What would a productive downtown campus look like? This is a question I have begun asking myself, as I become more fluent in the concepts and theories of permaculture.
It's interesting how the meaning of productive has been changing and deepening, at least in my lexicon, over these past few months. It has broadened to encompass the landscape I find myself in, the relationships I'm part of. At the same time, I'm working to lose the original meaning, or at least the one I got ingrained with, the one that burdens, that eliminates humanity, that narrows existence down to simple questions of quantity regardless of quality, dare I say it, the capitalist's definition. It's what resonated with me on the last page of Rowan Jacobsen's Fruitless Fall (discussed in my post last Wednesday).
"The sun's disk touches the western hills. Shadows reach toward infinity across my meadow. I let it go wild this year. In the past I brush-hogged it every summer, but now that i know how many bumble bees make their homes in the tussocks of thick grass, I couldn't bear to do it. If there's one thing I've learned by paying attention to bees for a while, it's that we need to get rid of this false dichotomy between productive land and unproductive land. There's no such thing as unproductive natural land. There's only a failure of human insight to recognize the ways it contributes, a failure of human imagination to recognize what we need."
This statement rings true to me, and I'd broaden it to include all of human society too. How often do we hear criticism of people on Welfare, that they are 'uncontributing' or 'freeloading' or 'lazy' members of society who don't deserve social support because they haven't put in? And where do these arguments come from? More often than not those whose lifestyles consume more of the planet's resources and cause greater pollution, who only want additional wealth to live in bigger homes and take more extravagant vacations. Where is the compassion? Where is the concern with a healthy, happy society? It often feels like we've descended into an age of horrible self-absorption and callousness, reflected in the decimation of the planet and the refusal of those with power to take responsibility. This weekend's meeting of world leaders in Toronto seems, to me, to have almost nothing to do with the reality of life for the vast majority of this human family. It seems more like a meeting of callous individuals with little concern for solving our problems and restoring our crumbling environment. Stephen Harper certainly doesn't seem to care about anyone without aspirations to an SUV and a gun, at least not through his actions or his policy measures (his words occasionally hint at some concern, though I long since ceased paying much attention to those).
So what does this have to do with food? Well, food is basic. It's simple. It doesn't require money or a college degree to produce, not really. A bit of seed, a couple chickens, a little space - with love and attention life multiplies. Multi-national engineering companies such as Monsanto are trying their hardest - God knows why - to reverse this fundamental truth, the starting block of reality, the nature of nature. Who are these people? What is driving them? How could they think this was a good idea and why do they persist? Perhaps it's because they haven't been shown much love themselves. Perhaps they've never seen another way. I would argue it's just another instance of that same veil that W.E.B. Dubois argued hung over the eyes of slaves and of their sad and angry masters, who believed prosperity was a function independent of liberty. No true happiness can come if one's livelihood breaks down the livelihoods of others. In a functioning, healthy ecosystem, all parts work together in symbiosis, giving and taking with humility and respect, for the greater joy of life. Taking apart this unhealthy economy is going to require sacrifice and acceptance and a gentle but firm confrontation. It's also going to involve getting our hands in the dirt and loving what we live for. That's why I support the protesters in Toronto this weekend, some friends among them, as they do the job of working for justice, consciously objecting to the injustices being perpetrated in the interests of the few. I'm inspired by another ecological example, that of the butterfly, who in larval form - the caterpillar - begins to generate what are called imaginal cells, catalysts that begin breaking down the caterpillar's very structure, and who at first are targeted by the caterpillars immune system and destroyed, perceived as threats to the system. In time, however, more and more cells become imaginal, and at a certain point a critical mass is reached and suddenly the caterpillar is shedding itself to become something it never even knew was within it, something of beauty and light, something that perpetuates life instead of simply consuming it.
Let's take time to imagine how we might transform from the inside out, what's hiding, waiting beneath the concrete, dormant, soon to become productive in its truest sense.... Concrete and asphalt cannot last. I'd like to think about systems that can and will, systems that harmonize, cultivate, support, deepen. What do those systems look like?