Sustainability

IMG_4062.JPG

I can’t believe how quickly time is flying by these days. It seems like 2015 started just the other day, and now it’s almost August…

Where have I been this whole time? Well, let’s see. After my trip to Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage last Fall, I returned to California, feeling almost certain that I was going to pack up and move there in the near future. Yet, as I contemplated my next steps, the word that kept rattling around in my head was: sustainability. It was a concept I’d spent weeks thinking about and talking to people about with at Dancing Rabbit. After all, as an ecovillage, environmental sustainability is a fundamental aspect of the community, and is perhaps what they are best known for. But, what I learned in my weeks there is that there are many other facets to sustainability that are critically important. At the end of the day, any endeavor, environmental or otherwise, is only impactful to the extent to which it can sustain itself. This is true of businesses, non-profits, social movements, and of course, individuals.

Having gone through a couple of cycles of working, then burning out, then going off the (literal or proverbial) grid, then going back to work, it was clear that what I lacked in any of the things I did, was sustainability. Living in the woods was emotionally and environmentally sustainable, but not financially sustainable, and to some degree, also not existentially sustainable (living alone in the woods, I often felt a lack of a sense of purpose). Working in the city was financially sustainable, but not emotionally or existentially sustainable.  So, it seemed clear that what I needed was to build a life that was financially, emotionally, and existentially sustainable, and to find a way to make that environmentally sustainable to the extent that I could.

Once I was able to frame life as this multi-variable sustainability equation, solving it became easier. Though the last several years have been tumultuous in many ways, by throwing myself into a myriad of situations (too many to list here), I was able to learn a lot about what I liked and didn’t like, what worked for me, and what didn’t. I had learned that I need a sense of purpose. I learned that I need to feel like what I’m doing has a positive impact on peoples’ lives in a tangible way. I learned that my work needs to align with my values. I find fulfillment in making things, and want to work with other people. I need a good balance between time to myself and time with people I feel connected to.

Long story short, I feel very fortunate with, and very happy about where I ended up these past several months. In February, I started working for an education startup in San Francisco, where I spend my days helping build a modern primary education system from the ground up. I joined the team after I heard about what they were doing, and thought to myself: “Wow, that’s the school I wish I could’ve gone to.” Coming from someone who hated school, that’s saying something. The one downside is that I don’t get to spend as much time in Serenity Valley, but I’m feeling pretty ok about that. At this point, it feels like a long term project, and I feel fortunate to have such an awesome “hobby” along with a job I love. You can’t ask for much more, really.

But, don’t worry. While the updates may be far and few between, this project is far from over. I still have Hut 3.0 to build, and I still have a dream of someday spending a year homesteading on the property… someday, when I have a family.

(Radically) Re-thinking Water in the West

IMG_3062

There was an article recently in the NYTimes about the drought in California, and how in Tulare County, “more than 500 [households] cannot flush a toilet, fill a drinking glass, wash dishes or clothes, or even rinse their hands without reaching for a bottle or bucket.” With wells going dry, people are left with no running water, and are living dependent entirely on bottled water or water hauled in from elsewhere. The article describes one family as having spent “hundreds of dollars” on laundromats and disposable dishes. On the other hand, a county emergency services official is quoted as saying “We can’t offer anyone a long-term solution right now. There is a massive gap between need and resources to deal with it.”

As the drought in California continues, and may become worse with climate change, a long-term solution is obviously needed. And, it’s not that there aren’t any solutions. I have neither municipal water nor a well on my property, and even in this drought, I have enough water in my tanks to live off of and even irrigate a small garden.

While there are no silver bullets, here are a few “radical” water conservation techniques I use in my life, that you won’t find in the official suggestions:

  • Rain catchment — Even during a drought, there’s precipitation. Porterville (the town mentioned in the article) receives an average of 11 inches of precipitation from October through May. Let’s say that figure is more like 6 inches in a drought, but if it were collected off of a 1000 sqft roof, that’s 500 cubic-feet or 3740 gallons of water. That may not seem like much, but it’s equivalent to 60 – 100 loads of laundry, or over 2000 toilet flushes (for modern 1.6gpf toilets) or 150 ten-minute showers (with efficient 2.5 gpm heads). Water tanks are somewhat expensive, at $0.60 – $1 per gallon, but it’s a relatively small price to pay to guarantee something you literally can not live without.
  • Be a dirty hippie (or just dirty) — I wash my pants about once a month, I wear the same shirt 2-3 times, I shower about once a week, and I’ve never gotten complaints from friends, girlfriends or coworkers, nor have I suffered any ill effects on my health (there’s even some evidence that exposure to some filth is good for you). Granted, because domestic water use is such a small slice of the overall water pie, this won’t solve the West’s water crisis. But, the less water you can live off of comfortably, the more options you’ll have. If you want to spend 100 gallons per day like most Americans do, rain catchment won’t viably cover your needs. But if you’re happy living off of 5 gallons a day, rain catchment can fulfill your needs, even in many of the driest parts of the country.
  • Composting toilets — According to the EPA, an average American family of four uses 400 gallons of water a day, with almost 27% of it getting flushed down the toilet. So water-less composting toilets could reduce water consumption by a quarter, reduce waste that needs to be processed in sewage plants, while producing valuable compost. Composting toilets are probably impractical in dense dwellings, but it should be an option in more sparse areas, such as those chronicled in the article. Part of the reason it’s not a popular option right now is partially due to the (misplaced) “ick” factor, but also because its legal status is unclear. To help make homes more drought-tolerant, building departments and health officials should not only embrace composting toilets, but should be encouraging it.
  • Eat less beef (and meat in general) — About 80% of California’s developed water supply goes to agricultural use, and a sizable percentage of that goes towards forage and hay for livestock (mostly cows). A pound of beef takes 1799 gallons of water to produce, and in 2012 we consumed 54 pounds of beef per person. In case you’re wondering, at 1799 gallons/pound, that would’ve required 97,146 gallons of water. While vegetarians and vegans might try to tell you to cut out meat entirely, that could be a hard pill to swallow for some of us. But what if we replaced half of our beef consumption with chicken, without even reducing overall meat consumption? Since chickens require significantly less water per pound (468 gallons/lb) than beef, just replacing a half of our annual beef consumption with chicken would reduce our water usage by 35,937 gallons per person per year. Replace 90% of our beef consumption, and that figure goes up to 64,686 gallons. In comparison, shortening showers by 5 minutes a day would only save 4500 gallons over the course of a year (assuming you shower every day, and have a 2.5 gpm head).
  • Don’t play golf (in the desert) — Golf courses account for a disproportionate amount of water consumption for the number of people it serves. The Palm Springs area alone has 57 golf courses that each use a million gallons of water a day. If you love to play golf, more power to you, but I kindly request that you move to a place where it rains enough that the grass doesn’t need to be irrigated.

Ultimately, water is a unique environmental issue in that there is no substitute, and there’s no economically viable way to make more of it. In the coming decades, ensuring water security is probably going to require more than just shorter showers.

Thoughts on the “Death” (or Avoidance) of Adulthood

I recently read a lengthy (and somewhat meandering) treatise titled “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture” by the film critic A. O. Scott over in the New York Times Magazine, which sparked some thoughts, since the topic of adulthood is something that’s been on my mind.

Scott notes that Hollywood has been pushing a “juvenile vision of the world”, presumably because that’s what consumers want (this comes after he cites another piece where it was noted that a third of young-adult fiction buyers were adults 30-44).

In my main line of work as a film critic, I have watched over the past 15 years as the studios committed their vast financial and imaginative resources to the cultivation of franchises […] that advance an essentially juvenile vision of the world. Comic-book movies, family-friendly animated adventures, tales of adolescent heroism and comedies of arrested development do not only make up the commercial center of 21st-century Hollywood. They are its artistic heart.

[…]

What all of these shows grasp at, in one way or another, is that nobody knows how to be a grown-up anymore. Adulthood as we have known it has become conceptually untenable. It isn’t only that patriarchy in the strict, old-school Don Draper sense has fallen apart. It’s that it may never really have existed in the first place, at least in the way its avatars imagined.

But he notes that this tendency to idolize adolescence isn’t anything new, and may in fact even be traced all the way back to this nation’s birth:

We Americans have never been all that comfortable with patriarchy in the strict sense of the word. The men who established our political independence — guys who, for the most part, would be considered late adolescents by today’s standards […] — did so partly in revolt against the authority of King George III, a corrupt, unreasonable and abusive father figure. It was not until more than a century later that those rebellious sons became paternal symbols in their own right. They weren’t widely referred to as Founding Fathers until Warren Harding, then a senator, used the phrase around the time of World War I.

… and early literature.

From the start, American culture was notably resistant to the claims of parental authority and the imperatives of adulthood. Surveying the canon of American literature in his magisterial “Love and Death in the American Novel,” Leslie A. Fiedler […] broadened this observation into a sweeping (and still very much relevant) diagnosis of the national personality: “The typical male protagonist of our fiction has been a man on the run, harried into the forest and out to sea, down the river or into combat — anywhere to avoid ‘civilization,’ which is to say the confrontation of a man and woman which leads to the fall to sex, marriage and responsibility. One of the factors that determine theme and form in our great books is this strategy of evasion, this retreat to nature and childhood which makes our literature (and life!) so charmingly and infuriatingly ‘boyish.’

And this is where I take a deep breath. “Harried into the forest… retreat to nature… infuriatingly ‘boyish'”. If my mom read that, she might be nodding in agreement. And if some women my age were reading this, they also might agree with this perception that men like me “avoid … confrontation of a man and woman which leads to the fall to sex, marriage and responsibility.”

Is that why I run off to the woods? Am I trying to run away from marriage and responsibilities?

For me, it’s a bit more complicated. I actually do want to get married. Getting married, though, requires a willing partner. And after years of dating, one thing I’ve learned is that women want men to not just have traditional features like financial stability and competence, but to also be happy (on online dating sites, a surprising number of women list “you’re happy” as a requirement for a match). For me, that’s a tricky one. Happiness has always been elusive, but what I’ve figured out so far is that to be sustainably happy: I need to be in nature, I need to have a fulfilling purpose, and I need supportive relationships. And, to be honest, I haven’t figured out how to balance those things (I’m interested in rural ecovillages because at least they combine nature with community, while living in the woods combined nature and purpose).

So, marriage requires happiness, which for me requires purpose. This is another reason I have a tendency to avoid civilization: I have a difficult time finding purpose in civilization. This might have something to do with the basic fact that I think “civilization” (which usually implies a predominantly urban society) as we know it is fundamentally flawed, and I’m more interested in investigating life outside the boundaries of what most people consider to be civilization.

To recap, I want to get married, but marriage requires happiness, happiness requires purpose and nature, both of which can be found outside civilization. And that is why I leave civilization.

Granted, my reason for being escapist is probably unique. But, to some degree, I see a similar conundrum among my peers. Whereas our parents’ generation was (apparently) content to have a stable job and stable life, my generation was raised with higher aspirations. We were raised to strive for self-actualization, to pursue our passions and fulfill our purpose, rather than aiming for mere financial stability. We’re simply not content with financial stability the way our parents apparently were.

What’s more, the economics of our times turned out to be less optimistic. In a response to Scott’s article, over on Salon, Andrew O’Hehir notes that:

We now live in a culture (using the word in its anthropological sense) of diminished expectations and permanent underemployment, where many or most young people will never be as affluent as their parents. Lifetime job security is an antediluvian delusion, and in many metropolitan areas home ownership is out of reach for all but the rich. It’s just as useless to object to those changes as it is to complain about grownups reading Harry Potter books, but certainly those things were the essential underpinnings of classic adulthood, and without them it’s no surprise to see the old order fading away.

So, we now have a generation of people who are trying to pursue their passions on the one hand, without access to stable or well-enough paying jobs to afford things like a house or even kids on the other hand. From a certain perspective, this could appear rather adolescent. Older generations might argue that home ownership and raising children was more important than self-actualization; that’s what they prioritized, after all. But that’s just not the world we live in.

Which isn’t to say that I’m defending the self-indulgent man-child of today. And here, I’m speaking less of the “poor but self-actualizing” types, and more the types who, in Scott’s words, “wallow in his own immaturity, plumbing its depths and reveling in its pleasures”. The world is too fucked up for an entire generation of men (and women) to wallow in immaturity and revel in pleasures.

The answer, in my opinion, isn’t necessarily to put on a suit and go to the cubicle farms, either (unless that’s what you want). Nor is the solution necessarily marriage and mortgage. Scott reminds us that the “adolescent” men of old, even as they rejected civilization, served a purpose:

they also, at least some of the time, had something to fight for, a moral or political impulse underlying their postures of revolt. The founding brothers in Philadelphia cut loose a king; Huck Finn exposed the dehumanizing lies of America slavery; Lenny Bruce battled censorship. When Marlon Brando’s Wild One was asked what he was rebelling against, his thrilling, nihilistic response was “Whaddaya got?” The modern equivalent would be “. . .”

Although Scott doesn’t say this, the lesson I drew was this: If you don’t want a stable job, a house, or to get married and have kids, then fine. But do something. Leaving civilization and being on the outside gives us the perspective to see what’s wrong with it, and also the ability to attack it without being caught in it. Not being a “grownup” gives us freedom. But freedom is a privilege, and with that privilege comes the responsibility to help those who are less free. At least, this is something I try to remind myself of on a regular basis.

Letting Go

IMG_3493
Heartbreak, unemployment, fire, and now embarking on another open-ended journey (I’m on the way to the airport as I write this draft). If this year has a theme for me, it’s definitely “letting go”.

It’s hard to let go. I don’t know if it’s true, but I heard that newly born babies have such strength in their hands that they can grab something and hold their weight. So it seems that we’re born with the ability to grab and hold on. And then we spend the rest of our lives learning to let go, until our moment of death when we finally let go of life itself.

What makes letting go particularly difficult for me, at times, is the fact that I’m a pretty tenacious guy. In many situations, that’s a virtue. If there’s something I want to accomplish, or a problem that needs to be solved, I’ll keep at it until I succeed. This trait has gotten me pretty far in life, and it’s something I’m proud of. But, sometimes, our gifts can also be vices, when applied in the wrong context. Sometimes, I need to make the difficult decision to let go, rather than to endlessly attempt to solve an intractable problem.

One tool I’ve come to appreciate in such difficult processes, is a ritual of some sort. I haven’t always been a big fan of rituals, having been exposed to quite a few of them through my Japanese heritage. The inexplicably rigid format of old rituals felt mechanistic, and I didn’t understand their underlying purposes or intentions. But, as I grow older, I’ve come to appreciate rituals for what they are: a way to externalize, visualize, embody, or make tangible an internal and invisible process, often in the presence of witnesses.

One ritual I enjoy and actively take part in, is the act of burning, which I experience annually at the Burning Man festival where a giant man-shaped effigy, a large temple, and other large pieces of art are burned every year in the vast emptiness of the Black Rock desert in Nevada. One of the wonderful things about burning is that it can symbolize and represent almost anything you want. To burn something, you need to create something to be burnt, which in itself can be a satisfying and meaningful endeavor. And when you light up a giant (non-destructive) fire, it almost always evokes a sense of wonder and beauty, and a sense of celebration. Or, burning an effigy can represent conquest, victory or at least resistance and rebellion. And burning something of value can symbolize a form of release and catharsis.

IMG_3491So, when I recently made the difficult decision to finally let go of a really amazing lady I madly fell in love with last winter and clung to for way too long after our attempted relationship fell apart, I decided to build something and burn it. After some thought, I felt it would be fitting to build a log cabin-shaped pyre to represent the hopes and dreams I had for a future with her, and then to burn it down to express my commitment to letting go. I told a few neighbors about this plan, who eagerly joined in on the project, and we spent an afternoon collecting fallen trees and felling skinny struggling trees from my pine forest. That process served the triple purpose of supplying building materials/fuel for our project, removing fuels from my woods to reduce the impact of a potential fire, and culling stragglers to give stronger trees more room to grow. Incorporating local sustainable materials and employing forest stewardship practices seemed only fitting considering how our shared love of nature and passion for environmentalism were partially what had brought she and I together. Once we’d collected a large pile of logs, we proceeded to stack them into a vaguely cabin-like shape, then filled it with dry tinder.

After the build, we broke for dinner. As we prepared dinner and waited for dusk to fall, nature gave a helping hand by blessing us with just enough rain to dampen the ground and eliminate our concerns of an un-contained fire. Then the sky cleared, the sun set, the stars appeared in a moonless sky. We trudged back up the hill in darkness, the chilly air moist with the smells of early autumn. We stood by our cabin-pyre, I said a few words, then lit it up. As the fire roared, shooting flames high into the sky, scattering embers among the stars, I let the heat and the light sear into my skin and mind…

IMG_3512.JPG

So, am I done? No. But the burn gave me a sense of finality. And every time my mind wanders back to her, the things I said or didn’t say, or the adventures we never went on, I remind myself: Let it go. You burned that cabin, remember?

Glass Half Full?

IMG_3475.JPG

Are you a “glass half full”, or a “glass half empty” kind of person? I’m sure you’ve been asked this before. The point of the question ostensibly is about whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist, and the lesson is that any given situation can be seen positively or negatively depending on how you choose to see it. How nice.

But, let’s think about this a bit more critically. Let’s say you arrive at your table at a nice restaurant, you sit down, and you notice that there is a liquid in your wineglass. Whether the glass is half empty or half full is the wrong question to contemplate. What you’ll be asking is “Why is there stuff in my glass that I didn’t ask for?” And if you call over the waiter and they offer to top off the glass, you might respond, with rightful indignation: “No, just give me a clean empty glass.”

As it turns out, there’s a fairly famous Zen parable that touches on a similar issue (adapted from the version found here):

One day an important man, a man used to command and obedience came to visit a Zen master. “I have come today to ask you to teach me about Zen. Open my mind to enlightenment.” The tone of the important man’s voice was of one used to getting his own way.

The Zen master smiled and said that they should discuss the matter over a cup of tea. When the tea was served the master poured his visitor a cup. He poured and he poured and the tea rose to the rim and began to spill over the table and finally onto the robes of the wealthy man. Finally the visitor shouted, “Enough. You are spilling the tea all over. Can’t you see the cup is full?”

The master stopped pouring and smiled at his guest. “You are like this tea cup, so full that nothing more can be added. Come back to me when the cup is empty. Come back to me with an empty mind.”

In the context of Zen, the teacup is a metaphor for the mind, and how, through meditation, we can clear our minds of thoughts, ideas, beliefs, and expectations that often hinder us more than they help us. Once we have cleared our minds, there is finally room for truth and enlightenment.

Emptiness/fullness can also be used to describe life itself. When someone says “my life feels empty”, that’s considered a bad thing. And conversely when someone says “my life is full”, that’s considered good. But, many of us, at one point or another, probably had/have “full” lives that were/are nonetheless stressful and unfulfilling. The fullness might come from obligations and responsibilities that we don’t find nourishing, but nonetheless occupy our minds and bodies from morning to night so fully that it leaves us with no time to connect with ourselves and loved ones. The “fullness” prevents us from working towards or exploring a better life. This kind of “fullness” could hardly be said to be good.

After I quit my job back in mid-May, I’ve struggled with feelings of emptiness. I would wake up in the morning, and there would be no job or purpose awaiting me. No responsibilities, no obligations. Nobody waiting for me or relying on me. Just, emptiness. I found myself oscillating between trying to plunge myself into a project, or distracting myself by mindlessly staring into my computer screen. I doubted my self-worth. It challenged my work ethic. I even contemplated employment.

Instead of doing anything drastic, like getting a job (which I know I would hate as soon as I got), I decided to sit with this uncomfortable feeling of emptiness, and let it run its course. I’ve always had a difficult time dealing with uncomfortable feelings and situations, but one of my intentions over the past months has been to learn to live, confront, and play with uncomfortable things. So, how convenient it was that I would often wake up with this big hairy beast called Emptiness sitting on my chest?

And over the course of weeks and months, an interesting thing happened. I came to see this emptiness for the gift that it is.

For “emptiness” is really just another word for “freedom” and “opportunity”. An empty glass can be filled with anything. I am about as free as any man has ever been in the history of mankind. And that’s no understatement. I am bound by fewer social and cultural norms and obligations than just about anyone in history. I don’t have a boss. I don’t have a wife or kids. I have few financial obligations. I have mastery over some of the most complex and powerful technologies the world has ever seen. I can make practically anything. I have the ability to go anywhere in the world, and do just about anything I damn well please. I can enter any relationship, any occupation, any adventure that comes my way that I choose. And I can do it at the drop of a hat, because I’m an empty glass.

Granted, not everybody is as lucky as I am, but regardless of your circumstances, if you have a glass that is half empty/full, I suspect one of the following two cases is often true: 1) You enjoy what’s in the glass, and you want it to be topped off, or 2) You’re not enjoying what’s in the glass (any more) and you want the glass to be empty, perhaps so it can be filled with something else.

Of course, actual life is never that simple. We’ll never have a life full of just the good stuff, and we’ll never empty our lives completely. But, instead of thinking about whether the glass is half empty or full, we should think critically about what is in there, and what is not. We should be mindful about what we put into our lives, because for every thing that we put in, we reduce space for something else. And we shouldn’t be afraid of taking things out of our lives, to free up space too.

So, the next time someone asks if we’re a “glass half full” or “glass half empty” kind of person, I propose we answer thusly: “I don’t do half-full/empty glasses. I want my glass to be full with something awesome, or otherwise I like it empty and clean so I can fill it with what I want.”

Thoughts From a Short Visit to Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage


As I sat in a toilet stall in Terminal 1 of the Minneapolis St. Paul airport, I thought to myself, “this is nuts”. There I was, depositing my output in a pool of potable water, about to flush it with even more potable water, to be sent to a treatment plant where the sewage would be processed using electricity generated in large part by burning coal. No part of that made any sense.

Twenty-four hours and a few hundred miles prior to that, I sat similarly in a communal stall, except this one was over a bucket. When I was done with my deposit (lovingly called “contributions” by residents), I had simply covered it up with a bit of saw dust. The bucket would be carried down to the compost heap, and a few years later, the resulting compost would be spread in the garden to enrich the local clay-y soil, which in turn would help produce food to be consumed. That made sense.

When I decided to visit Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage in rural Missouri, I told some friends that I was visiting a “crazy hippie commune.” I wasn’t entirely serious about the “crazy” label, but even I didn’t quite anticipate how sane the place would feel, and how crazy the “real world” would seem once I came out of the experience.

***


Let me step back. In late July, I spent several days at Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage to attend a workshop. Located in north-eastern Missouri, about 3 hours from St. Louis near the town of Rutledge, Dancing Rabbit (DR) is part of a cluster of 3 sustainability-focused intentional communities (the other two communities are Sand Hill and Red Earth farms). Originally founded in the late 90s by a group of young Stanford and Berkeley grads from the Bay Area, the village today is home to some 40 to 70 residents and visitors of all ages, including over a dozen children. They live in accordance with a small number of covenants, most of which are designed to make life more environmentally sustainable, while still allowing for enough flexibility to be accepting of a range of personal preferences in areas such as diet, technology use, spirituality and community involvement.

Perhaps one of the most noticeable physical characteristics of the community is its structures (see pictures). In addition to one large dorm-style two-story straw bale building, most members live in a wide variety of shelters, ranging from tents and converted busses and shacks, to beautiful and modest yet comfortably sized single family homes. What gives the place and its structures a distinct look is probably the combination of one of the covenants (that all structures use natural materials and locally harvested or reclaimed lumber) and the county’s lack of building codes. The covenant banning new lumber has practically forced folks to replace traditional stick-framed construction methods and factory-made materials with beautiful local natural materials, while the lack of building/zoning codes has allowed for experimentation and creativity. Since there are no codes to dictate minimum house sizes or densities, and there’s no requirement for homes to have road frontage, the village is densely inhabited but with enough green spaces and gardens interspersed such that it doesn’t feel crowded. I was also told that warrens (as plots of land are called there) and structures were planned specifically to encourage interaction among residents.

I was impressed with the community’s commitment to environmentally sustainable practices. Although the village is now hooked up to the electricity grid and city water, they are incredibly mindful of those resources. Most folks seem to be living off of harvested rainwater, and I heard the community generates 3-4x more electricity through solar panels and wind turbines than it uses (they got tied to the grid to be able to charge an electric vehicle, essentially using the grid as a buffer, which IMO is probably more environmentally friendly than the alternative: a big bank of lead-acid batteries). Some people use gas for cooking (though I did see quite a few solar ovens and a couple of cob ovens), but they rely on passive heating and locally harvested firewood for warmth in the winter. They also share just 4 cars among the entire village, and supposedly use something like 94% less fuel per person than the average American (on driving). Overall, other than the restrictions around building materials, the sustainability practices seemed quite similar to how I’ve lived on my property.

What impressed me most, though, about DR was the fact that the community functions at all, and has for almost two decades. It’s one thing to get a bunch of idealistic young hippies together in one place. It’s another to go from 6 to 60 people, and have a community in the middle of nowhere where people can live reasonably comfortable lives. Granted, even in my short stay, it was clear that not everything was peachy. The last of the original founders had just left indefinitely a few days before I got there, and I caught glimpses of some large disagreements about the future of the community. Nonetheless, it appeared that they had figured out an economic model and governance model that was functional and self-sustaining, which alone is quite impressive.

Since I mentioned it, I’ll try to briefly describe their economic and governance models. Keeping the cost of living low seems to be a priority, and most residents pay land use fees (I think on the order of tens of dollars a month, depending on home and lot sizes) as well as 2% of their income. Sources of income seemed to vary quite a bit: food stamps, trust funds, working in the village or for the nonprofit, working online, renting cabins, etc. The village and umbrella non-profit organization also makes money from hosting workshops and visitors, but it wasn’t clear how much that accounted for the village’s revenue. Other than that, people pay for their own needs, in some cases by buying into individual co-ops (for food, for transportation, for showers, for power, etc). As far as governance goes, they have an interesting streamlined version of a consensus-based model, where functional areas are broken into separate committees. The committees are responsible for taking proposals through a consensus-based process, but eliminates the need to have everybody in the village in the same room at the same time for all decisions. There’s also a village council and a system called “power levels” that delineates what kind of decisions can be made where (I think) but my understanding is murky on those areas.

***


When I think back at what it was like there, this is what I experience in my mind: Wind turbines whir overhead, the sound intermixed with the laughter of children playing on the dirt paths as a couple of old dogs look on and a pair of ducks waddle by. The people seem relaxed, and happier. They stop to interact with each other. All around, we’re surrounded by the green hues of trees and gardens, the blue of the sky, and the bright yellows and oranges of colorful houses blending into the landscape with more crooked lines than straight ones. It’s pretty damn idyllic.

My first moments of arriving at DR reminded me of the trope often seen in post-apocalyptic narratives: the promised land where people live happily and peacefully, free of whatever ails the world around them. Here, I thought to myself, people live sane and sustainable lives, in community. It combined aspects of what I loved about living on my property, with what I’ve been searching for more recently: a community. It opened my mind and eyes in the way that my first Burning Man did; it made me realize that another kind of life and society was possible. I don’t know if DR, specifically, is my ideal. But it made my ideal a little bit less of an abstract dream, and more of a reality than it ever was.

Yet, when I step back, big questions also loom in my mind. As impressive as it is that this community that started with half a dozen dreamers has grown to a village with dozens of people, is this The Answer? Some folks at DR want to grow the village to a 1000 people, which seems like quite a challenge. And even if the model could be replicated 1000 times over, which, again, sounds like quite a challenge, that’s still only 1 million people out of the over 300 million people in our country. And, let’s not forget the rest of the world. There are around a billion people who live in rapidly developing countries where, over the coming years and decades, they may achieve the kind of affluence that will allow them to live increasingly energy and resource intensive lives. So, in the grand scheme of things, getting a large number of people to slightly change their behaviors might be far more impactful than getting a tiny number of people to live drastically different (albeit sustainable) lifestyles.

This conundrum may, in many ways, be at the root of my inability to choose definitively between a rural life and a life in the city. I am happier in a rural setting, and I want to live a lifestyle that is congruent and consistent with my values. But what draws me to the city, at least partially, is the promise to affect change from the belly of the beast. That is the promise of Silicon Valley and the San Francisco Bay Area: it’s the place where a great deal of technological, cultural and social changes were/are born and disseminated throughout the country and the world. Even Dancing Rabbit started there, before moving to Missouri. But, then again, Silicon Valley’s focus these days seems to have been redirected more towards getting rich quickly, rather than changing the world for the better. And I haven’t figured out how I can orient my skills and experiences to push for a more sustainable world in an impactful way. Perhaps nobody has.

I’m returning to Dancing Rabbit in October for their 3 week visitor program. My intention is to learn more about the inner workings of DR, and to also more fully experience life in an ecovillage. But, in the back (or front) of my mind will be this question about where and how I want to live, and how I want to orient myself to engage the world. I don’t expect to have answers. But I hope to have another piece or two to fit into the puzzle of my life.

I’ll be living in this cozy little “Summer Cabin” when I return in October!

Fire Threatens Serenity Valley

I was heading up to my property on Saturday, just like I would any other time, when I saw a giant column of smoke in the general direction of my property once I got to the nearest city, about 1.5 hours away. I looked online, and found that there was a massive fire within miles of my property.

I headed up to towards my property, fearing the worst, but knowing that there wasn’t much I could do one way or the other. I got stopped at a road block about 45 minutes away from my property, due to a different fire. Fortunately, the cop told me of a way to get around the roadblock, and I was able to get on the county road towards my property right around dusk. I expected to get stopped, but there were no road blocks, and I checked in with firefighters huddled by the road to make sure it was safe, and nobody told me not to continue.

It was a huge relief once I got to my property, and to see it still unscathed, for the moment — there were plenty of signs that this one might be close. The ground was littered with ashes and bits of charcoal, and orange fire retardant had been dropped on my cabin and surrounding areas. The air was thick with smoke, and even though I tied a wet towel around my face, there were moments when I felt light-headed and almost asphyxiated.

I spent most of the night doing what I could. I first loaded up the car with things worth saving (mostly things of high replacement value or high sentimental value), then I spent a few hours fireproofing my cabin. I’d read that structures tend to catch when burning embers get in, rather than from radiative heat that comes from a nearby fire. So I cleared flammable debris from the base of the cabin and put up a skirt to keep burning embers from getting underneath. Then I took down the gutters so that embers wouldn’t gather there, and I used heat-resistant foil tape to cover some exposed wood and foam insulation. I also cleared dry and dead vegetation from around the cabin.

Throughout the night, I also took frequent breaks in my cabin. I put on some music, ate some food, and sat there as I would on any normal night, trying to enjoy and appreciate the chance to spend some time there, perhaps for the last time. It felt like seeing off an old friend. Even though I’ve only had it for a few years, it was shelter. It protected me from the sun, the wind, the rain, the snow, and -10F nights. It was the one place I could come to, no matter how rough life got, and stay for as long as I needed. In some ways, the cabin was the most dependable friend I’ve ever had. Until now.

It was also a good reminder that nothing lasts forever. Life sometimes feels like nothing but a lesson in letting go. Letting go of the old to let in the new. And in some ways, that’s what this forest fire was about. Fire is part of the ecosystem. There are seeds that only sprout when there’s a fire. Fire maintains balance and nourishes the soil. Sure, the fire ecology here is out of balance… but that’s our doing. By not letting ourselves allow for healthy burns, we’ve set ourselves up for unhealthy burns. This seems like an important lesson, in all aspects of our lives.

I worked until 4am, then decided to take a nap. Partially because I was tired, but partially because I wanted to sleep in my cabin, one last time. But I also knew that, even though the fire was staying put, that anything was possible once the sun came up and the winds started blowing. So I allowed myself a 2 hour nap, got up, finished packing, shot the video, and headed into town. They shut off the road for good just as I was leaving.

Last I heard, the fire, which has burned tens of thousands of acres, had reached a road 200 yards from my property line the day before I was up there. That line seems to have held so far.

IMG_3277

Ten Life Lessons Backcountry Backpacking Taught Me

14380490986_9cf4048fab_b

I’ve gone on a couple of solo backcountry backpacking trips, and both occasions proved to be excellent opportunities for introspection and reflection. There’s something about paring my life down to the very bare minimum and spending my time in nature that allows me to go deeply into myself, and to confront parts of myself that I otherwise might run/hide from in an ordinarily busy life. I’ve also found that backpacking in particular, of all activities, seems to have many parallels to life it self. Here are some “life lessons” that I’ve extracted while backpacking (though, I must add that these are lessons that I find myself often having to relearn).

  1. It’s a process, not a destination – Backpacking is one of the relatively few activities where it’s really about the process rather than the results. That is, every minute of backpacking is backpacking. It’s backpacking when you’re walking, it’s backpacking when you stop to admire the scenery, it’s backpacking when you’re in your tent, it’s backpacking when you’re pooping in a hole, it’s backpacking when you’re cooking, it’s backpacking when you’re eating. Every minute of it is backpacking. And life is like that too, though it’s easy to forget. I think it’s easy to get into a trap of thinking like life will happen once you’ve achieved/obtained/finished this or that. But the reality is, every minute of life is life. It’s life when you’re working, it’s life when you’re playing, it’s life when you’re sad, it’s life when you’re happy. It’s life when everything seems to go wrong, and it’s also life when things go well. Every minute of our existence is life, so we should do what we can to make the most of it.

  2. It’s hard, most of the time, and that’s normal – Backpacking isn’t exactly a picnic at the park. You have a heavy pack, you’re probably hot or cold, you’re dehydrated, the food isn’t great, your feet hurt, your shoulders ache, your hips are chafed, there are bugs and filth, maybe there are bears or snakes, and you’re never there yet. But if you love backpacking, you learn to accept all of this. Sure, you try to make yourself comfortable as much as possible, but I don’t think any backpacker has illusions of it generally being easy or comfortable. And once you accept that it is what it is, you barely notice the discomfort and you become more receptive to the good parts. I find that life is like that too. Life is hard. If you delude yourself into thinking that it should be peachy all the time, you will be dissatisfied, frustrated and maybe depressed most of the time, and if you’re dissatisfied or frustrated most of the time, you won’t be in a mindset to appreciate the finer moments. But if you accept that life is often hard, and things don’t always go the way you want, then it paradoxically becomes easier to accept setbacks unfazed and appreciate those good moments.

  3. You need less than you think – Whenever I go backpacking, I’m struck by how little I truly need to feel happy. Water, food (and not much of it), shelter. That’s pretty much it. Sure, eventually I’ll want to bathe. Sometimes I miss human contact. But I believe it’s important to know what your needs are, vs what your wants are. Needs are things that keep you alive and physically or mentally healthy. Everything else is a want. Most things in modern society are wants. A big house? A want. A shiny new phone? A want. A nice vacation? Probably a want. The prestigious job? A want. You can tie your happiness and sense of self worth to your wants, but you don’t have to, and don’t worry, letting go of your wants won’t kill you either (that’s the definition of a want). That’s not to say that you shouldn’t get things you want. But I find that I appreciate getting what I want more, because rather than feeling like I’m getting something I’m entitled to, I can feel like I received an unexpected gift.

  4. The things you carry should nourish you – You might think of backpackers as “people who walk around with big heavy packs”. And to some degree, this is true. But the point of backpacking isn’t to walk around with a heavy pack. The heavy pack is there as a necessity, so that we have what we need to keep going. That also means, though, that there’s no reason to carry things that we don’t need. In fact, many backpackers religiously reduce waste, shaving grams and ounces where ever possible. When you’re backpacking, anything you carry that doesn’t serve you in some way is basically unnecessary baggage (more on this below). In our society, I think it’s easy to think that the goal is to collect as much stuff and responsibility as we can. After all, if you have a bigger house, more money, more kids, and a fancy job title with big responsibilities, we’d probably call you “successful.” But, does that really make us happier? For some, maybe, but for others, maybe not. I think the analogy of the heavy pack is one worth keeping in mind. When you’re thinking about adding a new burden to your life, whether it’s a mortgage, or a car loan, or a child, or a fancier job, I think it’s worth asking “Is it really worth adding this burden to my life?” And if the answer is no, don’t put it in your “pack”. If whatever you’re signing up for doesn’t nourish you, it’ll just weigh you down.

  5. Carry your own baggage – When you’re backpacking, you should try to be as self-sufficient as possible. Sure, if you’re with a group or with another person and you want to distribute the load, there’s nothing wrong with that. But, as a general rule, you should carry your load, and this is particular true if you have ‘baggage’ (as defined above, something you’re carrying that you don’t need). I believe this holds true in real life too. As someone who admittedly has perhaps a bigger load of historical baggage than others, this is perhaps the one lesson I struggle with most. But, it’s one I like to remind myself often, and if someday I am fortunate enough to find someone to share the load with, I would like to think that I’d be able to carry my own baggage.

  6. If the spring is dry, go to the next one – When I’m backpacking in the backcountry, I rely on springs (or ponds, streams, lakes) for water. Water, of course, is absolutely necessary to survive out there, so there’s inevitably a strong emotional attachment to finding water at the springs I visit. Naturally, and especially on a draught year like this one, many springs are dry, or barely give a trickle. It’s easy to be frustrated, or maybe even be slightly panicky, but that’s just a waste of energy. If this spring is dry, the sooner I can accept that and move on, the sooner I’ll actually get to water. We find “springs” in life too, to provide things we need. Maybe it’s a dream job, maybe it’s that cute girl/guy, or a high profile gig. Whatever it is, we want it, and we want it bad because we think it’ll give us something we need. Often times, it doesn’t work out. We don’t get the job, the girl/guy rejects us, or we don’t get the gig (or if we’re having a bad day, all of the above). As upsetting as it could be, the sooner we accept that we didn’t get what we wanted and move on, the sooner we will find the job, girl/guy, or gig that does work out.

  7. Know your North. Know your bearings – If you were to stop me in the woods and ask me which way was north, I’d be able to tell you. If you don’t know which way is north, you can’t navigate, and if you can’t navigate, you can’t know where you are or where you’re going. You’re lost. I’ve never gotten lost in the woods, but I’ve felt lost in my everyday life. I don’t mean ‘lost’ in the physical sense, but more in the sense that my life feels directionless and I find myself muttering to myself “I don’t know what I’m doing with my life.” Upon introspection, it usually turns out that it’s not that I don’t know what I’m doing; it’s usually that I’ve lost sight of what’s important to me — I’ve lost my True North. Once I remember what’s truly important to me, I can usually find my way back, or at least give myself a bearing to head in.

  8. Enjoy the scenery – When I’m backpacking, sometimes I’ll find myself in almost a zombie-like state, where I’ll be physically walking, but my mind will be entirely self-absorbed in some thought or another. When I’m in that state, I’m not present, and I’m not seeing what’s around me. So it helps to sometimes stop, take a deep breath, set aside whatever thought is occupying my mind, and take in the scenery. Sometimes all I see is trees. But sometimes I see breathtaking beauty, and all the hard work becomes worthwhile. Life can be that way too. We can get busy living our lives, doing work, running errands, dealing with whatever mini-crisis that has struck that day. But, I think it’s good to stop occasionally, and look around, both literally and figuratively. You may notice something you otherwise might’ve missed. You might gain a different perspective. You might see the big picture, and see that you’re sweating the little stuff. Whatever it is that there is to see, you’ll only see it if you stop and look.

  9. For a real adventure, go off the well-trodden paths – Paths are easy to follow without thinking. Sometimes that’s not a bad thing, if the path is taking you somewhere you know you want to go. But, when you step off the path, you need to focus on what you’re doing, and where you’re going. You need to check your progress, check your compass, scan ahead for potential hazards or openings through some thicket or perhaps a way down a rocky slope. It requires thought, focus, perception, creativity and decisiveness. It’s a richer experience than simply following a path, and it can also be hugely rewarding because you might reach a place nobody else has. We are often presented with well trodden paths in life too. Go to school, get a job, get married, buy a house, have kids… It’s all planned for you, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But if you want, you also can step off the path, and find your own way too. If nothing else, you’ll be in for an adventure.
  10. Learn to fall gracefully – If you walk enough, you will fall. It’s bound to happen. Learning to fall gracefully can save you from injury or worse. Likewise, if you live fully, you will suffer failures and setbacks from time to time. Learning to handle these challenges with grace will help you ultimately be successful, because if you let a setback stop you or deter you, you’ll never get there. If you don’t learn to accept failure with grace, you also may become more fearful of taking risks, and as they say, no risk, no reward. So, take risks, fail gracefully, then try again and repeat as often as necessary.

Home Again

Shortly after Project 31 ended on the 19th, I headed to the city. Having spent a month alone in the woods, I thought I’d have a good time. I thought I’d appreciate the creature comforts, the infinite electricity supply, the alawys-on (and unlimited) internet connection, the magically appearing clean water, heat at the flick of a switch, places where people cook and serve you food, close proximity to friends…

The first night in the city, I couldn’t sleep. I’d forgotten how loud the city is at night. The constant traffic, the early morning garbage trucks, the beeping car alarms, distant sirens, fog horns, people yelling, dogs barking. It also doesn’t get dark in the city. Streetlight streamed in through the window, casting an unnatural orange glow, penetrating my eyelids. And even the heating was overbearing. On the numerous occasions that my shallow slumber was interrupted, I’d wake up drenched in sweat, feeling clammy and icky.

After a few days, I got homesick. So I came home.

To my own house. My own bed. To silence, darkness, and minimal heating. I switched off my MiFi and left it in the car. I turned off my inverter — my battery array hasn’t fully recovered anyway. And I lit some candles, and settled in with a hot mug of tea and a book.

When I started Project 31, I secretly hoped that I’d be miserable. If I were miserable, I’d know that I should head back to the city. I could give up this crazy life, give myself credit for having tried, and return to a normal life. Have a normal job, live in a normal place, and fill my days doing normal things. I’d be convinced that normal is good. I could be happy with normal, if I could only be convinced that it’s good.

But, it’s not. At least, not for me. So, here I am again. Back on Serenity Valley.

March 11, the day of the earthquake in Japan, was the 2nd anniversary of this blog and also of my quitting Google. At the time, I thought my adventures would last a year, maybe 18 months tops. I didn’t yet know that I’d buy land, but even after I bought land, I’d only initially planned on staying here for a month or two.

Here we are now, two years later. What was once a bare patch of dirt, rocks, shrubs and trees is now my home. And I’m starting to realize that I may never go back to my previous life.

Sometimes I wish I could go back. Living a normal life is so much easier. The story’s practically written for you. You do what you’re told, and everything hums along. If you get confused, there are people who can help you. The people around you are living more or less parallel lives, facing more or less the same problems. The problems you face have solutions, and often well documented ones at that. There are concrete goals, and objective metrics to tell you how you’re doing.

But when you step off the reservation, you’re on your own. There’s no script to follow. Nobody to tell you where to go, what to do, or even what to strive for. All there is, is a vastness stretching out to the horizon. Somewhere out there, beyond the hazy horizon, your future awaits. It waits for no one, but you. You don’t know where it is, nor what’s there. But you approach it, one step at a time. One step. At a time.

People asked what’s next. Here’s the list of possibilities I’ve come up with so far:

  • Volunteer in Japan (mostly, I’m hoping that All Hands will start a project)
  • Start a Garden 2.0
  • Start a beehive
  • Raise chickens
  • Volunteer with Habitat for Humanity in Alaska (or Mongolia…)
  • Volunteer at a WWOOF farm
  • Volunteer with the local fire station
  • Volunteer with the Forest Service somewhere nearby
  • Get a job
  • Go back to school

I have a couple of other smaller projects in mind too, but those are the major ones I’ve come up with so far. I’ll probably end up doing some combination of the above, though some of them fit better together than others. I’m also planning on finishing the book in the next couple of months as well.

Anyway, welcome to Year 3. Let’s see and find out what this year has in store for us.

Thoughts on the whole nuclear power thing

I’ve been pretty distracted these past few days, closely following developments on the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan. At first, it was mostly an academic curiosity, but as conditions at the plant deteriorated day after day, it’s become more personal. My parents and my brother are in Tokyo, some 140 miles away from the plant, and while that’s far enough that they’re not in any immediate danger, it’s not far enough for me to feel completely comfortable. My brother may be leaving soon, but my mom’s not willing to abandon her hometown quite yet, which is understandable. So I’ve been keeping a close eye on the news, doing my best to understand what’s going on so that I could advise her should risks increase further.

I’m learning that nuclear disasters are fundamentally different to natural disasters. If you survive a natural disaster, you can rebuild. If your home collapses in an earthquake, as long as you survive the quake, you can rebuild. If a fire burns down your house, you can rebuild. If a tsunami washes away your house, you can rebuild. If a tornado or hurricane blows away your house, you can rebuild.

But when I suggested to my mom that she evacuate and she asked me if she’d be able to return, I couldn’t honestly promise her that she would. As unlikely as it is, if fuel in one of those exposed spent fuel pools melt or even goes critical and radioactive Cesium (or worse, Plutonium from one of the MOX fuel rods) is released, and radioactive materials get blown up high enough, and the wind blows just so, it could reach Tokyo. Cesium has a half-life of 30 years, so radiation levels may not decrease appreciably in my mom’s life time. She may never be allowed to go back again. I know it’s highly unlikely. But not impossible.

Before this particular nuclear crisis, if you asked me what I thought about nuclear power plants, I would’ve said that I had some reservations but was more supportive than not. After all, unlike coal and gas powered plants, nuclear power plants don’t release greenhouse gasses, and by reprocessing and recycling spent fuel, it’s possible to significantly reduce nuclear waste down to manageable quantities. While long-term storage of nuclear waste could be a problem, climate change is a more immediate threat, and anything we could do slow its progress seemed like a reasonable idea to me.

After this week, I think I’m going to have to consider myself a skeptic. I think mankind may possess the scientific and technological capability to build safe nuclear power plants. But, possessing the technology and scientific knowledge is one thing. Actually deploying that knowledge is another.

The disaster at Fukushima should not have come as a surprise to those who knew better. The Mark 1 nuclear reactors such as the ones used at Fukushima were known to have vulnerable containment designs that had a 90% chance of failing in the event of a meltdown. The containment design may, however, prove to be the lesser of flaws. The bigger issue at the moment is the spent fuel pools that store large quantities of fuel –enough to potentially reach critical mass– in pools outside the containment structures. Such a design would not be allowed to be built today, but it was allowed to operate in an earthquake- and tsunami-prone area for almost 40 years. That suggests to me that, perhaps, humans aren’t yet ready for nuclear power.

I certainly expect that this disaster, no matter how it turns out, will help mankind make nuclear energy safer. Hopefully, lessons will be learned. Numerous nuclear plants will likely either be shut down, retired earlier, or reinforced. Hopefully similar (or even dissimilar, for that matter) accidents can be prevented in the future.

But humans don’t always learn. The Fukushima nuclear power station went online in 1971. When vulnerabilities in the Mark 1 containment system were pointed out in 1972, nothing was done. When Three Mile Island happened in 1979, nothing was done. When Chernobyl happened in 1986, nothing was done. So it’s difficult to assume, that even after this incident, everything would be done to ensure the safety of nuclear plants everywhere.

So, the fact still remains: the surest way to avoid future nuclear accidents seems to be to stop using nuclear energy entirely. And I hope we do, because there are alternatives. The alternatives may be more expensive, but I’m willing to pay more if it means we’ll never again risk contaminating someone’s hometown with radioactive fallout.

I had to tell my mom that there was a possibility her hometown may become uninhabitable. Trust me. It’s not something you ever want to have to tell someone.