Monday, April 9, 2012

In the Land of the Long White Cloud

"Off to the northwest lies the Shire — we passed through Hobbiton only yesterday. Lake Taupo, which is beautiful in the fall colors, is this rugged land’s stomach."

Before the end of the Age of Homo Petroleo, we’d like to travel to places we are unlikely to see again once jet fuel becomes prohibitive for commercially-viable air travel and in that time before sail transport can scale up to sate our wanderlust. We expect it may take quite some time for forests of hard mastwood to grow out to maturity once more, even in the tropics, and even longer for wooden boatbuilders and worthy sea captains to relearn extinct skills. 
This month we are in New Zealand. Next month our journeys take us to Alaska.

Before the beginning there alone was Io, Io-the-parentless, Io-the-endless, Io-the-timeless, Io-without-limit.

He moved and the Great Nothingness was born. In the spiralling currents it followed itself and searched. It found heart and became ignited. It thought as does a mind. And desired as does a dream. It took form and breathed. And in a second that was a million years, it multiplied and grew. To become a shadow. A darkness. A night. A night of gestation. A night for bearing the Ancients.

There was Ranginui, the virile male, sky-bound and active. There was Papatuanuku, the female, land-bound and passive. They breathed together as lovers and in the Night-that-knows-no-end there were born to them seventy mighty sons. There was Whiro-the-dominant whose wrath was as an axe upon the tree, and Tawhiri-of-the-elements, whose breath was the wind itself. There was Tangaroa-of-the-seas, whose ceaseless waves would chisel away the land. There was Tu-of-the-red-face, by whose hand mankind would know war, and Turongo-the-gentle who would lay down the foundations of peace. There was Haumia-the-abundant who was lord over the fruits of the earth and Ruaumoko-the-lastborn, whose one tiny movement would cause the earth herself to quake and tremor. Finally there was Tane-the-thoughtful, whose actions and deeds would produce the world and all its parts.

Aotearoa is an unusual place to host a permaculture convergence. The previous ten Australasian Convergences have been in Australia. There are some 70 Ozzies here this time, but there are more than 400 others, many from other countries. As if to presage the emergence of glocalization, the majority come from right here, Aotearoa, or what the  Pakeha (Europeans) called New Zealand. We will be reporting more from the Convergence, but we wanted to give our first impressions of this place. 

We are in Turangi, in the Lake Taupo bioregion, where a crystal clear trout stream runs down from still active volcanoes, the ones pictured as Mordor in Lord of the Rings. Off to the northwest lies The Shire — we passed through Hobbiton only yesterday. Lake Taupo, which is beautiful in the fall colors, is this rugged land’s stomach. The soils are so rich that the best farms raise racehorses and the forests produced Ithilien, where Sméagol chased and caught a fish near a waterfall. 

It was Tane who separated their parents to produce the sky above and the land below. And when his grieving parents' tears filled the world, he turned his mother over to stop Ranginui from having to look upon her face and be reminded of their separation.

Tane brought light to the world by placing the stars in the sky, the sun at its zenith and the moon lower down on his father's head. He build the first house of nobility and it remains to this day the blueprint from which all homes are templated. He filled it with the knowledge of the gods, which he retrieved from the summit of the heavens at the instruction of Io-the-creator himself. He produced the trees, the birds, the insects and fish to clothe and adorn his mother, the earth. Finally, he created the first human, a woman from whom all peoples are descended. The world of eternal light where all beings were kin, no matter who or what, was born.

Many times did summer and winter struggle in rivalry before Maui-of-the-topknot, half-man, half-god, was gifted to the world. Raised by his priestly elder, Tamanui, he was shown the secrets of the universe; the kinship that existed between all things that would allow him to take on the form of the tree, the bird, the fish, the lizard. He mastered himself and returned to his family ready to conquer.

With a fearless heart he secured the magic jawbone of knowledge of his ancestress Murirangawhenua. And with it he caught and slowed down the sun, which sped across the heavens at will with little thought for the activities of man. He made fire available to people by forcing the very last flame of the Keeper-of-the-fires, Mahuika, to become imbued into the heartwood of the tree. He visited the spirit world to find his father and before his death at the hands of the Goddess-of-dearh, Hine-nui-te-po, he fished up these sacred isles.

Lake Taupo and its smaller cousins formed from the Oruanui eruption, 26,500 years ago. A later eruption in 181 AD was viewed in the sky from Europe and China. The most recent eruption, a minor one, was less than a decade ago. As we biked the bridge over Tongariro River this morning, we were not far from the site of the Great Battle of the Last Alliance, where Elves and Men joined to rid the world of Sauron’s evil. Just up the river lies Dagorland Plain, where the armies of Isildur, King Aragon’s father, met a huge Orc host in 3231 SA. Ten years later Isildur was killed in hand combat with Sauron outside Barad-dûr, but managed to slice off that famous ring finger, which is why Sméagal was able to fish the One Ring from the river not far below this bridge where we can look down and see the shadow of our bicycle. 

Using the sacred jawbone as a hook, Maui-the-relentless hauled up his great fish from the depths of Te Moananui a Kiwa, the Pacific ocean. But as he paid homage to the gods for having given him such a wondrous gift, with greed in their eyes and lies on their tongues his four brothers took to the fish with knives. In its death throes it became torn and shredded with gullies and gorges, hills and mountains. In time, the stingray-like fish became the North island of New Zealand while the canoe of Maui became the South Island.

The head of the fish is at [the] capital city, Wellington. The ridge of mountain ranges that run down the center of the island is its backbone. To the east coast and west to Taranaki can be seen its fins. The stomach is Lake Taupo while the heart is at Maunga Pohatu in the Ureweras. Northland is the whipping tail of the stingray. From tip to tip, fish to canoe, can be seen the myriad of extremities of this once virgin land.

And many centuries ago, when the voyager Kupe with his family and wife came upon these islands shrouded in mist and cloud they named them Aotearoa, land of the long white cloud. 

[Maori narrative courtesy of Chris Winitana].

The way we see the world is not necessarily “ding en sich,” the thing per seRather, our interpretation colors what we see; how we classify and articulate shades the perception itself. So, whether we elect to pursue a rigid adherence to empirical facts — the receding glaciers and volcanism that left their marks in local topology — or choose frameworks of myth and story — the knife slashes of Maui’s four brothers — matters only at the margin. One view is rich in geophysical symmetry, the other in nuance and revealed meaning.

This richness, and our choice about how to regard it, are all about us, all the time, everywhere. Our choice has always been the liberal view — abiding in all ways, taking solace from all voices, and receiving wisdom of all kinds. This is a very colorful tapestry, even when not perfectly coherent. It is a perfect whatever it is.


Sunday, April 1, 2012

Once “Teenage Genius” now fights for his life

“Ionizing radiation is one of the most biologically destructive forces in the universe. It is fiendishly inappropriate to try to tame it for a source of energy or anything else.”

Kaiser Permanente Cancer Clinic, Santa Rosa California, April 1, 2022

Back in 2012, Taylor Wilson told reporters from the principal news delivery media of that day, “When I hold something radioactive it is an indescribable feeling, kind of like when I am holding my girlfriend.”

At 11, he started mining for uranium and buying vials of deuterium gas and plutonium on the Internet. At 14 Wilson became the youngest person to build a fusion reactor, at home, in his parents’ Texarkana, Arkansas garage. At 17 he gave a TED talk describing how, besides the fusion device, he had developed an advanced nuclear radiation detector, a radio-telescope, and even a cure for cancer. That cure is something he wishes he had now. Like all the other inventions, it was more hype than reality.

“I was deluded and deceived,” he said through his oxygen mask. “My teachers and mentors had convinced me that the hysteria about nuclear radiation was overblown, and so I was handing radioactive materials using only light covering — a raincoat and rubber gloves.”

At 14, when he was recruited to the Davidson Academy of Nevada, the nuclear safety officials there made him wear a dosimeter. “I used to brag that I’d never gotten a dose that’s above legal levels,” Wilson said. “Now I understand how meaningless the legal limit is. Now I know there is no safe dose. If I had known then what I know now, I would have been an astronomer, or a carpenter.”

As a teenager, the way he knew his fusion reactor was working was when it produced enough radiation to cause lethal radiation poisoning. He told an interviewer back then, “pop culture has instilled in Americans an irrational fear of radiation, when in fact the household chemicals under your sink are more dangerous.”

Wilson has six types of cancer, and the worst of these, an adenocarcinoma of his colon, has metastasized to his liver. His doctors give him only weeks to live. “Hindsight is always 20/20,” he says, “but I think we were all deceived by the nuclear public relations people who paid for illegitimate scientific research and then weaseled their way into the back rooms where government regulations and school textbooks were being written. None of them actually made yellowcake the way I did, but they willfully set a trap that would ensnare an innocent boy.”

Wilson was not even born when Three Mile Island and Chernobyl reactors melted down but he was undeterred by the four-reactor explosion at Fukushima in 2011. The string of nuclear accidents in the following decade in France, India, China, Cuba and the United States did not phase him either, because he assumed it was just bad engineering or stupid operators.

“I finally began to grasp the problem when a routine x-ray found nodes on my lungs,” he said. Immersing himself in health science, he read Radiation and Human Health by Dr. John Gofman, a co-discoverer of plutonium. He credits that book with changing his outlook.

“Suddenly I saw into the submolecular level for the first time, and understood the interaction between ionizing radiation and living structures, like my own DNA. Ionizing radiation is one of the most biologically destructive forces in the universe. It is fiendishly inappropriate to try to tame it for a source of energy or anything else. We should never have unlocked it in the first place.” Wilson’s voice trailed off as weakness overtook him and he became unable to continue.

Well-wishers from all over the world have sent cards that fill his hospital room.


Thursday, March 22, 2012

The National Discourse

" The national discourse is a circular kabuki, with heroes and victims exchanging masks in an elaborate choreography moving left to right and back again."
   Re-entering the United States after a 4-month hiatus to saner parts of the world, we are struck by how even Alexis de Tocqueville underestimated the pathology of the population here. Coming back is like putting on x-ray spectacles, maybe the pair passed to Joseph Smith by the Angel Moroni. USAnians, particularly the Republican variant, are truly warped.
   Tocqueville observed that USAnians possessed a tendency for each to isolate himself from the mass of his fellows and to withdraw into the circle of family and friends. “[W]ith this little society formed to his taste, he gladly leaves the greater society to look for itself.” In such conditions “we lose interest in the future of our descendants... and meekly allow ourselves to be led in ignorance by a despotic force….”
   Tocqueville said this condition would lead to the government playing the role of all-wise parent and the citizenry that of “perpetual children.” The hook was entrepreneurial opportunity; the chance for beggars to become kings. Europeans in the early 19th Century held no such illusions, Tocqueville argued; they knew full well that the lower classes had no hope of gaining more than minimal security, while the upper classes had scant chance of losing their hereditary advantage.
   Frankly we cannot remember a point in our lifetime when the national discourse has sunk to a lower level. That is saying a lot, because although we were not around for the sinking of the Maine or Lusitania, or the“surprise” at Pearl Harbor, we grew up with the Red Scare, first from Truman, then from Eisenhower; the Missile Gap Kennedy used to flank Nixon; the Tonkin Gulf incident that LBJ crafted to fund the Vietnam War; Nixon; Reagan; Bush Sr.’s Operation Just Cause that left a civilian body count on the sidewalks of Panama City comparable to New York City’s on 9-11; 9-11; and Obama’s Af-Pak drone wars, the omnipotent terror from above. These were and are deceptions that conduce our “sheeple” to trust their all-knowing parents to protect them.
   The bobble head news cycle is carried along on well-trod framing crafted by long-in-the-tooth Republican strategists who seem to think the iPhone generation can be motivated to vote for an evangelical prophet of infinite prosperity by 5-second bytes of coded epithets and saber-rattling against Mexican job-stealers or Moslem jihadists on our doorstep.
   Mitt Romney said of Obama in Alabama, “This is a president who thinks America is doing better. He should go out and talk to the 24 million Americans who are out of work or stopped looking for work or are unemployed.” That is correct as far as it goes; until you get to his promises to put people back to work and build a prosperous economy by opening up new energy horizons like the Keystone XL Pipeline and hydrofracking. Newt Gingrich promises to return gas prices to $2.50 per gallon, the lowest in the Western world. Drill Baby Drill.
   It isn’t any better on the other side. Democratic Governors Association spokeswoman Kate Hansen told reporters, “If Republican governors would focus more on job creation and expanding opportunity instead of hard-right sideshows like attacking workers’ rights, suppressing voter turnout and mandatory ultrasounds, perhaps their states would be able to close the gap with Democratic-led states, which are creating 21st century jobs at a higher rate and making the investments a modern economy needs to promote continued growth.”
   On March 17, in his blog post for the New York Times, “Follow the Money, Follow the Sacredness,” Jonathan Haidt wrote:
  The Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith once summarized the moral narrative told by the American left like this: “Once upon a time, the vast majority” of people suffered in societies that were “unjust, unhealthy, repressive and oppressive.” These societies were “reprehensible because of their deep-rooted inequality, exploitation and irrational traditionalism - all of which made life very unfair, unpleasant and short. But the noble human aspiration for autonomy, equality and prosperity struggled mightily against the forces of misery and oppression and eventually succeeded in establishing modern, liberal, democratic, capitalist, welfare societies.” Despite our progress, “there is much work to be done to dismantle the powerful vestiges of inequality, exploitation and repression.” This struggle, as Smith put it, “is the one mission truly worth dedicating one’s life to achieving.”
  This is a heroic liberation narrative. For the American left, African-Americans, women and other victimized groups are the sacred objects at the center of the story. As liberals circle around these groups, they bond together and gain a sense of righteous common purpose.
  Contrast that narrative with one that Ronald Reagan developed in the 1970s and ’80s for conservatism. The clinical psychologist Drew Westen summarized the Reagan narrative like this: “Once upon a time, America was a shining beacon. Then liberals came along and erected an enormous federal bureaucracy that handcuffed the invisible hand of the free market. They subverted our traditional American values and opposed God and faith at every step of the way.” For example, “instead of requiring that people work for a living, they siphoned money from hard-working Americans and gave it to Cadillac-driving drug addicts and welfare queens.” Instead of the “traditional American values of family, fidelity and personal responsibility, they preached promiscuity, premarital sex and the gay lifestyle” and instead of “projecting strength to those who would do evil around the world, they cut military budgets, disrespected our soldiers in uniform and burned our flag.” In response, “Americans decided to take their country back from those who sought to undermine it.”
  This, too, is a heroic narrative, but it’s heroism of defense. In this narrative it’s God and country that are sacred - hence the importance in conservative iconography of the Bible, the flag, the military and the founding fathers. But the subtext in this narrative is about moral order. For social conservatives, religion and the traditional family are so important in part because they foster self-control, create moral order and fend off chaos. (Think of Rick Santorum’s comment that birth control is bad because it’s “a license to do things in the sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.”) Liberals are the devil in this narrative because they want to destroy or subvert all sources of moral order.
   The problem, Haidt observed (as did Olympia Snow a day later), is that it is immoral to compromise if you are confirmed in this faith. You have to be uncompromising. Whether you are defending against the “War on Christianity” (as a Mormon, no less), or the war being waged on trade unions, minority voters, immigrants and women, you are not permitted to compromise. It is war.  
   The current president is waging his own war on immigrants (deporting twice as many as his predecessor), civil liberties (claiming powers of indefinite detention and to execute citizens without trial) and international law (the drone wars, Gaza, climate change), which leads us to wonder which tribe’s sacred principles he pledges allegiance to? Probably neither. Can pragmatism be sacred? Hardly. Being the stepchild of compromise, pragmatism is profane.  
   What the tweedledum/tweedledee political parties seem to be agreed upon is that the USA should harken back to 19th Century Europe, where the lower classes have no hope of gaining more than minimal security and the upper classes have scant chance of losing their many advantages. That is a formula for an Occupy Everything resistance movement, but one easily diffused and co-opted by the material wealth and equality promises USAnians are suckers for.  
   The national discourse is a circular kabuki, with heroes and victims exchanging masks in an elaborate choreography moving left to right and back again. Confused? We are. Rome is burning. The barbarians are at the gate. This theater is on fire, and no one is yet moving toward the exits. Is the stage play THAT good?  
   Remove the masks and what we see are nearly identical actors: one black, one white; one bought and paid by the 1%, the other from the 99%; both doing everything they can to return us to the status quo ante — the way things were when oil flowed easily from the ground, the atmosphere had plenty of carbon parking space, the population could be fed, housed and amused cheaply on the backs of immigrants, and vast empires-for-the-taking stretched out over the horizon if our military was mighty. Casting spells of frontier colonies on Mars, near-infinite deposits of creamy energy under the Dakotas, and other fantasy utopias passes for reality now. Voters and investors alike are swept up in a nostalgic frenzy. And as they fantasize, so their tiny boat drifts closer to the falls, and is encircled by the current.  
   For, as Tocqueville wrote in 1835, “The inhabitants of the United States may retard the calamities which they apprehend, but they cannot now destroy their efficient cause.”

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Bumping Through Belize

"If all capital is eventually backed by natural resources and ecosystem services, how can a country so rich in those elements, a country that has hosted monumental (solar-powered) civilizations in past centuries, find itself so intractably desperate and deprived?"  


Riding the bus from Cancun to Belize City we noticed something so quintessentially Belizian we knew for certain we were in the right country. On a small concrete home, painted bright yellow and orange, there were two beat-up wooden doors. Above one, in large brown letters, were the hand-painted words, “Lose Fat Gym.” Over the other was written “Burritos.”

In many respects Belize ranks with the poorest nations in the world. The per capita GDP, according to the most recent IMF report, is $4,275. Compare that with $50,200 in the United States or $34,300 for the average of the EU. The Belizian economy ranks 163rd of 183 nations. Average wage is $10 per day. Average annual income is about a third less than GDP per capita because that missing third goes to foreign banks and businesses, which is what makes elections so interesting.

Belize has a nominally 2-party system — the governing United Democratic Party (UDP) and the opposition People’s United Party (PUP). In actuality, there is hardly any discernible difference between the two. Both promise more jobs and economic growth, a fair shake and an end to corruption. Once in office, all of the opposites to those promises prevail. And, since whichever party is in power can siphon off the most graft and kickbacks, a lot of money gets spent on elections, which are premised on the absurd and unrealizable myths of growth and jobs.
Gomier and PDC arrivals watch political parade from the restaurant in Punta Gorda
Sitting in Gomier’s restaurant, we watched first the PUP caravan of schoolbuses, then the UDP caravan of schoolbuses parade noisily down the street in Punta Gorda. Each of the farmers, students, or workers who were on the buses wore new t-shirts of their party and had been paid $100 for that day — a ten-day wage. There were parades like this nearly every day we were in Belize. In that two weeks, a nimble laborer could, by showing up at different rallies, changing t-shirts and being paid, make half a year’s salary just by riding buses and chanting slogans. In the end, the UDP retained control by the narrow margin of 17 seats to 14 for the PUP. The PUP outsider, Oscar, beat the UDP’s insider, Juan, in Toledo West, in a nasty smear campaign that makes Newt Gingrich's look tame.
Why is Belize so intractably poor? If all capital is eventually backed by natural resources and ecosystem services, how can a country so rich in those elements, a country that has hosted monumental (solar-powered) civilizations in past centuries, find itself so intractably desperate and deprived?
Permaculture Course at Maya Mountain Research Farm
Belize is overbrimming with natural capital. While population expansion is now making steady inroads into the back country, Belize, at the core of the great neotropical migratory corridor, boasts 566 species of birds. Traveling the river to our permaculture course by dory, we saw a river otter, a pair of collared aracari (similar to a toucan), a boat-billed flycatcher, a rose-throated becard, and the violaceous trogon. A villager we met had a pet peccary boar.
The sad thing is that between climate change and the embedded poverty of the steadily growing population (36.8% are below 14), Belize’s real wealth, and the hope for any true recovery, is now endangered more than ever before. The biggest symbol of that was the wide, paved road to Guatemala being constructed through the southernmost district. It will pass straight through the middle of previously roadless and inaccessible highland biodiversity sanctuaries, home to Howler monkeys, jaguar and tapir. This is destruction of wealth on a scale that can barely be imagined.

Gomier’s vegetarian restaurant, which makes its own soymilk-seaweed smoothies and tofu fritters, displays a rare exception to the standard fare in Belizian restaurants which is always stew beans, rice, fry bread and fry fish and bake chicken (served for breakfast, lunch and dinner). In most homes and restaurants the fish plate is the local catch of the day, but as the reef and rivers grow more depleted from overfishing, industrial tilapia is the new normal, and escaped farm tilapia are devouring their ways through Belize’s rich river ecosystems. 
Looking at Belize’s population more closely, 26.43 live births per 1,000 people seems like a lot (the US is 13.8, China 12.1, Germany 8.1) until you consider that the infant mortality rate is 22.95 neonatal deaths per 1,000 live births (the US is 6, China 16, Germany 3.5). That high mortality rate for babies is a function of lack of access to medical services, unsanitary living conditions, and a number of diseases endemic to the wet tropics: bacterial diarrhea, hepatitis A, typhoid fever, dengue fever and malaria. These diseases are compounded by the cheap, subsidized concrete block that is replacing traditional elevated wood buildings. A block building seems more hurricane and termite resistant, and probably is, but it clings moisture to its surface and cultures black molds to be inhaled or ingested by its occupants.
 One of the films we always like to show the first night in a permaculture course is Albert Bartlett’s lecture on Understanding the Exponential Function. Bartlett displays two columns of solutions to the population dilemma. The left column shows things that people usually consider valuable pursuits of civil society – food security, sanitation, and medicine, for instance. The right displays things society abhors — war, disease, murder, and famine. Bartlett asks a straightforward question: if we want to bring down population, which column should we favor? He also observes that choices of measures like abstinence, contraception, and abortion — political punching bags in the US political scene, as they are also in largely Catholic Belize —are obviously less painful than letting nature decide.
The story is a familiar one, repeated often in the Americas over the past 500 years. A “wealthy” and industrious country (in this case England) arrives seeking trade goods (sailing masts, cacao, spices, and dyes made from native plants). In place of the local form of agriculture (in this case the carbon-endowing milpa system of long-rotation agroforestry that we described in The Biochar Solution), the Europeans impose the plow and irrigation style that desertified the Middle East, where it originated, and was steadily doing the same to the soils of England in the 18th Century, forcing the fleets of exploration. After the invention of the Haber-Bosch process and the development of Round-Up and terminator seeds, this process accelerates to bolster corporate profits in London and other trade centers. As a result, the thin tropical soils are ruined, chemical dependency established, food security demolished, and poverty embedded.
In Belize the Royal Navy was especially keen to harvest two types of trees, samwood and bloodwood (Haematoxylum var.). Samwood grew straight and dense and was ideal for tall ship construction. Bloodwood (Palo de Tinto in Mexico) extracts are used as remedies by indigenous peoples and were included in the London Pharmacopoeia of 1740, which listed bloodwood tea as being effective against tuberculosis and dysentery. More significantly for the woolen mills in England, the heartwood is used to produce dye for cloth and a pink coloring still used today in pharmaceuticals and toothpaste.
The new southern road cut a swath between the farm of Burton Cadiz (left) and his neighbor
Pirate log cutters gave way to permanent settlements and by the late 18th century, an oligarchy of relatively wealthy British settlers controlled the political economy of “British Honduras.” These settlers claimed about four-fifths of the available land; owned about half the slaves; controlled imports, exports, and the wholesale and retail trades; and levied taxes to economically enslave the free population. When the indigenous Caribbean Garifuna migrated out of Honduras and founded Punta Gorda in the mid-19th century, slavery had been abolished in English colonies but the economic tricks of enslavement remained, and they quickly ensnared the Garifuna. In order to pay their taxes to the Crown, they had to earn sterling, and the only way to do that was to produce an export commodity or labor for an English plantation. The 1872 Crown Lands Ordinance seized the family lands of the Garifuna and the Maya and established reservations. Nonetheless, Belize, with its relatively stable system of British control, became a sanctuary for Mayan and Garifuna populations fleeing war zones in southern Mexico and Guatemala.

By the end of the 19th century, the ethnic pattern that has remained largely intact to the present was in place: Protestants largely of African descent, who spoke either English or Creole and have clustered in Belize City; Roman Catholic Maya and Mestizos who speak Spanish and Mayan and live chiefly in the highlands; and Roman Catholic Garifuna who speak Creole English, Spanish, or a native dialect and live on the coasts or inland at Stann Creek. Sprinkle into this some Protestant Mennonite clans and a wave of recent Asian immigrants and you get the modern mix of Belize. In Punta Gorda you can get by on any of four languages and most people speak them all. 
As rich as this cultural diversity is (and wasn’t that also a reputed source of the wealth and innovation of USAnians?) the country is still enslaved. Large plantations — citrus, habanero, rice, banana — dominate the agricultural economy. Rather than learning from the Mayans, who still grow mixed age, mixed species tree and understory crops, albeit with an unhealthy dose of annual maize for sale to pay taxes, the Mennonites and Asians arrive with the same methods, tractors, and chemicals that the British brought in earlier. Instead of food security, what is being harvested is food insecurity. A drop in the price of maize or rice, a banana blight, or just a financial collapse that takes out the local banks, ruins people and more children die.
As we reached the dory landing in San Pedro Columbia we happened upon some village boys playing a game they had devised using an old tire and a football. One boy rolls the tire down the hill, another boy catches it, a third tries to throw a football through the tire hole at the moment of greatest speed or bounce. Then the boy who got to toss has to push the tire back up for the next thrower. This is low cost entertainment, and more exercise than an X-Box.
PDC students Reginia (Humana People to People) and Raneesha (Plenty) learn to swale
Belize is a tropical paradise, and its people should be some of the happiest and healthiest on the planet. That they are not thriving is through no obvious cause, such as indolence, alcohol or bad education. They are not thriving because they are wedded to a food production system that is destroying their underlying wealth, and they are suffering the consequences of that system and its financial prerequisites. Voting UDP or PUP won’t change that, the parties are just there for entertainment. Both UDP and PUP advocate staying with the program. So do the government agencies, schools, churches and most aid agencies. 
This is why the work being done by groups like Plenty Belize, Humana, and the Maya Mountain Research Farm are so important. If children and young people can learn the difference between living nature’s way versus fighting her each step of the way, Belize could prosper the way it is meant to.
Mark’s Serre
Serves 2
In Belize coconut oil and coconut milk are ubiquitous ingredients in both Belizean Kriol/Creole and Garifuna cuisine. Coconut adds flavor to stew beans and rice, often accompanied by the rich umami of pigtail. Coconut oil and milk may help explain how life expectancy at birth, despite the obstacles, is 66.5 years for men and 70 for women. The oil is used to fry everything from plantain chips to fish and chicken. Crab soup, conch soup and fish serre are the coconut equivalent of a cream-filled chowder; rich, tasty and filling, without cholesterol.
Fish: about 2 pounds of mackerel, barracuda, culibri, any firm fleshed fish, steaked or cut into other bowl sized pieces.  
Coco yam about 1 lb (or dasheen or taro root, found in most well stocked produce sections, in the "exotics" section. Ask your grocer, or substitute potatoes if you absolutely have to)  
Cassava root about 1 lb (again, most well stocked produce sections in a grocery store will have this around.)  
Onion (about two medium, finely diced)
Bell pepper (about two medium, finely diced) 

1 can (2 cups if fresh) Coconut milk
Water (normally not listed as an ingredient, but you need good water here)
Garlic (plenty, finely minced)
Black pepper (fresh ground, to taste)


1. Peel cassava and coco yams (collectively known as ground-food in Belize because they come from the ground), cut into big chunks. The brown skin of the cassava will come off along with a white thin layer of underlying flesh. Finally chop onion, bell pepper. Crush black pepper, salt. Cook all vegetables and ground food in a pot with coconut milk, plenty of minced garlic, pepper, a little cumin, salt and enough water to completely cover the food. Cook until tender. Add minced cilantro to taste. People often include breadfruit, ripe plantain or green plantain fu-fu (cooked mashed green plantain dumplings) in this stage of the serre.
2. Once fish is cut into steaks or pieces, fry until browned in a little coconut oil.  
3. Place fish in pot, on top of the stew of tender ground-food and vegetables, simmer until fish is done. This won't take long, test with a fork if need be.  
4. Serve with pepper/onion sauce.  

Pepper or Onion sauce: 

This is an essential accompaniment to the Serre. The acidity of the lime and vinegar and the heat of the habanero cut the richness of the coconut milk and create a perfect balance of flavor. Whether you call it pepper or onion sauce depends on the ratio of onion to habanero. Go with what works best for your taste buds and heat preference.   

Habanero pepper
Lime juice


Mince an onion and add to taste a quantity of finely minced habanero pepper. Remove the seeds and white internal membrane if you want to tone down the heat even more. Add minced cilantro, lime juice, vinegar and salt to taste. Some people like more vinegar, some like more lime juice. Experiment and see which you prefer. Let the whole concoction sit in a glass container. You can leave it covered on the counter for several weeks and it will stay perfectly fresh as the onion and pepper pickle themselves in the lime juice and vinegar. Serve with Serre and other heavy stews, with refried beans at breakfast, on top of guacamole or anytime you need some hot pepper flavor. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Listening to your Hair

Give me a head with hair, long beautiful hair

Shining, gleaming, streaming, flaxen, waxen

Give me down to there, hair, shoulder length or longer

Here baby, there, momma, everywhere, daddy, daddy

Hair, flow it, show it

Long as God can grow, my hair

— Rado, Ragni and Gerome, Hair

Of all five major senses, tactile perception is the least understood. Some two dozen unique types of nerve endings pass through the skin of mammals. How and what they detect, how they code and transmit signals to the brain, and how those signals are decoded and used are still only poorly understood.

How does a three-foot long cell, such as one of the neurons that run from your big toe to the ganglial clusters near your spine, tell you nearly instantly that a mosquito is about to bite the tip of that toe, or that a slight, warm breeze just blew in through a crack in your door?

One way — that we are just coming to find out about — is through arrayed antennae, seemingly dead cellular structures (keratin proteins) that we have long been calling, regardless of cell type or location, simply, “hair.” In actuality, “hair” is a complex matrix of distinct cooperating structures that include the part under the skin — the follicle — which is an organ that contains stem cells that can be tasked to make either more follicles or dermal cells, such as regrowing skin after a wound; the shaft (see cross-section); and an outer coating of sensory cells. We have been growing these structures since we were lizards.

Humans are the only primate species that have undergone significant hair loss and of the approximately 5000 extant species of mammal, only a handful — elephants, rhinoceroses, hippopotamuses, walruses, pigs, whales and most other cetaceans, and naked mole rats — are effectively hairless.
Black Elk
What we gave up in camouflage, protection from cold or UV radiation, and a barrier to wounds, we gained in the ability to sweat and to make Vitamin D, something we needed when we were forced by climate or inhospitable neighbors to migrate poleward, where winters were long and days were short.

A recent post getting some replay is The Truth About Hair and Why Indians Would Keep Their Hair Long from Signs of the Times. The author, C. Young, writes:
It seems that during the Vietnam War special forces in the War Department had sent undercover experts to comb American Indian Reservations looking for talented scouts, for tough young men trained to move stealthily through rough terrain.
Bill and Hillary
They were especially looking for men with outstanding, almost supernatural, tracking abilities. Before being approached, these carefully selected men were extensively documented as experts in tracking and survival. 

With the usual enticements, the well-proven smooth phrases used to enroll new recruits, some of these Indian trackers were then enlisted. Once enlisted, an amazing thing happened. Whatever talents and skills they had possessed on the reservation seemed to mysteriously disappear, as recruit after recruit failed to perform as expected in the field. 

Serious causalities and failures of performance led the government to contract expensive testing of these recruits, and this is what was found. 

When questioned about their failure to perform as expected, the older recruits replied consistently that when they received their required military haircuts, they could no longer 'sense' the enemy, they could no longer access a 'sixth sense', their 'intuition' no longer was reliable, they couldn't 'read' subtle signs as well or access subtle extrasensory information. 

So the testing institute recruited more Indian trackers, let them keep their long hair, and tested them in multiple areas. Then they would pair two men together who had received the same scores on all the tests. They would let one man in the pair keep his hair long, and gave the other man a military haircut. Then the two men retook the tests.
Time after time the man with long hair kept making high scores. Time after time, the man with the short hair failed the tests in which he had previously scored high scores.

Regrettably there is scant evidence offered to back up these claims, so they remain in the realm of internet fable. A search of Google science comes up with a dearth of research on sensory perception and hair. The central grain of truth, however, is that hair is an extension of the nervous system.  Whether it actually transmits important information to the brain remains an open question, but some studies of our mammalian relatives raise intriguing possibilities.

Batman: The Beginning

Bats are the only mammals capable of powered flight, and they perform impressive aerial maneuvers like tight turns, hovering, and rapid acceleration and deceleration. They fly in nearly complete darkness employing sonar navigation and can fly through areas of high turbulence with astonishing stability. Their wing, which is a bony webbed-hand with five fingers joined by a membrane, is covered with stiff, domed micro-hairs. When scientists began looking at the motor control and aerodynamic feedback employed by bats, using wind tunnels, they discovered just how important their hair was.


Using a scanning electron microscope, neuroscientists at the Universities of Maryland and Ohio found that both types of bats they studied, big brown bats and short-tailed fruit bats, had two types of hair: a long (up to several millimeters), relatively thick type close to their ventral forearm, around the leg, and on the tail membrane; and a second type along the trailing edge of the wing made of single-cell strands of follicle — 200–900 nm at tip — which are invisible to the naked eye. With tests involving mazes and high-speed IR-sensitive video cameras, brown bats were trained to fly through an artificial forest of simulated tree trunks, relying on echolocation, to be rewarded with a tethered meal-worm.  Fruit bats were trained to fly through openings in a net maze and were rewarded with bananas. The researchers found that their hair not only aided the bats in flight control, detecting air velocity, wind direction, vortices and potential stall conditions, but also fed their brains sensory information about the configuration of the maze. When their wing hair was removed by depilatory cream, the bats could still fly, and still went after their food rewards, but they negotiated the turns much more widely and stayed farther away from the walls of the maze.

The researchers noted that bats are not unique in these attributes, saying “in mammals, tactile hairs are usually located on the head in the form of sinus hairs (e.g., whiskers) … Sinus hairs on other body parts have been described only for the manatee. The authors suggested that the sparsely distributed hairs on the manatee’s body could form a lateral line system analogous to that of fish and amphibians, where it serves to detect water currents surrounding the animal’s body.”

The bat was somewhat unique among mammals in that it grew its hairs on its “fingertips” whereas in primates, rodents and other non-hoofed mammals, fingers and toes are hairless.

Consider your ear

The bones of the middle ear are connected to the inner ear, or cochlea where the auditory nerve is stimulated. As can be seen in the drawing, the cochlea is a tightly coiled portion of the ear, like a snail’s shell. It is liquid-filled, but projecting up into it are very tiny hair cells that may be stimulated by activity of the liquid within which they are set and the basilar membrane on which they are mounted. Most physiologists have assumed that, since hair is “dead” keratin, it is the bending of these hair cells that fires the auditory nerve. Maybe, maybe not. The effect is to translate a sound vibration transmitted through air or fluids into an electro-chemical impulse headed for your brain. As the number and rate of auditory nerve cells firing increase, perceived loudness increases. Different cells fire to reflect difference in frequency; the combination of cells firing determines the perceived timbre.
Electromagnet imaging of brainwaves
Bob Marley's dreads
Central to the auditory perception, however, is hair. The range of sound pressures which can be perceived is remarkable — a 1-million-fold range in humans, and wider still in other animals, with detection thresholds lowest at 1,000-6,000 Hz but increasing at both higher and lower frequencies. A frequency shift of as little as 2 percent can be detected. Our head cocks to time the arrival of the stimulus at each ear, and with only slight difference in arrival times (3/10000ths of a second), and filtering out wind, echo, and distracting sounds, we can localize the point of origin. We do that with our tiny ear hairs. Something analogous, although not quite the same as hair cells, happens with our senses of taste and smell (olfactory epithelium).

So, the big question is, what do we sense with our hair? Can we detect others nearby in darkness, or beyond our range of view? Can we sense more than we think we can? Should we be cutting it off, or should we be letting it grow?


Susanne Sterbing-D’Angelo, Mohit Chadha, Chen Chiu, Ben Falk, Wei Xian, Janna Barcelo, John M. Zook, and Cynthia F. Moss, Bat wing sensors support flight control, PNAS Early Edition (2011)

Antonio Damasio, The quest to understand consciousness, TED 2011, Long Beach, CA (Feb 2011)

Monday, February 6, 2012

Medicine Story's Berlin Meditation

"I think we are here to be helpful. We do need to help life in general, the environment to sustain life, but the biggest job seems to be helping each other. We are here to help each other. That’s it, as far as I can tell. That’s what it is all about, plain and simple. All of morality, religion, justice, law, education, arts and sciences, what’s behind everything human beings do, our most basic instruction, is helping each other."

Saturday our friend Manitonquat (Medicine Story) sent us this reflection that we’d like to share. Manitonquat, a former Farm resident and sometimes Christiania resident is a Wampanoag elder teaching in Green Mountain College and working with Native Peoples in and out of prison. He is now writing a book about childcare. We have trimmed the size of his post to better fit this space. The longer version will be available in his Talking Stick Newsletter and in his book. 

Saturday, February 4, 2012, 7:48 PM
Circle Way, Greenville, New Hampshire

Medicine Story, photo by Albert Bates,
The Farm News Service, 2009
This is a summary, as I recall it, of what I said at a small circle in Berlin two weeks ago. I would like to make it a circle with all of you, here in cyberspace so you can read it, take the stick and respond if you choose by email.

I would like to open this circle, as always, by giving thanks to our Mother the Earth, to all her family – our plant, animal and human relatives, to all the unknown relatives in the large family of the Universe, and to the Mystery that is responsible for all of that and for our own miraculous gift of life.

I am so grateful every morning when I waken from my generally intense and interesting dreams and rejoice in the amazing fact that I am alive again. 

I wanted to tell you all what I think we are doing here. In this life on Earth, I mean. This is a basic question that only human beings can ask, and it seems we have a need to do so and decide what our lives might be all about. What are we doing here? What is this incredible gift of life about anyway? What is its purpose? We all have to answer that question for ourselves, but I want to share with you what my answer to that is.

I think we are here to be helpful. We do need to help life in general, the environment to sustain life, but the biggest job seems to be helping each other. We are here to help each other. That’s it, as far as I can tell. That’s what it is all about, plain and simple. All of morality, religion, justice, law, education, arts and sciences, what’s behind everything human beings do, our most basic instruction, is helping each other. When we get away from that – in morality, religion, justice and so on, we start to mess it all up. When we forget that everything we do is to make life better for each other (which makes it better for us) we get away from the simple purpose of our lives. The purpose of all morality, religion, law and justice, of all institutions, politics and economics is supposed to be just to make life better for us, for people.
I see that human beings have an inherent need to be helpful. We are born that way. It comes through evolution, through a hundred thousand years of becoming human by being in circles to protect and support each other.

It comes because those circles had the job of caring for babies, and human babies take longer to grow to where they can care for themselves than any animal. Its part of what makes us human, helping babies grow and caring for them. For fifteen or twenty years we learn to love and care for and help them. The years of caring for children are at least that long and it affects us. It makes us concerned, compassionate, tender and loving. The babies teach that to us, because they have started to love right there in mama’s womb and they need us and love us and want to connect deeply with us. That’s where our “humanity” comes from. And it reaches out from the parent to the family to the clan to the whole circle, the community, the village or the tribe. So we are born wanting to be helpful, we are born cooperative and caring and compassionate. And when we stick together it grows. Fear, anxiety, separation, loneliness reduce our caring and our humanness, our human response to life. So that is part of what we have in our genes coming into the world.

A stranger falls in the street and we run to help. We hear a cry and look to see if someone needs help. The most hardened criminals in our circles all want to be helpful. When we hear stories of people who pass by and turn a deaf ear to cries for help, we all shake our heads. How could they? That is not human, we agree.

When I lived in New York City I was wakened by a woman;’ scream around in the morning. I leapt from bed without thought and started for the door, my wife screaming to put on pants, which I did, feeling foolish about it. I met the superintendent outside and together we raced upstairs in the net building where a woman was screaming that she had been attacked in bed by a man who had come in her open window. I went up the fire escape and he went up the stairs and we caught the man on the roof and held him for the police. I am not especially brave, I acted only without thinking. Someone desperately called for help, and I felt very good about my natural human reaction to that.

Morning Circle, UN Climate Conference Windows of Hope,
Christiania, Copenhagen, Denmark, 2009
It is this inherent need and purpose of human beings to be helpful that informs the Original Instructions which our elders transmitted to us from their elders: respect for all Creation, for individual lives, and the supporting of those lives through the circle, and giving thanks which brings everyone joy.

There are consequences to be considered if it is indeed our basic human need and purpose to be helpful. One important consideration is connection: to get as close as we can to one another. To get as close to as many of us as we can manage. To communicate our needs, as Rosenberg says in his non-violent communication teachings, and to listen with care to everyone, to invoke our natural caring and compassion and see how we can help each other.

When I am not doing so well at that I usually realize it. I need sessions to discharge on what is getting in the way of my being completely close with others (and also to affirm that I am a good man who struggles with patterns like everyone and that I am doing the best I can at all times). Then I review for myself all the ways in which I am being helpful, the things I manage to accomplish that actually achieve some good in the world.

Another consideration is to notice how our patterns, born of fear, urge us to isolate ourselves from each other or to form cliques and in-groups and separate our group from others, creating bigotry, racism, chauvinism and all other oppressions.

And so the major thrust of my life is and has been to bring people together, to reach across the walls and boundaries to other people. … I am falling in love every day, with old friends, new friends, complete strangers, with my sons and their partners, with my wife. The closer I get to everyone, the more I listen to them and open myself, the more my heart expands and the more love I feel for them. There is joy in that feeling and also pain sometimes, but I have you to share it with so all is well. More than well. It is splendid.

So what is it with your circle? Is it hard to get everyone together there? Well, of course it’s a problem with all circles in our stressful unsupportive culture. It’s our patterns of isolation, discouragement, stress, confusion. Not our fault. Not your fault. I have a fine circle here, but I have to push myself to go sometimes. I feel overwhelmed with work, not enough time. But then I remind myself that being in the circle, listening and helping others with my caring and my perspective outside of their patterns, feeling the support and encouragement of others, all that will give me strength, focus my thoughts and my will and help my work. But most of all I will feel helpful, and that reminds me who I really am.




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