Stories and Sustenance

I’ve been wanting to tell you about some of my creative cohorts at Playa, but first I think I need to speak about ART.

A chair made of pebbles, created by a prior resident on the dry lakebed.

A chair made of pebbles, created by an earlier Playa resident on the dry lakebed.

Art plays a critical role in the world’s remaking. I don’t mean just literary nonfiction depicting stories of people pulling together to build resilience (though that happens to be my particular project).

I mean novels that show us how to be authentic people, teach us to feel deeper into ourselves, open a side of humanity we don’t normally see, or introduce a culture we’ve never encountered.

I mean visual art that cracks the heart wide open for its beauty. I mean performance art that rearranges something inside us. I mean music that connects with something buried deep within.

Art moves us, and movement is much needed—now more than ever.

I once read a book about the state of the world that laid out the problems in great detail, and then listed the titanic changes needed. The author recommended eschewing novels and other “distractions” in favor of educational books addressing the many issues we face.

But I return again and again to the Barbara Kingsolver character who asked, “What is the use of saving a world that has no soul left in it?”

Clothesline poetry in the high desert.

Clothesline poetry in the high desert.

Art is the soul, and artists its keepers. Without this vital work, we are diminished.

As author Barry Lopez has written, “Sometimes we need a story more than food to stay alive.”

During my two weeks at Playa, visual artists, performance artists, poets, and writers of fiction and nonfiction all fed each other stories and sustenance. We gathered around the table to talk about topics great and small. We took in each others’ work, and drew inspiration from it. Just a few who inspired me:

Belle’s poetry brought the world into sharp focus—like her poem “Sacred Cows,” exploring questions of ethics and culture around beef consumption. Hailing from Hong Kong, Belle taught a few of us chi gong one night in the Commons.

Belle after leading us in chi gong.

Belle after leading us in chi gong.

Portland-based poet Jen created innovative sound recordings and poetry whose shape mirrored landscape. She works for an environmental nonprofit, and her writing possesses a keen eye and ear for the natural world.

That same reverence for life is captured in the visual artists’ work. Susan’s small drawings depict The Ten Thousand Things. In the Tao te Ching, The Ten Thousand Things refers to all of creation. She remembered me snapping a photo of this bird drawing, and kindly gave it to me before we parted. I treasure it.

Susan's exquisite drawing on rice paper. She makes one a day after walking and observing.

Susan’s exquisite drawing on rice paper. She makes one a day after walking and observing.

Emily’s watercolors evoke wild desert beauty in both postcard-sized landscapes and largescale topographical representations. She gave me one of her postcard pieces, the view of Playa from her balcony. I can look up from my desk and see that blue sky anytime I want.

Emily and a few of her gorgeous topographical representations, based on Oregon's Summer Lake and environs.

Emily and a few of her gorgeous topographical representations, based on Oregon’s Summer Lake and environs.

All of these and more blessed my stay and affirmed for me yet again that art is not a luxury.

A Whole New Earth

Nuvo Newsweekly has published my piece responding to Barbara Kingsolver’s novel Flight Behavior.

“It’s an elegy to the beauty of the familiar world, the world that is soon to be a thing of the past. Kingsolver invites us to begin the process of grieving, embodying that lost beauty in the form of the monarch butterfly…”

© Cinc212 | Dreamstime Stock Photos

© Cinc212 | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Indy-area folks can pick up Nuvo for free, or you can read the rest of the article here.

Have you read the book? What was your response?

Too Many Tons

There’s a moment in Barbara Kingsolver’s devastating new novel, Flight Behavior, where the protagonist realizes the craziness built into our globalized economy. Dellarobia and her husband are in the dollar store, trying to buy a “real Christmas” for their children on $50. Every toy is Chinese-made, plastic, and depressingly cheesy. She tries to find something, anything, that won’t fall apart immediately, and muses:

“There had to be armies of factory workers making this slapdash stuff, underpaid people cranking out things for underpaid people to buy and use up, living their lives mostly to cancel each other out.”

I recently learned something horrifying from this video featuring Society for Organizational Learning founder Peter Senge: It takes a ton of raw materials each day to sustain the American lifestyle. Per person.

extraction

© David Coleman | Dreamstime Stock Photos

I don’t know about you, but it guts me to envision a ton of earthly extraction happening on my behalf—today, tomorrow, and the next day and the next, until the whole house of cards collapses. Or until we demand something different.

Do we really need to buy into this waste?

All that energy that goes into making money to be able to buy stuff? If we could divert a fraction of that into work that sustains us, we might see the merry-go-round start to slow.

I met a young mother recently who had made some changes after asking herself, “Why am I spending money to buy food when I could grow my own? Money doesn’t grow on trees, but food does.” Visionary Charles Eisenstein, Radical Homemaker Shannon Hayes, and countless others have said it: It’s time to rethink, regroup, relocalize.

My partner is cutting her workplace hours this year to spend more time gardening and making things. These projects enrich her life and leave something tangible, and they mean—yes!—fewer trips to the store to buy goods made or grown by someone else.

Sure, we still do our share of purchasing. We’re not immune to the consumer culture. I just got my very first smartphone, after all, with much gnashing of teeth. But we are coming to see ourselves less as consumers and more as small-scale producers, or self-provisioners, or urban farmers. The more we make, produce, grow, and repair with our own hands, the less money we require to live.

One group is working in a big way to break the cycle. Open Source Ecology was started by a young farmer who was frustrated by repeated tractor breakdowns. It bothered him that corporations keep their designs secret and build obsolescence into their products. So he decided to take matters into his own hands.

Now he’s working with others to develop 50 industrial machines to cover every need of a local-level sustainable economy. The open source part is revolutionary: Their designs are available for anyone to use and adapt.

Here’s a three-minute video showing how it all works. There’s a builder from Indiana using one of the machines to make bricks. I love this!

Build yourself. | Tristan Copley Smith from Focus Forward Films on Vimeo.

What about you—how are you slowing the merry-go-round?