The symphony which nature composes from its detritus is the distillation of eons of death, decay, and fermentation – the doing and undoing of a multitude of bodies across time. In planting these words, I am conscious that each sentence, each step, I am treading upon the backs of the many authors of oral, literary, and figurative traditions extending back into and out of memory. Principal among the host of irreducible gifts granted us by the earth and our ancestors and from which we depend, language is attributable to none, accessible to all, and demands not originality of usage but joyful employment. It longs to be used, used well, used wisely, and otherwise left alone to its own devices. It gathers richness and bestows its blessings through a poetic, pluralistic process of precision: in order to understand each other – contrary to compromise – we do not need to standardize its strata so much as we need to explore its recesses, plot its pivots, and appreciate its ambiguities (they give us wiggle room). It is with this admittedly arbitrary and assuredly alliterated assertion that I am going to introduce this unusual document of my three seasons of growing with the Purple Thistle Centre, pedaling around North America, and considering the word “depend.”
This writing is occurring to me as I simultaneously straddle a train of thought and a train of steel; I am headed away from my adopted home, towards my familial home, divorced from my ancestral home and even my childhood home, weighing the notion that home might be carried and lived without a foundation of place. I will tell you that my intention in writing and unfurling these thoughts is to contribute clarity to a shared desire not to settle but to re-indigenize, not to be sustainable but to be regenerative, not to be productive but to be fruitful, and not to burden you or bore you too terribly with the many events that are on my mind currently. Setting aside the fear that this writing is already far too ambitious, I want to underscore the following stories from a year of travels with a sense of purpose and dexterity – I am leaving out a lot, setting forward as much, and not laying any claims to rationality or linearity in the process. Bear with me, darlings.
More and more, I carry a conviction that to be free is to acknowledge, name, respect, praise, and steward that on which one depends. Let me tell you how I have arrived here.
Stemming from the latin root “pend”, or to hang, to depend is to hang from. Pendulous is our grip on life and on language. In the culture of our continent (North America or Turtle Island?) and in our shared language (English or American?) – from which, lest we forget, a great many of our convictions and actions depend – this word, depend, is the subject of no small confusion. Between the Declaration of Independence, our cultural revilement of all forms of dependency, and our increasing dependence upon a globalized system, we have a real pickle. Or perhaps it is just a personal pickle, as exemplified by my mother’s recent characterization of me as a very dependent child. I had up until this point considered myself and seen myself regarded as an intolerably independent individual. As a student and practitioner of fermentation, a pickle like this has understandably earned my admiration and bewilderment.
The best way to render political divisions irrelevant is to speak frankly about that from which we depend. In the end, politics are just the processes by which we, together, make decisions regarding our collective use or non-use of the things from which we depend. Anyone who tells you anything else is probably also right.
My grandfather contends that our national fate depends upon our national debt. Runaway human-engineered climate change isn’t real, really. I contend that we depend upon the balances of our ecosystems and that the national debt isn’t real, really. Who is right? It depends.
Fish depend on water. Yes? So do we, for that matter.
Cause and effect break down really quickly when one considers all that one depends from on a daily basis. Or when one considers the anatomy and genealogy of one’s meal. Or one’s guts – who is dependent, the flora or the fauna?
Perhaps it is safe to say that upon a great many things does any one thing depend. Depending on your disposition, you may be frustrated with my language already, or you may be starting to glimpse where I am headed. Storytime.
At the Purple Thistle Centre in East Vancouver, British Columbia, Unceded Coast Salish Territory, Earth, a small youth collective maintains and develops an urban permaculture project presently consisting of two intensively managed gardens on marginal roadside land, one budding food forest and wetland remediation project on industrial rail-side land, three beehives, and a worm bin. It may be observed that sustainability and self-sufficiency are among their objectives; with the present coinage issuing forth from the proverbial word mint, it would be hard to argue with that. However, a grant funded, collectively run, volunteer driven, modestly productive, very diverse, consistently overburdened, constantly evolving venture cannot possibly lay claim to the notion of self-sufficiency. In fact, the farther we move in that direction, the more we realize our dependencies.
For example. My friend Kelsey and I recently biked the 50 or so miles from Vancouver to Victoria on Vancouver Island in order to retrieve fruit trees for our budding food forest. By the time that we had completed our undeniably heroic mission, huffing and puffing, we had many players to thank for our success. Leaving out the vast majority of them, our journey depended upon: the friends who loaned us their bike trailers, the ferry and the skytrain, the man who propagated and sold us the trees, the urban planners for stopping short of making it completely impossible for us to navigate their ungodly labyrinth on bicycles, the host who cooked for us and warmed us with his songs, the assistance of strangers in the many unusual snags that we attracted, funds from a well written grant, apples from apple trees and mushrooms from logs (yum!), weather, ocean, land, air, vegetation, and the good work of the hands that stewarded the land over the past millennia. In relation to a great many modern human exploits, our expedition appears to rest more firmly on our own shoulders and more lightly upon the land and the multitude of players upon it, but in reality I would submit that we asked more of the universe and not less.
This is very indicative of the way in which we Thistlers have operated: take risks, accept consequences, build a community, fail, ask for help, share our successes, and, sometimes, crash and burn. We are building a net, a community, a web for ourselves, a web that reeks of relationships, relationships created by needs, surpluses, radical generosity, and mutual aid. Our ecological hero, if we have one, would be Oliver Kellhammer, the man who started the seeds of an urban oasis inside of beer bottles in his grungy downtown eastside apartment. From these seeds has sprouted the incomparable (and highly threatened) Cottonwood Gardens, a community cornerstone and the epicenter of its own ecological and social web. It is a home for eagles in the heart of the city, a work of art that demands participation over preservation, and a living and dying system of symbiotic relationships. Which provides greater security, this garden or the adjacent produce terminals which siphon in truck deliveries from across the developed world?
Security is a fickle notion. Like many of the urban farming projects across North America, from Halifax to Los Angeles, our efforts are viewed by the powers that be as, at best, temporary placeholders for gentrification projects, and at worst, illegal land occupations. Both Cottonwood Gardens and our adjacent Thistle gardens are threatened, in the so-called ‘greenest city on Earth’, with paving over to become the Charles St. viaduct into the downtown core. Alas, our web, however tightly woven, is but a small, isolated, and incomplete one. It is lacking in other webs. And, sometimes, some of us fall right out and onto the cold street of a society that considers us dependent, unemployed, freeloaders, nuisances, drains on the hard work of others. You either do your part or do nothing. Weren’t you assigned a role?
There is nothing like working intensively in a collective and burning out to arouse in one an intense desire to strike out alone. How many jaded owners and defenders of private property went through a “phase” of communal experimentation? How many realized that it takes more than good will to live in an intimate relationship?
Across three seasons of collectively cultivating crops and community out of industrial soils, of being immediately dependent upon a host of contributing members and factors, I was compelled to punctuate my commitment with sweet, solitary bicycle travel. What else could involve less dependency?
Does the motorized vehicle upon the endless highway epitomize the American dream? The impossible prospect of never arriving anywhere? Of a freedom from that on which we depend? I take it one step further – this traveler runs his bicycle on foraged food, dumpster diving, and the generosity of strangers.
I am starting to tire of the idea of sustainability. It seems to me of no use. And the more intimately I caress its cavities and push its boundaries, the more I understand its limitations. Never have I felt so thoroughly dependent upon every element around me in supporting my journey, never have I been so grateful for the generosity of strangers and the fertility of the land. Perhaps independence is simply the act of hugging one’s dependencies very closely and very tightly; perhaps it is in asking, as opposed to demanding or assuming. Traveling by bicycle on foraged food epitomizes my notion of sustainability, yet there is nothing sustainable about the venture at all – it is predicated upon the serendipitous, singular, and unprecedented contributions and sacrifices of so many actors. It is unrepeatable by definition. It relies on death. It moves one pedal-stroke at a time and accepts no substitutes. It embodies gratitude. It is give and take.
The chicken mushroom on the log, bleaching white in the Acadian sunlight. The university professors in rural upstate New York who offered a birthday meal and accepted gardening advice. The St. Lawrence river and the chill morning. The Iron Men and their bronzed wives. The highways and the dirt trails disappearing into cornfields. The wild roots and the camp stove. The festival that introduced me to a friend. The friend who planted seeds and became a lover. The lover who baked sweet dumpling squash and melted into blurry bluegrass oblivion. The rainstorms that humbled and toughened the spirit. The tailwinds that arrived just in time to abet weary legs. The reishi that arrived with my name on it – and that journeyed up the mountain on the back of my bike. The many, many hands that held me. How can I thank you but by thanking you and holding others as you held me, being consumed as I consumed you, taking care as I make my steady way home?
Oaxaca, Mexico was many things, but home was not one of them. Home does not usually purge my bowels and parasitize my organs on a daily basis. Home does not thrill me with color and light and sound and movement. Home does not taste like maize and quesillo. Home does not kiss me with mescal on its lips or jostle me through the arid steppes. Never have I felt so lacking in home.
I think, perhaps, that I am nearing what I am getting at here. But I am taking us first on a brief adventure into the peripheries of a cultural birthright I cannot lay claim to, as introduced to me by Gustavo Esteva, founder of Unitierra, the Purple Thistle Centre’s big sister in the unschooling world. It caused me both great joy and great pain to recognize that the “developing” world had such a highly developed and nuanced web of interdependence – a culture of mutual support, family ties, accountability, and generosity. Joy because, in spite of near intolerable oppression, this web provides the basis for a good life in many places. Pain, because this web is but a pesky cobweb in the house of post-NAFTA America, because it is so sorely lacking in my culture, and because it will take many generations of weaving to renew. The women weavers of Teotitlan del Valle were certainly experts in this art – using the funds from their exquisite artwork to catalyze wonderful community service projects and in the process making a firm argument for enlightened feminism within their eijido – but we shall have to painstakingly create our own designs and rescue whatever scraps may remain of our inherited social fabric. Thankfully, we are all weavers. Let us conduct a housewarming! And let us not neglect our hosts.
Gustavo had much to relate, but perhaps what stuck out most was his assertion that should we wish to renounce our dependency upon factors beyond our control, we must be willing to depend on those around us, human beings or otherwise. He likened the individual victim of a crime contacting the authorities in order to see his or her wrongdoer removed and dealt with to the individual flushing his or her shit into a public water system. While at first appearing expedient and contributing to a person’s independence, these practices are incredibly destructive and require expensive and ultimately untenable systems to function. To reincorporate the criminal, he suggests, we must learn to reweave the webs of communal dependency and accountability, just as to compost our shit we must work together and take responsibility for our own form of alchemy. The septic field version of justice is just as lacking as is the modern American’s notion of independence. I pondered this quite a bit while drinking bottled water and shitting my parasitized guts out into the Mexican sewer systems.
These pages are a thesis. The thesis is, more or less, that we are pending. We are hanging. We are being held. Constantly, without cease. And that as our notion of dependence has been inverted, we have decided to start madly cutting the ties that we hang from because we are hanging from our hair, from what lived and died in us and others, and when we look down we see our feet resting on air and think that we can stand on it. Perhaps the thesis is that we shouldn’t cut our hair – perhaps the hippies were right (this thesis does cast an odd light on the military coiffeur, doesn’t it?). But perhaps, on a deeper level, I am naming you and thanking you for supporting me in the ways that you have, encouraging you to do the same, and taking a deep breath before I plant my seeds this coming season and ask again of this earth and its beings.