Sunday, December 27, 2015

Fermenting Miso to Prevent Radiation Sickness

I just learned that miso, a traditional Japanese fermented soup, aids the body in expelling heavy metals and radioactive elements, both very toxic things.

Here's an excerpt on miso's anti-radiation properties from Sandor Katz's Wild Fermentation:

One specific health benefit of miso is the protection it provides against exposure to radiation and heavy metals. The research that verified this was conducted in Japan in the wake of the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and grew out of the observations of a Nagasaki physician, Dr. Shinichoro Akizuki. Dr. Akizuki was out of town the day of the bombing, and the hospital where he worked was destroyed. He returned to Nagasaki to treat survivors of the bombing. He and his staff ate miso soup together every day and never experienced any radiation sickness, despite their proximity to the fallout. Dr. Akizuki’s anecdotal account of this experience led to the finding that miso contains an alkaloid called dipicolinic acid that binds with heavy metals and carries them out of the body. In our radioactive world, we could all do with some of that healing.

Miso; image not mine. I'll make some someday - it takes months to years to ferment good miso.

The more I learn about fermenting and the various benefits and tastes of different fermenting traditions, the more excited I am to make it part of my diet. I just made my first kimchi recently, and I've got wines and vinegars coming soon!

Update: I wrote this before I saw Dmitry Orlov's article on the risk of nuclear meltdown in the 19 nuclear reactors in Ukraine as the looting and deindustrialization continue there. I may accelerate my miso-making plans...

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Super quick visual tour of the last 9 months: part 3

This is the third and final quick tour of my time in S. America seeking indigenous community. Here is part 1, and here is part two. I didn't take the pictures, but they represent things I saw.

Visual tour part two ended with my decision to experience a full, extended fast in mid-late July. I first looked for a site on the Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun) in Lake Titicaca between Bolivia and Peru.

Isla del Sol

Red circle shows where the Lake and Isla del Sol are between Bolivia and Peru.
The Isla was a no-go for the fast. Back into Peru I went, and back to Satipo.

Late July, Satipo/Atalaya again
Now I go crazy for a bit, considering going deep into actual wild jungle to do the extended fast and pitching my tent somewhere no one else is. To hell with mosquitos, natives, marxist revolutionaries, peruvian military overflights, miners, loggers, and other obstacles; I wanted to fast in the wild.

I do another round-trip between Satipo and Atalaya in a pickup for 8 hours, looking for a place to just get out and walk into the woods for the fast. I get super sick. A really nice family, whose father I met on the truckride, takes me in and gives me food and a place to sleep for a few nights, saving me from a hostel.

Back in Satipo, I decided to play it a little safer and met someone whose brother owned a chakra, a small farm in the mountains with an unused shed I could stay in. I last a week there fasting before the ants get to me, and I head back into the friendly hostel in Satipo, continuing the fast there. I felt great but weak; I've never packed my gear so slowly before in my life (instances of extended procrastination aside).

Early August, Satipo: The fasting was wonderful. I had nothing to eat nor drink except filtered or boiled water for 2 weeks, and never felt hungry once. 2 years earlier I wouldn't have thought it possible, now I want to fast again and truly finish it. Unfortunately I chose to cut this one off early.

On fasting day 12, after much reflection, I decide to end the search for natives and return to the US. I planned out a way to learn lots of practical skills in Peru in the remaining 2 months before my visa expired, and with a feeling of catharsis, went to bed feeling excited and relieved with my new plan.

Next morning, I met a dude who promised to take me into a real native community. Change of plans again! I'll write more about this guy, Mike, and our time together. If you want a preview, watch a video of him here. He'd visited and supported the Ashaninka for over 3 decades with a deep humility and love for them. We got along great and are still in touch.

But for now, I had 1-2 weeks before he would help me enter an Ashaninka community. Having met a lot of locals in Satipo, I heard lots of complaining about pollution, corruption, crime... you name it. And everyone described a feeling of helplessness. So in my last week, I tried my hand at political/social organizing and create an event, "Neighbors improving their community" (Vecinos Mejorando a su Comunidad). More in a later post, but I invited bunches of restaurants to contribute food/drinks, got free fliers donated, invited probably 200+ people... interesting time. Even had a meeting with the mayor, which roughly corresponded to the start of a 2 week period with, um, flatulence issues. Either I successfully quieted them or the mayor pretended not to notice.

Separately, I got back into knitting, and spent a lot of hours at it and learning from others. Super interesting, more on it later.

Mike gets back to Satipo early with a new friend he'd made, Darlene. The three of us become quick friends during a pickup truck ride to Oventeni, a native community but not the one Mike planned to take me to. We become friends in part because I had uncontrollable flatulence as we traveled in the pickup cab together, and this resulted in much suffering and laughter. Oventeni, like Infierno, had a heavy colonized presence. The natives there seemed in rough shape, having been pushed out of the fertile valley and high into the mountains. Mike, Darlene and I were invited on a 3 hour trip into one of their villages where I got to witness them discussing financial difficulties. They wanted funding to help build a path they could use to get their cacao to market, but only one bank was available and wanted to charge 11% per month for the loan.

Too much to share here in a small recap. Beautiful time and wonderfully generous people; this was my first visit to an uncivilized native community. I ate yucca and wild hunted animal of some sort baked in the ashes and dirt under the family fire and had my first peorentsi, their fermented yucca drink; a rich meal indeed. The community was Ashaninka, similar to the groups I stayed with later.

It also was the first time I met Ashaninkas wearing their native robes. Most were a grey base color with colorful vertical stripes, but a few wore a deep forest green and I found them incredibly attractive. 
The pin shows Satipo; to the NE is Oventeni; east is Puerto Ocopa and further NE is Atalaya.

Late August, into the Ashaninka territory:
While not social organizing, and while not knitting or learning Ashaninka vocab or meeting other Ashaninka or aggressively practicing my Spanish or or or, in that week before entering, I bought tons of gifts for the Ashaninka. Machetes, files, fishing gear, cloth and thread, sling shots, etc.

I won't even try to do the time in native communities justice here. I went in, it was great; exactly what I hoped to experience going to S. America. Mike and an old friend of his Gillian entered with me but left after 1 week, leaving me there for another 1.5-2 weeks with no other non-natives. It was the real deal. I love those people.

Words can hardly describe how powerful this experience was, but I've already started drafting some essays about it. More to come.

I traveled to/from the native Ashaninka territory in a longer version of a boat like this.
Mid September, Atalaya: I start feeling feverish but don't think anything of it. I leave the natives by boat for Puerto Ocopa, weeping repeatedly for the beautiful community and wilderness I'd found and relationships I'd made, and for how that experience reinforced my vision for the human community and natural space I seek for myself and others.

I enjoy a 5 hour bumpy truck ride to Atalaya which includes a 3 hour intensive debate between myself and a Christian missionary. More on this later. I get sicker...

...and sicker. Mornings are great. Afternoons I get a ridiculous cold sensation; I literally bundle in several layers of shirt, sweater, jacket, then bundle into a blanket and go out into the jungle sun, and I still shiver strongly from cold. This lasts a 1-2 hours each afternoon starting between 12:00 and 3:00 PM and is followed by a bad tension headache until 11:00ish PM. I get diagnosed and treated for malaria and a liver infection when I finally go to the hospital 4 days later. Checkin' all the boxes on the jungle experience.

A mosquito. One of'em got me! Actually a lot bit me, but one of'em had a special surprise in store. I'm surprised it took 10 months to get a nasty bug.
I start recovering and head back to Satipo, said goodbye to my friends at the hostel and elsewhere, and head back to Lima to stay with my friend Darlene for a week. Darlene's work kept her too busy to spend much time with me sadly. Only remarkable thing here was that I experienced several minor earthquakes, including one while reading an article on earthquakes.

After 11 months in South America I fly home and arrive 10 days before my family expects me due to a communications mistake. Whoops!

I'll fill in the gaps in these visual tours in future essays.The time inside and out of the native communities was a period of intensive study, introspection, dreaming and growth. More on all this, as well as what's going on now, in future posts. Thanks for sharing this with me.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

When giving a gift: pleasure either way

Have you ever had the experience where someone offers you a gift, and it doesn't suit you for some reason, but you do not feel comfortable letting the other person know this? Perhaps you do not find the clothing attractive or fitting or have no use for the tool or nick-nack, but you suspect the giver would be offended or hurt if they found out?

It seems a major route towards the feeling of being trapped by your material possessions, where “your things own you, you don't own them.”

I plan to give a few hand-made knitted and fermented food gifts over the next few months, and I've been considering how to avoid this issue. I'm considering saying this as I offer the gift:

“I hope this brings you happiness. If you think it would bring someone else more happiness than you, then I offer you the pleasure of giving it to them.”

In this way there is no emotional trap, there is only pleasure – either the pleasure of use, or the pleasure of giving, or perhaps both over time. I like this especially with handmade gifts because there's no pleasure of returning the item to a store for cash back ;)

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Super quick visual tour of the last 9 months: part 2

This post is part two; here's part one. Again, as I didn't have a camera, these images are all from other sources, but represent what I experienced.

I believe the super fast visual tour left off with Seaver and me leaving Lima for La Merced towards Satipo, Peru in early June. Here's a map reminder:
The pin marks Satipo, Peru.
Backing up a bit: Our friend Jess left us to return to Canada in late May as Seaver and I returned to Lima..

A quick comment on Lima: I found it an ugly, trashy, polluted, brown, dangerous, unaesthetic, impoverished, loud, inhuman place. I'd only visit a friend there or use its airport.I met many kind people, and I hope they can escape soon.

Lima as I remember it: brown on the bottom, grey (foggy/cloudy) on top. A few richer areas managed a nicer facade.
Late May / Early June: While stuck dealing with health and bureaucracy troubles in Lima, Seaver and I decided to have fun trying to hustle some money up. So we get the ingredients to make a bunch of caramel sweets which we then walk around Lima selling for a Sol each (about $0.30). We end up meeting some fun people, including 1-2 who even donated a sol without taking a sweet. The cost of the ingredients compared to the total profit and time involved really highlighted the thin profit margin a lot of the street vendors and others live on. Time is not highly valued here.

Early June, La Merced: We get to La Merced which turns out to be as unattractive as every other town in Peru. They get more tolerable as they get smaller though. It didn't help that our hostel room window overlooked a big prison compound; I've learned enough about prisons and faux justice; I didn't need the constant reminder of all the human suffering right there. If you think prisons have anything to do with justice, or are anything other than misery factories and profit centers, this is a decent article to read with good research. I doubt Peru's prisons are any better than the US's.

On the bright side, beautiful mountains with trails and streams surround La Merced, giving it a lovely 'hugged by mountains' feel. Seaver and I enjoyed our first forest hike in a long time, eventually finding a lovely waterfall, which I stood under nude. No picture of that, sorry :( Here's a picture of the river near La Merced:

Perene river near La Merced, Peru

Early June, Satipo: La Merced felt unpleasant even considering moving away from the prison, and we hoped to find a much smaller town in Satipo and perhaps meet natives there. Off we went!

It was funny, we looked at little street map of Satipo that claimed to be up to date; it showed about 5-6 roads and dirt paths going out the side. That must have been 30 years old.

Satipo was several dozen square blocks that looked like this. Way cleaner / less trashy than many other towns though.

Satipo was the first place we visited where we noticed a lot of stares. Tourists like us seemed pretty rare. We got more stares later in Atalaya, but the first impression here wasn't too welcoming. Still, we find a great hostel with outdoors space and grass and trees, and the owner sets up a little stove kitchen when we ask. I'll get to know him and the staff much better later.

After a lot of consideration and discussion, Seaver decides now to head back to the US in time for the Firefly wilderness skills festival. He buys his airline ticket and we decide to enjoy the next 2 weeks together without looking for indigenous particularly, knowing Seaver wouldn't join me there anyway.

Mid-June Satipo, Atalaya, Iquitos

So we spend an evening playing the cooperative video game Age of Empires III for the equivalent of $2 each. Then off to Atalaya, which can be reached by a very bumpy dirt road by pickup. I later learned 75% of the ride can be done by boat for cheaper. For now, we choose the back of the pickup which cost half the fare for riding in the cab.

8 hours in the back of a pickup. Not any more comfortable than it looks, but great views!
We arrive in Atalaya to receive even more stares from locals than in Satipo, and lots of heavily armed military folk on the main corners. Time to move along. We head north on the river for a day, where we board a cargo ship.

Then we take a 3 day 'cruise' in a cargo barge, one of the 'Henry' line of ships. Now, I didn't expect a busy boat, perhaps with a few other travelers snuggled up against big boxes, our fare free money for the operator.

A "Henry" cargo ship from the back.

Two "Henry" cargo ships with their characteristic colors. The ship I took was like the left one.

One whole deck was reserved for human carg-, I mean, people. Luckily Seaver and I boarded early and got good spaces.

Another view of the hammocks aboard the Henry ship.
They really packed in the people. They also fed us alright, and we met some interesting folks. This trip took us along the Ucayali river which eventually became the Amazon River by our last day.

Iquitos... I feel silly and whiny saying this again, but what a sad, dirty place. The largest city in the world with no road access, it's got >300K people packed into a tight tight space, and is mostly supported by ugly, violent and dirty resource extraction. I've never seen markets packed with stalls in such tiny spaces, and it was the dirtiest market I saw in S. America.

Iquitos near main "Belen" market.

No exaggeration here; this is what it looks like after the market closes or is shut for a day, and the rain just makes it nastier.
Not all of Iquitos was this bad; the rest of the town was mostly like the rest of civilized Peru. Two signs of poverty that Iquitos was in rough shape: 1) Often in a crowded market in other Peruvian towns, a main store would exist in a concrete building and then a stall with a tarp ceiling would jut out onto a sidewalk in front of it. I literally saw stalls in this market 4 deep, spilling onto the middle of the small road. 2) With the desperate search for a living, hustling got really difficult. It was common to see the concrete-store food vendors sell bags of crackers by the 10 pounds, then see a street vendor sell a hand-wrapped bag of 10 crackers, then see another vendor even poorer sell the crackers individually for a few cents. Food was also quite cheap but heavy on the white rice at the low-priced end.

Late June, Lima, again: Seaver and I enjoy a pizza and beer on our last night traveling together, taking it back to our hostel on the roof. The next morning we wish each other well and part ways for the time being.

No more pictures or rants about Lima.

Late June, La Paz, Bolivia: I go to Bolivia just to return to Peru and get a new 3 month visa. I had trouble in Bolivia, losing access to my debit card until my bank could send a replacement, and totally lucked out. I'll be forever grateful; I was in a frustrated mood at an internet cafe dealing with computer troubles and bank troubles, and a man and womanoverheard me and stepped outside. Unknown to me,  this married couple discussed how well America had treated them during their stay and how they wanted to repay it, and decided helping me would be a good Christian thing to do. The woman called her mother for another opinion. Eventually they invited me to sleep in their home that night and set me up with some cash for the week, as I didn't have enough for a hostel for the time it would take the bank to send the card. I'd planned to offer to work-trade at a hostel while I waited, but what a relief to not have to worry about that.

Seriously, the family invited a stranger into their home, then gave him (me) cash and accepted my promise to return with repayment once my card arrived. They invited me back for dinner anytime, and I dropped by half a week later with a surprise meal I'd made, and then again once I had the money to repay them. The woman had a look of relief and gratitude when I gave her the money; I could tell it was important to her to help me, but she'd felt stress over giving a stranger cash like she did. I was glad to make friends with the family, not least for the stress and hassle they saved me.

At this point, I desired a rest from all the constant pushing and learning and meeting people, and I decided to seek out a place to do an extended fast.

I'll end part two here; visual tour part 3 will be ready soon!

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Meeting a spiritual descendent of a woman Jesus praised

In Satipo, Peru, I met the spiritual descendent of a woman famous in Christian history. One story of Jesus describes him watching people give donations at a church. Various wealthy people give huge sums, and one impoverished woman goes to the box and donates 2 cents, the sum total of her wealth. As I learned in Sunday School, Jesus says that though others gave more, they gave a small proportion of their wealth and gave so that they could be seen as generous, while this woman had given everything and with no thoughts for appearances. Jesus said he appreciated her offering far more than the others'.

I met a man just like this woman.

Here's the story: I got it in my head, with a week to go before entering an indigenous community, to try my hand at social / political organizing. Perhaps I'll share the whole story another time, but in short: many local Peruvians had expressed frustration with their society and said they felt helpless to respond to its problems like crime, trash on the roads, pollution, and especially corruption. I organized a gathering one Sunday morning with breakfast and lunch freely donated by local restaurants where locals could come, eat together, do a work project together to clean trash from their roads, eat again for free with more donated food and drinks, and hopefully make connections with other caring citizens so they could begin to address their common concerns about their community.

I went all over the town with fliers (designed by me and donated by printing shops) and received a huge outpouring of gratitude and excitement. As I went through the market inviting people and their families, I was given so many gifts: coconuts, many bananas, apples, whole lunches w/soup, mangoes, drinks, and more - I kept a list of my gifts, and it ended up quite long! And almost everyone excitedly promised to come and bring their family, as well as put up my flier in their market stall.

Tired after pitching the event for several hours one afternoon, I walked back to the hostel along the main road and stopped at a roadside juice cart. I recognized the man who ran it, having walked past him many times. About 5'6", he had a thin scraggly beard and his wrinkled brown skin showed he received a lot of sun. I knew this also because he only had one large faded umbrella for cover, and this covered the customer's stools so that when the hot jungle sun really beat down, he would be completely exposed. Only the customers could have shade. And he sold frozen fruit drinks with ice he kept in a cooler for 50 Peruvian cents per drink: the equivalent of about 15 US cents each.

Asking for a drink and sitting down, and I started sharing my project with him and invited him to participate. He said he really liked the event idea, and wanted to participate, but he could not leave his drink cart. Sunday morning, the day of the event, was a big sales period for him, and he could not afford to miss it.

While inviting people, I remained sensitive to how incredibly long hours these folks worked, and for how little money each day. It seemed common to assume tall white foreigners were rich, and so all afternoon, while inviting others, I had been searching for a graceful way of replying to this objection that acknowledged the other person's needs and circumstances while avoiding any potential triggers or offensive assumptions.

I responded, "I appreciate that. However, many neighbors here who work long hours also deeply desire to find other caring people with whom they can improve their community, and I know they would love to meet you and become friends. Then you could bring real change, rather than wait for politicians."

I'll never forget his response. He looked me in the eye and said, "I am a slave to this cart. I cannot leave it."

No one else had explicitly acknowledged that level of economic destitution to me. I looked back at him, smiled, and nodded my head. After a minute, I said thank you as I got up to go. I don't know whether I was thanking him for his openness or the drink. Maybe both. I pulled out 50 cents and handed it to him.

And he wouldn't take it.

The man who acknowledged being a slave to his drink cart insisted on gifting me the drink.

I felt short of breath and said, "Sir -," and he turned away to serve someone else who'd just driven up to his cart.

When he turned back a moment later, he glanced at me, and I just said thanks and walked away. I received his proverbial 2 cents, maybe in thanks for what I tried to do for his community, or maybe just for connecting with him.

I don't think I've ever received such a humbling gift.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Super quick visual tour of the last 9 months: part 1

Some friends were bugging me to write more back in May-June, and just as I was about to post another update here, I lost access to this email account until I returned to the States. Bummer! Here's a quick summary of March->October, when I returned, and I'll fill in details later...

Mid-March: I left the indigenous family I stayed with in the Ecuadorian jungle; my friend Seaver and I headed to a small town called Pisac. Pisac is full of hippie people... the sort that give other hippies a bad name. I got invited to an astrology class and bit my tongue really hard the whole time.
(none of these pictures are mine, but I was there, honest)
Mountains give Pisac a big hug on all sides.

In case I had humility issues, these ruins are actually from multiple civilizations, each of which rose, left its mark, and then disappeared. Right next to Pisac.

To give an idea of scale, each of those terrace walls is taller than me ( >6 feet!) made with huge rocks dragged from all over the valley.

End-March: My friends Seaver and Jess and I leave Pisac, a small town outside the large city of Cusco, and head for Puerto Maldonado in SE Peru
Cusco, the major city near Pisac, is in south-central Peru. Puerto Maldonado, where I went next, is to the east of it.

April-May: Puerto Maldonado / Infierno. Puerto Maldonado is the sort of city that prompts the comment, "Wow, I thought that last city was the armpit of Peru." Sadly, several Peruvian cities are like that.

Welcome to Puerto Maldonado! The road above actually looks less trashy than I remember it.

We headed to a small, officially designated "Native Community" south of Puerto Maldonado. You know your conquerers respect your culture when they name your town "Infierno" (in English: Inferno, i.e. Hell) and call you "Salvajes" (savages). I can imagine the conversation: "Where did you grow up?" "I'm from Hell." Also, just to add insult to insult, the province's name is "Madre de Dios" (Mother of God). Just like I might say I'm from "Asheville, North Carolina, USA", the name of this native town, translated, is "Hell, Mother of God, Peru." We stay with a local 'shaman', but it's not a super warm place. His spiritual warmth seemed to vary in proportion to the likelihood of us paying him more. Hmm.

Skipping a lot of details... my friends and I thought we found a welcoming native community about 8 hours upriver from Infierno, but we were wrong.  I actually had the proverbial "surrounded by a bunch of angry natives with machetes" moment. After a heated 45 minutes, the 8-9 men and surrounding women/kids decided not to get violent, for which I was grateful. I had it easier than the 2 friends I was with: I at least spoke 6-month-old Spanish and could understand and respond to the natives. My friends' Spanish was poor, so they only recognized that things weren't going great. Which was an accurate recognition.

No boat ride was too long with this view! Now compare this with the picture of a major Peruvian city above.

May: I order a Kindle and coconut oil online which get impounded by the Peruvian government. According to the gov't, I need a medical prescription for coconut oil! Approximately 5,000 doctors laugh at me trying post-hoc to get a prescription for it. Also, Seaver has medical trouble, so we leave for Lima to take care of both these things, though not before meeting a bunch of clown dentists in Puerto Maldonado. Lack of patient understanding and consent is no barrier to intensive drilling for these doctors, no-sir-ee. Happily, we prevent any major/unrecoverable medical errors and things are taken care of in Lima.

May-June: We head east from Lima to La Merced and then Satipo.We'd heard there were less-civilized natives in this area, which was confirmed by a news report of someone finding a body in a boat floating down the river, the body having an arrow sticking out of it. Off we went!

The pin marks Satipo. You can see Cusco and Puerto Maldonado to the south east of Satipo.

[Then our protagonist gets tired and decides to write Part II soon, wherein he does an extended fast, gives up on finding the sort of indigenous community he sought, finds it and lives with wild, beautiful human beings for some time, catches malaria, doesn't feel so good in strange ways, gets better, and returns to the US, among other things.]

Monday, March 23, 2015

Notes from my first indigenous integration: part 2

Below is a letter I wrote a friend about my last week with the Shuar family. 

The candle comes out
I brought your last email back to my hut in the woods. If you can imagine, it was late at night with the rain coming down outside, Seaver and I both laying on our backs looking up at the barely-lit ceiling, talking of things large and small. I said I'd gotten an email from you and read it to him to share your vision for the Permaculture/poetry fusion - we're both psyched about your poetry ideas. I really hope you get a chance to share those with students.

Now, even though we had a candle, we were actually using a telephone flash to light our room that night since we were keeping our candle in the family eating area. Monday of that week, our last week there, the electricity had gone out at the house and in an instant, totally changed our experience with the family. We brought our candle in to eat dinner by, and the vibe completely changed. Usually the mother and her daughters, about our age, brought in our food and then left to eat and talk in the kitchen. Usually, two very bright white lightbulbs sterilized the eating area and kitchen of any normal human nighttime feelings. Not that night!

When we brought the candle out, the mother as usual went back to the kitchen to eat. After failing to get her to join us over dinner several times, I decided I wouldn't fail tonight. I went to her in the kitchen where it was pitch black and she was eating on a bench, awkwardly reaching over to the side for the food, her back to the wall and all by herself. This time it didn't take much prodding, and she finally joined us! The kids' vibe totally changed with the single candlelight too; the annoying energy, the attention-seeking, the rambunctiousness all dissipated. Instead, I asked one or two questions of the Mom to try to really know her and the family better, and in the candlelight she just poured out her life story to us! I'll never forget the power of firelight to bring people together.

She shared how she'd already had 2 children when she met her current husband and married him at 14. He was already married, and she didn't like and has never gotten along with his other wife, but she needed to feed her children. 10 more kids later, now she has 12, and her husband has been unreliable at times, making it hard for her to send her kids to school and feed them. While we were there, we saw one kid miss school a few times because he didn't have 50c for the bus, and imagining that going on for 3 decades was hard, especially as the other wife seemed to get more attention.

It also explained how the family was being civilized. The mother couldn't teach her kids everything they needed to fully function in their ecosystem, and the father wasn't around much.  The mother's main strategy, being mostly separated from other families and a whole culture, was to get her kids into school and into paying jobs. In this context, the civilizing process made total sense. It also explained why the girls seemed better adjusted than the boys, as she could mentor them and be a mother figure for them, but the boys had less of a father figure.

When companies are incentivized to pollute
Every night that week, even after the electricity came on, I convinced the family to turn the lights out, and the stories kept flooding out of them. And wow, this challenged my Spanish! The father talked about how hard it was negotiating with the government since their environment was so polluted that many communities actually depended on the government to provide clean water. I realized that for some companies, their waste wasn't waste at all: if they dump toxic sludge in the right river, 200 miles downstream a whole indigenous nation will be bent to the will of the corporate state which they'll depend on for water and the ability to work for money to replace the lost food from the river.  Recognizing that a corporation and government could view pollution as a major positive, enabling large work-programs and resource extraction by destroying indigenous resistance, was a hard moment for me.

Still, it's important to recognize when you're fucked. If I'm ever in such a situation, I don't want to let the pollution happen and wait months to years to defend my own little plot of land. I need to recognize that the negotiating leverage is lost when I become dependent on the forces threatening my land and family. We simply must not get to that point. Obviously I don't mean to put down this indigenous group or any of the other thousands that have been screwed in this way. I just need to learn every lesson I can so as not to repeat such mistakes.

How cultures break down
Another night, I asked the mother about how different things were now compared to when she was young. She said there were hardly any group ceremonies or activities anymore. I asked her why, and she said that it used to be common for people to come together when someone fell ill. A few people would come together to prepare or administer a medicine, properly blessed, and the rest of the community would gather to lend their collective support to the sick. When people started going to hospitals and using doctors, this major source of community togetherness was lost, as was some of the medicinal plant knowledge.

5 years ago, I'd have thought, "So what? Those people weren't having any physical impact on the illness anyway!" But consider how much they gained with that tradition of group support for the infirm:
  1. People's feelings actually do affect their ability to come back from illness. Knowing that you had the love and support of your tribe, that they would all take time out of their lives to be there with you, must have been incredibly strengthening.
  2. Similarly, knowing that the spirits, however the Shuar conceived of them, were working in their favor, must also have been a great aid to the ill.
  3. The sick became incredibly grateful to the community, reinforcing bonds between people.
  4. Community members who might see each other much came together to do something incredibly meaningful, having face-to-face time to talk, laugh, and do whatever else they did during these gatherings. For a culture that's traditionally very separated (totally independent at the household level), this must have been so important.
The list could go on, but the point is that this was all lost when the missionaries and well-meaning civilized got their way. Of course, depending on expensive doctors and hospitals only made them further dependent on the money economy rather than each other and their ecosystem.

The next step
Seaver and I are in Pisac, Peru now, on our way into the Peruvian jungle. We did lots of research to find relatively intact indigenous communities that still believe in 'partible paternity', the cultural belief that children can have multiple fathers. Based on our research, this seemed to be a good proxy question for a community that practiced some degree of polyamory, respected women (as they could be polyandrous too), had group-parenting, and generally functioned well as a whole, rather than a collection of separate nuclear families. We identified 4-5 of these in southeastern Peru, and after a short stop here in Pisac, (we've been on buses or in obnoxious cities for 4 days straight with no night's sleep outside a bus) we're headed further to the jungle.

By the way, I found an amazing deal: 35 Peruvian soles, or <$12 for a 20-ish hour bus ride. The next highest-cost bus line charged 70 soles, and others' prices were even higher. A friendly tip: don't go for such an outrageously low deal if you don't want to be packed on the bus like a teeny-tiny sardine! On reaching our destination poorly rested, we blew the money we'd saved on a nice meal to recharge and apologize to our bodies for treating ourselves that way! Seaver and I are good at taking all this in good humor though, so we've enjoyed the journey even when there might seem to be much to complain about.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Notes from my first indigenous integration: part 1

From mid-February to mid-March, my friend Seaver and I lived with an indigenous Shuar family in the jungle of Ecuador near Puyo. Read some background info on the Shuar here and here.  They offered to treat as a member of the family as much as possible, and in return we offered to work for them in various ways and paid a small amount of money.

The marker is over Puyo, Ecuador. The Shuar family I stayed with lived about an hour's bus-ride south east from there.

My overall goal in this adventure is to learn to live indigenously as part of a healthy, complete human community. Of course, I'm still spending a lot of time figuring out what that even means in practice. I knew going into this experience that the family wasn't fully indigenous - they depended substantially on the money economy, not living fully inside their ecosystem - but I hoped I could still learn a lot and use the time to decide where next to go. Below are some notes on the experience written about 2-2.5 weeks into the month-long stay, so references to 'yesterday' or 'last week' aren't correct as of the date I'm posting this blog entry.

Clear-cutting the Jungle
This experience with the Shuar has been mixed - really good in some ways, saddening in others. The government is threatening the family with taking a large chunk of their land with no compensation whatsoever. They own 250 hectares, which I believe is about 500-750 acres. Apparently a lot of families have large-ish amounts of land, and the gov't wants to redistribute the uncultivated parts to other families who will farm the land more intensively. The family's plan is to put homes at various edges of their property, make up a 'community', and then give the land title to the community. Then, since, the family has 12 kids, they'd invite their grown kids to live there. It's not a very subtle plan: the community name is the family's last name. Still, at first I was excited to help with a meaningful project, thinking I'd be helping with construction in addition to learning indigenous skills. It hasn't worked out that way!

I woke up last Monday morning to the sound of a chainsaw. Instead of spending the week on construction, the parents brought in a nephew to clear-cut a large chunk of their forest to sell the wood for money. They asked Seaver and me to help clear the brush, mark the trees, and move the wood. A couple points on this:

a) They say they're going to plant useful trees afterwards, but I've seen their food-forest areas, and those areas are still actual networked ecosystems with trees of various ages and plant diversity. In this new large clearing, all the old trees are gone and the old trees took out many of the young when they fell. The understory was completely cleared to prepare for cutting+hauling. Watching the felling as I smelled the exhaust of the chainsaw, I couldn't tell which made me more nauseous.

b) The family really seems to lack respect for the non-humans and the land. They used horses to haul the heavier pieces of wood, but they tied the wood to the animals in a way that left large gouges in their legs as they took the wood to the road. Sometimes the wood would knock against their heads - and we're talking about a few hundred pounds of wood here!

c) the wood is ridiculously cheap, so they're hardly making any money destroying part of their jungle. They're receiving about $7/tree for clearing the brush, felling, cutting with a chainsaw, hauling out of the forest by human or horse labor, and then stacking on the road.

d) They really don't care for their paths. The horses cause massive amounts of erosion the way they're used, so paths on hills often have 1 foot or greater 'cliffs' of mud, and it's common if you're not careful for your boot to fall a foot deep into mud even on a relatively flat trail. The horses and the rain just destroy them. They don't really build many bridges or do much trail maintenance.

One view of the clear-cutting. I wish I had better pictures: we cleared out the underbrush with machetes then felled the large trees, which took out the smaller ones on the way down.

The family has mentioned repeatedly that they need money to send their kids to school, especially for bus fare. The youngest kid apparently stayed home yesterday because they lacked bus fare, so apparently they're scraping the bottom (although there are signs of asymmetric investment in their children, so it's hard to tell) . Still, they were cutting down 70-year old trees for pennies an hour - I really wanted to ask more, to learn if this is part of some transition strategy towards not needing money or towards being able to protect their land more effectively, but between the sensitivity of the issue and the difficulty in understanding their complex answers, I've only been able to gather little bits and pieces. Last night I tried to ask the father why the kids weren't taught to hunt and tramp, and he interrupted my second or third question urging me to keep eating. Even before that point in the meal, he looked very tired or burdened, and his look intensified after that. He, Seaver and didn't talk the rest of the night.
Another view of the clear-cutting.

It's clear the family's already well on the path towards being civilized, treating both the land and the horses as commodities rather than allies. Seaver and I have had some good conversations about this, which has helped us deal with it. After the first day, we decided not to help anymore in the clear cutting, though we've helped move the wood. We didn't come to help kill the jungle.

An evangelical wedding in the jungle

We even got invited to a wedding - an evangelical wedding! It was easily the worst wedding I've ever been to. It had all the trappings of a normal Christian wedding: groom in tux, bride in white dress, priest-type person looking self-important. But it was like they learned about weddings from a book that they couldn't translate very well! The bride's private 'waiting room' ahead of the ceremony was the back seat of a taxi. The sound-system was so bad that the the priest's words were unintelligible, as were the words of the singer/guitar player. Sometimes people clapped with the guitarist, but their clapping so was so out-of-time that sometimes a row of 5 people would seem to be applauding rather than clapping on the beat - pretty funny to watch! Much of the music wasn't live though, with recorded music being blasted on bad speakers as the bridal party entered.

Even worse, no one looked happy! The bride looked miserable the whole time, and the groom looked like he wanted to hurt someone. Sometimes there was smiling and laughter in the audience, but only because kids were joking amongst themselves, not because the ceremony and the prospect of a lifelong marriage made anyone happy for the couple. I'm hoping to see a more traditional ceremony at some point.

Finding indigenous knowledge with plant-based medicines
There are still plenty of signs of indigenous-knowledge though. Seaver had a bad toothache a few nights ago, and we told the Mom, hoping to learn about indigenous medicine. She asked a question or two, walked to a tree about 50 feet from the house, scraped the bark, gave it to Seaver - and it worked, though it tasted pretty bad. I've really been studying plant-based medicine for the last few months, though it's been frustrating reading from a book without either being able to work with a mentor or practice what I'm learning. I'd hoped to learn from the mom here, but she doesn't seem to store medicines, only harvesting when someone needs them. Thus, it's been impossible to learn while working alongside her, and a single plant walk or discussion wouldn't really be that valuable. It's the same problem I had at Earthaven: I want a long-term hands-on integrated mentorship/learning situation supplemented by books, not a self-taught book-based education supplemented by occasional plant walks.

Making connections
I've been connecting well-enough with the kids, becoming friends in some ways, but the mother has been somewhat standoffish and the father's hardly been around. All of the girls my age give or take a few years have at least a few kids and tend to congregate with the mother in the kitchen when they come to visit (part of a trend of sexism or stark gender roles I've seen), making it hard to connect with girls in the area. The families are also quite spread out, so we don't really meet folks outside the family here. It's been challenging not really being able to connect with anyone at the depth I'd like and that I'd hoped for joining an indigenous family. Still, I'm practicing being open and connecting as much as others others are open, and that feels good.
The kids loved it when I was there "Caballo" - horse. My record was 4 kids in one ride!

Sometimes boarding the horse was difficult.
Practicing experiential learning
I'm excited for what I'm learning too, and I feel more allied with plants all the time. I've started doing more personal explorations: picking leaves to crush and smell them and test for whether they could be repellants or teas, testing wood I find for how well it could burn or be used in traps, and just generally trying to experientially learn rather than go through books or even other people. I've even started developing my own names for plants so that I don't have to wait until the right book or person comes along to name them for me - this really helps me see relationships among the plants (i.e. Long Feather Leaf here always seems to grow next to Good Toilet Paper Leaf).

Teaching self-defense and group-learning
Seaver and I decided to start doing regular self-defense training based on my previous experience with one particular school of self-defense called Krav Maga. We invited the older kids to join us, and the first practice this week we had a 17 year old and two 15ish-year olds plus Seaver and me.

This has been a really powerful experience for me, even in just the first few practices. None of the students have any formal experience (or, any experience at all) with self-defense, so I've been the only leader in the class. At the beginning of the first class, I had us 'mow the lawn', cutting the grass with machetes as a group to make space to grow together. Then I set a container for us to learn in (a container, roughly, is a clear statement of the context of a gathering: why we're here, what we're doing, what we must remain conscious of, values we're upholding and so on). I said the following in both English and Spanish:

We're not just here to learn to fight. We're here to learn how to defend ourselves, our families, and our land. We're here to understand ourselves better - mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.  We're here to become more courageous and confident and strong. 

Among other things, adults have the wisdom and ability to know when and how to fight. Communities depend on adults to protect what each community depends on: the land, the children, and the spirit of the community.

We're here to become adults and fulfill this role.

Being the mentor has really pushed me! I've never led a group in this way before. Not only am I teaching particular stances and movements, but I'm also teaching the principles to allow each person to adapt the techniques to their own body, and to continue learning even after I leave. Also, I have only 6 months' experience with Krav and no instructor training (which I was clear about with the others), so I had to take a lot of care in preparing each class to ensure I got all the principles, motions, etc correct. Luckily I have a Krav handbook to help review. Oh yeah, and since my friend doesn't speak much Spanish yet, I'm constantly bouncing back and forth between Spanish and English, generally explaining each thing twice. This has really helped my Spanish, and much of my class prep is spent learning Spanish so I can teach better.

This Shuar community has a history of being able to fight to defend themselves, but now almost no children learn self-defense or how to hunt. I asked the 17 year-old, Edgar, about this and he said this was because there aren't any teachers, and if there were, tons of kids would want to learn self-defense!

It's very important that we be able to self-teach even when there's no coach available, and so I'm helping each individual become a competent teacher in their own right. In addition to the self-defense techniques themselves, I've been emphasizing self-teaching and group-teaching in the sessions. At the beginning of each session, I have each participant come to the front and review something we learned or practiced the previous time, teaching the group how to do it again.  Then we all constructively critique the review and I ensure no one learns something wrong.

I often ask folks to self-evaluate after a drill: what did you feel while you were doing that? What can you improve? Since we're often working in groups of 3, I'll also ask for feedback from the person resting, putting him in a position of teacher. (I've asked girls to join us, but so far none are interested.) I ask for feedback about myself too and accept it graciously, making it clear that there's no dominant and unlistening alpha male at the top of an hierarchy (like in many classrooms) but a group working together for the benefit of all. For the time being, I merely happen to know much more than the rest, and so I lead, set the container, teach, etc. I really think learning without a qualified coach is going to be the norm in my life rather than the exception, so learning how to self-teach and helping others learn that is a beautiful thing to practice here.

I've actually reflected on child-rearing when thinking about how I want to lead this sort of group. I treat the others as I hope to treat my own children someday, helping them grow as fast as they're willing and able. I'm not just teaching the skills and exercising their bodies, but making each student into a teacher and leader and critical thinker in self-defense and in working with others constructively. I think this mode of teaching is really important for the kinds of community I want to be part of, where each member is strong and leaders help others grow as much as they can and in whatever direction each learner is ready for.

Both Seaver and Edgar have said they're really happy with the sessions so far, so I'm excited to continue making this happen!

Starting trapping again
Seaver and I also started trapping again yesterday, beginning with armadillos. Trapping seems like a great way to really learn about all the life in an area: it forces me off the beaten paths, to look from the perspective of different animals, and understand the animals as if I lived like they do (what do they eat? where do they live? what paths do they travel?). Even though my goal is take a life so that I can eat, I embrace the predator-prey relationship: If I eat the flesh of another, I take responsibility for ensuring that its community lives on. As I develop this relationship with more and more plants and animals, I become an ally to more and more of the wild all around me.  Even after all I've gone through and how much I've changed, I still feel like this nature connection is just a bright candle now on its way to being a roaring fire in my heart as I learn to live in a healthy community and in mutual relationship with the land!

End part 1
It's hard to write about this first indigenous integration experience - there were so many stories and so many things I learned or reflected on, I just don't have time to write about it all. Still, I'll share some more experiences soon!

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Correlation, Causation, and Spirituality

I've been itching to share this story for a long time!

I entered one of the gardens in the homestead where I lived at Earthaven Ecovillage one morning last Spring, and I found a friend and roommate, Allie, about to move a flower from one bed to another.

As I walked up, she placed shovel a few inches from the base of the plant, paused, and said, "Dear beautiful flower, I'm SO sorry to move you from your home, but it's for your own good - it's so crowded here that you couldn't possibly grow up healthfully and share your gifts with the garden. I'll move you to where you can share your gifts! This is going to be hard on you, but I'll be careful and it won't take long, I promise!"

Now by this time at the ecovillage, I was quite used to people talking to plants as if they were people, so this didn't bother me in the least.

She carefully pushed her shovel vertically into the soil perpendicular to the plant and a few inches from it, and she gently rocked the shovel back and forth. Then she did the same thing 3 more times around the plant, forming a square around it. Then she dug into the ground where she first started and this time got underneath the plant, bringing it slowly out of the ground with a lot of the surrounding soil, keeping the roots intact. She carried the plant over to its new home in a nearby bed in a hole she'd prepared a little earlier and watered it.

After saying hi, I asked: "I have a question. Do you think that plant can hear you? Do you think it responds to what you say?"

"Yes!" she answered. She said it could, even without ears. Whether it heard the sound waves or responded to the intention or tapped into some shared universal energy, she wasn't sure, but one way or another she believed we are all connected, and the plant certainly responded to what she said.

I started to ask the sort of questions a civilized engineer naturally would: "How do you know? How does it receive and process the message?" Etc. And I didn't get very compelling answers, at least to me - as far as I could tell, she simply felt deeply emotionally attached to the plant and to life as a whole, and treated plants like she would treat a baby: as animate beings that have inherent value, even if they can't talk back or obviously demonstrate that they understand some particular message.

And then it occurred to me: maybe it doesn't matter if the plant can hear her or not! Putting aside the possibility that the plant could somehow actually respond to her verbally-expressed feelings, what if her deep caring for the plant, and her spoken promise to take care of it, and her spoken description of why she was moving it, all lead her to take REALLY REALLY special care when she moved it, much more care than a normal gardener who merely thinks a flower is pretty and would cost $0.95 to replace?

I bet her transplanted plants survive much more often than most people's! And I bet her gardens in general are much richer, producing more food, more beauty, and sustaining more nearby life.

This turned me on to a whole new way of looking at belief: that it's not necessarily the content of the belief that matters, but how that belief makes us behave. Allie's belief had a beneficial impact whether it was correct or not.

In correlation/causation terms, assuming the plant couldn't actually perceive her words, the cause of the plant's better odds of surviving the move wasn't that it heard her. The cause was Allie's feelings, and how they lead her to feel so connected to the plant that she treated it with the same care as she would a baby. So her belief system is highly correlated with successful gardening, even if she's wrong about the ultimate cause of her success.

Craziness! It's possible to mix up causation and correlation, but to our benefit. The more I looked, the more cool examples of this I found.

False Plant 'Beliefs'
Here's a non-human example of mixing up correlation and causation: I learned that some plants' stomata - the little pores on the surface of leaves that open in the morning to allow the leaf to take in water vapor and other gases, and then close later in the day - don't open in response to sunlight even though they open at dawn every morning.

A close-up of stomata, little pores on leaves that allow them to emit or take in gases. One is shown closed, the other open. (Source)

Instead, they open in response to bird song. That is, plants need to open their stomata at dawn when there's dew, but they don't depend on what you'd think is the most reliable indicator of dawn: the sun. Instead they depend on something highly correlated with the sun, bird song. As I mentioned in a previous post, birds have been around for 10s of millions of years, and the planet has been experiencing their song continuously the whole time as the sun is continuously dawning somewhere around the world. It's even easy to imagine that bird songs are more reliable than sunlight: clouds can block the sun, but what could block the songs of thousands of birds all over the forest every morning?

For any gardeners out there, here is a bird-song-simulator used to increase plant-growth.

So we see that the cause of the plant's behavior isn't actually what's good for them (i.e. bird song doesn't make plants better off in any direct way), but it's highly correlated with something that does help them (sunlight bringing the morning dew), so they do just fine responding to that.

The Natives' Rain Dance
We've all heard of the rain dance - a bunch of Native Americans gather in a big open space and dance around in funny clothes, making lots of noise praying to some deity to make it pour. And this is supposed to bring rain somehow, those silly injuns!

Actually, this worked.

The Natives didn't dance just anywhere. They would go up to clearings on mountain tops, and since it was dry, these clearings would be very dusty, and since they were high, there'd be plenty of wind.

 Rain dance of a pueblo group from the US southwest. (Source)

The Natives' dance was very energetic, and the bright clothes and loud drums and singing and music would help maintain their energy as they danced. It included lots of scuffling and stomping, kicking up huge clouds of dust high into the sky where the dust particles would form nuclei where water would condense, eventually forming rain drops and bringing rain!

Now, I'm sure their dances didn't always bring rain, just like Allie's transplants don't always live, but their dances sure increased the odds of rain dramatically. Did it matter which god they worshiped? Or whether they dressed in the particular clothes associated with that deity? No, but what did matter is they had a belief system that caused them to act in their own best interest, especially during hard times like droughts. Essentially, they rationalized good behavior.

False-But-Beneficial Beliefs in Civilization
These false-but-beneficial beliefs are also common in civilization. Have you ever had a friend who stated emphatically, "I don't believe in luck!" or "I make my own luck."? Such people are usually independent, confident, and comfortable dealing with risks and bouncing back from failures.

Here's my definition of luck: luck is the degree to which events totally outside your control affect your life at a given time. Bad luck example: starting a mortgage company in Spring 2007, right before the housing bubble crash. Good luck example: starting a debt restructuring company in Spring 2007, right before the housing bubble crash (all assuming you weren't able to see the crash coming). Thus we see luck does exist - things outside our control can affect us.

So this hypothetical person is wrong - luck exists, and it can't be manufactured. However, many opportunities exist completely outside our ability to perceive them. We can influence the odds of finding these opportunities even while we're unaware of them - even before the opportunities exist! -  and this is where those positive qualities come in handy.

A personal example showing hidden or unknowable opportunities: I got bored during my first few weeks of college and decided to learn a programming language better by writing a little planner program. I could enter in appointments and it would spit them back out. During my one and only interview that semester, 3 weeks into college (fall 2004), I got interviewed by a company solely interested in freshman interns they could train up, and my doing that program 'just for fun' was enough evidence that I had a passion for the work that they hired me. I ended up interning there 3 times and working at the company for 3 years after college. In fall 2011, the same guy that interviewed me in 2004 invited me to lunch and offered me a spot at his new company, which I happily accepted.

And to think none of this would have happened if I hadn't gotten bored and written a silly little program back in the first few weeks of college in 2004!

I obviously believe in luck, but my point is that people can influence opportunities they can't perceive, and so having those qualities associated with false disbelief in luck makes those people more likely to find those hidden opportunities.

These false-but-beneficial beliefs occur at the level of whole countries or civilizations - take the western civilization belief in growth, particularly technological growth. The common, received wisdom is that our society may have problems, but it can solve them with economic growth - we can create more wealth, cure more diseases, reduce unemployment and poverty, and generally become more prosperous if only we can 'grow' more; practically speaking, if we can just increase economic production and consumption. And the way to achieve this growth is to generate better technologies or processes that improve our efficiency, allow us access to new resources, give us some new capability, or whatever.

And for a really long time, this has seemed to be true: economic growth has been staggering for a few centuries, and technological improvements have both enabled this growth and improved the quality of life of many societies that engaged in this growth.

The trouble is, this belief is only partially true: it was our technology combined with the incredibly energy-rich resources in the ground (oil, coal, etc) that enabled this growth. Nature gave us unbelievable returns-on-investment a century ago, when we could invest a barrel of energy in drilling and get 100 barrels out (a 100:1 energy return on energy invested, or EROEI). Now, projects like the Alberta Tar Sands require a barrel of oil to get just 3 barrels out (3:1 EROEI). Ethanol (using corn as an energy source) yields 1 barrel-of-oil-equivalent for every barrel-equivalent invested (1:1 EROEI, basically a waste of time, or a needless political handout to farming interests).

A chart showing the diminishing returns of our energy-extraction abilities over time. (Source)
For more details on this idea, see Peak Prosperity's Crash Course which ties together environmental, economic, and energy issues to describe how this energy cliff manifests.
These days, the culture maintains this faith in technology and growth even though we've used up all the easy-to-extract energy and are now seeing severely diminishing returns. No technology can possibly find energy-rich resources that don't exist - no technology can enable infinite growth on a finite planet.

Two centuries ago, societies that didn't believe in (or value) technology-focused growth got blown away by societies that did: the natives didn't stand a chance against the USA. Now this false-but-beneficial belief in our technology-driven growth and capitalist system is becoming false-but-non-beneficial: with less growth in energy available, and soon less energy available in in an absolute sense, meaningful economic growth is going to end, and our totally growth-oriented society is going to get really mad - consider that our monetary system is debt-based, requiring economic growth to stay solvent, and think of all the pensions and retirement systems that require economic growth (driving bond and stock market growth) to pay their owners, among many other examples.

Coming Up With Our Own Stories
So what should we believe? Another friend from Earthaven, Chris, described a narrative he hopes to encourage after civilization passes its peak energy usage and begins its energy descent: the story is that humans sinned in the past and that we are responsible for recovering from their mistakes, for rebuilding the beautiful life ecosystems they didn't sufficiently appreciate.

This story accounts for all the poisoned and damned/dammed rivers, the infertile soil, the highly variable and changing climate, logged ex-forests, highly thinned or extinct populations of fish and large animals, higher-intensity and more damaging storms, huge amounts of trash, etc that future-people will have to deal with. In fact, eventually this degraded state will seem normal, with only the remnants of an incredibly energy-intensive civilization scattered around the landscape to make people wonder what happened. And so Chris's vision is for us to return to being stewards using a redemption narrative to see ourselves in a positive role, free of guilt or shame, but doing the most important work we can be doing: sustaining the life systems that humanity depends on for future generations of humans and non-humans alike.

In addition to making up stories from scratch or mixing-and-matching ancient narratives, I'm excited to learn first-hand what narratives current indigenous communities believe. In about 2 weeks, I'll be heading into the Amazonian Jungle in southeast Ecuador where I'll be living with an indigenous Shuar community. I'll be excited to learn their belief system, at least if my Spanish is up to the task!

I believe humans' need for narratives and our spirituality evolved because they caused us to behave in ways that benefited us even when we didn't understand why or when our belief was wrong. Ancient humans may not have had PhDs in ecology like some of us do, but they developed belief systems that caused them to treat their ecosystems with deep respect: we all know the story of the natives who used every part of the buffalo and prayed over it in thanks after the kill, for example. This belief system and this ritual behavior reinforced their emotional and spiritual connection to the things they depended on and ensured they didn't overconsume their renewable resource base. It caused them to feel mutually dependent rather than dominant, an attitude that lead them to protect what they depended on. Allie is another beautiful example: if we treat our plants with the same love we treat our children, they'll prosper and and we'll prosper with them. Regardless what you believe, this seems like a good thing!

I was really skeptical of Allie's and others' 'connections' with plants when I first encountered them. It didn't take long for me to convert to feeling that same spiritual connection though, that same intimate bond that urges me to sustain life so that I can be sustained. Later that summer, Allie and I read a book called "Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm" which presented tons of evidence for the Gaia hypothesis and that all life, including plants, are sentient parts of a greater connected Whole. It describes the scientific evidence that plants can distinguish between other plants and themselves, between offspring and non-offspring of the same species, that plants within and across species can 'ally' to communicate about infections and respond to ward them off, that plants teach their offspring (meaning, they send chemical messages that cause their offspring to change their behavior, similar to how humans send verbal messages to teach/mentor their offspring).

This means that just as human orphans become impoverished without parents to care for them and mentor them, plants (and other animals) become impoverished when they're cut off from large chunks of their families and surrounding ecosystem! And the book described groups of plants cooperating and coordinating in various ways across hundreds of miles and even around the planet, all acting in their best interests and responding to changes in their environment intelligently - as sentient beings.

In short, I still don't think the plant heard my friend Allie but... I'm not as sure I used to be.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Learning the hard way to listen carefully during plant walks

Last Saturday evening, my new friend Ivan took me on a short plant walk and introduced maybe 12-15 plants pretty rapidly and in colloquial Spanish. Being new to plant-based medicine, he used a lot of terms I probably wouldn't have understood even in English without a dictionary. Still, I thought I followed along pretty well, but apparently I screwed up at one point and paid the price later.

Each blob at the end of a twig holds 3 nuts. I thought they were edible, but they were not - they're medicinal!
Here are a few pictures of plants we discussed.

These flowers are apparently used in aroma therapies to treat all manner of issues. The smell is quite strong and pleasant. Ivan forgot the name of the plant, so I call it the bouquet plant since each group of flowers contains a multitude of colors.
This is agave, which is common in the US southwest and is all over Quito. Processed properly, this plant can produce food, clothing, and a famous alcoholic beverage called pulque in Mexico. It looks like the plant is attacking passers-by with its sharp leaves (see below). But given that it's good food, it looks more like it's aggressively offering itself to anyone who appreciates it!

A close-up of the agave plant above. Those spines are as sharp as they look.

On to the story of Saturday night.

I had thought the nuts (first picture) were edible, as Ivan had eaten one and I'd eaten a few with him. After leaving Ivan for the night, I kept eating nuts for another 20 minutes - I guess I probably ate 30 or so before I got distracted by dinner.

About 2 hours later, I started to feel something like motion sickness. Drinking water didn't help, so I went to bed early hoping the illness would dissipate before the next morning's events with Ivan. I didn't know what to blame for the feeling - drinking bad water? Eating unwashed fruit?

I went to bed, and the feeling grew worse and worse until I had to vomit. I rushed to the bathroom, vomited 4-5 times, and then felt totally fine, as if nothing had happened. There was no residual sense of nausea at all. I went back to bed hoping it had passed.

It hadn't.

The same process repeated perhaps 5-7 times over the next 3 hours: I got increasingly nauseous, ran to the bathroom, vomited several times, and then felt perfectly fine. I estimate I vomited maybe 30 times. The next morning I had diarrhea once, and the whole affair was over. I not only felt fine, I had enough energy to tromp up and down steep hills for several hours on my plant walk with Ivan.

It turns out the nuts I thought were edible were actually medicinal - purgatives, specifically, used to 'clean the body out' through vomiting and diarrhea. You're supposed to take 3-5 for the desired effect, and I learned what happens when you take 10x that amount. Interestingly, there weren't any side effects at all: the main effect, vomiting, merely scaled up in proportion with the number of nuts I ate, and I still only had diarrhea once.

All in all, it was a pretty small price to pay for the reminder to be careful with these new plants, especially learning them in a foreign language. With experience they're as safe as any food or medicine can be, but until I've got that experience, I'll have to tread with more caution.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Leap and the Net Will Appear

Leap and the net will appear. - a Zen Saying

I don't know anything about the history of the above saying, but it was one of the first things I saw during my first visit to Earthaven in September 2013, and it's stuck with me: sometimes it's impossible to plan from a great physical or temporal distance; the only way to see what's possible is to jump in and make something happen. Interestingly, this was also the business advice of the CEO of my last company: when people came to him with business plans, he told them, approximately: "Don't show me your business plan; show me the business you started."

What I'm trying to do here in Ecuador - find an indigenous community to integrate with, learn from, and contribute to - demands trust relationships that I knew I couldn't make from afar. I had to get here and try to make them happen. And this past weekend, I had my first stroke of luck!

I was out playing harmonica in the woods, and on the way back into the city I stopped to poke around in some plants by the road to see if I could find any I recognized. A couple walked up and asked what plants I was looking for. Soon they were identifying all the plants in the patch and describing their medicinal and edible properties to me. It turns out the man is a naturopathic doctor who works with the indigenous and poor to bring free/low-cost medical care based on local plant-based medicines.

Then a whole bunch of crazy things happened - I described my goal for my time here (of integrating with an indigenous group to learn that way of life), and the couple recommended a particular community of indigenous down near Cuenca (southern Ecuador), including the names of particular people that could welcome me in. It turns out the wife is a 2nd or 3rd cousin of several families there, and said I should tell them that she sent me! So an indigenous woman just recommended me to her community! Whoa!

Not wanting to lose the connection, I asked if there was any way I could volunteer with them to help gather plants or make medicines, totally for free of course. They asked, 'What are you doing tomorrow?' "Nothing." "Want to meet us at 8:00 and join us in gathering plants?" "Ummm, most definitely!"  At least, I'm pretty sure that they planned to gather plants. I didn't quite understand, but I knew my answer was yes!

We parted, and after about 10 minutes the guy came walking back to change the plan slightly. Again I didn't quite understand the new plan, but it sounded similar and my answer was still yes. He invited me to join him walking towards his house, and on the way we identified another 10-12 plants, including several I could eat right then! Nuts, leaves, berries... We got to his home and the woman brought out a book called Plantas Cultivas, a visual dictionary of edible and medicinal plants of the Ecuador region. He took me through the book for maybe 20 minutes, and I'm excited to get my own copy. Finally we parted again, and I floated all the way back home.

I actually cried twice on the way home as it really sunk in that I'd been invited to live with an indigenous community by a member of that community.

A Day of Plant Walks
The next day, I met the man, Ivan, at his home at 7:30. We walked to a local cathedral which was quite breathtaking.

It wasn't until we got inside that we realized he was atheist and I'm... well, it's a topic for another post, but perhaps 'animast' is close. So we agreed that the Catholic Church was hypocritical for not using the millions of dollars of gold decorating the Church to help the poor as Christ would certainly have done, and then we left.

A Long Plant Walk
Ivan turns out to be a jack of many trades - his only commitment for the day was teaching a rock-climbing class at 10:30, but for 3-4 hours before then he and I hiked up and down mountains, occasionally bushwhacking, and he showed me tons of plants and their medicinal and edible uses, including some that locals heavily rely upon. He's also a mountain-climbing and local plant-guide as well as part time naturopathic doctor, having retired from full time medical work a few years ago.

A view of Quito from the north east. The city continues to roll over many more hills after the one you see.

At 10:30, Ivan and I met his wife and daughter and a dozen other people at the rock climbing spot, and by 12:30 it was time to go.  We passed some more beautiful places on the way out.

You can clearly see a waterfall on the right. If you zoom in, you can also see a bunch of smaller waterfalls in the dark brown area in the center and left of the picture. Far above this big chasm, there's a ledge you can just see in the foreground. It is a nice place to make music away from the noise and smog of the city.
We walked back into Quito and sat at a bus stop together for an hour just getting to know each other better - me, Ivan, Isabel, and their daughter Abigail. After an hour at the bus stop, I realized I was only 30-40 minutes from home and said I felt like walking home. They felt the same, so we left the bus stop together on foot. Eventually we parted and agreed to meet again soon.

I'm both excited and humbled that I may have found an opportunity to integrate with the sort of community I've been seeking. I may have other leads now as well, so I'm not sure where I'll go from here. Still, it's heartening to see theories and fantasies of an indigenous life turn into concrete options.