Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
I spent the morning weeding. On my knees in the brutal heat, with a lot of deer flies buzzing around, pulling weeds from around my corn. It’s highbrow stuff. The kind of thing that could score me a Nobel Prize, or a guest appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live.
As I pulled those weeds, this commentary ran through my head. “What am I doing with my life? What is this? Pulling weeds … is this what it all comes down to? Have I reached my potential? Pulling weeds. Growing corn. Sure it’s organic. It’s sustainable. And the people in my CSA are going to appreciate it, but is this what the universe had in its master plan for me?”
It’s like I’m suddenly in that Talking Heads song ‘Once in a Lifetime’ with the lyrics “You may find yourself living in a shotgun shack, and you may find yourself in another part of the world, and you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile, and you may find yourself in a beautiful house with a beautiful wife. and you may ask yourself.. well…how did I get here?”
I loved this song in the 80’s, but I never ‘got it.’ Now I finally do.
Because here I am. Pulling weeds. Running a CSA. Living in the woods. Off the grid. Making a bizarrely small amount of money. How did I get here?
I did the whole ‘some’ post-secondary education, worked in a computer business, ran my own electronic publishing business, run a publishing business, do websites… but here is what I spend most of my time doing. How did this happen?
I think I get it. It was an evolution. I started out like everyone else trying to make money. But living in suburbia was doing me in. So we moved off-grid. I still wanted money, but it became less important. Then I hit 50. Then we dealt with a major health issue. Then a friend from public school died. Holy crap! How could he die? I still picture him in my mind as a 12-year-old. So apparently time does march on. Apparently even though I could never conceive of getting old … I am.
I find inspiration in the most unlikely of places. I read a book by Andrew Nikiforuk called “Empire of the Beetle.” I love his books. He wrote an exceptional book about Wiebo Ludwig about the effects of sour gas/natural gas drilling on the people that live where it goes on. He wrote a great book on the tar sands, and let’s be very clear, regardless of what Canadian politicians want to call it, it is tar. Bitumen is what they use to pave roads. Also know as tar.
“Empire of the Beetle” is about the devastating effects of the pine beetle and how human folly has exacerbated its effects. Fire suppression and a warming climate are allowing it run roughshod over North America’s forests.
He writes about people who built dream homes in pine forests and who now live in a field. Can you imagine? Watching the towering pines that surround your house die? It sounds devastating. And he finds an artist trying to makes some sense of it, to help people deal with the grief of the loss of their forests. And he quotes the artist Peter von Tiesenhausen trying to deal with this loss and how it has motivated him. He says “What am I going to do with the time I have left? I’d better make it meaningful.”
I keep coming back to all of this as I pull weeds. Do I want to go back to the corporate world? I worked for years for a company that made industrial strainers. Some of them ended up in water treatment plants. That’s a good thing. But my inclination is that more of them ended up in oil refineries and pipelines. And that was always an ethical dilemma for me. Money versus what I thought about the impact of humans on the planet.
Running a CSA removes that dilemma. If I have to boil down all my beliefs about the state of the planet, and the state of the climate and my impact on it, growing food just seems to be the ultimate way for me to tread the lightest. Jumping on planes and going to environmental conferences and blabbering on using oxymorons like ‘sustainable development’ is just a huge hypocrisy.
But people have to eat. And the more local the food the better. And the more sustainably grown, the better. And of all the things I could do, ultimately the universe has said, “It’s all about the food.”
Growing food is hard, hot work. And while I’m busy growing food I spend a lot of time asking myself ‘Why am I not sitting at my computer doing a catalog for a strainer company? Why am I watching my brassicas getting eaten and spending everyday feeling as if I’m never ever caught up to what has to be done in this garden? Why not just get back in that money economy. Why not let someone else do this for me? Why not just be like everybody else?”
I finally accept that for me, that’s not meaningful.
Buddhist monks spend their lives trying to find meaning through meditation. And some people walk the Camino de Santiago trail in Spain trying to find meaning. And some people go to the mall each weekend and search for meaning in stuff they bring home in a bag. Stuff taken from the earth.
In the time I have left, I am going to grow food. It is meaningful. It’s hard and hot and frustrating but there is nothing that can come close to the gratification of being able to fill boxes with the fruits of my labor to share with my CSA members.
If you are reading this as you work at some job that doesn’t seem to be providing you with meaning in your life, it is important for you to avoid thinking that growing food is some sort of ideal. It is tough work. You can’t always control the results. You can’t take a holiday at the time of year when most people are relaxing at their cottage. And if you live in North America and are bombarded by the constant noise of the media reminding you of the importance of saving for your retirement, you will spend a great deal of time freaking out about the fact that you haven’t. That you choose to take one day at a time, and to live the way most humans who ever lived on this planet always have… actually working up until the time you die. And being productive in those final years.
Once you remove yourself from that money economy, you basically say “This will be my life.” There will be no retirement. And that’s OK. No days reading on the dock at the cottage. No mall walking. No trying to find some activity to give those final years meaning. I got off the bandwagon early.
“What am I going to do with the time I have left? I better make it meaningful.”
I will grow food. It is meaningful.