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Monthly Archives: October 2010

Last week, I learned an important lesson about sustainability. I had the privilege of visiting the Tarkine rainforest in Tasmania, the largest temperate rainforest in Australia at roughly 447,000 hectares (1,104,561 acres). The forest has been around for 65 million years (!) since Australia was a part of the ancient continent of Gondwana, which included modern Antarctica, South America, Africa, Australia, and more. The Tarkine was inhabited for over 40,000 years (!) by the indigenous people of Tasmania.

me absorbing the wisdom of a giant tree in the ancient Tarkine rainforest

This is the timeframe we are looking at in order to achieve sustainability – our goal should be to create a society that survives until our sun burns out (and possibly after – we could become quite crafty in that multi-billion year timeframe). But the question is: what society or way of life is it that we are trying to sustain?

I ask this question because unfortunately, the settlers thought they knew better than this incredibly long-lived culture that successfully inhabited ancient land. In the 1830’s, at the order of the Governor of Tasmania, they rounded up the tribes and literally drove them off cliffs, destroying their entire culture in less than one generation. They proceeded to fell trees for timber and clear land for agriculture, but luckily didn’t take out very much of the place, unlike less fortunate areas in the world.

Do we really want to continue the kind of culture that destroys ancient cultures and even older environments? Though for the most part we are no longer actively extirpating indigenous people, we are still clear-cutting old growth rainforest worldwide for toilet paper and other equally superfluous uses. The present consumer lifestyle places economy as the sacrosanct purpose of human life while eroding community, family, health, and the environment. It scarcely needs to be pointed out how egregious it is to destroy the robust products of billions of years of evolution for a flimsy human product that will be carelessly used once and then permanently forgotten.

the place reminded me of the movie Fern Gully - a place so pristine and ancestral, who could think to disturb it?

That night back on the farm, we spent quite a while building a campfire to ameliorate the damp chilly weather. When we victoriously finished and sat down to warm up, a downpour of rain commenced. We all went back to the chilly kitchen area, where the farm intern Jose said of our extinguished fire: “it took ages to put it on, and seconds to put it out.” I immediately connected this comment with the aforementioned extinguishing of aboriginal culture and rainforest. What makes us think we are wiser or more important than ancient cultures and prehistoric landscapes? Who could have had the brazenness to make the first tree cut, or the malevolence to kill the first aboriginal instead of starting a dialogue? Wouldn’t it make more sense to align ourselves and our society with these primordial, time-tested ways of human life and living systems? The processes and products of evolution of the natural world (which includes humans and our diversity of cultures) offer billions of years of wisdom, so long as we are intelligent enough to observe, learn from, and honor this vast repository of life experimentation.

three youth chillin' on the spongy soft forest floor - Eric (from San Francisco), Sam (from Tasmania), and myself. We're all keen to use nature as a teacher in our design of vibrant human systems.

On a separate but related note, I realized that I passively adopted the ubiquitous buzzword “sustainable” in my lexicon and blog title without critical reflection. Pretty ironic for a self-described philosopher, no? Anyhow, I realized that perhaps what the environmental movement strives for is not so much sustainability, but rather vitality. Read: a society centered around Life. Humans living as if Life – their own lives, the lives of others, the lives of organic beings generally, the living systems that produced and continue to sustain us – was the principal thing that matters in life. Imagine that! Not the economy, or jobs, or things as being the stuff of life, but Life itself.

When stated so simply, it seems to be a truism, but when we zoom out and take a look at the bigger picture, the patterns of human life and society as they presently exist are not centered around Life – neither in the way that they function, nor the goals toward which they operate. In fact, our modus operandi tends towards lives and livelihoods that are not only completely out of touch with the modus operandi of biology and ecology, but often in opposition to these foundational life sciences. What does it mean for us as organisms when our systems sabotage the living systems that created us, the systems upon which we rely for our continued and healthy existence?

How complex yet unintelligent of a system we have created! How abundantly easy to call its bluffs! How difficult to craft and inhabit alternatives. However, we are intelligent beings and we will creatively rise to the challenge – I have seen examples of ecologically-grounded living in all three of the places I have lived so far in Australia. I am still trying to work out the language for what it is that the environmental movement is seeking – not just sustainability, which is an obvious necessity, but also viability, vitality, and/or vibrancy. We are seeking not merely to survive and continue our present systems for as long as we are able, but also to thrive in the context of a human society recalibrated to function within the contexts of Life broadly speaking (I first start to elaborate this concept in the last four paragraphs of my first blog post).

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Seven weeks have elapsed since I arrived at my first destination in Australia, so the time is ripe for the first update from my travel year. I’m now in Tasmania for a Permaculture practical course, having just been in Melbourne completing a two-week Permaculture Design Course (PDC). Before that, I spent five weeks in the rural Crystal Waters Permaculture village. For now, suffice it to say that Permaculture is a holistic design system that creates sustainable and abundant human settlements in harmony with nature. The idea and movement originated here in Australia in the early 1970’s from David Holmgren and Bill Mollison (who is now 84 years old, taught the first PDC in 1972, and was one of the two teachers of my course). Much needs to be said about Permaculture and the rural/urban contrasts in Permaculture living that I have been observing, but for now let me start at the beginning of my trip. Forgive me in advance for the length; the sprawling intro is meant to convey the enormity of the time and energy investment it took me to get here and the disorientation/re-orientation process I have been going through since my arrival Down Under.

On Friday, August 13, I packed my material life for the next year into one 85-liter, 48-pound backpack, another 51-liter, 34.5-pound backpack, and a Baby Taylor travel guitar into its hard black case and hopped in a car to catch my plane to Brisbane, Australia. 32 hours later, on Sunday, August 15 (Saturday the 14th didn’t exist for me because I crossed the international date line), I found myself in the paradisiacal Crystal Waters community, a Permaculture village of 83 residential lots located on 640 acres of bushland about two hours north of Brisbane.

Happy to be traveling

A car, three planes, two trains, and a bus took me as far as Maleny, a small inland town with a beach-town vibe about 25 minutes drive from Crystal Waters. From here, I was to find a ride by asking around at the local food co-op and adjoining restaurant. The workers were very friendly and accommodating, but no customers in either place seemed to be headed to Crystal Waters. The mutual suggestion from each place was to hitchhike, as it was a sunny Sunday and I was assured that someone was sure to pick me up on his/her way out of town into the country. The woman at the co-op helped me make a “Crystal Waters” sign with a black permanent marker on a brown folded paper bag and I headed towards the roadside.

The day was gorgeous, the town idyllic, and the people smiley; I thought the first car to pass would pick me up. The traffic was sparse and I held up my sign in between eating a bag of sweet potato chips and drinking a bottle of organic carrot-apple-ginger juice. After about 10 minutes of standing, eating, sign-raising and thumb-upping, and still no ride, I started to wonder if I looked suspect. I looked at my reflection in a shop window – tall lanky white dude with slightly tousled, slightly greasy curly blond hair from a long overnight, mostly sleepless plane ride, teal t-shirt, khaki shorts, hiking boots, and sunglasses – nope, nothing too alarming or out of the ordinary for this area. The southern hemisphere sun beat down on me and I contemplated pulling out my sunscreen. Patience, I told myself. The clock read 1:10. At 1:30, I told myself, you will return to the co-op and try to find someone there; failing that, call Christopher, my host-to-be in the community.

Eventually, a friendly-looking guy named Chris pulled over in a small Kia-like SUV. I loaded in my huge backpack, my smaller backpack, and my guitar, occupying the entirety of the remaining space in the cargo area. We got to talking as we drove through the winding narrow country roads, his friendly and frequent eye contact making me a bit nervous around the turns. Automatic small talk kicked in, though I was a bit disconnected from what I was saying. While my mouth moved, my eyes alternated between trying to take in the expansive landscape that was somewhat reminiscent of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia and making momentary eye contact with my benevolent chauffeur. I was approaching my 32nd consecutive hour of travel. The jet lag, the unfamiliar landscape and people, my lack of knowledge of where we were going, and the fact the steering wheel was on the right side of the car instead of the left and we were driving on the left side of the road instead of the right all contributed to a state of thorough disorientation.

Chris and I were amicable and our conversation was convivial, despite a barely detectable note of mutual suspicion. He informed me that I was only the second hitchhiker he had ever picked up. The first one he picked up had a guitar in tow; I found out that the reason he picked me up was because I was also carrying a guitar, which indicated to him that I must be at least somewhat of a good person. Kudos to my awesome Aunt Beth for insisting that I take a guitar with me and buying me a very nice travel guitar! It has proved to be a valuable travel companion, both practically and emotionally.

Chris told me as we wound through the scenic countryside that there were tons of kangaroos in the area and that I was bound to see many during my time there. I didn’t really believe him, as kangaroos were the stuff of Discovery channel shows that inspired me to want to travel to Australia as a kid. We entered Crystal Waters, not really sure where to go, neither of us having been before. All I had was a number – lot 65. As we carefully wound through the roads in the neighborhood, scanning for lot numbers and following them incrementally, we saw a tribe of kangaroos in an open field! He stopped at my request and I snapped a few photos in amazement. I knew that I was in a special place and kept my senses as open as they could be in my hazy dream-like state.

Kangaroos in the field

Kangaroo with Joey in tow

Soon, we found lot 65 and pulled in. No cars were in the driveway. We got out of the car and walked around the property. I called out to see if Christopher was home, but the whole place was quiet. I was unsure if I was in the right place, never having been there before and not really knowing what to look for, but somehow the yoga mats on the porch, the construction tools in the garage, and the Aum symbol painted on the glass door indicated to me that I was in the right place, based on what I had seen on his website. I assured Chris that I was in the right place and bid him farewell.

pulling into the driveway

I set all of my accoutrements on the porch, pulled out my camera, and walked around the property, beginning to process my new surroundings through the lens of photography. This was necessary as somewhat of a defense mechanism against the overwhelming lushness of my new surroundings.

view from the road

view of front of Christopher's house

Having sufficiently surveyed the property, I was unsure of what exactly to do next. I set out with a blank agenda and walked further along the road. Walking along the hillside, I looked across the valley over the scenic dam and observed several interesting homes. As I wound along the road which carefully followed the contours of the land, I was greeted by a host of foreign yet pleasant sights and smells and sounds: unusual human dwellings of all shapes, all of which had solar panels and solar hot water heaters, sweet scents of eucalyptus and gum trees, and all kinds of birds singing the strangest songs I’ve heard. The day was pristine and the feel of the landscape was Edenic. No cars or people could be seen, smelled, or heard.

After quite a long walk in the blazing sun, I saw a white van pass me on the road. I couldn’t quite see the person who waved at me, or read the writing on the side of the van, but I was fairly certain it was Christopher. I turned around and walked back to the house, greeted and met him, and moved into an awesome loft space in the cabin he had lived in while building his house.

Crystal Waters is an ecologically designed subdivision – an “eco-suburb,” if you will. There are 83 privately-owned lots and two commonly-owned lots, which occupy about 20% of the total 640 acres, while the rest of the land is held in common for organic agriculture and conservation purposes. The developers spent nine months observing and even camping on the land to observe all aspects of the environment in order to determine what kind of development would be best for the land, including microclimates, rainfall and drainage patterns, soil profiles, existing plant and animal communities, and so forth. Buffer zones were established along the river and creeks and ponds to prevent runoff. The areas with the best soil were set aside for common use including agriculture and grazing. The most ecologically unique and sensitive areas were established as conservation zones. Wildlife corridors were established to allow broad roaming for the local fauna.

Only after this process was complete were the lots for human structures selected. This is quite the opposite approach to conventional development, which is solely focused on human use and develops land by bulldozing everything and then imposing a grid pattern. Located on formerly degraded dairy pasture, the land is now covered in trees and ponds established by the developers, which created a panoply of new habitats for humans and a host of other animals.

There are over 175 different species of birds, most of which have arrived after the 1988 inception of the development. There are dozens of frog species, both tree frogs and ground frogs – their sounds are almost deafening at night in certain parts. After it rains, one has to watch out because the ground becomes alive with all kinds of frogs and toads, as if they sprout out of the soil. One also sees salamanders skittering around, another species which is having a hard time in conventionally developed parts of the world. Both of these amphibians are indicators of ecosystem health – when they are thriving, the ecosystem is thriving, and when they are absent or declining (as is the case in most other parts of the world), the ecosystem is faltering. I saw (and often worked outside next to) kangaroos and wallabies every day! There are platypuses and eels in the creeks. Bandicoots, wild bush turkeys, and echidnas (little hedgehog-like fellows) hop, meander, burrow, or scratch in the shrubs.

The ecosystems, most of which were created or encouraged by the development (rather than debilitated or destroyed), are INCREDIBLY alive, right down to snails and centipedes and grubs and worms and spiders and ants in the soil. The land is so rich that the development is actually a government-designated Wildlife Reserve. The magic of the place makes me want to see subdivisions designed like this all over the world. Development doesn’t have to be ugly and detrimental; it can be beautiful and ecologically beneficial. I can only imagine what the development behind my home in Mt. Airy would be like if it had been designed by ecologically-minded developers.

I loved life in Crystal Waters. I met many fascinating people, participated in a host of great conversations, and richly engaged in diverse experiences, observations, and thoughts that I will document in greater detail in a separate report. I am working on an assessment of the holistic sustainability of the community – not only environmental sustainability, but also social, economic, and psychological/spiritual sustainability. For now, I’ve got to keep having new experiences in new places with new people.

In a way, my Watson project is an extension of my thesis: I am exploring in 3D whether and how humans can live sustainably on Earth. Crystal Waters is a shining example of a central assertion that my thesis relied upon: not only can humans and nature live in harmony, but also the human presence can actually increase the species richness of an area, as it has done on the village land. It is inspiring to see examples of people building healthy lives for themselves and the land and to be a part of these solutions.