“What the World Needs”

I can always tell when I’m overloaded with the news; that’s when I start to despair. So much mess to clean up. It seems ridiculously tangled-up and tiresome, painful to look at.

In my own state we are attempting to disentangle from newly passed legislation designed to show my GLBT brothers and sisters that we are not welcome. Elsewhere, of course, there’s worse news. In Kenya suicide bombers caused untold anguish. In California the drought is now so severe that the governor mandated water restrictions. Then there’s the German pilot who decided to fly a planeful of people into the side of a mountain. For what?

Time to turn off NPR. When I get overwhelmed, this timeless advice from theologian Howard Thurman is a comfort:

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

By psyberartist (amaryllis  Uploaded by russavia) via Wikimedia Commons

By psyberartist (amaryllis Uploaded by russavia) via Wikimedia Commons

Definitely the needs of the world are bottomless, and the conflicts seem never-ending. So this question is a good barometer, an antidote to paralysis: What renews my heart? For me it is things like making meaning, being of service in small ways, reflecting, putting some hard-won learnings to use for others.

Sometimes, though, all that seems ever so small, and the question becomes: How do we renew ourselves, in this season of renewal, to continue with our chosen work?

Then a member of my extended family gives me a tremendous gift. She tells me that she regularly shares my reflections with her four teenagers. Some years back when I coauthored a book called Sudden Spirit: A Book of Holy Moments, she started the tradition of reading aloud from this work and discussing it with her children. Now that the kids are older, she’ll print thought-provoking blog posts and passages (mine among them) and ask them to initial when they’ve read them.

You can bet I was touched when I heard that! (And maybe she had told me before but I forgot; sometimes it’s hard for me to receive stuff like this.)

Knowing this totally refuels me. Because so much of what I do is basically invisible, it’s hard to know what kind of impact I’m having. But apparently, my little musings are helping the next generation of leaders.

Note to self: Remember to tell people I appreciate their work! (I think I’ll start with Roy Ballard and Michael Morrow, the men behind Hoosier Harvest Market. This online virtual farmers market brings me lovely salad greens, eggs, quail eggs, apples and so on—all locally grown and delivered to order to a business near my home.)

Because maybe it’s less a matter of renewing ourselves than renewing each other. Maybe then we can remember what exactly it is that makes us come alive, and have the courage to pursue it. Who in your life could use some of that fuel?

Going Soil-Friendly

Do you ever think about the importance of the innumerable tiny creatures living underground, right under your feet? In just one tablespoon of soil, according to North Carolina State University’s Cooperative Extension Service, some 50 billion microbes are working away.

That’s if the soil is healthy.

By NoNomme (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

By NoNomme (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

I remember a conversation with an Ohio woman active in the environmental movement. She told me a story about a farmer who decided to switch his (conventionally farmed) cornfields to chemical-free produce. His seeds sprouted, but grew stunted and deformed.

The land had been blasted with petrochemicals year after year. Now there was nothing left to support a plant. No microbes. No nutrients.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

My most recent Farm Indiana piece concerns a small agricultural fertilizer business called Sterling Formulations, led by a young man aptly named Vince Plowman.

Sterling Formulations’ team assesses farm fields and recommends soil-friendly additives depending on the particular needs of each field. They apply microbes and micronutrients to balance and nourish the soil that nourishes us.

Filling a container with earth-friendly fertilizer concentrate at Sterling Formulations' Shelbyville, IN plant.

Filling a container with earth-friendly fertilizer concentrate at Sterling Formulations’ Shelbyville, IN plant.

The team includes an Amish farmer who offers knowledge based on generations of experience. (My people!)

“The Amish have been farming organically for centuries, and quite successfully,” Vince told me. “They treat their soil right, and guess what, they’re getting yields comparable to conventional.”

He was surprised to learn that conventional farmers are as receptive to this message as organic growers. He said, “We found, in talking to a lot of conventional farmers, that so many of them are curious.”

Corn Field

Though he half-expected a derisive response from the conventional agribusiness side, so far that has not been the case. “What we found is they’re absolutely afraid…They don’t know how to do it (transition off chemicals), and they don’t have anyone to step them through the process of going to organics without absolutely killing themselves. They’re used to getting 200 bushels an acre, and they’re afraid they’re going to get 50 next year” if they stop using chemicals.

What comes next in that scenario isn’t pretty: they’d likely lose their farm. And many in that arena are supporting multiple families on the farm.

But Sterling Formulations is stepping into the gap. The goal is to help heal beleaguered soil through tailored applications of microbes and kelp-based fertilizers. Instead of petrochemicals that artificially prop up crops, these nutrients and tiny creatures create a living medium for plants.

This is one of the most exciting developments I’ve heard about in a long time. Farmers who want to stop using chemicals can get support in the switch—and stay profitable during the transition.

You can read more about Sterling Formulations in my Farm Indiana story.

A Beautiful Thing

As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change gathers in Japan to finalize their report on the status of global warming, I’m thinking about hope. Hope as choice and saving grace. Here’s a piece I wrote some time back.

My spouse and I recently watched a library DVD of the HBO series Enlightened, in which Laura Dern plays a woman seeking to expose the wrongdoing of her corporate employer.

Photo by manyhighways.com, via Flickr Commons

Photo by manyhighways.com, via Flickr Commons

The show is a mix of humor and pathos and drama, with the main character, Amy Jellicoe, revealed as both tender-hearted and colossally insensitive. She’s self-centered, obnoxious, impulsive—and, at times, luminous in her dreaming of a different world.

By the last episode, Dern’s character has discovered the cost of being a whistleblower, having lost her job and her love interest. The last blow comes when Amy’s mother says she is no longer welcome to live in her house.

The final scene finds her knocking at the door of her ex-husband Levi, who knows her best. Sitting next to Levi on his front stoop, Amy asks him, “Am I crazy?”

What a question. I’ve asked it of myself so many times. Am I crazy to think that this world can transform, that we can evolve as a species? Am I crazy to believe that we can pull each other to a higher vibration—one that would usher in a new era of equity and resilience?

Am I insane to believe that we can still thrive, even in the face of this terrible and seemingly irreversible mess we’ve made?

In the final words of the series, Levi, played by Luke Wilson, turns to her and says, “No.”

He says, “You’re just full of hope. You got more hope than most people do.”

He tells her, “It’s a beautiful thing to have a little hope for the world, you know?”

Photo by ZeHawk, via Flickr Commons

Photo by ZeHawk, via Flickr Commons

I’ve come to believe that to be hopeful is rarely foolish, or naïve, or crazy. Or if it is all of those, perhaps it doesn’t matter.

Hope is a choice I make for the sake of my own soul and soul of the world, for the health of those around me. I regularly renew my decision to be a holder of hope.

I choose to believe that it’s possible to live in such a way that doesn’t steal from the impoverished on the other side of the world, that doesn’t rape the earth. I choose to envision the possibility of healing this beleaguered planet.

Maybe I am crazy.

But I still believe. This better world is on its way.

To Belong

Winter aconites blooming in March 2013

Winter aconites blooming in March 2013

“As the globalized, placeless world spreads,
and as progress is increasingly defined as the ability to look out of a hotel window in any city and see the same corporate logos lit up in familiar neon,
it could be that the most radical thing to do
is to belong.”

Paul Kingsnorth, Real England

A Loved World

I heard two interviews in the last few days with Elizabeth Kolbert, author of The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. While listening to the Fresh Air interview I was making pizza. And I must have decided—or the part of my brain that can’t process too much scary information decided—that making pizza required all my faculties, because I kept zoning out.

But I did hear that 25 percent of all mammals on the earth are endangered, and 40 percent of amphibians.

Photo of critically endangered Panamanian Golden Frog By Tim Vickers [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo of critically endangered Panamanian Golden Frog By Tim Vickers [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I did hear that the Great Barrier Reef is on track for full-scale collapse, and that we can expect the oceans to eventually look like “the underwater equivalent of a vacant lot.”

No asteroid is to blame this time. The driver for this extinction wave is humankind.

That’s a heavy load to bear, even if I knew it already. With our tailpipe emissions and our moving from continent to continent and our wildly inventive minds, we are rapidly bringing about the demise of millions of species.

The author makes the point that our impact on other species isn’t (always) intentionally malevolent. It’s the very nature of our speedy brains and dextrous hands. It’s the fact that, as Kolbert says, we don’t have to wait for evolution to create change. We just make a tool. Which makes life difficult for creatures that change at the pace of evolution.

What does this mean? I don’t know. It feels bleak. I like to take the long view, the esoteric/spiritual/energetic view that focuses on evolution of souls, a realm beyond the physical. Still, here on the physical plane, it’s a devastating trajectory.

Self-preservation requires that this knowledge fade in and out of my consciousness. I go about my days, doing what I do, worrying about small things. Then it’s like the moment my dad was diagnosed with inoperable, terminal cancer. Suddenly all that trivia fades in importance. I’m pierced by pain. A loved one, a loved world, is in jeopardy.

© Cinc212 | Dreamstime Stock Photos

© Cinc212 | Dreamstime Stock Photos

I don’t know what to do or say in the face of such hideous information. Just the fact of the dwindling numbers of monarch butterflies alone makes me want to weep.

I find myself wanting to check email, check Facebook, call a friend, watch the Olympics. To do anything but stay with this knowledge.

I can say that all things happen for a reason and everything is unfolding exactly as it should and we are holding the light whether we know it or not and we were always meant to get to this point—but is all that just a bandaid for unendurable grief and fear?


I wrote the words above last night. Today, I feel different, grateful, open. I took time to sit in love and awareness this morning. It seems the metaphor of a terminal diagnosis fits better than I first realized.

In the face of horrifying news, sometimes there is an opening to the sacred. Suddenly you savor life more than ever. You don’t take anything for granted. You give what you can. You do what you must. Your love expands.

Eve Ensler on Reconnecting, Re-conjuring and Re-conceiving

A friend recommended Krista Tippett’s recent On Being interview with playwright/performer/social activist Eve Ensler. Last week while preparing food for our Thanksgiving meal, I listened to the unedited podcast. (The interview is full of insights, but I’ve pulled out a few highlights for you here.)

Photo of Eve Ensler by Justin Hoch, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo of Eve Ensler by Justin Hoch, via Wikimedia Commons

Ensler is the genius behind the iconoclastic play “The Vagina Monologues.” Her focus on female physicality and power has led her to some phenomenal projects. For example, in the Congo she helped create a refuge for women and girls surviving gender violence. It’s called City of Joy.


Congolese rape survivor. By L. Werchick, via Wikimedia Commons

She’s a much-needed voice for a heart-centered, embodied ethic. I love what she says about the power of reconnecting with our physical selves and each other:

“The more people get plugged back into their bodies, each other, the more impossible it will for us to be dominated and occupied.”

She speaks of being both playful and careful as we begin to reconnect. Most of us are not used to this level of caring for our fellow humans.

“In the same way that we don’t see trees, we don’t see each other. We don’t see how traumatized people are, tender people are. I think sometimes if one were fully awake, one would do nothing in one’s day except stop on the road, on the people you meet, because you would see their pain…We walk past everyone. Sometimes it just crushes my heart.”

When Tippett responds that we don’t stop because we can’t bear letting in that much pain, Ensler notes that others’ pain is part of us already. We can’t avoid it, because we are all one. “So that when you stop to actually acknowledge it, you’re actually allowing it to move as opposed to be frozen in you.”

This reminded me of my energy healer friend Merry Henn-Lecordier, who showed me how to welcome uncomfortable feelings in order to allow their release.

Merry Henn-Lecordier is a trailblazer in the field of energy medicine.

Merry Henn-Lecordier is a trailblazer in the field of energy medicine.

Merry taught me the importance of regularly clearing stuck emotion by speaking directly to it, in love and compassion. For example, I might say something like: Anger, I see you. I feel you. I love you. I understand. I welcome you, anger. I approve of you, and I approve of the circumstances that caused you to be stuck in my energy field. You are welcome here. And I’m ready to move you now. (I modeled this blessing after phrases Merry herself uses.)

Then, again following Merry’s example, I ask for help moving the anger (or overwhelm or despair or anxiety or what-have-you) from my energy field, releasing it and transmuting it into love.

It’s remarkably transformative to do this simple ritual, intending compassion for all my emotional states. The lightness I feel in its wake gives me hope that Ensler could be right when she calls us “people of the second wind.”

“This could be (humanity’s) second wind, but it requires a radical re-conjuring and re-conceiving of the story…And I absolutely believe it’s possible, but enough people have to believe it’s possible and be willing to kind of move with this wind that is trying to come in, trying to pass through us right now.

Ensler’s latest memoir, In the Body of the World, depicting her journey with cancer, is high on my reading list.

Sierra Murdoch, Writing the Gritty Truth

First in a Series on my Mesa Refuge Cohorts

Here’s a young writer to watch: Sierra Murdoch.

I met Sierra at Mesa Refuge, where we shared meals, stories, laughs, and a love of tea trays. We commiserated about the perils of writing, and encouraged each other to keep going. She inspired me with her focus and stamina—often the first one to get to work in the morning and last one still at it after supper.

Sierra Murdoch. Photo taken at writing residency, Banff Centre for the Arts, 2012.

Sierra Murdoch. Photo taken at writing residency, Banff Centre for the Arts, 2012.

Her project was a long article about a childhood cancer cluster in a small Nevada town. She conducted extensive research in the months leading up to our time at Mesa Refuge.

Sierra’s first foray into journalism was as a 2009-10 Middlebury Fellow in Environmental Journalism. For a little over a year, she lived in Wise County, VA, where more than a third of the county had been stripped by mountaintop removal coal mining. Sierra wrote about retired union coal miners fighting mountaintop removal, which was polluting wells, causing flooding, and destroying forests and streams.

Mountaintop Removal, Wise County, VA, via flickr Commons. Photo by David Hoffman

Mountaintop Removal, Wise County, VA, via flickr Commons. Photo by David Hoffman

Since 2011, she’s been on staff at High Country News, a well-respected magazine about the environment of the American West. Her biggest project there, and also for The Atlantic, chronicled the economic and social impacts of oil development on a Native American tribe living in the middle of the Bakken oil field—and a growing culture of violence against women there.

“I’m most drawn to communities living in extracted landscapes,” she says.

We had many conversations, but one in particular stands out. I told Sierra how much I admire activists who hold the line against things like mountaintop removal. The same goes for journalists like her who write about tough stuff, the gritty truth.

I sometimes feel guilty that I write feel-good stories of people building the new world while corporate giants prey on vulnerable communities and ecosystems. Aren’t I sort of slacking, happily profiling what’s going right, when there are so many wrongdoings to be exposed? Do I need to spend more time on a bullhorn instead of a cozy little blog?

But Sierra had a different take on it. She pointed out that the feel-good stories are nourishing not only to “the movement,” but also to people deeply invested in the status quo. These folks are usually turned off by angry protests. They might associate corporate actions with jobs and a way of life. So they feel threatened by protesters, disgusted with media attention.

Photo by D.D. Meighen, via flickr Commons

Photo by D.D. Meighen, via flickr Commons

“But the coal miner’s wife might like to go to the farmers market,” Sierra said. “She might want to garden, and she might like to be involved in community projects too.” Perhaps hearing about a group quietly working toward greater community resilience will bring her into the tribe. (Surely we need all stripes of people in this tribe now.)

This made me feel better.

Sierra is thoughtful, disciplined, kind, and curious—traits that make an excellent journalist. She radiates integrity. I can imagine that her subjects would trust her implicitly.

I look forward to watching her accomplish great things in years to come.

Julia Butterfly Hill: What our Hearts Know

Belated postcard from Hopland, CA: It was a thrill to hear Julia Butterfly Hill speak at the Building Resilient Communities Convergence. This is the woman who spent most of 1998 and 1999 living in the canopy of an ancient redwood tree named Luna. Her extended protest brought attention to the plight of ancient forests and resulted in a three-acre buffer zone around Luna.

Julia Butterfly Hill in 2005, via flickr Creative Commons, by Scott Schumacher

Julia Butterfly Hill in 2005, via flickr Creative Commons, by Scott Schumacher

Now she calls herself a wholistic healthcare practitioner instead of an activist, because she is working on the “disease of disconnect.” What struck me about Julia is how much she embodied a heart-centered ethic. She began by expressing a commitment to affirming “what our hearts know: That we are all one.”

There’s little in our culture that supports the kind of inner transformation needed now. Julia called this era a time of spiritual crisis. “That place inside ourselves that is just ancient and knows only connection is in crisis.”

Methuselah, an 1800-year-old redwood in Woodside, CA

Methuselah, an 1800-year-old redwood in Woodside, CA

“What is it going to take to rebirth ourselves in this world where we are?” was her central question. She said it is a courageous act to keep our hearts open, because it means being open to the suffering of beloved creatures, communities, and ecosystems.

I appreciated that she called us to stay aware of our own tendency to rigidity, cautioning: “Any time we are passionate about anything, we are one breath away from being a fundamentalist.”

She invited us to “live so fully and presently in love that there is no room for anything else to exist.” To ask, What would love do in this space? What would love say in this room?

She said we need to bring all our integrity to bear in modeling a positive vision for the world. “We are so good at defining what we are against that what we are against begins to define us.” But it is also crucial to stand firm against wrongdoing. Even the campaigns that failed, she said, she would go back and do again.

It’s a matter of offering ourselves “in loving and joyous service to our world.”

Truly a transformative figure.

Stealing the Future

Photo credit: Kim Seng, via flickr Commons

Photo credit: Kim Seng, via flickr Commons

At present, we are stealing the future, selling it in the present, and calling it GDP. We can just as easily have a future that is based on healing the future instead of stealing it.

Paul Hawken, Commencement Address, University of Portland, 2009

Working with Nature to Sustain Life

There’s a fatal flaw in the traditional definition of sustainability—meeting today’s needs without jeopardizing future generations’ ability to meet their own needs.

The problem? This notion leaves out every species besides homo sapiens.

The truth is, “Human beings don’t sustain shit,” sustainability consultant Brandon Pitcher declares. “Nature sustains us. We fool ourselves into thinking we sustain the planet, but it’s the other way around.”

But Fritjof Capra’s view of sustainability is more integrated:

“A sustainable human community is designed in such a manner that its ways of life, technologies, and social institutions honor, support, and cooperate with nature’s inherent ability to sustain life.”

By Alaricmalabry (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons

By Alaricmalabry (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons

Pitcher, a certified practitioner of ZERI (Zero Emissions Research & Initiatives, a global network seeking solutions to world challenges), spoke at the Irvington Green Hour Tuesday night. He gave two scenarios of solutions patterned after nature’s wisdom.

The Power of Shrooms
The first involves using mushrooms to address multiple issues, such as in the case of an invasive species troubling poverty-stricken parts of Zimbabwe. There water hyacinths choke waterways, to the point that people can’t take their boats down the river, jeopardizing their livelihoods in an area already strained by high rates of HIV.

However, once harvested, dried, and sun-sterilized, this invasive species is ideal food for mushrooms. Villagers take the work on, and native mushrooms thrive on this biomass. Reintroducing mushrooms as a food source demonstrates how tasty and nutritious these powerhouses are—and they can provide enough protein to sustain a community in two to three weeks, Pitcher says.

Mushrooms also figure in food security efforts in Colombia, where the coffee plant forms a substrate for edible fungi. Typically 99.8 percent of coffee is thrown away or burned on its way to our morning cuppa. But “waste” is opportunity.

Coffee Plant, by Jo N, via flickr Commons

Coffee Plant, by Jo N, via flickr Commons

The Wisdom of Water
Pitcher’s second example is a natural way to treat wastewater.

In Indiana, 92 cities, including my hometown, have antiquated combined sewer overflows (CSOs).

Combined sewer overflow effects, by Christopher Zurcher, via flickr Commons

Combined sewer overflow effects, by Christopher Zurcher, via flickr Commons

Never heard of a CSO? You’re lucky. Here whenever it rains a fraction of an inch, raw sewage combines with stormwater runoff and runs straight into waterways. So pathogens and toxic chemicals are dumped into my neighborhood’s Pleasant Run and other sweet little streams.

The remediation plan involves drilling enormous pipes deep underground to hold the excess sewage. To Pitcher, this represents a wasted opportunity—and a sad ignorance about the way water naturally purifies.

“Water does not move in a straight line in nature,” he points out. Its natural flow creates vortexes that clean it. “It’s very ignorant of us to think we can move water through pipes in straight lines and think that water’s going to be healthy.”

An integrated system of rain gardens and wetlands harnesses the power of algae to treat wastewater. In Indy, such a system could have resulted in a decentralized network, providing jobs and clean water in perpetuity, Pitcher believes.

For more information, see the ZERI site, or The Blue Economy—or attend Pitcher’s upcoming  sessions at Trade School Indy.