all human endeavors. In a world full of doing, Nicholas coaches regenerative leaders on how to access the infinite and lead from being, illuminating personal and collective trauma and bringing greater ease, harmony, and dignity to life-affirming projects. Find out more at www.NicholasJoyce.com.

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Signposts and Hedges | Visiting My Brother’s Nebraska Farmstead On August 30th At Dusk

Poem

Signposts and Hedges | Visiting My Brother’s Nebraska Farmstead On August 30th At Dusk


Signposts and Hedges

The wealth of being here: plump cherries that droop
fat-bellied from leaves, green spears whose tips stretch
dream-ward for one dance with the dangling moon,
ochre roses over concrete walks

that run north by northwest to the old town square
where quart milk cartons catch on park bench legs
beneath lonely men with little cash to spare,
and further on to barns with rooster cages,

rust-red barrels, snarls, yips on gravel roads,
past stiff-stalked fields and slow, one-lane traffic
to hills that rise above the last signpost.
Don’t say I should turn back on this flesh magic –

leave this body’s toils, loves, grievous hurts –
for an Eden unlike this wild, delicious earth.


Visiting My Brother’s Nebraska Farmstead On 
August 30th At Dusk

Stars drop
like salt
on tablecloth.
The hay
is pitched,
bucked in bales
I can barely make out
in the green field
where the cricket
flicks its thighs
at the lone
porch light.

The hoarse toad
bloats
from the moss pond.

At once, I know
I am of the earth tonight.

About David Melville

David Melville is a poet who lives in Portland, Oregon.  His most recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Atlanta ReviewAmsterdam Quarterly, Water~Stone ReviewRHINO, The LyricThe Road Not TakenBuddhist Poetry Review, and Anti-Heroin Chic.  His work has also been anthologized in the college textbook Listening to Poetry: An Introduction for Readers and Writers (2019).

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