Friday, July 30, 2010

Compassion for Being Human

My latest slogan is, "To be human is to fuck up."  This seems appropriate as the planet dies around us.  For all these generations, especially in America, we've been programmed with a rah-rah, can-do attitude which is bullshit, because humans inevitably fuck it up somewhere along the line.  We WON'T rise to the occasion because we CAN'T rise to the occasion.  We simply don't have the capacity to do so.  And even if we tried, we would fuck it up.  But we can still do our best to be good Buddhists or good Christians, and have compassion for our fellow sufferers.  Because there's always more than enough suffering to go around.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Slouching Our Way to Antitopia -- Musings on New Buffalo Commune and the Counterculture

     This is my latest Grassroots Press column, which will be out any day now.  I really want to retire from writing this stuff, but my word-processing program thinks otherwise.  So I'm stuck with a double-bind, "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation.  In some perverse way I feel better when I speak out, even though I hate it when I speak out.  And there is no reason to believe this this dilemma will ever resolve itself.
     For this column I combined two blog posts from last year -- Sept. 21 and Oct. 1 -- and added some new material.  I do like the relentless cadence of the last paragraph.

For quite some time I've been asking myself the question, "Why did the bright promise of the 60s turn out so terribly wrong?" Why was the back-to-the-land movement such a failure? As one of the few back-to-the-landers who stayed on the land, I’ve read several books on the subject to satisfy my curiosity. A couple of my favorites are Arthur Kopecky's New Buffalo: Journal of a Taos Commune, and its sequel, Leaving New Buffalo Commune, in which he ends up getting kicked out of the commune by an insurgent faction. It’s a sad tale, or it makes me sad at any rate. So much idealism, so much bright promise, so easily swept aside by the culture of exploitation that has been destroying the biosphere since long before we were born. We thought we had a better way. Some of us actually thought we could change things, or at least create a “counterculture” separate from the mainstream. Some of us invested our lives into this project. We really, really tried. It’s hard to imagine, from today’s complacent perspective, how hard some people worked to create a genuine alternative to the madness. But it was like trying to stop a bulldozer with a b-b. We were unable to conjure up a new culture when as children we had been programmed to do the exact opposite.

The sustainability "movement" has remained at entry level for the past 40+ years, while the condition of the planet has deteriorated at an ever-increasing rate. The whole "living in harmony with the Earth," back-to-the-land movement of the 60s and 70s never really caught on, not in a meaningful way. There are several reasons for this:

* Too much hard work. Post-World War 2 white people traditionally shunned physical labor, except in a symbolic sense, such as mowing the lawn or working out at the gym. In this regard, back-to-the-land seemed like a step backward to many people.

* Not enough money. Most people prefer having a "real job" with a regular paycheck with benefits. Such jobs used to be so plentiful that grubbing in the dirt seemed ridiculous in comparison.

* Too much isolation. The countryside might be beautiful, but you're surrounded by teabaggin' rednecks, and there's not enough entertainment and “culture.”

* Lack of social support. Working for an organization, you're part of the hive. The hive gives your life meaning and purpose, sort of. You have your place, you know your role, and you get paid for it. Isolated on the land, people tended to feel cast adrift as soon as the drugs wore off.

There are no doubt other factors at work, but those four cover a lot of ground. I'd say that most people who went back to the land lasted anywhere between 2 months and 2 years, with 6 months being typical. Life on the land simply proved too difficult for most of the people who tried it. There were too many hassles, and not enough rewards.

Additionally, the peace-and-love crowd drew predators and parasites, who found the peace-and-lovies easy pickings. There were some remarkably low-tone “hippies” prowling around back then. Parasites were more interested in “something for nothing” and were fairly harmless, but predators could really do some damage. That’s what ultimately happened to New Buffalo.

New Buffalo commune, located near Taos, New Mexico, started in 1967, when a rich kid bought some land free and clear, bought thousands of adobe bricks to build a compound they called the “Pueblo,” and bought basic farming equipment such as a tractor. Then he -- as they used to say -- split. By the time Kopecky showed up in 1971, the commune had undergone a complete turnover in membership, the taxes weren't being paid, the tractor had been sold. The commune was -- as they used to say -- totally untogether. Kopecky and a few of his friends stuck around, and over a period of several years gradually bootstrapped the commune to a state of serious productivity. The flame of idealism burned bright and hard for them, despite the setbacks and occasional drug-induced mayhem. As time went on they built irrigation ditches so they could irrigate their gardens, pastures, and fields of wheat and alfalfa. They bought goats and cows and started selling milk in Taos. They bought a tractor, other farm equipment, and a refrigerated truck to deliver their milk. They paid off their back taxes. They built greenhouses and solar collectors to help heat their pueblo during the harsh, high-altitude winters of northern New Mexico.

They were young, strong, and worked amazingly hard, but they never had enough money. What money they brought in was used to buy food, equipment and other necessities, and repairing their vehicles which were always breaking down. Gradually, they managed to accumulate dairy equipment and a small herd of dairy cattle. They developed a loyal clientele for their milk in Taos. In addition, they started producing serious quantities of vegetables, wheat, and hay. They wanted to start a new culture, living on the land, living in harmony with the Earth and each other. Kopecky obviously provided a lot of the focus and idealism that made all this possible.

One fact that stands out about New Buffalo is how hard they worked. They were working fools (at least, the ones who worked). They never had a consistent membership, except for Kopecky (from 1971-79) and a handful of others. His books are in journal form, written day-to-day, not overviews written after the fact. Kopecky, like all of us, didn't really know what was happening at the time. (I used to say, "You never know what's happening till afterwards." Which is to say, you need time to consolidate the data, analyze the information, and draw some conclusions. In the moment, we're all just winging it.)

New Buffalo always attracted parasites – people who came to hang out, get high, and eat free food. But it was the predators who destroyed it. There were only a handful of them, but that was all it took. The predators had lived at New Buffalo in the past, and deeply resented Kopecky, whom they considered to be on a power trip. He was everything they weren’t. The downfall of New Buffalo is like something out of Ayn Rand – pathetic losers bringing down the brightest of lights. The predators used their unearned power to cast out Kopecky and, in the process, destroy the commune.

The trouble with unearned power is, a newcomer or any unqualified person can move into a situation and be considered on equal footing with somebody who actually knows what’s happening. The oldtimer has earned his power through on-the-job experience, whereas the newcomer has much less to offer at the beginning. Yet, in hippiedom they were considered equal. The hippies had a free-and-easy attitude about power. They were trying to create a non-hierarchical paradigm in which power is shared, not imposed from the top of the hierarchy. Unfortunately this proved to be a perfect setup for predators, who could move right in and seize as much power as they were capable of, very quickly. With hierarchical power, it would be more difficult for a newcomer to do this.

As it turned out, Kopecky didn’t have any power beyond the force of his personality, coupled with his vision and his vast amount of experience. It wasn’t “his” commune, after all. Ultimately, the predators made life so miserable for him (such as, taking pot shots at him while he worked in the fields) that he and his girlfriend finally left, bitter and discouraged. This was in 1979, after 8 years of gradual progress. New Buffalo was on the verge of getting a grant to build a solar-powered, Grade A dairy barn, so that they could finally sell certified milk. The decline of New Buffalo was inevitable after Kopecky left: the cattle, dairy equipment, tractor, and anything not tied down were sold, the taxes were no longer paid, and ultimately what was left of New Buffalo reverted back to the rich guy who made it possible in the first place.


In addition to being a focused and methodical hard worker, Kopecky was almost delusional in his idealism. He reminds me of my own experience. After I moved to this piece of land along the Rio Grande in 1973, after three years of homesteading in the Ozarks, I always assumed that “something” was going to happen. (It never did.) By the early 80s it was obvious even to me that the whole back-to-the-land thing was devolving, not evolving. But it wasn’t until the early 90s that I finally realized that Ecotopia was never going to happen. Quite the contrary, actually. How about calling our brave new world Antitopia? That’s the world we’re living in now, and we’ve seen nothing yet. Things are already becoming very interesting, very quickly, and soon even the unaware will be forced to take notice.

Americans have always believed in “freedom,” which translates, mostly, into freedom to travel, and freedom to shop. The hippies refined and distilled this concept into what could be called “Perfect Freedom,” or “freedom without obligations.” The thing about hippies and communards: they were free spirits. Free spirits come and go like the wind. They will never be tied down, which is to say, they can never be depended on. Thus: Joe is a critical member of the milking team. Those cows have got to be milked twice a day. The commune really needs him. But Joe decides, on a whim, to leave the commune, or take a long vacation. Bye-bye, Joe! Too bad, milking team! Stuff like that happened all the time at New Buffalo. People came and went like the wind. It was impossible to get any continuity.

Kopecky kept asking, "Where are all the quality people who will surely be drawn to our quality scene?" He always hoped to create a superior vibe that would encourage people to stay, but he never got more than a handful or two that could really be counted on. New Buffalo never had any trouble attracting parasites and losers. But hardworking, consistent people you could depend on? Pretty rare, and they seldom stayed for long. Looking back, the dynamics are obvious: the more intelligent ones quickly said "This sucks!" and went back to school so they could make something of themselves.

Contrasted against the easygoing hippie ethic was the mainstream paradigm of selfishness, which still rules: Get a good education, get a good job, and make lots of money, all for the benefit of #1. This is far and away the path of least resistance, so it’s not surprising that this is the paradigm that dominated. Even though this paradigm is now breaking down, the damage has been done. Americans embraced the illusion of “no limits” rather than the reality of a finite planet. The sustainable path was not taken when it needed to be. Critical decades were lost, never to be recovered. Now, we are like flies trapped in amber, hoping that somehow our positive words and thoughts will save us. Virtually our every act contributes to the destruction of our planet in some way. And as the Arctic melts, and the Gulf of Mexico dies, we already know how Antitopia is going to turn out.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Thought for Today

"That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach."
-- Aldous Huxley

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Water Harvesting Update

We've had 2.07" of rain so far this summer -- .67" at the end of June, and 1.40" so far this month.  It's been a dry monsoon so far.  Fortunately, I've managed to get all my water tanks optimized for maximum water collection.  This picture shows my original 1000-gallon tank, and how water from two separate roofs feeds into it.  I just added the right-hand gutter a couple of weeks ago.  On the left gutter, you can see that I'm starting to add gutter guards to keep leaves out of the gutter.  Eventually I'll have all my gutters guarded.  The pipe on the right handles any overflow.  In an earlier post I showed how it's possible to use grade-school math to figure out how much water each tank collects for every inch of rain.  This is a great way to keep tabs on the water tank situation as the monsoon goes along.  This particular tank collects 158 gallons of water for every inch of rain. 

This is the 1000-gallon tank I installed last winter behind the tool shed.  Two separate roofs, at two levels, means I have two gutters feeding into the tank.  This one collects 186 gallons per inch of rain.

This is the 1100-gallon tank that collects water from the ark roof.  I installed it last winter.  It stores 239 gallons per inch of rain.  The downspout looks flimsy, but the ends are screwed into place which makes it surprisingly strong.

At the present time I have four tanks totalling 3300 gallons.  These four tanks collect a total of 706 gallons for every inch of rain, which means that so far this monsoon I've collected over 1460 gallons of rainwater.  This sounds like a lot, but is actually minimal for irrigation purposes.  Next winter I plan to install another 1000-gallon tank that will store the water from four roofs.  This will add considerably to my water-storing capability.  In fact this will be my "go-to" tank during the summer, since it should fill up after any decent rain.

I live right on the Rio Grande, so I have access to unlimited water as long as the river flows.  Unfortunately the groundwater is salty and alkaline, and not suitable for anything other than emergency irrigation, so I'm more dependent on the river than I'd like to be.  I fully expect that eventually (maybe even next winter, which is predicted to be dry) the snowpack will fail and the river won't flow for the entire summer.  The fact that this hasn't happened in the 37 years I've lived here doesn't mean it won't happen in the future.  So I'm motivated to harvest as much rainwater as I possibly can.

Heavy rain last night:  the first region-wide rain of the summer so far -- from Las Cruces north to the Sierra County line.  We had 1.61", which added over 1130 gallons to my water collection.  Both of our arroyos ran, and the river ran bank-full but didn't quite flood.  I would call this one a heavy rain, but nothing unusual.

According to the Las Cruces Sun-News, this was a record-breaking 2-day rain -- 3.34 inches at NMSU.  What's exciting for me is the rainfall total at Rasaaf Hills west of Mesilla, where I have 8 beehives -- 3.59 inches.  The sandy soil in this area becomes covered with yellow carpets of Limoncillo (an excellent honey plant) after heavy rains.  Now, for maybe an inch of rain a week to help develop the crop... 

Monday, July 19, 2010

Fill 'Er Up!

The old Conoco station at Lake Valley, NM.  It must have been a long time ago when this station was active, because Lake Valley has been a ghost town for many decades.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Black-Eyed Susans

Or is it Brown-eyed Susans?  Rudbeckia at any rate.  I've had a clump of these along the steps for many years.  They do well here, which I find strongly in their favor.  That, and the fact that I like daisies.  Last year I had the inspiration to dig up some crowns and transplant them along the path to the tool shed, outhouse, and points north.  A year later, this is what our path now looks like.  They obviously appreciate the drip irrigation system I installed this spring.

Here's a closeup.  This is one project that turned out very well.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

They Said It So I Don’t Have To

Anybody still reading this blog might have noticed that I’ve stopped writing essays. After posting “Brave New World” in December, and after my spiritual experiences this past winter, there doesn’t seem to be anything left to say. In one sense, we are so screwed. In another sense, it's way beyond that, and it’s really not so bad, it just is. But still, despite my insights, my nattering chattering word processor keeps chattering away, even though I’m not sharing the output in public like I once did.

Today I ran across an article on, “Struggling to be Fully Alive: Reports on Coping with Anguish.” A few weeks ago Robert Jensen put out a call asking people to share with him how they are coping with the ongoing breakdown of just about everything. He received 300 replies, and shared a number of them in his article. These are my favorites; I could have written most of them myself:

"My personal ambition seems to decrease in proportion to the increase in world suffering. I think that's part of my emotional reaction to crisis. I don't think I am fully alive. I'm not depressed, just weirdly diminished."

"[W]hat I see as the reality of our situation -- ecologically, politically, economically, and culturally -- is that we are in the last days of our species, and I just don't know what to do with that. The emotions are much too powerful, the grief, the sense of doom -- how does one deal with the real possibility of the extinction of not just millions of species, but of one's own species?"

"I feel hopeless. I feel sad. I feel amused at the absurdity of it all. I feel depressed. I feel enraged. I feel guilty and I feel trapped. Basically the only reason why I'm still alive is because there are enough amazing people and things in my life to keep me going, to keep me fighting for what matters. I'm not even sure how to fight yet, but I know that I want to."

"I have been writing for a year and a half on a lot of things as it pertains to humanity's lack of awareness and the potential to reconnect before we destroy the earth and each other. People get angry at me for it and call me 'dark' and 'negative' and 'sinful' telling me to instead move to the 'light,' 'positive' and 'love.' Whatever."

"It is considered feminine and naive to care about trees or animals. ... In addition, it is also considered weak and feminine to empathize or display a proper emotion. We are becoming a nihilistic culture which is creating citizens who are numb to their emotions. This is doing us all a disservice. We are missing out on our bodily wisdom and becoming less and less in tune with our earth."

"I have thought for a long time that the human species, notwithstanding its endless self-flattery, really is not very intelligent. One of the signs of its stupidity is, in fact, the very way that it equates intelligence with technological prowess."

"[T]he only way that the terrible catastrophes on the way could have been softened would have been for everyone on the planet to have dropped business as usual 10 or 20 years ago, and to have started retooling all of society while there was still a reasonable surplus of high EROEI (energy return on energy investment) fossil fuel left to power the *energetically* costly conversion process of re-engineering energy production, housing, cities, suburbs, farming, fishing, and transport. That didn't happen. And having lived through the period, it would have been completely impossible to motivate in the first or third world. But just as important, it is *even more* unlikely that this will begin to happen now. This is because growing energy scarcity will cut into our flexibility as people scramble to prop up floundering systems."

"[W]e in the U.S. are essentially living behind a military barricade. I heard a quote recently that 'collapse means having the same lifestyle as the people who grow your coffee.' I really, really liked that."

"Americans today are living with a profound and apparently irreconcilable disparity between what we say we are, and what we actually are. Between the promise of democracy and the reality of a crumbling empire. The result of this schism, I believe, is the national equivalent of a disassociated personality."

"I spend a lot of time in my own head going back and forth over theories, philosophies, etc. Pretty much going through a process once a month of discarding everything I thought I knew and re-learning it. While this may be a good thing in the future, it does not feel good now. Sometimes it makes me feel like I am alone and lost and that I can't find any truth in anything because I have so many different voices telling me what is right and wrong. Yet, I can never stop going back and looking at what's happening to this real, physical, lovely and loving planet and feel outrage, sorrow, and confusion and why this culture is so insane."

"Being the parent of a young child right now is a mixed blessing: He's my reason for waking up every morning and doing whatever it takes to keep up some semblance of normalcy, but it also frightens and worries me deeply when I think about his future."

"I would like to mourn but have not been able to let my guard down. I could understand 9/11, but now I am witnessing the destruction of the planet and I don't understand the magnitude of what that means. I feel on edge. I feel like I am waiting for the other shoe to drop."

"Recently several of our visionary thinkers have moved from the illusion that 'we have 10 years to turn this around.' They now say clearly that 'we cannot stop this momentum.' It takes courage and faith to speak so plainly. What can we do in the face of this truth? We can sit face to face and find the ways, often beyond words, to explore the reality that we are all refugees, swimming into a future that looks so different from the present. We can find pockets of community where we can whisper our deepest fears about the world. We can remain committed to describing the present with exceptional truth. We can cultivate a practice that enables us to witness suffering with hearts and minds open and with our faces turned toward one another."

"I'm about to celebrate my 70th birthday. I live in a rural intentional community, close to land that feeds us and supports us. I've lived long enough now to be very aware of how different the world has become, how the cycles of nature are off kilter, how the seasons and the climate have shifted. My garden tells me that food doesn't grow in quite the same patterns, and we either get weeks of rain or weeks of heat and drought. This is the second year in a row that our apple trees do not have apples on them. But most people get their food in grocery stores where the apples still appear, and food still arrives, in season and out, from all over the world. This will soon end, and people won't understand why. They don't see the trouble in the land as I and my friends do. I grieve daily as I look on this altered world. My grandchildren are young adults who think their lives will continue as they have been. Who will tell them? They can't hear me. They, and many others, will have to see the changes for themselves, as I have. I can't imagine that anything else will convince them. My grief for the world, and for them, is compounded by this feeling of helplessness because there is no way we can have the collective action you speak of when the 'collective' is still in denial."

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Tapeworm Architecture -- Archeological Evidence of Cultural Parasitism

These picturesque ruins looming in the distance are what's left of the mission church at Abo, NM, started in 1622 and abandoned 50 years later. 

I don't have the time or inclination to write a proper essay on this subject right now, though I might at a later date.  In a nutshell:  when the Spanish conquered New Mexico, starting in 1598, they subjugated the Pueblo Indians.  The Indians essentially became slaves to the Spanish.  The Indians were required to pay tribute to their new overlords -- both goods and labor.  In other words, the Spanish were parasites upon the Indians.  This huge church, built with Indian labor, is an example of Spanish cultural parasitism.  The church took 30 years to build, and during this time the Indians were required to neglect their true livelihoods while they worked on this monument to Spanish power.

Building something this grandiose would have been inconceivable to the Indians.  They had better things to do.  But this is what the Spanish forced the Indians to do "for the glory of God."

This view out a church window shows, in the far distance, barely-visible grassy mounds with bushes growing on them.  These are the unexcavated ruins of where the Indians lived -- modest stone structures, used only at night and during bad weather, since they lived most of their lives outdoors. 

This particular site was occupied by the Indians as early as 1150 A.D.  The first mission church was started in 1622.  Thus the Indians had lived successfully in this spot for 472 years, through good times and bad, feast and famine, times of plenty and times of drought, before the Spanish took over.

The Spanish bled the Pueblos dry.  They were merciless.  This church was finally completed in 1659, and the pueblo was abandoned between 1672-78. In other words, after nearly 500 years of successful Indian habitation, the Spanish managed to destroy the native culture in a short 50 years.

This is a fascinating story that has been told before, sort of, but never in the blunt way I'm capable of.  Maybe I'll write an article for Grassroots Press about it, because the problem of cultural parasitism persists to this day.  In fact, our entire planet is being destroyed by it.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Adobe Church Surrounded by a Graveyard

Punta de Agua, NM.  One-stop shopping:  get baptized, married and buried all at one convenient location.  Note the massive buttresses which strengthen the corners.