Our Limitations

In this culture (especially in advertising), it is common for people to effuse about limitlessness, whether it be notions of endless economic growth, experiences of extreme recreational or sexual pleasure, assumptions about natural resources, the number of cable channels available, human expansion into space, the many wonders of the internet, sweeping vistas, or all-you-can-eat buffets.  These are of at least two types: limitless resources and limitless opportunities (the taking of which would, naturally, require limitless resources).  There is a certain security in the feeling that one can never exhaust one’s supply of some essential resource, and the mind can relax in a similar way into the thought that one will not have to make do with the opportunities one has…there is always another option out there.  What’s not to love about that?

Plenty, starting with its impossibility.  But this is more complicated than a simple iconoclastic grouch session, tempting though such may be.  The artists in our midst help us see that limitlessness is a chimera; that there is little more antithetical to creativity, freedom, and transcendence than having no parameters, shortages, and/or demands with which to contend.  Paradoxically, when the artist embraces limitations and finds his or her place nested within them, this is typically the path to transcendence and the breaking into a place of free expression and communication that the artist seeks.  A songwriter, for example, that frees their self entirely from harmonic structure, the rhythm and meaning of language…surely they will produce music that will not outlive them.  By embracing and working freely within these limiting structures and more (and judiciously breaking the rules on occasion), the songwriter can bring self and audience to previously unimagined realms.  Any self-identified artists who might happen to see these paragraphs:  Am I right?  I believe I am, enough so that most artists choose parameters for their work just for this purpose.  This still falls in the category of limits, but being voluntarily chosen, might be best categorized as a discipline, the action of which is distinct from the action of limitations, which are unchosen limits to which one must adjust, voluntarily or kicking and screaming.

In these paragraphs, I am specifically thinking about those unchosen limits, their effect on how humans end up making their way together in a place; there is a richness to that process and its results that can be gained no other way.  Any person endeavoring in their craft, and the combined, self-organized whole of the collection of individuals, families, neighborhoods that inhabit and endeavor in a place come to reflect in a unique way the specific limitations of that place.  We call this the local pattern of living.  Anyone who has spent time laboring physically in Central America or other hot, humid climates soon learns to appreciate the wisdom of the Siesta tradition.  In the countryside near Concepcion, Bolivia, I remember staying the night with a farm family.  Up before dawn, they took a little coffee and a small bun of bread before heading to the fields and pastures at first light.  By ten, the sun was hot and they were home for lunch, which was their big meal of the day.  Then it was hammock time until the afternoon sun had started to lose its punch, whereupon they ventured out again for an evening of work, coming in for a small supper and a game of dice around the lamp again after dark.

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Patterns, as Dave Jacke says, are important because they are solutions to problems that keep occurring.  Take, for example, the factor of slope.  Jokes about hillbillies with one leg shorter than the other aside, living in hilly country really does have its effects.  Two examples from South America:  First, a classic passage from Wendell Berry’s The Gift of Good Land, from his essay “An Agricultural Journey in Peru,” which is the first in the collection:

“These hillsides, like nearly all that we saw, were very steep, and much more intensively farmed than I had expected.  There is some erosion, bad in certain places where the water has apparently been diverted around fields, but in general the land seems well conserved.  It is necessary to keep in mind that these fields have been farmed and have lasted a long time—some from before the Incas.  The ground is worked and planted in varying patterns according to the availability of water and suitable ground.  The rows are laid off mostly up and down the slope, which at first seems contrary to sense—and then makes more sense the more you study the problem.  On such steep slopes, considering that the rows are “hilled up” to a height of perhaps as much as ten inches, contoured rows would almost certainly erode worse under heavy rains than these downhill ones.  The water would collect behind the mounded, loosened dirt of the contoured rows and break through, carrying the dirt with it.  The downhill rows, on the other hand, let the water out quickly, not allowing it to accumulate anywhere, and it runs over the packed, unworked earth between the rows.

But in some fields, not many, the rows went across the slope; in others they went downward on a slant.  Some of these slanted rows zigzagged across the slope.  The purpose of this slanting, I guessed, is to slow down the runoff to allow the ground to absorb more water.  The fault of this pattern was that where the Vs pointed downward there would be a wash.  A much more satisfactory pattern, affording both water retention and erosion control, was a zigzag down the slope.” (pgs. 17-18)

I first read this essay about 16 years ago and it totally lit me up.  We now live on a slope, albeit much milder than what I imagine the Peruvians in question were dealing with.  All the same, I laid out our potato patch beds slightly off contour to take advantage of this idea.  It WORKS!  Good infiltration and good surface drainage…bingo!  But it would only probably work on smallish fields, or with planned relief in larger systems.  Otherwise the water volume accumulates to damaging levels between rows.  For our slope’s purposes, about a hundred feet is as far as one can go without a relief channel.

Example number two comes from my own travels in South America, this time to La Paz, Bolivia, 1995.  Parts of that city’s streets are extremely steep, and there is a pattern of one-way streets.  This, combined with the necessary habit of thrift on the part of the city’s drivers has made for a charming phenomenon.  Drivers on uphill streets operate their vehicles normally.  On downhill streets, they all cut their motors and coast all the way to the bottom of the hill (power brakes and steering are unaffordable decadences that would be an inconvenience there).  This means that every other street when travelling across the slope is a quiet street and then a loud street and so on.  Street vendors, if memory serves, took advantage of this by selecting quiet streets if their category of wares called for much hawking or description to passersby, or making do with loud ones if their offerings were more routine.  I think the quiet streets were more in demand…they also smelled better, with no exhaust!

I do not mean to imply that conditions in a given region dictate uniform adoption of certain patterns.  There will of course be pockets of exceptionality.  For example, in the Sandhill’s region of Nebraska (see earlier essay) it is nearly impossible, as a rule, to grow row crops.  Except in the river bottom, and the ranchers cherished their little plots of corn that grew there.  These exceptions have their own key role in the economies and ecologies of a region, but typically more to the point is the collection of adaptive solutions that end up over time also adapting to and linking with each other to form a relatively cohesive, if sometimes tenuous, way of managing within a particular system of limits.

To talk of adaptive processes and the discovery of limitations is to use intellectual language to describe what might more aptly be called the school of hard knocks.  Lots of discomfort, even suffering, is often implied.  To quote the brilliant Emily Saliers of the Indigo Girls (in the song “Everything in its Own Time”), “When the wind has blown things ‘round and back again, what was once your pain will be your home.”

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True freedom of the life and mind, I would contend, happens not when we achieve the long-sought security of limitless resource and opportunity, (which I think would only foster craven laziness), but rather when we achieve balance, a dynamic equilibrium between our desires and our limitations.

Time for a story:  Once upon a time there was a middle aged couple that was too busy.  It seems they couldn’t even find the time to evaluate their lives and figure out what—among all the many ideas they had pursued for how they might use their time to achieve the life they desired and make a difference in the world—they must let go of.  The wife had been trying to tell the husband for years that this was all beautiful and worthwhile, but too much.  It was not lost on him, but it was much easier to see all the many things a person could do than it was to turn his attention to what not to do, so he kept on in his distracted folly.  Eventually, though, it became clear that the days were slipping by too fast.  There was no way to keep up with all the projects.  It was equally clear that this was stressing his life mate overly…it was time.  In a conversation around the lunch table, he admitted as much, and offered that if there was one project that had to go, it would probably be such-and-such.  To both of their surprise, it was she who got a bit teary thinking of letting go of this “great” idea and effort.  They both experienced a mixture of relief, doubt, and grief over the next little while, but there were proud of themselves for finally admitting that they may have accepted their limitations and felt hopeful that they might be on the way to understanding what the words “enough” and “balance” might mean.

Ok so that’s us.  A few days ago we decided to wind down and shelve our “Dryland Garden” soil space and crop rotation.  It has so many time-saving implications for us, which we, quite simply, need.  It was hard to do.  But look, if you aren’t sometimes deciding to cut cool things with lots of potential out of your life, then you either aren’t cutting anything out of your life (which in turn means you are either living devoid of new opportunities, are extremely averse to adding new stuff, or are a kind of boring person) or it means all the things you are cutting out of your life are uncool, which means part of your life wasn’t cool.  So having to cut cool things means our whole life is cool, right?

Not if it’s too full, it’s not.  Working at awesome projects with too little sleep and a stress level that makes your brain buzz is not cool at all.  Don’t we all know on some level that choosing less involvements and doing them well produces the highest quality, most fruitful work?  Haven’t we all seen people whose attention is so divided between all the great things they do that they never have a chance to see anything through?  Yeah…me, too.  It’s painful to watch.  It’s also a painful person to be.  I should know!

This tangential discussion is included here to highlight the effect of limitations, and the very gritty process of coming to terms with them.  In our case, we never have, and never will have, enough time or energy to enact all the valid ideas we come up with: ideas for making the world, and our spot in it, into a better place for us and everyone else, too.  But who else is doing this?, my mind demands to know.  Who will do this if you don’t?  To this I respond, A decent point, Mind, but now I have a few questions for you:  What good is it to start a bunch of stellar examples of ways to heal what is broken that we can’t even maintain well enough for folks to understand them?  And how appealing does all of this look anyway when we are running all over the place, day after day, just trying to keep up?  Hey, would you hold still and listen when I’m talking to you, you crazy monkey?!

In this highly personal example, perhaps the reader can see a hint of a process that is endemic to the sustainable agriculture subculture.  Many, many of the folks who stand behind the booths at your local farmer’s market or who hand out your CSA box are running themselves ragged trying to keep up with this thing.  It is love that keeps them in it, and the sure knowledge that they are right where they know they need to be, but love can be a hard master.  Eventually, those of us who care about this stuff are going to have to reckon with this illusion of limitlessness that we labor under.  I hope we can allow the discovery of our limitations to point us to a process of nesting ourselves, like the good artists we are, within the system of limits that is found in each of our places and in so doing achieve the balance we so desperately need, thus transcending ourselves finally in the only way it is actually possible: becoming part of a dynamic, growing, whole community; giving our work, our creativity, our very selves to it.

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