Thursday, May 31, 2012

I follow some blogs that deal with issues like peak oil, and three of them (The Archdruid report, Club Orlov and Nature Bats Last) have simultaneously been mulling over the role of spirituality if and when this economy and society truly take a nosedive.

It stimulated me to dust off an article that I had published back in 2008 on the question of spirituality as a tool for re-making yourself and your relationship to your society.  It's included here in its entirety:

Witchcrafting Selves: 
Remaking Person and Community in a Neo-Pagan Utopian Scene.

In 2008 Exploring the Utopian Impulse, Michael J. Griffin and Tom Moylan, eds.

Dorinne Kondo’s 1990 ethnography of a Japanese workplace, Crafting Selves, was influential in cultural anthropology because it articulated an important change of emphasis for this field of study.  This change in emphasis was to treat the individual not just as a product and carrier of culture – but as an active agent who was manipulating cultural materials for various ends – including the creation of a socially embedded self.  This perspective does not replace earlier insights that individuals are intimately constructed within social and cultural environments.  In Kondo’s ethnography, a stress upon individual agency does not mean that these workers then transcend culture, or gain some particular, self-conscious vantage point from which they can view their own efforts at strategic self-construction.  Kondo is describing people who are acting with and within culturally-ordered expectations – they are being Japanese; being women; being young women; and being Japanese employees.  The point is that their renderings of the cultural scripts are by no means static, passive or predictable.

This paper, however, looks at people who are actively trying to transcend their culture.  In so doing they are seeking to re-create not only a new kind of socially-embedded self, but a new kind of culture as well.  In some sense this brings us back to old dilemmas of structure and agency.  As we try to conceptualize and explain the actions of human beings, where do we strike the balance between treating people as self-willed, creative actors, and treating them as things that simply derive from particular environments and histories?  In the case described below this dilemma itself is a place of self-conscious, dynamic tension.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Natural Selection

Robyn, who occasionally posts at her blog Adapting in Place, posed the question about how we reconcile ourselves to the realization that we can't change the world.  Even the truism that you should make the world a better place can ring hollow, when it seems all we can do is make the worsening a little less.  Her take is that we don't have the power to intentionally and purposely change our world or even our own lives (in certain meaningful ways).  But we have to pretend to have that power - so that somewhere someone (probably not us) will be there to make a change - or at least adapt to a change - when the opportunity presents itself.

I think there's a truth underlying her thinking, and I see it in an analogy with biological evolution.  Most people misunderstand how evolution works, because at some point survival of the fittest won out over natural selection in the public mind.  Working from the principle of survival of the fittest people tend to think that species survive over the long haul because collectively the individuals of the species are finely adapted to their environment.  Actually the opposite is true. Species survive over the long haul because they are dragging along a whole inconvenient multitude of maladapted misfits, outliers, sorry mutants, and mothers' disappointments.

Marine Iguanas, Galapagos Islands
When the environment changes (and change it always does eventually) the process of natural selection dips into that muddy reservoir of diversity to find traits that can be useful to survival.  The finely adapted individuals are suddenly doomed to fail or at least join the other maladepts, and it is some outlier -- some flower that always bloomed too early or too late or some gazelle that was too big and slow -- that is "fit" in the new scheme. From the principle of natural selection it is diversity and often enough the crazy, maladaptive periphery that is the key to survival in changing times.  There is no plan to it, just luck and opportunity.

When it comes to humans and their cultures, people like survival of the fittest because it goes along with a number of human habits, like intentional planning and justifying why we should do this and not do that.  It flatters the successful and denigrates the unsuccessful and legitimates their divisions and hierarchies.  It can be the complacent justification for the status quo of class and status or it can be the careful plotting out of utopia as the best possible solution to our problems.  But it is always about sorting the fit from the unfit and imposing a sensible order to the world.

Galapagos Hawk
Natural selection, on the other hand, implies that it is not us, but external factors that determines what fitness is; it makes fitness seem arbitrary and ad hoc, rather than carved into stone by us and our wills.  It makes the privileged place of the fit into something that is contingent and not to be taken for granted, but something that has to be constantly re-negotiated and tested.  It throws into doubt our insistence on the right and proper way of doing something, and it holds out the idea that other,  less effective or efficient ways, are important.  In short it violates any number of human desires about order and control of our fates.

Neither of the approaches I'm discussing is a truly human attitude.  To the extent that you believe we can order our selves and our world as we desire -- then the striving for fitness and a celebration of the successes of the "best" will appeal to you.  To the extent that you think that other things overwhelm our intentions -- whether that be the indifferent Cosmos, the unpredictable happenstance of complex systems or the inertia of our animal natures -- you might embrace the necessity of trying things out and hoping for the best.

Sidewalk in Quito, Ecuador
I think that in the best of times, our ability to enact our intentions on the world is our amazing and unique talent as humans.  I don't think these are the best of times, however.  Enormous changes are probably in the offing, and our capacity to adapt to them as individuals and communities is at a low ebb.  The incredible diversity of lifeways that existed around the world before the modern, globalizing era, has been whittled down to a minuscule fraction of what it was.  

That's why I think we should all do our best to wander off in some direction that seems plausible. If things go bad, we'll still all be mostly doomed, but someone maybe won't be -- because they got off the narrow path that had seemed so safe and adaptive and inevitable just a moment before.  And if things don't go as bad as they might, and we all muddle through, we'll have done our part to lend resilience and diversity to this species of ours - no matter how unwelcome and unfit it might have been in the moment.

Friday, May 25, 2012


It's easy to fall behind on the gardening tasks this time of year.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The raspberries are in blossom,
and calling in the bumblebees.

The peach and apple trees have bloomed,
and formed their tiny fruitlets.

Yesterday I added another story
to the southernmost hive, Melissapolis,
and today these bees were swarming up to draw out honeycomb upon the beeswax foundation.

In the middle hive it's been a few days since I added a hive body and the queen was already up there laying eggs in the new comb.

I installed the colonies over 3 weeks ago.  The bees that accompanied the queens will gradually die off in the next 2 or 3 weeks, but they've done their work.  The queens' own broods should have begun to hatch by now.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Abel asks, reasonably enough, about my last post whether people were universally hopeless - or whether some of them had solutions.  The short answer is that a few had opinions on what might help turn things around, but most didn't know what to do about our predicament -- unless you consider "somebody needs to do something," a plan.  Another common proposal was, "We'll have to make do with less," which is a reasonable response, but not a solution in the classic sense.  And almost universally, people didn't feel like any of their leaders were leading on the issue.

But we (and our clients) knew that going in, because otherwise we'd already have a strong current of public support for practical solutions -- like policies to support working families and the middle class.  But we don't.

The point of this project is to help progressive advocates (who have plenty of proposed solutions they'd like to put into practice) make their case -- and, not incidentally, get leaders and elected officials to push that case as well.  So these conversations were first and foremost to map out the cognitive and cultural terrain wherein proposed solutions get heard and evaluated - accepted or rejected - understood or misunderstood.  And another part of this project involves interviews with advocates, with business leaders and with policy makers.  Over the next several months we'll work to bridge the gap between what the experts want to convey, and what the public has been able to hear.

Though personally, I can be pessimistic, I'm glad that I earn my living working for the optimists.  They might be right after all.

Monday, May 21, 2012

We're working on a big project about jobs - in particular the fact that the quality of jobs in the U.S. has been declining.  I went off into the heartland -- Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana -- to conduct our version of ethnography.  It was a week asking people, "So, whadya think about the job situation?  getting better? worse?" and then settling into a meandersome conversation about the nature of work, the economy, what we want and what we owe one another and, more often than I'd expected, whether or not America's best days were behind it.  We might converse for 5 minutes or 20 or for an hour or more.  Louisville, Lexington, Georgetown, Kentucky; Cincinnati, Ohio; Shelbyville, Anderson, Columbus, Indiana.  I videotaped about 40 interviews at people's kitchen tables, along the sidewalk, in the beauty parlor, sitting in the grass, in McDonald's till they chased us out.  About 40 more weren't taped, but took place on front porches, restaurants, with beers around the bed of a pickup truck, on a park bench while a harmonica man played nearby and the City Council met.  A white women in Indiana selling out her stock in a failed used clothing business; the black men of Cincinnati's West Side, unhireable in this economy with felonies in their pasts and maybe futures; 20-somethings trading their college degrees for $8 an hour folding shirts at the Gap; the old men in the barber shop worrying about the coming generation; a half dozen high school kids eating homemade burgers and mustering hope that there'll be jobs for them; the family waiting in their car outside the food pantry; the clerks, teachers, businessmen, factory workers, retirees, carpenters, students, nurses . . . 

Traveling among Americans always has the potential to depress me.  The landscapes ruined by franchise capitalism, the people who work too much and think too little, the bad food and all the cars; the awful realization that it is for this concatenation of mistakes that we destroy the earth.  But there was a strange grandeur to the tiring, sobering America of this trip.  The long, slow-motion implosion of the American experiment in middle class capitalism seems to have reached a terminal stage, and there are few individuals any longer who doubt that it could soon be them dancing at the edge of some personal ruin.  I couldn't resist asking the middle of America whether the prosperous days were gone forever, and the middle of America told me that yes, it reckoned, indeed they were.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The downside to bees.

I don't tend to react much to bee stings -- at least when they come one at a time.  But if I get 3 or 4 stings they hurt more and swell more.

Nico says it looks like a tiny hummingbird,
but it's not - it's a stinger
Apparently, it's cumulative.   I've been stung 4 times in a little over a week.  First on my eyelid, then a few days later on my scalp.  One more under my chin, and Sunday one flew up and nailed me on that same eyelid.  

I couldn't scrape the barb out, so against all advice and common sense I tweezered it -- ensuring myself a full dose of venom.

These bees have been less placid and more irascible than last years' - disturbed perhaps by their move and by the dreary weather.  

Can you tell which eye got stung?
Or maybe there are just a minority of asshole bees in the mix.  It will be four or five weeks before I know what kind of personality my bees have.  These workers out today are not necessarily related to the queen.  They are just bees tossed together to form an artificial swarm.  In three weeks, new bees will begin emerging and replacing the old guard.

By six weeks after arrival, the new colonies will be established.  And they better start treating their beekeeper right.


Monday, May 7, 2012

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Rhubarb sorbet recipe

Friends came over last night for dinner.  Monica had made a pork roast with some albondigon, and we roasted potatoes, cauliflower, and the very last of the parsnips.  All simple and delicious.  

But I have a rhubarb patch that I don't know what to do with, so the experiment of the evening was making sorbet.  I copied down this recipe from The Year in Food blog:

3 cups rhubarb, chopped
1 cup water
1/2 cup sugar
1-2 teaspoons fresh ginger, minced (adjust according to taste)
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons gin or vodka
1/4 teaspoon sea salt

I tried this one because it was light on the sugar and didn't call for corn syrup, using vodka instead for a similar effect.  You simply simmer the ingredients for 10 minutes or so, until the rhubarb is soft, run it through a blender, chill it, and then put it in your ice cream maker.

For that we'd bought a Play and Freeze, a device built on the idea that it's more fun to play with a ball than turn a crank.  We got the bigger, quart-sized one, so I had to double the recipe above (which makes a pint).  The ball filled with the puree and ice and rock salt weighs nearly ten pounds -- so throwing it around is a bit like playing catch with a bowling ball.  (I think next time we'll set up some water bottles in the yard and use it exactly in that way.)  Fortunately we had a couple of 14-year olds who were good sports.

After half an hour we had our sorbet, very gingery, with the rhubarb somewhat in the background. It wasn't as red as the picture on the blog - more like a rosy, peach color.  If you like your sorbets in that gourmet, palate-cleansing mode, this is really nice.  (If you like your sorbet to taste like ground up popsicles, then there are recipes that will use a lot more sugar.)  But I'm going to cut the ginger in half the next time I make it.

We served it out, and I put the remainder into the freezer.  Monica's already planning the next one: Mango!

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Today was the fifth day in their new hives, so it was time to open the boxes to make sure the queens had all been freed from their cages.  They had.  Two of them I saw bustling around.  The third I didn't see, but once several aggravated bees had gotten under my veil I closed things back up and retreated.   Her cage is empty and I'll open things again this weekend to look for eggs in the comb.

I'm sure it's a noobish thing, but I gave names to the hives and their queens.  If nothing else, it will help me keep a log.

The northernmost is "The Palace" presided over by Queen Bea II (named after my mother, the family's original Queen Bea). 

 The middle hive is Aristaeum, named for Aristaeus, the founder of the art of beekeeping in Greek mythology.  The hive is presided over by Queen Kyrene, his mother.  (Aristaeus is the Knight of Pentacles in the Tarot deck that I've had for many years - note the beehives in the background.)  

And the southernmost is Melissapolis, ruled by Queen Melissa.  She's named after my friend Melissa (whose name after all means "honey bee").  She is in Tel Aviv right now trying to defeat her nemesis, Multiple Sclerosis, with stem cell transplantation.  Enlisting a few thousand bees in her cause can't hurt.  

(She's blogging about her experience at Raus aus der MS in both German and English, and I encourage you to visit.)
I wish they'd stop referring to it as "Arizona's tough immigration law". It's not "tough." A better description would be "bed-wettingly fearful" or "sadly bullying" or just "throwback bigoted". But then I guess it usually is insecure bullies with low self-esteem that obsess about being tough.