“What needs to be sustained is not competitive advantage, corporate profits or economic growth. What needs to be sustained are the patterns of relationship in the web of life.” Fritjof Capra, Founding Director, Center for Ecoliteracy
“Community is not some add-on to our other needs, not a separate ingredient for happiness along with food, shelter, music, touch, intellectual stimulation, and other forms of physical and spiritual nourishment. Community arises from the meeting of those needs. There is no community possible among a people who do not need each other.” Charles Eisenstein, whose new book is The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible
In Portland for the 13th Annual Village Building Convergence, inspired by Mark Lakeman and his organization, City Repair, something significant came together for me; why we were building with local, natural materials, why we were talking about “putting up” our garden produce, why new words are arising like gaialogue and indigenuity, why we need to make places where people can gather and talk: it’s all about creating a new story, one which arises when we see ourselves as terminally interconnected. And we also looked at how radical actions must be taken to unseat the old story of entitlement and power over other people and over nature.
When we have a friendly, relaxed place to sit and talk with our neighbors, it’s easier to listen without judgment, to have meaningful conversations about what we each really want. It’s probably not what the government, or that TV ad, or even what our family thinks we want. Perhaps we’re not even sure yet exactly what we do want. Maybe we’re not sure that what we yearn for deep inside is truly possible. After all, we live in a crazy world where governments (supposedly there to protect us) are more often than not in bed with the companies that produce cancer-causing chemicals, destroy soil, pollute air and water, and sell us nutrition-free “food” that merely fills our stomachs while making us sick and fat.
So at the Village Building Convergence we played with mud (mostly). We made and repaired benches and houses and community ovens of local materials that are available to anyone. The clay for one project came from a nearby graveyard. We made designs with a clay/straw mix that transformed a plain, shingled house wall into a home of beauty and imagination.
We painted intersections – through parties that drew together neighbors young and old – with clever, beautiful, artistic, wonder-inducing designs that made traffic slow down and passers-by stop to talk. We saw the structures that neighbors had placed on the corners – community libraries, a tea station, amazing covered benches that were so much more than a sitting place, bulletin stations with color-coded boards for different kinds of notices, a whimsical fountain, decorated barrels with bright flowers placed strategically in the street at the corners of the intersection. We walked or biked through neighborhood after neighborhood with wide space at each side of the road, more often than not planted with vegetables, fruit trees or bee forage.
After a week of immersion in this kind of environment, I had to wonder how we ever let things devolve to a place where these things would be seen as revolutionary. Apparently, the Portland City Council resisted at first, but when they saw the radical increase in neighborly connections and community well being, as well as safer streets, they instituted laws that permitted all these things in the city. Each “intersection repair” requires signatures from each of the four homes on the intersection itself, as well as that of 80% of the residents on each of the four intersecting blocks, and each year signatures are gathered anew when the paintwork needs refreshing.
But at least half our days were spent with mud.
After a lovely ride along the Willamette River, on bikes hired from a relaxed guy with an urban farm complete with goats, brought us to the house in southern Portland where Mark Lakeman lives in community with other dedicated activists. Here was whimsy as well as practicality: a cob chicken house that looks like a chicken – or is it an egg?; a cob, solar-powered “cat palace” complete with solar-warmed pillows and real fish tank; and the transformation of the wood-shingled house into a cob-plastered art piece. The highlight for me was participating in the beautification of the greenhouse on the South wall, where a lovely cob-straw decoration of trees was adorned with glass shards.
The very first of the famous Portland intersections—and now one of about a dozen—was close to Mark Lakeman’s house. On Sherrit Street, it has been dubbed “Share-It Square”. The repainting party was scheduled for the following weekend, so the intersection design was dealing with a year’s worth of fade, but the Angel Bench, the Fire Bench, the Communications Station, the Tea Station and the children’s Play House were all in fine fettle. And of course they each had a roof, to mitigate against the almost daily rain, although – on bikes, feet and public transport – we never once got our shoes wet!
VBC daytimes were scheduled with practical projects, but come 5:30 pm every evening we gathered with fellow activists in a converted church, and shared a lovely meal, theater, and inspiring presentations for a minimal fee. The age demographic was refreshingly young! Leonard and I were among a small minority of “grey hairs.
The quality of those presentations was comparable to TED talks. After the first night, I came away with my head literally buzzing with new ideas. We learned stuff that aligned with Joanna Macy’s three-pronged approach: Resist and slow down what’s not working; Create a new story; Call on the power of spirit.
Patterns of relationship make up the web of life—sometimes called Indra’s net, where every interchange is alive with power. Our week culminated in a magical sunny morning exchanging stories with Harriet Fasenfest in her lovely garden. Her radical action is to discover everything there is to learn about growing and preserving food and encouraging her neighbors to do the same.
Harriet believes it will take the collective grassroots efforts of all of us to bring about change, and at base, a gratitude for the beauty, abundance, and harmony in the natural world around us. Here is a quote from her book, The Householder’s Guide to the Universe:
“I have found gratitude for the soil and the epiphany that all things start there. For the wind and the rain. For the sun and the cool dark nights of winter. Today I have such an immense respect for the earth’s grace that I am humbled and ashamed to think how poorly we have treated it. Even today we do not understand how deeply the history of migrations, displacements, hunger, and longing is connected to our continuing and brutal disregard for the soil. Even today we do not understand what our future will be …
“Removed from the natural world over time, and convinced of the urban promise, we have all lurched forward and longed for the future that industry was to bring. We were not villains, we were not greedy, we were not fickle. More often than not, we made good use of whatever small and helpful advancements human history offered. But at some point—I am not exactly sure when—we forgot what we should never have forgotten. Somewhere along the line we became deaf to the warnings indigenous cultures are still trying to give us. We forgot there is a balance, and that if we are to survive, we must return our attention to the soil, the seas, the wind, and the rain—or else nothing, absolutely nothing, will save us.”
Can it be as simple as that? To get our hands in the mud, to grow and pickle cucumbers, to stop and talk with our neighbors, to stand up for the right thing when we have the opportunity? Yes, I think it is. Making relationships and getting intimately involved with the soil and with the food we grow in our gardens must be one of the most satisfying things a human being can do. What a delight that it may also the most important.