Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Thinking our own thoughts by K.Linda Kivi

The Olympics, the Olympics – everywhere I turn, it’s all about the Olympics these days. And every time I hear the word, see the marketing gadgets and junk, am confronted by the media madness over this sporting event, I do my best to turn away. Not to react, but simply to refocus my attention elsewhere.

I have no gripe with competitive sporting events per se. The Olympics were designed, after all, as an alternative to war, so that humanity could work out their aggression and desire to dominate in a peaceful forum. The concept is good but, unfortunately, not highly effective considering the current state of armed conflict in the world. As for what the Olympics have become, that’s a discussion I’ll leave to other commentators.

The act of turning away from media imposed mass events, is something I have been practicing for many years. It is the manifestation of my desire to nurture human cultural diversity. On a personal level, I call this choice “intentional complexity”. I invented this term, in part, because the path of “voluntary simplicity” that I was on didn’t quite describe why I was attempting to free myself for the constraints of wage slavery and consumerism. Heading off in the direction of simplicity, I realized was more a method than a desired result. Simplicity is good, but what is it for? What am I after?

What I want is a life in which I can be fully present, of mind, heart and body.
I want to be ready for the adventures that unfold of their own volition as well as the ones I choose. I want to make choices as unfettered as possible by what is expected of me in a culture that doesn’t inspire my enthusiasm. I want, like Luanne, in her Feb. 9 blog entry, to be in service to the Earth. I want the richness of being able to listen, to hear and to respond.

Natural historian David Quammen writes:
“More and more in recent years, we are all thinking about the same things at the same time. Electromagnetic radiation is chiefly responsible; microwaves, macrowaves, dashing and dancing electrons unite us instantly and constantly with the waves of each other’s brain... Too much “conscious unity of souls” is unhealthy, probably even pernicious. It yields polarized thought… with everyone smugly in agreement that such-and-such matters are worth contemplation, and that the rest by implication are not. Such unity is a form of overall mental impoverishment.”

Quammen’s own personal “battle against homogenization of mind”, has lead him to get rid of his television set and to explore nature. He encourages people to take a day or hour every month to think about things that “nobody else deems worthy of contemplation”. Thinking and writing about sense of place and peasant culture fits the bill nicely. Who, except me and a handful of kindred spirits, cares? And what point does thinking and writing about these things have?

But the point is precisely that I care. And I care deeply. At this moment, there isn’t anything else I care about quite so deeply. This must be a luxury in our modern society; to be able to say that I spent the day thinking about the subject that is most vital to me. However, I have no illusion that my mind is entirely my own; mental ruts await the tired wheel of my brain at every turn. Nevertheless, I am on the project of trying to think my own thoughts on both mundane and more elevated matters. This, in turn, leads to the creation of my own works of art and craft, experimentation with food instead of always following recipes, even attempts to transform social interactions.

But then I think: isn’t intentional complexity just another trap to get us to focus on individuality instead of collectivity and interconnection? After all, in peasant and forager cultures, many people must have been thinking about similar things at similar times; the weather, the soil, the animals in the forest, how best to weave the fabric, how to heal the cow’s udder, whether the fisher, the farmer, the hunter, the berry picker, the child, will soon be home. However, they thought these thoughts in their own local dialects, using their own unique internal languages, based in the small, but meaningful variations of plants, animals, landforms and culture that each village represented. Their thoughts were part of an ongoing dialogue, millenia old, with the elements that formed them and the objects they formed. And they did not think only of practicalities and survival, but of innovation and philosophy, justice and spirit. They engaged with the unknown, seeking not definitive answers, but engagement. They spoke with the owl in the tree because it was there in front of them. They gathered in sacred places because it felt good and necessary to celebrate their connection to land, that specific land, with friends and neighbours. Perhaps a few hundred or a few thousand overlapped in their thoughts at any given time, not hundreds of millions, as often happens now.

How did we get from there to here? Using my own Estonian heritage as an example, the cultural awakening in the mid-19th century caused what had been a culture of engagement with neighbours and land, to evolve into a culture with a different purpose. People began to learn the same songs and eventually read the same books. Freedom from serfdom was the point. Homogenization of language began to accelerate with the widespread introduction of schools. The loss of regional Estonian dialects has happened within my generation. My aunt, who was fluent in Mulgi murrak, is now long dead, and though my cousins can understand the dialect, they do not speak it. Her grandchildren recognize a smattering of words and phrases. My father’s murrak is rusty at best. I know only a half dozen words. Worse, I had trouble understanding my aunt, even when she spoke in high Estonian, because her local intonation was so pronounced.

How pronounced is my local intonation? Can it be known from my language, my body, my thoughts, where I come from, which land I belong to? Are my thoughts a link between me and the land, between me and those I share the land with, between us and other diverse peoples in places farther away? Or are they merely manifestations of media mogul manipulations in places that are un-places? Is there room in my life for the wonder of wandering through the recesses of this oft over-glorified human brain of mine, for the pleasure of engaging with the Earth place where I belong, for the magic of giggling with friends from the bottom of my truest self? All of this serves interconnection of the truest kind, the kind that involves self-defined individuals and diverse communities coming together to share the best of themselves. Wasn't this the original point of the Olympics as well?

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Gardening by Luanne Armstrong

In Service to Place

Gardening season in this part of the world begins in February, in the grey time, the cloud lid heavy over the grey flat lake and dim blue mountains, light and heat driven far away. But the snowdrops are pushing push out of the frost; the buds swell, dap, unseen, begins to run in the maples and birch.
I whisper to the sad leggy geraniums; soon I promise them, light and heat will come.
And this week, my friend Kuya came and we did our seed orders together, acknowledging our goofy willingness to fall for words like heritage, Russan, French, in the vegetable descriptions. But we ordered them anyway.
The seed orders will arrive in a couple of weeks, and then I can crank up the greenhouse, put in lights and heat, start putting seeds in pots.
And then, in early April, the ground will be dug and rototilled, though not by me.
And then finally, will come the first soft day in April when the sun smacks my shoulders with actual heat. The mud has dried. The garden soil crumbles under food.
I will gather a rake, a shovel, string, seed packets, dump them all in the wheelbarrow, and plant a first row of spinach or peas in the dug, raked garden soil. Usually, on such a day, the sun comes and goes as abruptly as someone turning out the lights. Snow squalls barrel across Kootenay Lake; what was sun is suddenly rain or sleet or hail and in fifteen minutes, the squall has chased merrily its tail merrily over the Purcells and faded away.
I will bend and dig until I’m tired, which doesn’t take very long and then retire to the deck to watch the clouds and the sun on the shining lake. And then I go back; I will work like this all day, in small rushes, and stretches of time, until the cold spring evening sets in and I retreat to the house.
And all the while I’m pounding stakes and tying string to make a straight line and digging a trench with the hoe and laying in the seeds, I wonder all over again, what I’m doing and why. I know all the obvious reasons. I believe in growing my own food, in independence, in growing local, in not being dependent on gas and oil for my food. Every spring, I wonder why I am here, doing this, all by myself?

When I step outside on a spring night, the earth reeks of waking; the call of birth, of living, of being dragged out of dark muck and curled sleep by light and heat. There’s cruelty in it. Part of me is exhausted by this call; the demand of all that sweat and stooping and bending.
But I serve my garden. And it serves me. It’s not clear just where this service, these kind of obligations begin or end, Nor am I at all clear who is serving who, or what and how we got into this somewhat mad relationship in the first place.
Still, it feels like a call to service; a call to tending, a call to caring and midwifing seeds into plants and plants into food and food into nurturing people’s lives. It’s the smell of soil warming, of mould and rot and worms and buds breaking. It moves me without any conscious volition to stoop over the soil and see clustered, rows of sprouts, two tiny primary leaves, breaking the crusted soil, heading upwards.