Common Ground


These people with guns storming statehouses are just trying to do the right thing.

They’re failing miserably, but that’s where they’re coming from. A steady diet of hate mixed with a coldly calculated approach designed to find and weaponize common ground has created a deeply divided populace. It’s hard to see the little man behind the curtain when you’re blind with rage and jacked up on words like liberty, freedom, and fascism. On either side.

There are a fair lot of us, however, who are isolated in our homes, doing what needs to be done, working from home and flattening the curve. These Astroturf demonstrations, widely covered, photogenic and deeply disturbing are designed to elicit a reaction from us. We don’t have to play along. We have other choices, but only if we calm down and think before we act. It’s hard to do, I know, when we’re confined to our own homes with only a television and the internet to connect us to the outside world. Can we see that this carefully curated–by each of us as well as by the powers that be–version of the truth is being used to return us to a status quo that no longer exists? Failing that, it will be a new normal that will benefit the holders of power–if we play along.

We are all in the same mess, together. We are nowhere near being in the same boat. Many of us are barely hanging onto the lines around the lifeboat, trying to keep our heads above the freezing water. Far more of us than should be are floating, dead, around the boat. A small number of us are living high, eating well and getting regular COVID tests, trying to figure out how to get past this unpleasantness before our core assets are affected. I am talking mainly to those of us who are in the boat with me–privileged enough to be able to stay home and watch all of this unfold as we work from home, or can survive there for long enough to get through lockdown, but in no way capable of doing it indefinitely. These protesters appear to be mainly of this segment of society, using their enforced leisure to protest, demanding the right to get haircuts and go outside. They are asking for “liberty,” not bread, and carrying expensive weapons instead of scrambling to make ends meet.

These people want a fight. The President who is egging them on knows that the more of a shambles he creates, the more likely he is to be able to steal a second term. Look over here and miss what I’m doing with the other hand has been his modus operandi from the beginning. The Republican party is now whittled down to the people who will go along with anything if they can profit from it, and as long as 45 keeps delivering the goods, they will do whatever it takes to keep him in the Oval Office.

The problem, as I see it, is we can’t fix any of this by ourselves. We got into this mess together, and that is the only way we are going to emerge. As it is now, a lot of people have died, and a lot more are going to. What we do now is crucial.

If there was ever a time for the Strength card, now is it. We can’t give the present holders of power what they want. We can do this without leaving our homes, luckily. It can begin quite simply. Stop spreading these news stories about the protesters. Stop whipping up the anger that makes us all act in ways we will regret later. If you’re living now and reading this blog, you know who I’m talking about. If you don’t, Google is your friend.

My mother used to say “Do nothing which is of no use.” It is the ninth principle in Musashi’s Book of Five Rings and while I have of course not always managed to act according to it, I have never forgotten it. It could easily be the touchstone for this pandemic. We are being exhorted, above all, to stay inside, if we can. To be modern Anchorites, albeit with a little more freedom and a temporary term, and leave the streets and public transit for those who have no choice but to go out.

I know I’m privileged. I’m working mainly from home. I am quarantined with only one adult, my partner, my best friend. We have only lost one of the jobs that support us, and my partner has an undetermined period of unemployment insurance while to figure out what her best options are. I’m spending what time is not devoted to work, helping her, and keeping us fed to things like restarting my blog and doubling down on daily practice. Making masks and writing to reps. Using the news as a tool, not letting it use me.

When I saw that angry, despairing post this morning, I saw a wise friend in pain. And yes, the first thought I had was that these people will probably get sick, and what could they expect? Not my finest moment, I agree.

I think sending in the National Guard is a demonstration of weakness, not strength. It would be proof that we are afraid of them and that they must have power. I don’t believe that for a second. If we want to meet them head on, we would do better to channel our inner Mel Brooks and Bugs Bunny. Here are some examples of what I’m talking about.

Protesting is a pain–even if you manage to get coverage–and most of the time you don’t. It is about as fun as beating your head against a brick wall, at least for me. These people are getting far more coverage than most, partly because of the guns. They’re not getting massacred or hauled away for many reasons, the largest ones painfully obvious; they’re white, and they’re not shooting. They also have great lawyers. They are not immune to COVID-19, however, and are going to add to the chaos and the body count. How long will they continue to do this hard, unfamiliar work once the sugar high of being constantly on the news ends? What will they do when people begin to get sick? How about when people close to them die?

When you’re in a hole, the first thing you have to do is stop digging. Sending in people to stop these people will only expose more first responders in the form of police and, if there is violence, health professionals, to possible infection. If these people want to dance around any Capitol in the country with guns, let them! Turn off the cameras, move the lawmakers online or to other locations to govern and let them play. Alone. See what happens. And think of some truly creative ways to make them look like buffoons, or better yet, find a way to frame the issue that they can’t ignore. And watch as time passes. How many of them are there, and are any more coming to join them? This is a trash fire, not a movement. Remember the Malheur Wildlife Refuge? Not sending in the Marines, so to speak, was a better idea then too.

In the end, we all know what needs to be done. We need to stay in. We need to make sure that the people who need it get money–that means all of us getting on the same page and lighting up the lines to all of our representatives for the things we actually need. Coronavirus relief for everyone who is not getting a steady paycheck. Healthcare and testing for everyone. I think it’s odd, for example, that today I’m going across the Bay to San Francisco to get a PCR test instead of walking six blocks up the hill to the public hospital. No more handouts for rich corporations. All of this is much harder work and far less exciting coverage, but other countries have managed it. Many hands make light work. This is only difficult because so few people are doing it.

We have a chance to change a lot of things right now, when every institution we thought we could count on has been upheaved. The Overton Window is WAY wider than it has been in a long time. Will we allow the change to be determined by the people now in power by letting them get by with this stuff, or are we going to show them and ourselves that the tools of democracy still work?

Believe it or not, there is plenty of common ground. We are all scared of having our freedom and our lives taken away. We all fear for our livelihoods and our future. We all fear our own government. We’ve forgotten that it’s ours. Talking, not shouting, with each other is the first step. The people on the steps with the guns will realize this eventually. There are a whole lot fewer of them than it seems on TV.

A woman in a white dress pushes a gaudy lion's mouth closed.


Hope is a Verb

Gibbous Earth rising over moon
Earthrise, Apollo 8, Dec 24th, 1969

“Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up.”  -David Orr, from the cover of the program book

I’ve always been curious about Bioneers, but between the location and the cost, I’ve always given it a miss. This year, however, we are feeling just a little more prosperous, and I bought a ticket months ago, at a reduced rate. I’m so glad I did, because the conference was fantastic! It was like going to the best parts of the Green Festival. The speakers are nothing short of inspirational, and they didn’t pretend to offer solutions. They did offer pragmatic assessments of a range of problems, and they dug deep for the short amount of time they had to get the message out. Bill McKibben, in particular, showed us a cellphone video of a collapsing glacier that was absolutely chilling. He told us about a video that you can see here, of the cost to the people who live in the cold places, and the low places.

Rise: From One Island To Another

These are working agents of change, not dreamers. They shared things they had learned from trying out various strategies, and how their mistakes had shaped their current thinking. Many offered actionable items. Not the things we already know we need to do, such as eating less meat and driving less, but actual things that can make a difference. Listen to people who are different from you, question the picture you have of an “environmentalist,” a “liberal,” a “conservative.” Realize that language matters, and that nobody likes to be told what to do, so meet people where they are. We don’t know where we’re going, we are in uncharted territory. We all have a piece of the answer in these times where what we do is crucial to our survival, and all our voices are equally important.

The tiny village that sprang up around the buildings was more about people than the marketplace—though it was indeed possible to drop some major money if you so chose. Yet I didn’t see any junk. No “green solutions,” nothing that was designed to catch the eye, but would be in the landfill in a month or two. No tables full of plastic “gimmes” that were frankly useless before they were even given out. Tables full of information put out by the various people who were there doing the work and looking for help to do more of it.

There were very few vendors, and they were selling socially conscious things, books (where my money went…), ethically made clothing—or demonstrating products that actually help change the way we do things. I came home, for example, with three samples of graywater safe laundry liquid that will solve a particular problem we currently have. Our washer line will not drain, and until I get a snake I’m using soap nuts and using the water as graywater. This makes it necessary to use hot water. We will see quite soon if our plants can tolerate it, and if they do, the product is sold concentrated, in glass. There was also a biogas composter that feeds a gas burner. This is out of our price range right now—but to have the option, when our circumstances change, to have a gas burner and fuel it with our compost, is definitely something I’m interested in. I loathe electric stoves, but had resigned myself to eventually going there…

The largest part of the marketplace was the organizations, though. People doing the work that needs to be done, available and willing to talk about their work, taking donations, gathering subscribers and selling a few things to support their work. I was able to learn a lot about organizations I’d never heard of, and as Nina Simons said in her remarks, synchronicity abounds there. I never expected to find the people I did, and I’m very grateful to have been able to make the connections. The World Cafe was set up specifically to be a space for networking and meetups and it was wonderful to see that much space devoted to doing these things at no charge.

The food vendors were few, but the food was excellent. Cafe Mam in particular was passing out free (EXCELLENT!) coffee in the main venue and selling coffee at the food court. No one had a problem with me handing them my scruffy steel cup, and nobody gave me a second look for cleaning it in the bathroom. That is rare. I also saw people handing over their own plates and bowls to be filled and it was treated as normal. I felt good instead of strange for whipping my bandanna and a slightly flat croissant out of my pack at the morning keynote. I carry food all the time this way, and the difference in atmosphere at this conference was palpable. The little things really do matter. Gender neutral bathrooms where everyone uses the stalls and the sinks? That was HUGE! It felt like going back to college, and forward into a world where gender truly doesn’t matter.

Nothing is perfect, however, but we are all products of the culture we live in. Marin Center is a nice venue, but it is completely car-dependent. I chose, for a few reasons, to do the conference on public transit. The first reason was economic. Renting a gig car for the weekend would have cost about $250 on top of the ticket, or considerably more if I’d even tried to get a hotel room. To be fair, I also expected to pay more the first time as I found out more about the conference and met people.

The second reason was also economic, but it was cultural as well. Buses serve a different segment of society, and they put one in contact with a different sort of Bioneer. Very, very few of us were on those buses. Marin County also gets much browner when you get on a bus that isn’t serving the commuter population. These people illustrated something that was, in fact, brought up at the conference. Environmentalists are largely seen as white. That shapes participation in very real ways. Heather McTeer Toney, whose credits include being the National Field Director of Mom’s Clean Air Force and the first African American Mayor of Greenville, Mississippi, brought this up in her keynote speech in a very revealing way. She showed us what an image search for “environmentalist” returns. When you get on the bus the demographics are reversed. I shared my Saturday morning bus with a young Asian activist coming for the first time to Bioneers. In many other ways than race, I could have been looking at myself at her age. I was going to living history events back then, instead of climate conferences, but that bus system was my lifeline to get to the North Bay. It hasn’t gotten any better in the last thirty years. At night, however, it was a couple of white women who were older than I am—the ones who were around when I was a kid in the sixties and were still walking their talk, and a couple of black men. We were all leaving early because this was the next to last bus from Civic Center.

I could have stayed longer if I’d been willing to hike out to the freeway bus pad, a little over a mile away. The last bus is around 11 there. I did that walk during the Friday lunch period because I wanted to know what it entailed. Again, the same demographics were in play as soon as I’d walked past the Civic Center. I was the only white person walking. The bus shelters were few and far between and occupied by brown people and kids. The route to the bus pad entailed crossing the on-ramp farther along a blind curve than I liked, and then crossing the offramp. That was why I eventually decided not to stay late. It was twenty feet of spooky with a narrow island in the middle and I decided not to chance it in the dark. I was very glad I’d chosen to have this experience though, because this is the reality of public transit, and it explains a lot about why we stay in our cars. It’s one of those negative feedback loops that need to change if we expect people to use the system unless they’re foolish idealistic adventurers like me or economic prisoners.

So I missed Caroline Casey on Friday night, someone I’d particularly wanted to see. One of the women I rode back to San Francisco with on Saturday night said that as usual, Caroline had run way over time, and it was only because she’d run into a friend who drove her to the transit center that she’d been able to get home at all that night. To be fair, I did have choices that many others don’t. I could have rented a car. I could have called my father and had rides, and/or a place to stay. I wouldn’t have learned as much, though, and we can’t change what we don’t know. For what it’s worth, on Friday evening I did one more experiment. I’d gotten to the bus stop a half hour early and I decided to go back to my college days and try hitchhiking. After all, I was a white woman in a skirt (and I admit, a strange Scots bonnet) with a conference badge hanging around my neck. Lots of people were leaving for dinner, and maybe I could get a ride to the transit center. Not one person would even meet my eyes, let alone stop. These people were more than willing to talk to me at the conference, but once I was standing in the road, I became a stranger. This is not really a value judgment on any one individual, more an illustration of the tragedy of the commons. This is where we are now, not where we will be in the future, depending on our choices. Cars, sadly, make us strangers, even at an event like Bioneers.

The conference does have a rideshare board, which is awesome, but they could do one simple thing to encourage the use of transit—and incidentally, to help out all of these young activists whose resourcefulness in transcending barriers of many kinds is astounding and who were properly celebrated at the conference. It’s something Renaissance Faire used to do for their actors, back in the 80s.

Please consider running a shuttle. Not all day long, or all night. Two trips would be enough, really. Mornings are probably OK, because the San Francisco bus is timed to meet the Civic Center bus at least on Fridays and Saturdays. A bus after the last panel and the early night events to the Marin transit center would really help. A bus at the end of the films and night events—say at 11, would be a godsend. It would allow those who take transit to walk our talk and not have to pay the price of missing the evening events. It would put us on a par with those who choose to drive, and maybe even get some of us out of our cars. We wouldn’t have to spend our conference time lining up a ride, we’d just have to show up at the entrance to the venue instead of walking all the way around the lake for buses that can’t take the conference schedule into account. This is one of the simple actions that would mitigate the fact that this very expensive conference is held in the middle of one of the largest transit deserts in the Bay Area.

I decided not to go back Sunday, though I regretted missing some of the panels. Transit and money were factors, but were not the decisive factors. When I talk about money, what I’m really saying is I needed to keep my butt out of the conference bookstore. So many EXCELLENT books! I took home as many as I can practicably read before they become part of the wiggling stack I intend to read “someday.” I made the connections I really needed to make and contact information was exchanged. I got a taste of how the world might be, and fresh inspiration to shape my part in the song of the future. I actually got to sing in an amazing workshop that introduced me to song circles, which I’d never heard of before.

I’m very glad I came. I’m on the fence about returning because there are so many places I can put the time and money that attending this event takes that will also help to change things. I considered volunteering, but again, the bar for entry is very high in so many ways. I love the Brigadoonlike community that springs up for a few days and then disappears for a year. The container that is created is a piece of a world that isn’t yet here, but might be. Getting a glimpse of what it could be like really does make a difference. The seeds planted here are vital to our survival and the things I learned here will stay with me for a long time. Riding the bus is such a small price to pay—but there are so many things that need to be done…

The tents and hay bales of Bioneers, with a large inflatable amanita mushroom in the middle.
A Bit of Bioneers

Walking is an Opportunity, Not a Chore

   I actually save time by walking to work, believe it or not. I do it by looking for the opportunities that can be found along the way. In permaculture, this is called the principle of stacking functions and it’s a way to save energy and make use of things that would otherwise be wasted. Time is a resource like any other, after all. We are all chronically short of it because most of us sell it far too cheaply in the form of our labor–but that is another subject for another post.
   I don’t have a car. Next March, as a matter of fact, I’ll hit the ten year anniversary of having watched my last vehicle roll out of my life on the back of a wrecker’s tow truck. I didn’t regret it then, and I don’t now. The money I have saved and the opportunities that have opened up for me because of that event are also another post in themselves.
   Today, I want to talk about my commute. With the exception of Saturdays, very early in my career, I’ve never commuted to my current job by car. I work in a very crowded part of San Francisco and between the traffic in town and the horrendous nightmare of the Bay Bridge at 5PM, it would actually take me longer to get home by car than it does on public transit. I didn’t realize for many years that the time to commute on public transit isn’t all that much longer than it is to walk.
   There are many routes available to all of us when choosing our commutes. There’s the fast way, there’s the scenic way. There are the various routes that take us past the places we need to visit for the errands that are necessary as part of life outside of work. This is as true for a commute on public transit and on foot as it is in a car. If anything, I actually have more options by broadening my modes of transport. I can easily avoid the Bay Bridge, for example. My choices are the BART system, AC Transit over the bridge, and the ferry to Oakland. The ferry ride is beautiful, but I don’t use it because it takes an hour just to get from ferry slip to ferry slip, and it’s far more expensive than BART. In a perfect world I would take it as it’s quiet, beautiful, a perfect opportunity to read something that requires concentration, or to write. The transbay bus has the advantage of cutting out the third bus ride, but factoring in the wait for the bus and the walk to and from the bus stop, it’s about as fast as the ferry slip to slip. It’s quiet and great for reading, though. BART is extremely unpleasant with the worn out fleet of cars and the related overcrowding, but it’s quick. So I take it.
   My choices open up at either end of that transbay tube, though. At night I opt for the fastest trip, which is also the most unpleasant, but I prefer the extra time to cook a good dinner rather than fast food or throwing something premade into the oven. I like sitting down to dinner with my partner each night. We both have long days and little time together during the week.
   My mornings are different. On my first trip to the UK, I ate whatever I pleased and stopped at every pub that had something interesting on tap. I came back twenty pounds lighter. How on earth could that happen? The secret was walking. I was on my feet, sometimes for ten-plus hours a day. I sat down on trains and buses, and when my feet hurt. Generally in a museum or a pub. For the anesthetic qualities of the excellent beer, you understand…
   When I came back last time, my friends had taken far too good care of me and I didn’t drop a single pound. The hospitality of English and Welsh Druids should be legendary, and if I have my way, it will be. I honestly didn’t care about my weight, my mind was full of ritual and wondrous nights spent around roaring fires, and walks through yew forests, and on the footpath system that also should be legendary. You can take slow, meditative walks and stop at conveniently located pubs. The scenery varies from the long views of the South Downs to towpaths along the rivers and canals to the forests and the wide ocean. I spent a few weeks in a bit of a funk, actually, missing my friends and the land I’d become so attached to in such a short time. But this is about my commute, right?
   I decided when I got back that I was going to start walking more. I started timing my walks from work to the BART station, and from the station to my house. I already knew, after all, how long each different route took me on public transportation and how to make the most of my time. I learned the mileage for the various routes and the times, and realized that walking to and from BART in the morning netted me a four mile daily walk and only took half an hour more. Better still, I could also squeeze in quick grocery stops along the way. Technically, we live in a food desert. We’re about a mile from the nearest supermarket, and being the only one in the area, its prices are high and the selection is not great. Therefore we both shop when we’re doing other things. My commute can take me past Safeway, Trader Joe’s, two excellent bakeries, and a few independent grocery stores. Some of these trips take a little longer, and are tacked onto the commutes at the last day of the week, but my regular marketing can be done in fifteen minutes or so at the beginning of the day. It is amazing how empty a grocery store is at 8 AM and how quickly you can shop if you know the store and only need a few things every day.
   So that extra half hour per day is not only getting me to work, it gets the shopping done and it gets my workout in. Four miles a day five days a week is twenty miles of walking a week, after all. I’m saving almost $5 per day in transportation costs and if I had a gym membership, I wouldn’t need that either, nor the time it takes to get to and from it and do the workout. These are only the conventional costs and benefits, however. There’s another layer of carbon savings from not driving to and from work, a distance of thirteen miles each way. In the morning, there’s one less person on the crowded bus system as well.
   I’ve dropped those twenty pounds and more in the last year, but it’s when I go backpacking that I really realize how much my body has changed. I can’t carry a full
pack any more, so I pull a bike trailer. This is a mixed blessing, it’s easy to do on wide flat trails, but there are rutted bits that involve short bursts of boosting the trailer over rocks or narrow spots. Since my problems are repetitive motion, I can do that. I also found that I can do ten miles in a day with considerable elevation changes, sleep on the ground, and not even come home sore. Being on the high side of fifty, this is nothing less than magical to me.
   And what price could be attributed to my state of mind? I leave my house around sunrise. That means I get to see the twilight every morning and often the sunrise. Almost no one is around, so I have what is a fairly beautiful neighborhood to myself. If you ignore the tagging, the dumping, and the general disrepair of the streets, that is. I choose to greet the neighborhood trees and watch them change over the course of the year and to enjoy the wildlife that is out at that hour since the streets are quiet. I’ve seen red tailed hawks sitting on cars, as surprised to see me as I am them. I see squirrels and raccoons, and of course the cats and pigeons that live in any neighborhood. Lake Merritt is a wildlife sanctuary and I see great and snowy egrets, night herons, cormorants, seagulls and pelicans on a daily basis and right now the geese are around. I can walk over the top of the hills, or I can walk along the ghost of the shoreline. I’m watching the footpaths get built around the sides of the estuary, and the slow decolonization actions perpetrated on the homeless population who colonized them as they are built, haphazardly, and shut off to the general public. I can do my daily wishwork, and a lot of moving meditation. On the other side, I get to walk through the gentrified shoreline of San Francisco. It is quite a contrast, and it makes me think. By the time I get to work, my mind is full of the blog posts I’d like to write, and the peace of the morning. Of course, from there, the hours of my life have been sold, but that is another post. And another day has begun.