Saturday, December 24, 2011

Winter Solstice 2011

I've been observing the wild energies on our land for 6 months now. We put up a wind sock. Each day I write down the temperature, the quality of sky, the animals observed. We've also been noting the movement of the sun and on December 22 I put a marker on the farthermost shadow cast on the north side of our house at the winter solstice. I drew a picture of the exact horizon locations of the appearance and disappearance of the sun on that day. In a permaculture way, this is all very important to note so that passive solar can be done right, plants put in the right spot and all the other interwoven decisions can be made.

But this feeling struck me on the solstice. An actual feeling, not an intellectual construct. I think Galileo must have felt this way. I've seen his drawings. What I felt was the earth turning. No more sun risings and settings...only the earth turning. And I'm stuck to it in the most frightening and sublime way.

Friday, December 16, 2011

When Your Mother is Right

OK. This post is an unabashed maternal celebration of being right. So few times in life does the difference between being right and wrong get to be clear and inarguable. My son is a great musician and songwriter. Like everyone else, he was bemoaning the lack of job opportunities in our crashing economy. I was about to go off to Northern California to get a Permaculture Design Certificate. I lobbied hard for him to do the same and pitched the kind of new frontier of job opportunities in this area. So he bought in (many thanks to the Ex for his tuition). Now, two months later he has a job on a permaculture farm at $20/hour. He loves his job and he still has time to work on his music career.

The world needs this knowledge badly. These two-week permaculture courses are the best kept secret in education. The fee is usually between $900 and $1500 which includes being housed and fed. You come away with some of THE most important information available today and the hands on knowledge to start putting it into play.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Above the Waves

Sometimes it's a serious struggle to stay above the waves. Take this last month. Congress passed a bill that gives the president the power to waive the right of Habeas Corpus for U.S. citizens and foreign nationals that are deemed a threat to national security. Deemed so without need of proof, BTW. The New York Times reports that CO2 emissions into the atmosphere have skyrocketed. And Europe may be about to crumble economically. And just about everyone I know is out of work. And the 29 Palms Band of Indians wants to put a casino in my town...and the Dollar General Corporation (owned by Citigroup and Goldman Sachs who helped bring us The Great Depression #2) wants to put a Big Ugly Box that sells crap made in China in my resolutely rustic town....and and and.

But then I go make some paintings in my studio and feel so fortunate that I can go make some paintings in my studio. This is of course another kind of struggle...but it's the kind that tells me the truth about myself and my relationship to the world. And then I go to a weekly meeting where a group of extremely dedicated community members are organizing a big event that will bring people together to begin the serious business of planning our community's transition to a sustainable life. I look around that meeting table and see genius, love, dedication and tremendous excitement. And then I feel my head pop up above the crashing waves.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011


In July of this summer, I spent two weeks at the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center taking a Permaculture Design Intensive. This resulted in my becoming a certified Permaculture Design Consultant. Since the Transition Movement is based in permaculture, it is highly recommended that at least one person on a Steering Group get a design degree.

First let me acknowledge that the term “permaculture” often scares the hell out of people who don’t really know what it’s about. From here on I’ll abbreviate it to SW (scary word). I’m not exactly sure why this is but I have my suspicions. It might be an unconscious retreat from the responsibility of the word “permanent” embedded in the phrase. The SW poses a deep and profound change in the way we do things. The word does in fact come from the conflation of the words permanent and agriculture and, though really NOTHING is permanent, it refers to a system of land use design that works with nature to create an abundant and sustainable habitat for all creatures living in a given region.

This course was grueling, profound and life changing. I heard the hard-core, scientifically verified facts about the degradation of our environment and the tipping point at which we now find ourselves. Forget the SW word. These facts are what scared the hell out of me. But I also learned the SW solutions. They work and are very DO-ABLE.

To demystify how you might start inserting the SW into your life right here, right now, here are my suggestions in order of importance:

1.  Stop wasting water at all, ever! Especially in Southern California! Read the recent study by the Stockholm Environmental Institute if you need to know why. Put in low flow fixtures, take 3-minute showers and, if you’re able, start rain catchment off your roof and convert to a simple greywater system for plant irrigation from your washing machine. Start using biocompatible (NOT biodegradable) soap for all purposes. In Joshua Tree, our only source of water is an ancient underground aquifer that is being depleted at a foot a year, has no new water replenishing it and is in serious danger of nitrate contamination from septic systems.

2. Stop throwing valuable kitchen scraps into the landfill. Start composting. It’s very easy to do and there are instructions all over the internet. If you don’t have land to start a compost pile, you can start an inside worm bin (again lots of simple DIYs on the net). They turn all those kitchen scraps into worm castings, which are one of the world’s most amazing fertilizers. No it doesn’t stink. As a matter of fact it smells like rich sweet earth.

3. Start a vegetable garden using drip irrigation, grey water irrigation and drylands garden bed techniques (if you live in a drylands region). Fertilize with your compost and your worm castings. If you live in an apartment, grow in containers and look into vertical gardening.

4. If you live in a dryland region, plant some mesquite trees and pee on them. Yeah, that’s right. Mesquite seeds can be ground into flour that is extremely nutritious and the trees are nitrogen fixers. They will take that pee, which otherwise will go into your leach field and convert to nitrates, and instead use it to grow big and strong AND enrich the soil around themselves so you can start to put in other nutritious plants. If Mesquites don't grow in your area, pour your pee on your compost pile. Human pee is sterile and happens to be a very effective fertilizer. It must be diluted 1 part pee to 10 parts water if you put it directly on your plants. Mature Mesquite can take it full strength. But best of all is to install a pit toilet or waterless composting toilet and then use humanure for your trees. Ecosan makes one that is simple, cost-effective (if you compare to the cost of putting in a septic system) and was developed in Africa to eliminate nitrate contamination of the aquifer.

You can see here how each item relates to and enhances the others. This is the heart of SW. Just start with conserving water and move on when you’re ready. Put one foot in front of the other and you will find that it’s not scary at all. It’s empowering. And really, we have no other choice.


Saturday, August 6, 2011

Stepping Up

This is a guest post by Sekai Chideya. One week ago Sekai and I completed a two week permaculture design intensive along with 24 other students at the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center in Northern California. Sekai is an Atlanta-based medical doctor focusing on global HIV prevention, and a fledgling permaculturalist. The course was a life changing experience. I think this letter from her very eloquently expresses the profound nature of this change.
From Sekai:
Dear Perma-friends,
It’s been 1 week since we parted ways, though, strangely, it seems like longer. The sudden absence of oak trees and fresh salad, of Kendall and Brock and Zora, and of the 25 of you, threw me into a bit of a tailspin. That, and the 30 hours of flying it took to get to Malawi.  But now I am on my way back “home,” to Atlanta, and to the world of perma-possibilities literally right outside my door. It’s exciting. I’m excited.

I was looking for an excuse to say hello, but found a legitimate reason in Malawi. I stayed in the city of Lilongwe, a city that, per local staff, was covered with trees a couple of generations ago, but now is now covered with dusty, depleted soil that grows little without fertilizers. The profit of monocropping tobacco, tea and sugar has led to widespread deforestation and a cycle of worsening soil quality (hence the government’s decision to subsidize fertilizers). And residents, desperate for a source of fuel, have multiplied the tree loss.  This desperation has increased in the past year as petrol (gas) has become a rare commodity. Petrol stations sit empty, and when the rare fuel truck arrives people sit in line for days waiting to fill their cars and cans. Literally, cars stretching for blocks and intersections full of frustrated people. Like the U.S. in the late 1970s.

The first time I saw the snake of cars waiting for petrol I turned to my colleague and said “Peak oil has come and gone. This is what every country’s eventually going to look like, starting with the poor ones.”   I don’t think she knew what ‘peak oil’ meant because she looked at me blankly. But perhaps that was because she was in a daze from driving by a mass of people so clearly at the mercy of petroleum. The situation has brought the normally peaceful and unfailingly polite Malawians to a boil. Last month, the government shot and killed 18 rioters; more riots are planned for next week.

While in Malawi I connected with a permie who has been living in the country for several years, Stacia Nordin. Using permaculture principles, she and her husband transformed their dusty urban plot of land into an oasis. She works for the Ministry of Education, but also promotes and teaches permaculture locally with a group called NeverEndingFood ( She and I tried to find the time for me to visit her home, but our respective Ministries made our schedules hell and it didn't happen. But as I rode by the denuded fields and empty gas stations (and the occasional mobbed one), I realized how relevant, timely and important her permaculture work here was. And how absolutely timely and important our learning, using and promoting permaculture principles is, will be. These are desperate times, growing rapidly more desperate. May we have the skills and strength of spirit to thrive despite it all.
Am leaving Malawi now, about to board a plane for Johannesburg. The airport counter computers, metal detectors and x-ray machines aren’t working because the generators are out of petrol…because the economy is failing...because the agricultural sector is weak.  My flight will probably use enough fuel to run the airport’s generators for a week. Clearly I need a new job.

Anyway, these are my itinerant ramblings. Miss you all.
With love,

Banner image of cob bench built by myself, Sekai and the 24 other permies.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Heart Transition

Within the Transition movement, there's much discussion about the heart and soul aspects of transitioning to a sustainable life. In many ways, this inner transition is the hardest work of all. Americans are educated to go it alone, be all you can be, personal best, just do it. It's a pioneer/colonist wild west mentality. We are not trained in the nuances of conflict resolution and deep listening but these qualities are exactly what we now need to support in ourselves and others if we have any chance of finding a new and sustainable paradigm for human life on earth.

I'm new at this too. I'm an artist, use to going it alone in my studio. I like to have things my way. But that doesn't seem like a sustainable and productive approach any longer. Our world reflects this bullheaded attitude with growing and seemingly intractable polarization on every front. Here in the desert, I find the perfect testing ground for a new approach. Here we have tea party-ers, John Birchers, new age adherents, astral body practitioners, gung ho military, born agains, UFO abductees, permaculturalists, neo nazis, channelers, sociopaths, PHDs, yoga adepts, meth cookers, shape shifters, the wealthy, the desperately poor...I could go on and on. Sort of like L.A. but packed into a much smaller territory.

If the transition to a sustainable life does not have everyone at the table, then it's doomed to devolve into the same old same old. I don't have the answer about how to bring this chaotic a community of American Eccentrics (me not excluded) to the same table but I do know that there are certain principles in permaculture that may help.

Permaculture Principle #6 - Diversity:
We want to create resilience by utilizing many elements. We can contrast a garden which has a variety of plants in it with a field containing only wheat (monocropping). If you have a drought year or a wet year or if you have a certain kind of pest, all the wheat will probably be susceptible to the same condition or pest and you might lose your whole crop. But if you have a system that's mixed, with a variety of crops or plants, they might not all be susceptible. You might have some plants that are drought tolerant, others that do better in wetter conditions - if you have a drought year you'll just lose some of your plants, but you'll still have others that will do well. So, the idea is that the way to create a resilient system that can survive and get through difficulties is by having many different elements.

So it's like this on a very pragmatic level - if I live in a community of people just like me, we'll all be over-thinking everything and clueless about how to fix a car, weld something, stitch a wound, get a baby born, drill a well. I might need people with these skill sets, regardless of their religious or political views. And they may need me since I plan on growing food in surplus to be able to give some away when times are bad. Sharing skill sets will make us a more resilient community. I will have to get over myself and be willing to find the common ground.

I'm not a Polly Anna.  There's always the community sociopath - the character hell bent on creating discord. This may take the community pulling together to work out a nuanced, strategic and creative response. I'll get back to you on that.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

When They Come

Ever since I was a kid growing up in suburban NY, I've been pissed off about the loss of wild things. My parents house was an old victorian that bordered a small forest. Way down below the house were the railroad tracks that took most of the fathers to NYC each day. Along that track ran a marsh. The tracks marked a line in my young head that formed a balance beam between seemingly opposite ideas - NYC versus the tadpoles, ducks and turtles in the marsh by the tracks. My mother taught me to love nature. My father taught me to love art and complex stories. Nature versus culture. Since the culture of my people seemed hell bent on destroying nature, I found it very hard to reconcile my twin passions.

8 years ago, when I moved from my 30 years of adult life in Los Angeles to Joshua Tree in the high desert above Palm Springs, I had a strong desire to connect with the non domesticated animals of my new world. My desert studio could not have been more urban, situated in the heart of downtown Joshua Tree and right across from the paramedic station. There were no animals in my stripped and barren backyard. Not a bird. Not even the ubiquitous desert rabbit. It seemed that only the inside of my  previously vacant studio had any signs of life - stinging centipedes (a desert friend said "one bites you, get your ass to the emergency ward"), black widows and the occasional scorpion. I'm not squeamish about insects...but come on!

And why would there be animals around? There was nothing to eat or drink and scary emergency sirens across the street. Still, it was and is a good place for my studio. Call it a half way house for an urbanite coming off fast lane addiction.

Over time I slowed down. Permaculturists say the process of land and habitat repair begins with Long and Thoughtful Observation. Here's another reason why permaculture appeals so much to me as an artist. That's what I'm trained to do. I apply that process to the observation of my surroundings and the way my mind interacts with those surroundings. This motto also appeals because our culture rarely engages in this kind of observation which often leads to thoughtless and destructive action being taken. I started to apply it to my rented studio. I learned a lot and managed over time to bring some life back via a vegetable garden, some grape vines, cactus garden, pomegranate trees.  Now there are birds, quail...still no rabbits. Currently I'm applying Long and Thoughtful Observation to my my newly purchased land.

My land is not too badly scraped and not too barren....and very quiet. So there are actually some animals to observe. I keep a journal of animals sighted, the direction they are moving, the time of day. Also I track the direction and velocity of the wind and the temperature. I've long looked forward to living in a thriving habitat and I know that a few years down the road I will be looking on a desert food forest where everything works together to make an abundant environment. In the days of living in my studio, I thought about When They Come....the animals, that is. Now, they're beginning to arrive.

A week ago I was sitting under the big tamarisk tree next to the border hedge of very old and big cactus. I was looking out over the land and thinking about what it will be like when they come, when movement caught my eye. There at the edge of the cactus was a huge beautiful King snake. It's very lucky to have a King snake in residence. They are rattlesnake antagonists and do a great job of keeping them away. This one was moving very slowly and carefully and was clearly making the rounds. A perfect moment for long and thoughtful observation. I followed it at a respectful distance for the 45 minutes it took for it to navigate through the hedge, cross some open territory and disappear into the huge oleander hedge on the east side of the house. Here are some things I thought about during that long observation:

1. The animals are already here. Even with a habitat that has still gone through some destruction like my land, they are around and ready to enter.
2. The snake is here, so close by, maybe because baby rabbits were born in our outside demolition pile during remodeling of the house. Why did the mother rabbit feel that this was a good idea? Maybe because the noise of demolition would be keeping predators away. Now demolition is done, there are more rabbits and so a food supply for the snake.
3. I wonder where my passport is.
4. My mother had a horror of snakes. In fact, the family couldn't even utter the word snake. We could say S.P.Q.E.N. if we needed to say something about them.....go figure. But I'm not afraid. Fear doesn't have to be passed on generationally.
5. I wonder if it's true that toenails continue to grow for awhile after death. Since I discovered when I was 12 that women DO NOT have one more rib than men, I'm deeply suspicious of all definitive statements.
6. I noticed that in between my thoughts, my mind was clear, alert and deeply engaged. I felt plugged in. I liked that feeling.
7. No thoughts. Good! Damn, thinking again!
8. Maybe long and thoughtful observation is similar to meditation.
9. I wonder if the snake has a circuit it makes on the land and how often? Got to consider this when placing structures so as not to interrupt its path.
10. I thought about how amazing it will be as the permaculture plan unrolls and the food forest takes effect. Each stage will bring it's own challenges as the animals come and I learn how to deal.

In the next few months we will hook up the greywater and direct it all to our first swale in which we will plant fruit trees and other plants that will form a beneficial guild. I look forward to seeing who comes along then and how I'm going to deal when they start eating all the fruit. Permaculture says "The problem is the solution". I'm intriqued by this statement. Its implications unroll as I encounter the challenges of transitioning to a new way of life. I look forward to understanding how it will apply when they REALLY come.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

8 Tips For Selecting A Desert Habitat for Permaculture

Fortunately, by the time I bought my current home, I'd read enough about permaculture to know what to look for. Whether you're renting or buying - if you're interested in permaculture - here's my list of attributes to look for:

1. The long side of the house should be facing south and should NOT be shaded with high foliage or trees. In the northern hemisphere, the south facing side is referred to as the "sun side" of the house. In the Southern hemisphere, the sun side is the northern side of the house. This should also be the side with most of the windows. Very few contemporary developers know how to or care to correctly orient a house so it takes some looking on your part. This orientation will give you the most advantage for passive solar gain. The roof should have a substantial eave (somewhere between 2 and 3 feet). The correct eave width will allow maximum amount of sun to enter the windows in the winter and will shade the windows in the summer. Here's a link for calculating the correct eave width at your latitude (you'll need to convert from metric with this calculator). Our latitude in the Morongo Basin is 116. Some green builders say the sun side eave width should be no more than 25% of window height  and recommend keeping any further coverage flexible by using retractable awnings or a trellis of vines that lose leaves in the winter. 

2. Look for shading from either porches or trees on the west and east sides, particularly the west. In the summer, the day will be the hottest in the afternoon as the sun moves to the west.

3. Look for the land to have a slope of no less than 4 % and no more than 25%. This will be very helpful for harvesting water run off and for using gravity for greywater systems. No matter how great the view, look for the house to be sited somewhere down the slope, not at the top. Desert winds can be fierce and you'll want as much protection from them as possible.

4. Look for washes and gullies that show water movement on the land. These are places where water can be captured by slowing it, spreading it and sinking it into the land. In this way you will begin to rehydrate the land.

5. It will be a great perk if all the windows in the house are dual glazed. This will help a great deal to keep the house temperate. Of course, it will also be very helpful if the house is well insulated.

6. Even the desert has micro climates. Some areas get more rain than others. Try to locate in the areas of highest precipitation (usually up against the mountains). Ask people in the immediate area about rainfall.

7. Most desert houses use swamp coolers. These simple and very effective cooling devices use evaporation to cool air that is drawn over wet pads and  then blown into the house. They are far more effective and energy efficient than air conditioners. The best place for a swamp cooler is on the north side (shade side) of the house. Although many desert homes have the swamp cooler on the roof, in my opinion this is the worst place for it to be. Not only is the sun constantly beating on it and heating the water inside it but any undetected leak is liable to damage the roof.

8. One of the most destructive practices of new home builders in our area is scraping the land - removing all vegetation in a large swath around the house. This is basically an ecological disaster. This contributes to particulate dust pollution, removes essential animal habitat and food source and destroys the intricate microbial balance of the native soil. Look for land where this kind of destruction is at a minimum and then work to restore the balance by planting food producing and medicinal natives.

For superb information on landscaping with our local native food and medicinal plants go to Robin Kobaly's

The beautiful news about permaculture is that it can be done anywhere; on dead flat land, mountainous land, house oriented all the wrong way, in the driest of the dry climates and in the monsoon howling tropics. This list just makes it easier if you've decided that the desert is your choice.

Long side of house faces south. Picture taken in
late May when eaves already block the summer sun.
Large Tamarisk shades west side. House is sited
about half way down a gentle slope. The scraped
land will be planted with food producing and
medicinal natives. Demolition work on interior 
has just been completed. Next step is long row of
dual glazed windows on south side.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Runner

Pheidippides. The famous Herald and professionally trained long distance runner of ancient Athens. Mentioned by the Greek historian Herodotus as the runner sent by the Athenian generals  to the Spartans to request their assistance in fighting off the coming onslaught of the Persians. The story goes that he ran 240 km in 2 days over the incredibly steep terrain of Greece to deliver the request. 

The reason I started to think about him was because of my involvement with Transition Joshua Tree. I'm reading a great deal about peak oil, climate change and the current economic crisis that indicate that the hard core hour is at hand to begin the ambitious transition to a sustainable future if we are going to have any kind of future at all. I've been visualizing my community's world without access to cheap fossil fuels. Here's a scenario - gasoline becomes increasingly unaffordable and scarce. Let's also say, in the not too distant future, all things petroleum based become unattainable for the average person. Let's go one step further and say the grid just plain goes down, maybe periodically, maybe for good. In all cases of emergency, if we don't want to descend into pandemonium, people have to pull together. That's best done with a plan in place. In order to pull together we will need effective lines of communication. Joshua tree is rural with good distances between peoples' homes and the town center. This is where Pheidippides came to mind. In the ages prior to fossil fuels this is one way that tribes/communities sent urgent info across distance. Suddenly the persona of the runner took on new meaning and depth.

I think the archetype of the runner is a profoundly important one. Today the marathon runner is considered a spectacular if somewhat OCD athlete but frankly always seemed to me like a hunter with nothing left to hunt; a personality type whose job has become obsolete. I've also noticed that the extreme runners that I've met tend to be highly intelligent people. The story of Pheidippides is only briefly mentioned by Herodotus but like all great stories the real meat is in between the lines. There are many permutations of the story but Herodotus wrote his account 30 to 40 years after the event so we can be fairly certain that our man was an historical figure.

What kind of man was he? I don't suppose the generals would have picked any old great runner to do the job. I'm imagining that they handed their written or oral request to Pheidippides in particular for a reason. We're talking about a life or death outcome. I'm thinking that the runner charged with such a task would have had to be intelligent with considerable powers of persuasion, one who could plead a case passionately in the event that the delivered request was denied . Considering that the demands of the run (life or death mission paired with extreme physical exertion) were very likely to have put the Herald into an altered state of consciousness, it would be best if the runner were comfortable with delirium. Squarely in The Zone, is my thinking on this. And in fact, that's another fascinating aspect of the story. 

The Spartans turned Pheidippides down. They had a religious event scheduled that didn't work with the time frame of the impending battle. But all was not lost. Upon his return to Athens he told the generals that on his way to Sparta, the god Pan appeared to him on a mountain top with a message to deliver to the Athenians. Talk about being in The Zone. Pan said that he was miffed because the Athenians had ignored him but if they would build him a temple he would help them to win the battle. They built the temple and they won against enormous odds.

And here we have many roles for the herald/runner: extreme athlete, possible orator, ambassador, man-to-whom-the-gods speak, psychologist (I mean, did he really talk to Pan??). What I like about my idea of the persona of the runner is that it begins to tie a particular primal human activity into the Permaculture idea of stacking functions. A human being who can fluidly and effectively move between many roles is a resilient human being. The more resilient the individuals, the more resilient the community.

A few hours ago, I was eating dinner out with my friend Travis, fellow Transition JT steering group member. We were talking the talk, catching up, sharing stories when I remembered all these ideas I was having. I said "Hey, I've been reading the Transition Handbook and thinking about the idea of running". Before I could launch into the story, he said "You know, I've been thinking too...if the shit hits the fan, what would my role be? What would I do? I think I'd be the runner". It was a great moment. A story in my mind had come full circle and landed firmly in the present. Of course. Travis WOULD be the runner for many of the reasons mentioned above. To live well in the coming descent off of fossil fuels we each need to re-skill to become more resilient. We will need to become fluent about some very basic things like growing food, harvesting water, fixing things, building our physical stamina to transport ourselves locally, reconnecting with our community and nature (note to self - Pan doesn't like to be ignored). And, like Pheidippides, we'll need to learn the art of telling a highly motivating story when Plan A fails.

Blog post illustration by Burne Hogarth from Dynamic Anatomy.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Mind in the Sand

I've been thinking lately about two things that at first might seem unrelated: my choice of a name for this Blog (Mind in the Sand) and a movie I saw last week about the present day Kogi people in Columbia.

The Kogi of Columbia survived the spanish conquistadors by fleeing deep into the immensity of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. The escapees were not pursued due to the seemingly impenetrable terrain and were forgotten over time. The wisdom stories of their pre-columbian culture remained intact. They kept track of us over the centuries but we didn't know much about them. In the 1970's they became deeply concerned about the ecological imbalances that they were beginning to observe in their own mountainous backyard. The Kogi call it The Heart of the World and it is the immense watershed of their habitat. The deep snow that had fallen on its high regions for eons was now declining. No snowmelt = no water = trouble.

The Kogi, who call themselves the Elder Brothers, understood why this was happening. They had a warning to deliver to the Younger Brothers (all of us who live within the western paradigm) about our destructive influence on the global ecosystem. The Kogi believe that through their offerings and deep mental concentration emanating from The Heart of The World they had kept the world in balance. But now the rapacious actions of the Younger Brothers had tipped the scales to a potentially disastrous degree. They decided to breach their intentional isolation from all things Western. They sent an emissary out of the Sierra Nevada to learn spanish and figure out the best way to send a message to the world. They came up with a documentary filmmaker.

It was easy to nod yes to their warnings as I watched the movie. The white man has a god complex - check.  We better knock it off if we want to survive - check. Less taking, more giving - check. Some of us Younger Sisters and Brothers have been saying the same thing for some time now. However, what REALLY grabbed my attention was the Kogi Elders' explanation of the role of the Mind in the manifestation of physical reality. Western quantum physics also indicates that the act of observation changes that which is being observed.  Back in the day, I read the Tao of Physics and other related texts but somehow the technology of it all blocked my ability to feel the impact of the information. But as I watched the Kogi exert Mind, I understood it on a visceral level. I understood it as an artist.

The life of an artist is a different kind of life. For a very, very long time I've been watching my mind and faithfully noting in my drawing notebooks its desires, fascinations, attractions and repulsions . Channeling mind through physicality, I manifest the movement of thought in the form of paintings. I consider this previous sentence to be my job description. The Kogi harness the mind on a level that is light years ahead of my attempts to make good paintings. They train in INTENTION using an almost unspeakable level of diamond pointed concentration. They utilize ancient mental technologies that demonstrate the truth of the Buddhist saying - "thou art that". The world is in balance if the mind is in balance because they are one and the same.

OK, it's a movie. I haven't visited the Kogi and my deductions don't follow the  scientific model. But let's just say the movie does paint an accurate portrait of the Kogi world. They value and cultivate mental balance and a deep attention to their relationship to natural systems. They live a very permaculture based life and, on average, make it to the age of 95. Their eco-system is lush, abundant and giving.  How is your mental balance these days? How about the mental balance of your friends, co-workers and family?  How is our ecosystem looking? I rest my case.

This brings me to the naming of this Blog. Some people might say (have said) that my decision to leave Los Angeles, come to the desert, stop watching television and grow a garden and all things garden-like is akin to an ostrich sticking her head in the sand at the threat of approaching danger (do ostrichs actually do that? ...But I digress). I say there's a big difference between putting your head in the sand and putting your MIND in the sand. The first implies a ridiculous attempt to escape a situation through half-assed sensory deprivation. The second implies a deepening of attention and concentration towards a heightened relationship between observer and observed. There is no doubt that I have deepened my attention to the ground on which I stand (read the ground of my being). After doing this for the last 7 years I observe that my environment has grown more abundant and balanced and my mind has done the same. I am happier, healthier and so seems to be the world immediately around me.

Consider this - I think one of the main reasons why the Renaissance took hold was that all the gifted envisioners were on board; all of them focusing Mind towards the same goal...well, that and the de' Medici money. All of that brilliance, will, creativity and visualization pulled Europe into the Renaissance paradigm. Not every citizen had to be on board at first, just the heavy duty visualizers. Of course, while the Renaissance might have started out as a good idea, it eventually led to an imbalanced materialism, an egocentric arrogance and our present predicament. Mind always needs to make adjustments. So here we are. The stakes are higher and we now have the ability to communicate our thoughts instantly and globally.  The heavy duty visualizers are lining up. Some envision Armageddon. Some envision  humanity in balance with nature and finally at peace. I like door #2. I'm joining up with both feet firmly planted on the ground, my eyes wide open and my Mind in the Sand.

Blog post header illustration - untitled, 2011, oil painting by me.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Stacking Functions

One of the important ideas in permaculture is to "stack the functions". Permaculture vernacular has a lot of strangely evocative phrases. When I first heard this, a picture immediately formed in my mind of the human body with the ankle bone connected to the knee bone...and the knee bone connected to the thigh bone; a big bony structural stack where every part depends on every other part for stability. And in fact, that IS what it's all about; interconnection and making sure that everything serves at least 3 purposes.

I'm a permaculture novice but the elegance of the idea appeals deeply to me as an artist. As a matter of fact, I've come across little else in my life that can hold my attention as fully as permaculture - only art making has done that up until now. Oh, and fire making. Oh, and greek mythology....and my dog. There's nothing quite so mesmerizing as an idea whose time has come. Maybe that's the main ingredient for a great work of art too - the mastery of a form synched with a tremendously timely idea. And a great work of art also stacks functions in the sense that nothing can be parsed out separately in the apprehension of it. It's seamless. It's full, complete, and self sustaining.

An example of a permaculture stacked function would be living with chickens. Chickens are a big item in permaculture for this very reason. They produce great manure for fertilizer, you can feed them the vegetable garden scraps that they helped to grow with their manure, you can eat their eggs (and them if you're so inclined), you can corral them temporarily in your garden bed where they will happily scratch around thus aerating your soil and pulling up weeds, you can build a winter coop that's attached to the south side of your home and their bodies will help passively warm the house. Like that. No waste. A closed loop system.

But that's all down the road for me. My mate and I have just bought a house in the desert. A permaculture paradise is the goal. You start at the hearth and build outward. That's where I am - in the center of the newly gutted house. We tore out all the walls to start anew, to clear the road for passive solar heating, grey water, etc. Two days ago, I was standing in that exact center of the house feeling maxed-out and overwhelmed thinking about the years ahead and the work it will take to manifest this dream. For a few minutes, I stepped onto the Dark Road - I'm too old, it's too late, there'll be an earthquake and the San Onofre nuclear plant will explode, the winds will bring the radiation RIGHT HERE, we'll have to flee, where will we go? Is my passport up to date? Where the hell IS my passport??? ...Ohhhh, I can slide onto that road in a heartbeat. It's delicious.

So, I was flying down that road when I suddenly heard the sound of a water drip close by. A leak?? In the house?? Oh my god!! (The Dark Road). I looked around and noticed for the first time that my dog's water bowl was in the center of the room at my feet. Hmm...that's a strange place for it to be. Then I saw a water droplet hit the center of the bowl. I looked up and saw that it was directly below a newly exposed copper water pipe with an apparent leak. Like the way a really good joke works via a series of quick revelations, I understood that my mate had whimsically created our first STACKED FUNCTION. And the best part was that over the next few days I saw that the interval of the drips corresponded perfectly to the amount of water consumed by my dog so that the bowl was always full of fresh water and never overflowed. Now a stacked function ideally should have at least 3 purposes. The bowl caught the leak, and provided water to my dog. Where's the third function? As my permaculture friend, Daniel Francis, says "beauty is a function".  I consider humble revelations to be beautiful. So there you go.

Ace builder, Sequoia Smith, in center with friends. His first 
stacked function underlined in yellow.

Our second temporary stacked function.
Washing machine drains into barrel on
top which uses gravity to send the
grey water to select trees.

A great, literally stacked function
invented by Transition Food Group
member, Janet Tucker. She cleaned up
the desert of 3 abandoned tires (function1),
put a cage of rat wire on top to protect
the plants, plastic around the sides for wind
 and cold and grew broccoli (function 2).
Huge, vibrant broccoli I might add.
Function 3 - a great invention for people who
can't afford the expense of a green house.

Instructions for building the Goodyear Greenhouse.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Soil Dance

I'm a refugee from Los Angeles. I fled that city 7 years ago. Like many of the refugees that came to Joshua Tree in a wave during that time, I was in a state of disrepair - to put it mildly. I needed peace, solitude, a profound respite; something akin to the ancient greek sleep temples. I needed to lay my head down. In this desert I found that healing and then, in time, I found a great new surge of energy - a willingness to begin again. One thing led to another. I became intensely interested in the land, in the soil, flora and fauna, I read about permaculture, bio-intensive gardening, Rudolf Steiner, the elementals, soil and land restoration, water harvesting, the Transition Movement. The Transition Movement - a way to work together to bring a community through climate change, economic crisis and the end of cheap fossil fuels. A way to survive with great creative flair. I pitched the idea to a few friends and, like a rocket, Transition Joshua Tree took off. Growing one's own food is an important part of the equation. That's the back story to how I came to be standing in my desert vegetable garden yesterday.

These are breathless times. That being said, these are the times when a deep breath couldn't be more important. I like big challenges - if I'm going to make paintings, I'm going to start by studying old master technique (which I do) and if I'm going to figure out how to grow food in the desert, I'm going to study it from all possible angles. This intensity of mine is great for getting things done but often leads to fairly shallow breathing. My garden has 4 beds. Each bed has a different approach to soil preparation that I learned from 4 different books. So there I was standing in the garden thinking about how 3 of those beds took fairly back breaking labor while the one that seemed to be producing the happiest plants took almost none. I noted this (and the fact that men wrote the back breaking technique books and a woman wrote the easy one...I'm just sayin') and then I began my second day of attempting to lay a drip irrigation system in the garden.

Gardening is suppose to be a meditation...but putting in an irrigation system is hell. It's all so misleading - all those cute little hose lines and connectors and little drip heads all looking like they belong in your doll house - yeah right - the doll house from hell. 3 hours later I felt like I had my paw caught in a trap and was ready to chew off my own leg to free myself. If I had to try to force one more tiny little connector barb thing into one more tiny little hose end for which it clearly did not appear to be made or if I had to make one more trip to Home Depot to replace a cracked thing, or a bent thing or a shredded thing, I was going to explode in tears....okay, I actually did explode in tears....a number of times.

Finally, I was on the last bed - the bed that had been so easy to prepare and that was hosting the happiest plants. With each bed, I made shallow troughs in the soil to lay in the drip line. I started that process with this bed and had made a short trough when I noticed something odd with the soil. I dug my glasses out of my pocket to take a closer look. I don't know how else to put it - the soil was alive! I don't just mean - like oh wow - cool soil - very rich. I mean it was moving! - two inches down from the surface the soil was literally writhing! I got down closer and saw that it was full of life - worms, squirmy things, incredibly small glistening entities, all ploughing themselves back and forth in the humus. Spontaneously, I started to breathe deeply...and to giggle like a holy fool. I did it!!! I worked with nature and turned the soil into life itself. I felt so grateful for this opportunity - to land on my feet in Joshua Tree, to make a garden, to see this soil moving and breathing, to love my community, to love my mate. I just sat there for a good long time; smeared with dirt, tear stained cheeks, smiling about my life and watching the soil dance.

FYI - making a garden bed using the Sheet Mulching technique is the bomb!
Sheet Mulching Explained
How to Make a Keyhole Garden African-style

Garden Fortress. Rat wire covers all and goes two
feet below ground. Ceramic urn to right is container
for brewing up worm casting tea for fertilizer.

Sheet Mulching beds on right.

Winter garden now going to seed for seed saving.
Screw you Monsanto.

Spring 2011 garden. Sheet mulched bed in front 
started in Fall 2011, left fallow for winter then 
planted in early spring. Bed in back corner sheet 
mulched late spring 2011 and immediately planted. 
They seem to be doing equally well.

The sheet mulched garden in June, 2011.

Me with my mind in the sand.