Tag Archives: community

One Grain of Sand

We’re holding our first formal meeting next week about the next version of our collective—the first meeting, at least, that isn’t a chance conversation in the kitchen or an open-ended daydreaming session after the weekly house meeting. We’ll be sitting down with Ed, Marnie and Muktha, all of them connected through the Fund for Democratic Communities and through Cakalak Thunder, and all of whom have expressed an interest in helping whatever it is that we have started here grow and change into whatever it is that it is next meant to be.

In the middle of the back-and-forth emails scheduling that meeting, Muktha sent this lovely piece of writing to Mark, who passed it on to me. It’s a reflection on her childhood on the southeast coast of India that she wrote for Mother’s Day—“many of those memories,” she explained to Mark “were triggered by our conversations recently about conservation and community.” Many thanks to Muktha for letting me reprint it here.

I can’t think of childhood, and therefore who I am today, without Amma at every turn. She is like those gifted actors who play 15 different roles in one play, and the difficulty is in separating those identities of Amma. For this year, maybe I should focus on the ‘green’ Amma – the person who gardened with a passion, who conserved beyond measure, who was creative in every move of conservation, and played a fierce role in animal husbandry that would put any environmentalist to shame today.

The beauty of it all is that every role, every task, every initiative was so integrated into her role of mother and she carried them all out without a book, magazine, website, organization, cooperative, forum, collective, or trust. It was the way she thought and lived as she raised a family, including an extended one. And of course, she didn’t do this alone. Family, relatives, gardeners, neighbors, and children all pitched in.

Although I didn’t know it at the time, I was learning about reclaiming water as soon as I woke up. As I got a tumbler of water from the kitchen faucet and in the typical playfulness of a child let it flow over and all over my hands, the excess water drained through the pipe below and out into the garden. Carefully laid out pipes sucked every drop of waste water from the home that was organic and biodegradable into the garden, and the garden itself was no blank plot of cultivated land. The entire garden was made of numerous clusters of small plots that were home to a bunch of banana trees, green beans, eggplants, jasmine flowers, roses, lime trees, papaya trees, coconut trees, peppers, tomatoes, and all kinds of greens, ginger and garlic.

And here I should pause to specify the most valid argument for Amma’s green gifts. In 1970, when we moved to our new home along the beach, the brand new 3-bedroom home sat on loose beautiful sand. If we dug a foot, we saw water seep in at the bottom. In 1977, when my father died suddenly and the family was uprooted from there, we left the home surrounded by a modest lawn with lilies, zarbeerahs, and evergreens on one side, dwarf coconut trees in one corner, a rose and jasmine garden on another side, a full fledged edible green vegetable garden on another, and numerous fruit trees in the backyard.

Amma was the alchemist who turned the sand into food.

My own favorite was the banana garden. Perhaps it was that the wastewater flowed into that patch first, or perhaps it was because of the ‘holy’ aura around the banana world in Hindu homes, but that patch was the most vibrant, dynamic, colorful, and sweet patch of yard that I remember. Like Amma’s love, it was tender, 100% accepting, forgiving, and always welcoming.

The most creative role of the banana in a Hindu household is that of
incense holder. Come to think of it, I don’t remember but one stainless steel lotus-shaped incense holder at home in the Pooja(prayer) room, but incense-lighting was a common and everyday task. Since the windows and doors were wide open during the day, the smoke from the incense never really collected in the home. We kids often heard an adult yell for a banana after a bunch of sandalwood or rose incense was lit, and they were easy to find on the initialed rectangular stainless steel plate that sat on the dining table. You grabbed one and scurried to the adult, who gently stuck the bottom of the incense sticks through the yielding banana skin.

As I said, when I washed my hands in the kitchen sink, the water didn’t drain down into a black hole and disappear. Well, it did just for a second before it splashed out on the other side of the kitchen wall and into the beginning of a complicated maze of trenches that reached every fruit tree and vegetable patch in the backyard. Sometime after the home was built and the plumbing was in place, Amma decided that the plumbing must be altered in order to serve the garden in the backyard. Water is precious in tropical contexts, and it must not have made sense to her to let all that water drain into a black hole.

The first stop for any water from the kitchen was the little banana grove about 6 feet from the kitchen. You see, banana trees are like families. There are several shapes and sizes all the way from the tall and tired grandpa banana tree to the lush little baby at grandpa’s feet, and they all huddle together to claim a crowded green outline against the blue sky.

Maybe because the cycle of life was so lucidly transparent in our own backyard, or maybe because I still begin my day with a banana, I am quite fond of those memories. The banana stem is like a smooth pale green pillar, tall and upright, and can grow up to 10 or 12 feet. From the top of each of those green pillars, numerous long leaves would grow up and out and hang all around the stem. From somewhere in the middle of those leaves, a chalky fat maroon casing would grow out and hold numerous little bright yellow banana flowers within each fold. The closest it comes to is an artichoke, but in different colors. Each maroon casing would curl up to reveal a soft and deep-maroon underside that had just protected the tiny flowers. Thus would start a magical cycle of the life of the huge and hanging cluster of bananas.

There wasn’t a part of the banana tree that went unused. The outer casing of the stem would dry out like an onion skin, but lent itself to being torn into long and slender threads that would be wetted to string beautiful jasmine garlands for the pooja room. The fruit was everyday food. The juice from the corm of the banana was used as medicine; so were the bitter flowers.

My favorite part of the plant was the leaf. It was about 5 feet long with a sturdy spine in the middle and a smooth but ribbed leaf about 10-12 inches on either side of the spine. I can’t possibly describe all the ways in which I’ve seen this leaf used. During the relentless monsoons, I saw two leaves double up as an umbrella for the poor. During unannounced visits from rather large families, they served as plates. Cut in threes, the leaf served as a beautiful plate on which the various foods were served in an elegant style. And this was no accidental plate. There were prescriptions about how the waterproof leaf was to be placed on the table, how it should be opened, which end faced which direction, and how it was to be closed as a sign that the person was indeed done with the meal.

The best part, again, came at the end. Of course, there were no dishes to wash, just leaves to be thrown away, and yes, eaten again. This time, the milk cow from the neighborhood would be led to the bin for organic waste that held the after-party plates, and would make a meal out of the banana leaves.

I can go on and on about integrated, deeply meaningful, funny, loving, even tragic experiences from my childhood, but the point is that they all taught me something about life that was sustaining, beautiful, joyful, and completely with value. Much of everything I know now, I learned from those spaces that were fashioned by Amma’s creativity, frugality, love for nature, especially water, and love for all of us around her.

I know now that I first encountered the idea of ‘craft technology,’ one of many of Gandhi-concepts, at home through Amma’s (mother) handwork. I didn’t hear the words until I became an adult or discuss the concept until I was transported to an American classroom, but I was well educated about how it worked.

According to Gandhi, technology must always serve the human, and humanity’s right to freedom and democracy. It must be engaged in the protection of livelihoods, and to conserve the environment. It is only in a decentralized democracy where life, livelihood, and environment are protected that craft technologies can thrive. Craft technologies use resources wisely and there’s a sort of multiplied and multiple use of everything.

Every time I hear about cell phones and their tie to traffic deaths, the dangers to human health as a result of sophisticated food technologies, TV watching and obesity, Net-addictions, impersonal and inaccurate medical technologies, and the numerous other signs that our technologies have failed to serve our needs, I make that mind-trip back home to Chennai in the 60s and the 70s to the home and life where Amma designed our technologies to serve us.

This kind of greenness, this wisdom, this interconnectedness, affected everything we did. A side effect of this kind of lifestyle is thecomplete lack of competition, I now realize. She raised my brother and sister and I (and even the cousins) to co-exist, to cooperate, and to live in love and laughter. She made the simple things matter to us.

Pete Seeger’s ‘One Grain of Sand’ is a favorite lullaby of mine, but I can tell it has quite a different meaning, thanks to Amma.

You can go here to listen to a snippet of Pete Seeger singing that lovely song.

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Disaster Preparedness

I think I’ve reached my limit on lists of “15 Ways You Can Stop Global Warming”. Oh sure, we’ve switched to energy saving lightbulbs at our house, we ride our bikes more often than we drive, we turn down the thermostat and put on sweaters when it’s chilly, we water the garden from the rain barrel (or at least we did back in the days when it still rained), but I don’t believe for a minute that we’re stopping, slowing or even slightly jostling global warming. I think it’s too late, and all the lightbulbs and hybrid cars in the world aren’t going to save us. We can’t consume our way out of this one.

So let’s start with this premise: a disastrous witch’s brew of climate change, peak oil, and species extinction is headed our way (read the stats below if you dare) and there’s nothing we can do to stop it. We’ve promised developing countries a way of life that even the fat and happy developed countries aren’t going to be able to maintain much longer. It’s no longer simply a question of hotter summers and longer lines at the gas pumps: we’re looking at resource wars (we’ve got one over oil already; water may not be far behind), millions of displaced people, food scarcities, unemployment, disease. The list goes on.

But wait a minute, no, let’s start with this premise. The disaster has already struck and goes on striking. Right this minute the rug is being pulled out from under someone somewhere. In the last couple of decades it has happened dramatically and on a large scale in places like Russia, Cuba, Argentina, and of course New Orleans and Iraq, but it’s also happening every day to someone in the town where you live. We’re looking at a giant rip in the global safety net through which our whole familiar way of life is falling, but we shouldn’t overlook the smaller safety net failures. Some people survive the fall and some people don’t. What’s the difference?

Last night I watched a documentary called The Power of Community. It was made by a group out of Ohio called The Community Solution about what happened in Cuba after the Soviet Union collapsed and Cuba lost its access to cheap oil. For much of the 1990s Cubans experience a stringent time called “The Special Period”, during which much of the Cuban way of life was transformed. Food shortages—Cuban agriculture had been heavily dependent on fossil fuels for fertilizers and pesticides as well as transportation–led to organic gardens, permaculture centers and localized economies. Gas shortages led to better public transportation and decentralized services; energy shortages led to the use of solar and wind power. Cubans actually came out of the Special Period with stronger communities and healthier lives.

I’m convinced that we’re headed for our own Special Period. In some ways I hope it comes as abruptly as it did in Cuba so that we can recognize it when it gets here. Emergencies often bring out the best in people; a slow and unevenly distributed decline in the quality of life often brings out the worst. In any case, I say forget the bottled water and the barbed wire. It’s time to prepare for disaster in the ways that really matter.

Get to know your neighbors and your neighborhood: When the Argentinian economy collapsed in December of 2001 spontaneous neighborhood councils took over, providing everything from daycare to soup kitchens. In New Orleans the Common Ground Collectivebegan in the days after Katrina with three volunteers and $50; while FEMA and the Red Cross were still floundering Common Ground had gathered enough volunteer support to feed people, put them on bikes, and set up a free health clinic. In Boston residents of the Dudley Street neighborhood, collapsing under the effects of poverty, red-lining and neglect, took their community into their own hands and beat the odds. The isolationist survivalist bunker mentality only works if you already have every skill and commodity your family is ever likely to need. It’s much easier to like and trust your neighbors.

Develop skills and share them: During the Depression people used to say: “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.” We’re living in a strange little era of endless stuff, but it’s not going to last–in what some people call the “post-carbon world” Americans will simply go back to living the way most people have lived through most of human history (and the way most people live in the world now). Richard Heinberg, who has written several books on Peak Oil has just published a new one called Peak Everything, pointing out that it’s not just oil–we’re facing a complexity of shortages including natural gas, coal, fresh water, copper, and platinum. But he goes on to outline some of the things that are nowhere near their peak: personal autonomy, satisfaction from honest work well done, intergenerational solidarity, cooperation, free time, happiness, ingenuity, artistry, and beauty of the built environment. Learning to sew your own clothes or build a compost pile or change your own spark plugs may not seem like the first step in a revolution, but it is (and don’t forget that learning to admit when you need help is a skill too…).

Redefine abundance: This gets onto shaky ground for some people—a little too spiritual. But it’s real. Dmitry Orlov, a Russian who lived through the collapse of the Soviet Union has written a useful reminder about the lessons Americans can learn from that experience:

“The people who are most at risk psychologically are successful middle-aged men. When their career is suddenly over, their savings are gone, and their property worthless, much of their sense of self-worth is gone as well. They tend to drink themselves to death and commit suicide in disproportionate numbers. Since they tend to be the most experienced and capable people, this is a staggering loss to society.

“If the economy, and your place within it, is really important to you, you will be really hurt when it goes away. You can cultivate an attitude of studied indifference, but it has to be more than just a conceit. You have to develop the lifestyle and the habits and the physical stamina to back it up. It takes a lot of creativity and effort to put together a fulfilling existence on the margins of society. After the collapse, these margins may turn out to be some of the best places to live.”

In other words, learn to value the things that money can’t buy.

I recently came across a statement by something called the E. F. Schumacher Society (“Linking, people, land and community by building local economies”): “A ‘post-carbon world’ does not have to be a dreary place,” they say. “The age we are entering will be an opportunity to celebrate our return to an acceptable level of complexity. Once again we will be able to embrace our neighbors as resources for a better community. The existing skills of the community have been ignored due to abundant energy in the form of coal and oil. Decreased energy supplies would encourage us to create local systems for fulfilling our needs. Waning fossil fuel supply would bring about the harnessing of human energy. Our labor saving devices, powered by the assumption of cheap oil, would be replaced by the skill, craftsmanship and the ingenuity of our neighbors.”

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