Our Innovations

(Lest anyone think Jason is not meeting his “one post per month” in 2017, this is his writing from May that has been sitting in My Documents when it should have been shared for you all to read! Imagine May in the woods as you read it! Janelle)

I write this month from another getaway…the reader might be tempted to think all we ever do is take breaks.  Not so, I am afraid.  Rather, the only chance I tend to find to write is when we pry open a stoppage in the normal schedule and chink in some fun!  So here I am, tippety-tapping away in the living room of a rustic cabin built by the CCC in the thirties on the grounds of WV’s Lost River State Park.  Cozy rooms, idyllic weather, blooming mountain laurel on the ample hiking paths…it’s working its magic, and my mind starts thinking of things beyond the everyday; I wake up with new songs in my head.  It’s a good time to write.

Last evening we cooked supper over the fire in pie irons, which, weather permitting, we plan to do each of our three evenings here.  How else to try all the possible combinations of ingredients and still save room for peanut butter s’mores?  There seemed to be a minor memory epidemic (or a glitch in the ingredient buffet arrangement) among us, since several different people forgot to add home-dried oregano, which we all prize, to his or her pizza pocket.  Our oldest daughter missed it on her first round, then on her second round, announced that this time she was going to leave it out on purpose, just to see what it was like that way.  “Forgetting it the first time”, I commented, “was a mistake.  Leaving it out on purpose…that’s innovation!”

I was trying to make Janelle and Kali laugh.  They may have obliged, I don’t remember.  But in truth I was right, and many innovations have begun just that way.  Take for example the recent finds that Chimpologists (my word, maybe) have made, wherein they observed chimps knocking rocks together to break off flakes, then licking the freshly broken surfaces…presumably for the minerals.  One can easily imagine some early human taking a blithe lick, then screaming in pain as his or her tongue accidently ran along the sharp edge and bled.  Was it they or their neighbor whose eyes widened as they encountered that very human moment of stillness and realization…Now there is something I could USE!  One way or another, the creation and modification of rock flakes for cutting animal flesh and plant tissues became big business for us, and fundamentally changed our way of relating to the world and each other.

The ability to innovate is among the set of traits that we humans have emphasized far beyond what any other species has.  It is one of our defining features.  I would argue that humans in our natural state do this almost instinctually, which is what has enabled us to adapt, in astonishingly short periods of time, to almost every climate this planet proffers.  I love seeing how the indigenous peoples of the far north rigged up sunglasses, kept warm and safe in ice houses, and inflated sealskins to attach to their whale harpoons.  Some pacific island nations figured out how to increase their genetic base without using more resources, so I hear, by learning to keep their men strung out on a mind-altering plant, in which circumstance they consume very little food.  These men did scant work, their main usefulness being in supplying fertility to the women as needed!  And who doesn’t love the conical sun hats of the Chinese peasants?  Some of these strategies are surely intentionally developed, some are probably stumbled across in the course of events and kept because they worked.  Either way it’s a new thing under the sun, and that’s the process our species depends on utterly.

It seems to me that there are two situations that lead to surges in innovation.  One is a circumstance of plenty, wherein folks have the luxury to goof around with the details of their environment and every now and again come up with something that makes life a little easier, or funnier, or exciting, or advantageous or what have you.  The other is difficult times, wherein people are pushed beyond the comfort of their customs and made to try something new.  If just one person in a group of desperate humans comes up with some workable method or solution, everyone else notices and before you know it it has become an institution.

For the purposes of this writing series, I am interested in how the innovation process contributes to the localization of economy and culture within a given context.  The sum and interaction of all the little nuances and innovations are what give a place and its people their “character.”  The modern economy has reputedly rendered these distinctives irrelevant, and if we accept the assumptions underpinning that economy (fossil fuels, stable world order, dependable climate, resource availability, etc.), it is hard to argue against that point.  If, however, like me, you doubt the sustainability of those assumptions, you might feel that as the prevalence of the modern economy continues and the economic, ecological, and cultural distinctives of our places erode, we have something to grieve there.

Coming to terms with the implications of this dynamic will naturally lead, I think, to a desire to recover the old strategies, tools, and solutions still present in our communities in whatever amounts, and to learn to use them.  I am not talking about nostalgia here, though I am beginning to think of nostalgia as a grief process of its own.  But whereas nostalgia has a tendency to value times and things gone by because of how they contributed to who we are today, I am referring to a state of mind that recognizes that our ancestors were grappling with their own present circumstances and that their ingenious solutions may again be useful to us, should similar circumstances again prevail.

Taking this a step further, I would suggest that one of the greatest honors we can do our ancestors is to continue their work of adaptation in our present and into our descendants’ future.  Computer enthusiasts will surely now try to make the point that the most meaningful interpretation of that is to adapt ourselves to the electronically mediated life so many of us now find ourselves in.  I do not object to using high-tech tools in the service of the human project, but we ought to consider the mode and degree of our use such that it doesn’t become, or remain, abject dependence.

I refer to continuing our ancestors’ work, but I don’t mean that uncritically.  Some of our ancestors worked pretty hard to take what some others of our ancestors had and needed.  Let’s grieve that well, too.  I mean that in their flawed way, our ancestors were trying to engage their ancestral or stolen places as nourishing and beautiful homes, and just because we have unprecedented distractions available to us now doesn’t get us off the hook for the same duty.  There is no app for this, my friends, except the one hardwired into your brain.

So why am I characterizing this subject matter as “innovation?”  Because that’s what the old solutions were in their time, and that’s our greatest need today.  We are in new circumstances as a species, and in most cases even our regional climates are set to change dramatically if they haven’t started already.  I, for one, want to be in a position to recognize these changes as they progress, and to engage the challenging and exciting work of crafting adapted and connected ways of living as we go.

I declared two situations ripe for the development of innovation: surfeit and famine.  Implied is a third, less ripe state of being: ordinary life, which is a messy but overall stable amalgam of the first two.  In ordinary life, innovation doesn’t stop, it just slows dramatically.  Cultures tend to develop revered and inviolable traditions, which are largely sets of solutions to their circumstances.  So which of the three states of being do we find ourselves in today?  Well, that depends where you live and to whom you are connected.  But the chances are if you are reading this you are among the most privileged beings to ever enjoy the comforts of earth.  Predators don’t bother you, hunger is not a thing really…your greatest challenges relate to status, relationships, finances, and the stress of being divorced nutritionally and psychologically from a healthy ecosystem.  So we must face that as a society we are in the first category, though with the gaps opening between the incomes of the wealthiest and the rest of us, that is less secure for many of us than it used to be.  And with the distortions of industrialism having flooded the economy, you may experience resource-access stresses of novel kinds, such as: Why can’t I find GOOD food in my neighborhood?, and How long can I keep the landlord off my back?  I am not downplaying these challenges.

Myself, I am the child of what our society would consider moderate privilege.  Some of my great-grandparents struggled to keep food on the table, my grandparents were far from wealthy, my mother was a doctor so we usually wanted for nothing and growing up I didn’t worry about resources.  Becoming more politically aware in college and beyond, I have felt a responsibility attached to my inherited privilege.  Yes, it is a responsibility to share what must surely look like excess to most of the world, but I have also come to think of it as a responsibility to innovate.  As mentioned, situations of excess allow for playful trying, and that is a critical function.  If I waste my opportunity on TV, I won’t think much of myself, I must say.  Partly that is because my personality is drawn to crafting new ways in the world, so I am naturally driven to the role of innovator.  But a big piece of it is the sense I have of how precarious this contemporary industrial way of life is when measured by the ancient standards of life on earth.  I live with the thought every day that this is a precious time for humans: a chance to take a few steps forward in ease before our steps become labored again.  Maybe even a chance to set some things right we’ve long done poorly.  Here I am thinking of our regard for sexual minorities, ethnic relations, gender equality, agricultural practices, and more.  I do not mean to imply that indigenous groups haven’t at times achieved high standards in all these areas…they most certainly have.  I mean rather that as a species, especially in the context of civilization, we have been wrestling these demons for millennia with mixed results.  Let’s take our chance to understand this history.

One of the things that seems unusual about our current situation is that with the advent of climate change and our measurement of what’s left of the critical resources of the earth, we find ourselves having a chance to goof off a little, but with the knowledge that it can’t last.  I’d like to challenge us to transform this odd scenario into a fruitful time of preparation.  I’ll divide what I have in mind into a few steps to help order our thinking and give you something to react to:

  • Doubt the prevailing model. Train your mind, preferably in concert with a group, in recognizing the ways in which heedless energy use and profiteering have distorted our culture and economy and distanced us from our contexts.  Do your best to avoid getting caught up in the values and striving of the industrial economy, thus limiting its stranglehold on your autonomy.  Learn to master money’s pollution of your mind and its grip on your choices.
  • Cultivate local awareness. This comes in two parts.  First, we should familiarize ourselves with the particular constraints and bounty of the places in which we find ourselves, and learn what strategies our forebears and precursors employed to thrive here prior to the interference of fossil fuels.  Pursue knowledge of what challenges your home area will face with the advent of climate change.
  • Cultivate awareness of self. Diversity is the absolute linchpin in this process, and there is no one like you.  What are you interested in?  What do you have to contribute?  Notice which topics and elements of your landscape draw your attention.
  • Declare some limits. Combine what you’ve learned about your self and your context to establish a framework within which you will work.  This will require discipline over time, as the conventional economy and culture will not understand your choices, making you feel like a fool at times, but I think you will find it a productive approach.
  • Find your network. Yes, I think it’s important to be well rooted in spots and in circles that include conventional thinking.  Also yes you will need some folks to be in touch with who get it.  What a relief when you don’t have to explain everything (even though it’s important to have to a lot of the time)!
  • Start trying stuff. Maybe this means buying land and learning to live from its fruits, as we are trying.  Maybe it means community organizing for self-determination.  Maybe it’s art in the streets.  Maybe it’s meditation and intention.  Fashion design.  Culinary pursuits.    Circus acts.  Accounting.  You tell me.
  • Reflect and Reset. Periodically you will want to give time to analysis of various kinds, as well as remaining open to feedback and further awareness.  You may also find it necessary to take moments for reiterating your chosen values and limits and rearticulating why you chose them.  Be open also to endings and change.  Surely you will take wrong turns, or life won’t turn out the way you thought.
  • When you finally achieve that fully homegrown raspberry tart or one of your students takes on their first massage client or whatever it is you are into that blends well in your context, it pays to rejoice!  I’m not saying rest on your laurels, I’m saying a few high fives and hugs and wiping of moist eyes goes a long way towards healing the negative messages you will get from the larger, more dominant, doomed culture.

Notice there was no heading labeled, “Innovate.”  That is because innovation is what happens along the way when we are presented with challenges to our conventions, or when we reach for new levels of achievement in something we were already doing.  Any time, I will say, that we go beyond wishing and bend our minds and bodies to the weekday work of reconciling the difference between the way things are and the way we want them to be.  To this work we bring our whole selves, warts and all, and not every innovation makes the world a better place.  Burning petroleum for personal transportation, for example, was a significant innovation.  So was fast food.  And mustard gas.  You see why the limits we set matter?

A few examples from Tangly Woods, I hear you requesting?  Alright, I will oblige.  A year or so ago, while grinding her teeth over our use of imported lemon juice in recipes, Janelle finally tried something she’d been thinking about:  substituting rhubarb!  Folks, it works very well, going especially nicely with lentil stew.  Score!  Another win:  I have been long dissatisfied with the available tomato/pepper cage options.  Either they are topply and hard to install in our stony soil or they are bulky and hard to store.  The twine options I have seen fail too often for our closely calculated plantings.  I don’t have time for staking as many as we need, and determinate tomatoes don’t like pruning anyway.  Finally I dreamed a solution (literally), and spent a few hours designing, then building a prototype from concrete reinforcing wire.  It works!  I have now built over thirty of them.  They stack for storage, don’t topple easily, are easy to pick through, and support growing pepper plants and determinate tomatoes with no pruning or guidance.  Now I just need to learn to make them from tree branches or basket willow!  In a third example, we wanted a round table for social interaction reasons, but couldn’t fit one in our space.  We also wanted the ability to expand, but are both a little irked by needing to store table “leaves” in a closet to be brought out only when the table needs to get bigger, not to mention wrestling with cantankerous table expansion hardware.  After much sketching and staring at the ceiling in the dark, I came up with our football shaped table: two freestanding three-legged tables that butt up against each other, plus two auxiliary rectangular tables of matching dimensions that get used in other parts of the house but can be commandeered as needed for dining table expansion.  Hah!  Works.  That table gets lots of use and attention when guests are around.  I could think of more examples, and so will you once you start taking notice of these issues, but I think you get the idea.

One of the upshots of all this is that when a critical mass (maybe less folks than you might think) have been at this work for some time in our various niches with our various motivations, there begins to be an accumulation of strategies, tools, and solutions that have proven dependable, pleasing, and productive, and have been picked up by others of like (or like enough) mind and inclination.  The accumulation begins to assemble itself into a workable pattern, and you have the emergence of a local culture.  If we have done our work well, then the limits we have chosen will reflect the nature of the earth we inhabit instead of violating it.  That, to me, is the place towards which the long arc of sustainability must bend.  I will work for it, I will talk about it, I will raise my children to live in it.  I invite you to your place in it, and to help me know mine.

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