Friday, July 4, 2008


Under Heaven all can see beauty as beauty only because there is ugliness. All can know good as good only because there is evil. Therefore having and not having arise together. Difficult and easy complement each other. Long and short contrast with each other; High and low rest upon each other; Voice and sound harmonize each other; Front and back follow one another. Therefore the sage goes about doing nothing, teaching no talking. The ten thousand things rise and fall without cease, creating, yet not possessing, working, yet not taking credit, work is done, then forgotten. Therefore it lasts forever.

Kevin Kelly, an acolyte of Stewart Brand and former editor of Whole Earth, Co-Evolution Quarterly and Wired, blogged recently using a neologism he picked up from Brian Eno — David Byrne and Brian Eno talk about Cool Tools (MP3 clip, 3:10), Wired 16.01, December 18, 2007 — “scenious,” to describe the genius blossoming from auspicious scenes where creative people gather. He gave a few examples, such as the Yosemite rock climbers' Camp 4 in the 1930s, Building 20 at MIT, the Algonquin Round Table, Silicon Valley, Soho, and Burning Man. I would add the North Beach of Oahu in the 1950s, Greenwich Village (pick an era), the Panhandle Park flats in the Haight-Ashbury in the 1960s, Glastonbury, Akwesasne, the affinity groups at Seabrook, the bioregional congresses, the World Social Fora, the UN climate summits, and the Amazonian Shamanism conferences.

I have been lucky to stumble into a number of those scenes in my life; so many, I sometimes wonder if I am Forrest Gump.

The lucky stars have led me to be present at the birth of Noho, Vietnam Veterans Against the War and the Winter Soldier hearings, Nixon at sunrise on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Earth Day, the Leningrad public baths on Saturday nights, the bioregional movement at Meztitla, the ecovillage movement at Findhorn in '95 and Istanbul in '96, Viridian design, the post-millennium peak oil gatherings, and the Transition Towns kindling at Kinsale.

The scenius I am most familiar with, although it encompasses and interpenetrates many of these other ones, is of course, The Farm. As one of the longest floating crap games of the past century, it remains a dynamically evolving scene. It is a creative hub for the world midwives conspiracy, the cabal of alternative education advocacy, an incubator for progenitors of new media, and lately, the climate-reversal counterdevelopment discussion group, including, but not limited to, we ecovillage, peak oil and alt.fuels evangelists in residence.

What Brian Eno called scenious, Stephen Gaskin used to call “the juice.” In a paper I gave at a history conference in Illinois back in 1987, I attempted to describe a series of intellectual and technological artifacts that delineated the first 16 years of The Farm, but I gave the caveat that I would not attempt to describe the scene itself or try to fathom how it came into being. “How juice moves from place to place and time to time would be an interesting exploration in its own right,” I said.

Kelly postulates some rules. Scenius can erupt almost anywhere, and at different scales: in a corner of a company, in a neighborhood, or in an entire region, but the geography of scenius must be nurturing, For example, scenius has:

  • Mutual appreciation — Risky moves are applauded by the group, subtlety is appreciated, and friendly competition goads the shy. Scenius can be thought of as the best of peer pressure.
  • Rapid exchange of tools and techniques — As soon as something is invented, it is flaunted and then shared. Ideas flow quickly because they are flowing inside a common language and sensibility.
  • Network effects of success — When a record is broken, a hit happens, or breakthrough erupts, the success is claimed by the entire scene. This empowers the scene to further success.
  • Local tolerance for the novelties — The local "outside" does not push back too hard against the transgressions of the scene. The renegades and mavericks are protected by this buffer zone.
In the Hebrew tradition this idea of sanctioned mischievousness has a name. It is called yezer hara’, the wayward inclination.

The yezer hara has seven names:
  1. evil;
  2. uncircumcised;
  3. impure;
  4. enemy;
  5. stumbling block;
  6. stone [on one's heart];
  7. hidden [in one's heart].
I think the Farm would most likely fall in the uncircumcised category, regardless of foreskins or lack thereof. Impure might also be applicable, but that is a little more subjective. There is great purity in the sense of purpose and mission that suffuses those who remain here for any length of time.

Confucius, who is often held up as a source of Chinese moral standards, was not a fan of rigid social norming. He used to say of the Bill Bennetts of his time, “Those goodie goodies are the thieves of virtue!”

Alan Watts, who inhabited another scene I was fortunate enough to have sat zazen in, said that Confucius (6th century BC) and Lao Tsu (4th century BC) were the two bookends that allowed the culture of China to endure and flourish for thousands of years.

For Confucius the highest of all virtues was human heartedness. He would not define this, but he said that it was the real basis for any social order. Confucius would not share Antonin Scalia’s strict constructionism. He wanted justice to come from the application of wisdom, not rote.

Lao Tsu (literally the “Old Boy” because he was born with a small white beard), put these ideas into poetry. We think it is silly that we have to take off shoes and give up our toothpaste at the airport, but when Lao Tsu tried to leave China they told him he couldn’t leave until he had written down all he knew. In the Tao Te Ching, the 72 gems of wisdom left with a border guard, Lao Tsu summarized his findings in order that he be allowed to leave.

The first verse is the Old Boy’s disclaimer. “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao,” he wrote.

Watts observed that this famous opening line also showed Lao Tsu to be a punster, but you have to understand a bit of Chinese to get it.

“Tao” means the way, or course, of nature, but it also means to speak. So in Chinese, the first character is this:

The first character is “the way.” The next is “can” or “can be.”
The third is again “the way,” but it could also be “spoken.”

What Lao Tsu says in one entendre is that he can’t really describe the way, because it is ineffable; if he could describe it then it would not be true. The way which can be spoken is not the way.

In the other entendre Lao Tsu says it cannot be taken as a way. The way which can be “way-ed,” or traveled, is not the way.

This is also the point Kelly wants to underscore, which is that scenes, and hence scenius, cannot be created. The best we can hope for is to recognize them when, for whatever extraordinary confluence of good fortune, they seem to arise. And when that happens, the best we can do is not step on them. Allow a little yezer hara’. Keep the goodie-goodies at bay.

We have an annual celebration here at The Farm which we call “Ragweed.” It commemorates that day in history when we were surrounded and besieged by the goodie-goodies. And we pushed back.

On July 11, 1980, a battalion of state police, county police, city police, TBI, Canine Corps, ATVs with sirens, two helicopters, some 50 police cars and several hundred officers clad in battle gear raided The Farm in the dark of night, coming in out of the forest and fields from every direction. Accompanied by television crews from the big three networks, they converged on a field of ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia).

As it turned out, an overzealous helicopter pilot, “Eagle-Eye” Mike Dover, on a routine dope-spotting run, mistook the overgrown watermelon field, with its neat rows of ragweed grown up between the melons, for hemp (Cannabis sativa). Dover’s eyewitness affidavit also told the story of two hitchhikers picked up on the interstate highway who claimed to have escaped the hippy cult where they were forced to work as slaves in the marijuana fields. Eagle Eye had successfully spotted 500 marijuana fields before that night. The District Attorney sat in the back of a limo at the front gate of the Farm waiting to pose for pictures. He sat there all night.

The judge who issued the warrant, giving police the right to search all of the 150 or so homes on The Farm for balloons and spoons among other "paraphernalia," apologized and pledged never to be hoodwinked again. At the time, district judges were elected and we controlled our ward vote.

A humiliated police officer told TV reporters that the hippys must have been tipped off, pulled up all traces of cannabis, and quickly planted the six-foot ragweed plants. We held a press conference, announcing a lawsuit to recover damages for the watermelons destroyed by the helicopter landing struts. Local papers from Memphis to Knoxville ran editorial cartoons showing “Dick Tracy’s Crimestoppers Textbook” with watermelons compared to marijuana. Radio DJs made jokes about the sounds that watermelons make when squashed by helicopters. Stephen Gaskin said Dover was now 500 and 1.

We also were able to get our Congressman to call for an FBI investigation, including assaying the soil of the field to see if there were traces of hemp ever having been planted there.

For The Farm, the failure of the massive, 50,000-dollar dope raid was a triumph. The Farm was left in peace and has not been bothered since. When the local sheriff has to serve a summons, he stops at the front gate and waits for the person to come there and sign for it. No police have entered the 6-square mile area in 28 years, except by invitation. The raid is now celebrated every July 11th or thereabouts with a Ragweed Festival. It is our celebration of scenius.

And incidentally, in Lakota, ragweed is called “caŋhlógaŋ oŋzipakiŋte” which means "weed to wipe the rear."




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