August 2017. There is something about the summer that brings us close to the Earth. The windows are open, clothing is light and puts us nearer to the air and the ground. We are more relaxed and days are long and full of promise. This summer in particular, I feel even more connection. I just finished a course at Schumacher College in England, and am full to the brim with not only the wonderful teaching of ecology, but with the closeness and kindness of the interactions there and the beauty of the place. I find myself thinking differently about the things I do, the way I am in the world. I am calling it Being Deep Time and Whole Earth. It has become a sort of ritual or small living meditation, which I will share here, in case anyone else would like to add it to their meditations or way of being.
An example was this morning when I went downstairs to make coffee. I usually spend the time the coffee is brewing to do my morning Salutation To the Sun yoga exercise, but this morning as I switched on the light on the machine the little red light flashed and stayed in my mind as I turned and bowed to the floor. I sat down, and a whole series of thoughts poured through my mind. The effortlessness of pushing a button and having coffee, the distance, the unconnectedness we have put between ourselves, that cup, and the deep time and the world that made it. I meditated. In this moment:
I have harvested and dug from the Earth millions of prehistoric organisms in their decomposed oily forms and burned them into carbon.
I have extracted copper and other metals, bound in rock since deep Earth time, formed them into electric generators and wires and sent the prehistoric oil energy through them into this place, my house.
I have engaged workers in Peru or Brazil to work in the fields, picking coffee beans from green growing plants with deep roots in loamy humus soil. I feel the sun on their backs like I am one of them, their sandals on the Earth, the beans in their hands.
I have transported beans across oceans, piled into crates, ground into powder, packed into plastic, placed onto shelves in the supermarket where I went to buy them.
I have pumped water up from the well under my house, placed it in the coffee machine, where it has percolated this, my cup of coffee.
This was my meditation. I might have got some details wrong; it is poetry in my mind, and metaphor, not absolute fact. I might well have gone even deeper, into the manufacture of the coffee machine, or the cup, or who knows, but this is where my meditation took me today. The impact was strong, and imbued my cup of coffee with infinitely deeper meaning.
This meditation in Deep Time and Whole Earth is not meant to induce guilt for the extraction of resources or the labour of workers, though it does promote consciousness, and that may indeed invoke action. It’s effect is meant to engender feelings of ownership, reverence, appreciation, responsibility and connection. It is, I think, closer to how the indigenous peoples lived in the world, in awareness of their relation to, and dependence on, the Earth.
I don’t have a prescription for when, or even exactly how, to do this. I think that being reflective in and around nature opens us up to an awareness that might instigate the moment. I think it can’t be forced, but maybe at one meal a day, or at a quiet time in the office, or even reminded by one simple action, we might try to practice this mediation, being Deep Time and Whole Earth. This, I think, is practicing Earthfulness.
On Going to the Beach and Finding a Place in Nature’s Ecosystem
July 2017. It was hot, and I went to the beach. It was a gorgeous summer day, and the beach was teeming with people, children running in and out of the waves, mothers holding babies in the shade, young people posturing, older people lounging and relaxing. I lay out my towel, careful to protect myself from the hot sand and anything else that might disturb me- I am one of the older people, I was there to relax.
But the sand flies were out in number. As they bit me I suddenly realized, came to re-connect, that this place I was sitting was not my own. I looked closely at the seaweed washed up and drying on the beach, at small sturdy sand grasses finding a hold in the dry salty earth, at the almost imperceptible (to me) movement of tiny mites, sand ants, a beetle on a leaf. Here was an ecosystem in itself, teeming with life; I was an invader.
My gaze settled back on the human population, and I realized with a jolt how disconnected we all were from the real, the earthly, experience of the beach. We were lying, splashing and stamping about, unaware of any other living interaction around us. This went farther than simply taking care not to leave cans or plastic behind us when we go; it had to do with our lack of belonging. We were on the beach, not of it. The sand fly admonished me: this is our ecosystem, not yours.
Where do we belong? What is the human ecosystem? If you ask a biologist, she will tell you that we humans are an apex predator, standing at the top of the food chain, without competitors and on whom no other animals prey. Apex predators are keystone species, in that they are crucial to the maintenance of an ecosystem, and have a large impact on the balance of life in a habitat. Other apex predators are wolves, brown bears, killer whales, and even small but powerful animals like electric eels or honey badgers, who have defense or assault mechanisms that few or no other animals can assail.
However, apex predators are also part of the ecosystem in which they live. Ecologists identify apex predators at trophic level four or five, meaning that they are at the top of the food chain web, above producers (ie plants) and secondary or tertiary predators who eat producers and each other. Apex predators tend to create balance, rather than destruction, in the habitats they inhabit. Wolves keep deer and elk populations in check, mostly hunting out the most vulnerable, which strengthens the gene pool of the deer or elk and in addition allows small forests to thrive, creating habitats for hundreds of other species. When wolves die they become prey to scavengers, are food for worms, decay and add to soil compositions.
We humans do none of that. We have established ourselves in an order above ecosystem, beyond trophic levels; we are not part of a food chain. We do not create balance in the habitats we dwell in; rather we destroy habitats and deplete resources. We do not become prey to scavengers when we die, we are isolated from nature even in death, filled with formaldehyde to stave off decay. In so doing, in establishing ourselves as hyper apex predators, humans have created the ultimate separation- separation from Earth processes itself.
I can’t but believe that this is at the root of our alienation. What other species live lives so distant from the Earth that formed us, and protects us? What other species destroy other species, not selectively, but with abandon? What other species destroy their own habitats willfully and wholesale, not creating balance but wreaking havoc? What other species have set upon their own species with such viciousness as we now see on a daily basis? Our lack of ecosystem has created an imbalance that threatens the earth and our own existence.
What then, is the solution? How do we go about finding and rejoining ecosystem and creating balance in the Earth habitat and in our own lives? Stephan Harding, professor and ecologist at Schumacher College, says in order to be part of an ecosystem we must find a place. This place is not in our house, in a room; it is a place in nature. It is a place I think, that we must immerse ourselves in, in small, and quiet, and integrative ways. If we do not live in it, we must visit it often, and often, we must do nothing in it, but simply be there. Observe and interact, but observe first and long and often- no interaction can be taken without thoroughly understanding the interaction and the place, our ecosystem. It is a place that should be observed over time, over seasons, in cold and warm and wet and dry.
Your place may be as small or as large as a garden outside your house, a park in your city, or the forest you can walk in nearby. Immerse yourself in your place often. Be there, and then observe and find reverence for the interactions around you. If you chose to act in your ecosystem, pull some weeds choking a strawberry plant, or dig up a plot of grass to plant a garden, or even just sit on a log in the forest, reflect on the life you are interacting with: the micro-organisms or small creatures in the soil, the weeds, the roots, the bark. Heighten your senses to hear, smell, touch, see, feel the environment around you. Make yourself part of your place.
Research has shown that simply interacting in nature can have healing benefits. Putting our hands in the soil exposes us to natural antidepressants. Walking in forests exposes us to phytocides that have proven therapeutic benefits, increase human natural killer cells, reduce stress and hostility, create calm and slow us down. Imagine what consistent,reflective interaction in and with your chosen place can have: all of these benefits and additionally, the sense of care, appreciation, belonging and well-being that comes with finding your ecosystem.
‘Mindfulness’ is a term that has become popular as a description of focused attention, awareness, and consciousness on the present moment, of ourselves and the processes in and around us. Mindfulness became popular in the last several decades, and has helped many to understand a more cohesive way of being in the world.
I would like to coin a new phrase: Earthfulness. Earthfulness, the way I see it, is the awareness and consciousness of Earth itself, of the land and processes around us and attention to our place in the ecosystem as well as the place of every other living being. Earthfulness is a process of reconciliation with our origins and our connections to life on Earth. In a world marked by separation, of peoples, of nations, of ideology, of physical space, Earthfulness offers a wholeness perspective. We are, both literally and by heritage, everything that has come before us; everything on Earth is connected through time and biology and the smallest elements of life.
Earthfulness is an understanding. It is an awareness of the processes that both created us and everything around us. It places us in perspective in our ecology and in our history.
Earthfulness is appreciation. Growing consciousness seeds an overwhelming gratefulness for the Earth and our place in it.
Earthfulness is grounding. It (sometimes literally) places us close to our roots, creates a foundation for our conviction and our action.
Earthfulness is attained through conscious consideration of nature and of our place in nature, both historically and geographically. It is a meditative process, a learning process, and an experiential process. Arne Næss, founder of deep ecology, said that deep experiences lead to deep understanding, which lead to deep commitment and then deep action. Earthfulness is this deep ecological understanding, arising out of deep ecological and natural experiences, and leading to committed action.
The time for the development of Earthfulness is now.
Recently, I read the wonderful book The Secret Life of Trees. This has given me a new way, many new ways, of seeing trees. These past few days I also embarked on a three-day fast; I was feeling overwhelmed, I needed to slow down, and see things with more clarity.
As I fasted, I became aware of time, both how much time I had been spending, in my non-fasting time, on planning, preparing, eating, and cleaning up after eating food, and how much time was left over when I was not doing those things. A lot of time. I also became aware of how I had been filling my time with ‘doing’. I seemed to always need to have a project to be on. In my slowed down mode, that felt like frenzy. I took some time off, over the weekend, to read a book I had wanted to read, to pull myself away from my projects, to take more time to care for myself, and to just be.
The second thing I became aware of over the weekend was a deep sense of renewed appreciation for the food we eat. Preparing a soup for my husband while fasting was an entirely new experience- I saw each carrot, each potato, with a kind of reverence; I soaked in its beauty as I held it, I felt almost as though I caressed it. I thanked the carrots, the potatoes, the onions, and the celery, and I took the time to save the ends of the carrots, onions, and celery, placing them in small jars on the windowsill with a few centimeters of water, to grow roots again and flourish. I did things slowly, and I thought of trees.
Trees operate on a different time scale than we do. They are active-quite active in fact, and constantly active- but they move at a large, slow scale that we take for inaction. This afternoon, after eating my first meal since the fast, I rested on the couch and looked out at the trees. One, in particular, a large birch, caught my attention. I noticed how bare it looks in the late winter, but thought that soon, with the coming of spring, it would begin to leaf. It is almost as if a year, to a tree, is as a night and then a day is to us.
I found myself adopting this tree, and consulted silently with my tree mentor, as she became, for I called her ‘she’ in my mind. I said, ‘so, I understand that you are sentient, what exactly do you feel? ‘Everything’, she intoned, and I thought back to what I had read, that trees feel more than our fingertips, sense light and the waves of sound and ‘smell’ chemical messages. ‘But what does it matter that you are sentient, I lamented, that you feel everything when you cannot do anything, cannot change all the things that are wrong in the world, or even the things that happen to you?’ ‘Well’, she answered gently, ‘neither can you, with all your running around’. Touche´.
I asked her, ‘What do you do then, when you are aware of negative forces in the world or are attacked; when you feel a mold, or a woodpecker burrowing into you, working against you, and when it hurts? How do you just sit there and take it?’, I wailed silently. ‘Ah, I do react, she said, though my reactions are slow, and the solutions are slow. Sometimes it works, I build a woody knot around a penetration, and I defend myself, and sometimes it does not, and I am invaded, or assaulted, or wounded. But I am still here, and the world goes on.’
I asked, ‘Are trees stressed? Are they anxious?’ ‘Yes’, she said, simply. I asked, ‘Then do I just do nothing and despair? What should I do?’ ‘Do what you are meant to do. Only that. It is enough’, she said. I was about to ask her how I know what I am meant to do, but I already knew the answer. I needed to take more time, take things slowly, more like a tree. Be aware, sentient, of the world around me, and register the forces acting on me. Find what I am meant to do and then do it purposely, methodically even, but calmly, and not in a frenzy of activity. Say less, perhaps, and react less quickly. Know that change takes time. I am still here. The world goes on.
When we discovered our septic tank was leaking, it was a bad day for the neighborhood, to say the least. I immediately went out and bought a composting toilet, the result of which is currently still composting. More on that, perhaps, in a different post, though, since this one is about what happened after, to my garden, and lessons therefrom.
We needed to put in a new septic system, and decided on a biovac, which is a self-contained biological system for rural homes. When the crew arrived to install it, they insisted that the only place it could go would take the pipes in a direct line through my circle garden, the first one I had designed and built when we moved here, had cared for and developed for five years. I asked them to please take care of the garden boxes, move them carefully, and they said they would.
It was devastation. When I came back from work the day of the excavation the boxes were toppled all topsy-turvy in a back section of the plot, there was a ragged deep hulking scar of a hole across where the garden had been, clay soil and oozing mud made up the landscape. I cried. When they had finally filled up the trench, finished their work and left a bare mud flat behind, I struggled to find the courage and motivation to build a garden there again. The boxes were useless. Soil was piled in weird places. Where, and how, to start?
I went out to the goat yard and started to pile spent hay, mixed with goat pellets and urine and already decomposing into a blackish mass underneath, into the wheelbarrow. Load after load I dragged across the yard and formed in rows across the muddy clay. I turned the hay over so the black decomposing parts were on top. I had the beginnings of a garden bed; in time it would make better and better soil, but for now, this was all there was.
I decided to plant peas. Peas are nitrogen fixing and would add to the soil nutrients sorely needed. They have shallow roots that would go fairly easily. They would create a yield. So that spring, we planted rows and rows of peas along the decomposing spent hay piled atop the muddy clay soil. They grew. Eventually even small weeds started growing in the hay rows. Pulling them and scattering them around the peas added more green matter to the mix of hay and goat compost.
One day, however, while weeding around a young pea, I managed to pull the pea plant up with a weed stalk. It’s spidery roots hung limply from my hand. I immediately dug a hole in the hay mass and replanted it, patted it down, watered and fed it with liquid bio fertilizer, and watched it anxiously over the next days. To my amazement the pea plant prospered. It was soon long and gangling and I set in stakes and tied it, and the other peas as well, to a network of twine. The pea plant outgrew its frame and reached out to to join to ones across the path. It grew to be one of the strongest and most prolific producers in the new garden.
As I mused over the progress of the pea, I found myself thinking of students I had had, those with shallow roots, from broken homes, or with ill or alcoholic, or even abusive parents. I thought how peas, though shallow rooted, had such an immense propensity to grow, a will to live and thrive. I thought how with the right structure provided, with care to provide a healthy and stimulating environment, even the most shallow rooted, even those who had been metaphorically pulled out by their roots, could grow and prosper. I thought too, how easy it might have been to have simply cast the small pea plant aside when I had first pulled it out; regretted it as a mistake but dismissed it as a casualty, and assumed there was no hope for it. Do we do this with students? Can we do better?
What is Regenerative Pedagogy?
If the purpose of pedagogy is to further learning, why do so many educational processes and systems, embodied in our schools, result in turning students off to learning, dampening curiosity, and hindering natural inquiry and learning?
Regenerative Pedagogy is the application of regenerative design to learning systems. The learning systems that exist today are the remnants of school systems devised in the late middle ages, are based in concepts of humans as overlords of nature, and often present separated systems of mostly intellectual learning. Although there have been many educational reforms over the years, mainstream education still aims at ‘training’ or ‘preparing’ a population for economic productivity. Despite recent movements toward ‘child based teaching’ and in infusion of activities based on the outdoors, observing nature, or planting gardens, much of mainstream teaching remains divorced from ecology and from natural systems thinking.
More and more, we are realizing that our economic models are not sustainable, and are not regenerative in the larger population. We have learned that the resource extraction that drives our economic productivity is not sustainable, that the resources themselves are not renewable, and the model of extraction is not regenerative. We face a world where our relentless pursuit of material wealth has resulted in the degradation of nature, of social interaction, of spiritual growth. A model of separation and a scarcity mentality permeates our current economic, social, and thus, educational models.
Regenerative processes create sustainable systems that mimic ecosystems and integrate pedagogy with nature. There are two important concepts here; sustainability and integration with nature. Current pedagogy is not sustainable- all too often it involves processes that break down the natural curiosity, ingenuity, and productivity of children. It only sustains, instead, models of society, culture, and economics that have created a fragmentation in the ways we view ourselves, our nature, and nature itself. Current pedagogy is divorced from nature, both the nature of the child and earth’s natural processes.
If we are to make pedagogy sustainable we need to start with the vision of system that will not waste the enormous resource that is our children, that will rather build upon the natural talent in children and on models of nature.
If we are to integrate pedagogy with nature, we will need to apply all the tools of regenerative design to the design of learning systems.
If we are to create regenerative pedagogy we need to immerse ourselves in nature and in natural principles that will guide us toward regenerative design. We need to practice deep ecology, find and immerse ourselves in the deep ecological experiences that bring deep understanding and awareness, and lead to deep action and deep commitment.
REAP is an initiative to further deep ecology experiences and ecological design in teaching and learning systems. The first aim of the initiative is to improve the understanding of ecology and ecological systems thinking through deep ecology experiences. Without the deep experience, there is no true initiative for change, action, and commitment.
A second aim is to provide training in permaculture design and deep ecology principles for pedagogy. Short courses offered to teachers, administrators, and other school staff will focus on developing awareness of holistic social and ecological models.
The third aim is to develop ecological and permaculture based pedagogical solutions in schools, or in spaces and places that replace schools.
The REAP blog will offer resources for and discussions of deep ecology and permaculture based teaching and learning.