Long time no see

It’s been a long time since I wrote a post here. My apologies to you, dear readers. Things will be slowing down here for a bit, as they are in some ways slowing down in my real life. My caregiving responsibilities are eating up more and more of my time, health, and energy, and something’s gotta give.

It’s rather fitting that this is also the dormant time of year in my little corner of the world. It’s hot, really hot, over 100 degrees hot. One tries not to move any more than necessary.

I intend to continue posting here, albeit a bit less frequently, and I have a feeling that before too very long, this blog will have a rebirth of sorts.

Bad science, Part III: implications

Wenceslas_Hollar_-_Roman_ruins_(State_1)In this final Bad Science post I want to talk about the implications of all this and what it means for those of us interested in herbalism. I have wrestled with this post for weeks now, but it was always either too long and rambling, or too lacking in context to be worth writing at all. So let this be the tl;dr version:

  • “Bad science” is a combination of (1) scientistic materialism that has gone from the normative worldview of industrial civilization to a more-or-less religious orthodoxy (atheism notwithstanding); (2) scientific method that has been subverted by corruption and ego; and (3) the abuse of science’s intellectual authority (in the service of Numbers 1 and 2), leading to the demise of that authority as discussed in Part I and Part II of this series.
  • These changes arise in the philosophical domain, but have material effects.
  • This is all part of the larger process of the decline of industrial civilization. I picked this particular facet because our medical and food-production systems are strongly effected by changes in the arena of science. Presumably, this matters to those of us interested in herbalism.
  • One of the symptoms of this is a lot of nasty infighting among different social interest groups, each trying to defend its turf against all the others.

And now my reasoning.

I was originally thinking of having a post about the various rhetorical dirty tricks employed by the materialist true-believers against their many perceived foes (including us). But it was depressing me, and it was also boring. And you are probably familiar with all of them anyway. I decided to move straight to the wider implications of that behavior, which was the ultimate point anyway.

I have become quite a fan of John Michael Greer’s Archdruid Report blog. In spite of the title, it’s not about archdruiding so much as it’s about the process of decline and fall of our civilization. This is not a bunch of doomsday prophesying. Greer knows his history, and recognizes the repeating patterns. Not that Greer is the only one talking about this, but his writing is possibly the most prolific. I won’t delve into this; if it’s of interest to you, check out his blog. The central point is that we have a civilization that was built on non-renewable resources which are now running out.

Roman Ruins null Jacob More circa 1740-1793 Purchased as part of the Oppé Collection with assistance from the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund 1996 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T08193One of the first things to be abandoned as the resource-base of a civilization begins to contract are what Greer terms its intellectual and cultural projects:

“Every human society likes to think that its core cultural and intellectual projects, whatever those happen to be, are the be-all and end-all of human existence….It’s important not to underestimate the shattering force of this experience. The plays of Euripides offer cogent testimony of the despair felt by ancient Greek thinkers as their grand project of reducing the world to rational order dissolved in a chaos of competing ideologies and brutal warfare. Fast forward most of a millennium, and Augustine’s The City of God anatomized the comparable despair of Roman intellectuals at the failure of their dream of a civilized world at peace under the rule of law.”

Science has been the big intellectual project of modernity. Intellectual projects need a lot of resources, and when those are in short supply, and society is losing its organizational ability to distribute those resources, priorities shift away from “progress” and toward survival. Therefore, we can’t expect to see science replaced by a similar project or coherent worldview–“when the barbarians are at the gates, one might say, funds that might otherwise be used to pay for schools of philosophy tend to get spent hiring soldiers instead.”

offensive potatoIt’s not just a matter of resources and where they are directed. It’s also that as science’s authority has started to crack, the discontented turn literally almost anywhere else for an alternative. There are a lot of alternatives out there, and there’s also a lot of fear. And so people invest a huge amount of their personal energy in drawing lines in the sand, finding their co-believers, and attacking the “enemy.” It’s about ideology, and it’s about identity. People latch onto any ideology that promises salvation–or in modern terminology, “progress”–like the drowning latch onto a life preserver. A huge amount of personal energy is poured into being offended by anything and everything. Professors are even starting to notice this combination of ideological fragmentation and belligerence among students. Under the current corporate model of university management, instructors are discouraged from presenting any material that makes the customers students uncomfortable, and students are quick to complain, loudly, when that happens. The problem is that there are so many identities and interest groups represented among the student body that it’s impossible not to offend somebody, especially when everybody’s looking for a reason to get offended. Every perceived offense is an opportunity to bang the drum for whatever identity/ideology the offended party belongs to.

Yet we still carry on under the pretense that everything’s ok, and will be even better soon. So actually doing something to remedy whatever offends us is both difficult to imagine and unnecessary. So much of what started out as well-intentioned reform and sensitivity devolved into politically correct thought- and speech-policing, whereby all that’s needed to prove one’s goodness and righteousness is to swiftly dogpile anyone who uses the wrong terminology or asks uncomfortable questions.

Some have claimed that this is because feelings now trump objectivity. I think that’s a very superficial reading of the situation. If that were all that’s happening, I am not sure I would have a problem with prioritizing people’s feelings and subjective experiences. But if people’s feelings and social justice really mattered as much as well-meaning young liberals like to claim, then our first order of business would be to change the social conditions that create suffering and injustice. But that would require admitting that the faith in progress, scientific materialism, technoutopianism, and neoliberal economic models which we trusted would save us was just smoke and mirrors. It’s so much easier just to shout about it.

19th century pencil drawing of Roman temple/ruinsI have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, as science loses the right to be the sole arbiter of truth and reality, the things that have been consigned to the “fake” category–like herbalism–have a chance to regain the legitimacy and authority they once had. On the other hand, there are some major drawbacks. First among them is that as a system burns itself out, those invested in it double down. The reaction can get nasty, and you never know which end of the pitchfork you’ll be on. It’s very likely that I will not live to see a day (if family history is any indicator, I can expect to live as much as 60 more years) when we are fully free to do our thing as makers and users of herbal medicine, but that we will be increasingly constrained by bureaucratic red tape put in place to protect corporate and oligarchic interests. Still, I will keep on growing my own food and making my own medicine and sharing them with my community. We dandelions somehow manage to thrive.

Bad science, Part II: Philosophy and ideology


In today’s anti-intellectual social climate I often see philosophy dismissed as useless ivory-tower navel-gazing, but the reality is we are all philosophers. The most basic questions asked by philosophy are fundamental: What Is? (i.e., ontology) and How do we know? (epistemology). We spend our infancy asking those questions–the little kid asking “Why?” endlessly is a perfect philosopher–until we get to the age where we just accept the answers our elders give us. Philosophy is the study of ideas, and it is basic to the experience of being human and having a human brain.

Of course not everybody wants to go pro with philosophy. When I was a kid I was fascinated by philosophy and even told one of my elementary school teachers I was going to get a Ph.D. in it (ha!). Yet by the time I went to college I had learned to disapprove of it as “useless,” and I regret to say I never took a single philosophy class. Granted, this was partly because I had become aware that all of us are doing it all the time, so why take a class? Also, some of my friends (and one guy I dated) were philosophy majors and holy cats could they get infuriating. It was almost impossible to have a conversation without footnotes defining every word! But I still wish I had given it some formal study, if only to learn a better language for asking questions, so I wouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel all the time.

“Study of ideas” does sound a little rarefied until you consider that almost everything we ever “know” is actually an idea. We can’t get outside of our own heads, so our experiences are always mediated through our perceptions and memories. Our experience is made up of ideas about things, not the things themselves. In that sense, philosophy is the study of lived experience, plus everything we think about that. So you know, pretty important stuff.

While we’re on the topic let me say that the philosophical school I most closely identify with is Skepticism. I don’t mean those smug jerks who make it their life’s mission to liberate us from our “errors” (they are true-believers, and I’ll come back to them shortly)–I’m talking about David Hume’s Skepticism, or that of the ancient Greeks. Because we can’t get out of our own subjective head-space, we can’t know whether anything objectively exists outside of it, or what that anything might be like. A more extreme Skeptic would even question whether other subjectivities–other minds–exist at all. I don’t take it quite that far. I certainly don’t say that nothing else exists, I just don’t believe any of us humans has a tool kit that would enable us to determine its objective nature, or indeed even our own objective nature. I also think of myself as a sort of Neo-Gnostic in that I suspect (but don’t know!) that there is some kind of objective reality but that our subjective human experience is different from and even deceptive about what that reality is, and I also suspect that reality is both conscious and non-material in nature, though I have no way of being sure. I’m telling you this to be as forthcoming as possible about my own perspective, since I’m about to criticize others for not doing that.

The philosopher and scientist (and skeptic and atheist) Massimo Pigliucci has been calling out scientists and sciencelebrities lately for taking an anti-intellectual stance toward philosophy, and some other disciplines which aren’t their own, for example in this piece at Scientia Salon and this one in the Huffington Post. In his HuffPo piece, Pigliucci points out that philosophy is “the mother of all sciences,” and criticizes sciencelebrity Neil deGrasse Tyson in particular:

“It seems like my friend Neil deGrasse Tyson [1] has done it again: He has dismissed philosophy as a useless enterprise and actually advised bright students to stay away from it. It is not the first time Neil has done this sort of thing, and he is far from being the only scientist to do so.

…someone who regularly appears on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report and has had the privilege of remaking Carl Sagan’s iconic Cosmos series — in short, someone who is a public intellectual and advocate for science — really ought to do better than to take what amounts to anti-intellectual (and illiterate) positions about another field of scholarship.”

But aside from being rude to fellow scholars, what’s the big deal? The dismissal of philosophy as a valid field of inquiry demonstrates two deeper issues:

  1. There has been a serious deterioration in science (both in practice and education) to the point where its predication on beliefs, ultimate subjectivity, and its history and cultural context have been forgotten, or are deliberately obfuscated.
  2. In the hustle to achieve greater authority (see the previous post in this series), scientists have become unwilling to face challenge–not only from ordinary people like you and me, but even from fellow academics.

So it’s partly a sign of ignorance of the foundations and ethics of science, and partly due to fear of losing their status if anyone dares to point out that there’s a man behind the curtain.

If you’ve ever taken an English composition or historiography class, you’ve probably been told never to use the passive voice (e.g., say “X did Y” not “Y was done by X” or even more vaguely, “Y was done.”) However in science writing, the passive voice is used preferentially. This is to make it appear as if the findings simply manifested all by themselves, without any interference from a flawed human. It creates a veneer of objectivity.

Just as scientific experiments don’t happen in a vacuum, science didn’t arise in a vacuum: It was the product of specific historical and cultural trends–and philosophical beliefs. These beliefs have evolved somewhat, but not as much as you might think/hope. Science and the belief in scientific and technological progress arose out of what John Michael Greer calls the “prophetic religious sensibility,” which was also the source of Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam.

“A religious sensibility isn’t a religion. It’s the substructure of perceptions, emotions and intuitions on which religions are built, and to which religions owe both the deep similarities that link them to other faiths of the same general age and historical origin, and the equally deep divides that separate them from faiths of different ages and origins.”

Although Greer is talking about religion and not science, it isn’t only religions that are built on the substructure of “religious sensibility”–so are all of our just-so stories. They shape each of our subjective lived experiences. Atheism and science are not the same thing–although the dominant metaphysical premise of modern science is scientific-materialism and there is significant overlap–yet if you substitute “science” for “atheism” in this quote, it is still true.

“…the contemporary quarrels between atheists and theists, like the equally fierce quarrels between the different theist religions of salvation, take place within a shared sensibility. It’s indicative, for example, that theists and atheists agree on the vast importance of what individuals believe about basic religious questions such as the existence of God; it’s just that to the theists, having the right beliefs brings salvation from eternal hellfire, while to the atheists, having the right beliefs brings salvation from the ignorant and superstitious past that fills the place of eternal damnation in their mythos. That obsession with individual belief is one of the distinctive features of the current western religious sensibility…

The hostilities between Christianity and contemporary atheism, like those between Christianity and Islam, are thus expressions of something like sibling rivalry. Salvation from the natural world and the human condition remains the core premise (and thus also the most important promise) of all these faiths, whether that salvation takes the supernatural form of resurrection followed by eternal life in heaven, on the one hand, or the allegedly more natural form of limitless progress, the conquest of poverty, illness, and death, and the great leap outwards to an endless future among the stars.” (my emphasis)

In another post on a related topic, Greer elaborates:

“I think most of my readers are aware that most versions of Christian doctrine insist that the Christian God is the only authentic deity in the cosmos, and the deities of other religions are a) imaginary, b) demons masquerading as divinities, or c) more or less garbled human misunderstandings of the one true Christian god—the choice between these options being largely a matter of the personal predilections of whoever’s doing the preaching.

Those religions that insist that theirs is the one and only real deity tend to have an awkward time dealing with the prevalence, and similarity, of religious experience across the whole spectrum of human religions.

All the prophetic faiths, from east to west, have certain things in common besides their abandonment of the old gods of nature. To begin with, as already noted, each was founded by someone who claimed unique access to the truth about the universe. To belong to one of these faiths isn’t simply a matter of participating in its ceremonies and showing reverence to its holy things, as in the nature religions; all of them started out with the idea that belonging to the religion required acceptance of a specific set of opinions about religious issues—the Four Noble Truths, the Nicene Creed, or what have you—and accepting them, furthermore, in a sense that formally excluded accepting any other set. Most of them, though not all, still maintain that principle of membership to one degree or another.”

All the prophetic faiths also share, to one degree or another, a rejection of the world as it actually exists in favor of some more or less utopian substitute…” (my emphasis)

I quote Greer at length here because I think this point cannot be overstated–the scientific method is a specific response to a specific set of cultural, historical, and philosophical conditions (one of which is the substructure of the prophetic religious sensibility with its notions of progress and transcendence), which were enveloped within the developing concept. Like a snowball rolling along, over time science has gathered to itself a set of mandatory beliefs necessary for membership (an ideology) and its own community of prophets and true-believers. Notice how the exact same language that Christians use to dismiss non-Christians is used by science’s true-believers to dismiss people who believe in sasquatch or ghosts. The problem is when people mistake their beliefs for truth. As we know, this has led to many wars. It’s very easy to point the finger at someone else and label their “truths” as beliefs, but we have to be able to do the same thing in the mirror.

For a more in-depth examination and critique of the mandatory beliefs of scientific-materialism, I recommend this debate on the nature of science between Rupert Sheldrake and Michael Shermer. Note the fact that Shermer, the darling of materialist true-believers, is not actually a scientist (he does hold a Ph.D. in history of science); Sheldrake, their bete-noire, actually is a scientist. It’s not merely an irony, it’s indicative of how true-believers accept as science only that which corresponds to their fundamentalist beliefs.

In this debate, Sheldrake takes the position that science needs to move past its dogma, while Shermer argues “science, properly conceived, is a materialistic enterprise; for science to look beyond materialist explanations is to betray science and engage in superstition” (my emphasis). I think the italicized part there is really interesting and reveals much about materialist orthodoxy: Shermer could have said that science is a materialistic enterprise, full stop. Or he could have said that it’s a materialistic enterprise, everything else is outside of science’s purview, and so simply is not of interest/can’t be addressed by science. If you read the rest of Shermer’s remarks, it seems that the crux of his argument is that attributing something to a “supernatural” or “paranormal” (or by extension, any other non-material) cause is laziness–those aren’t explanations, just “placeholders” for material processes we don’t yet understand. And the goal of science is to continue investigating until we do understand. This is a fair point (although he assumes a priori that the answers science will discover must be material in nature), so why didn’t he say that? Why did he sum up his argument the way he did? When you read closely what he actually did say (in the quote above), you see that Shermer is stating that science is materialistic, and everything else doesn’t exist/is delusion. Moreover, to even attempt to investigate all of that non-material/non-existent stuff is betrayal–which totally contradicts his argument that science keeps on investigating until the answer is known. Shermer is not arguing that we need to keep investigating and not be lazy; he’s arguing that we should adopt a particular ontology and ignore and deny everything that doesn’t seem to fit it. And I don’t know about you, but his language sounds rather religious and very emotional to me. I’m half surprised he didn’t say “apostasy” or “heresy” instead of betrayal. It’s also a ridiculous statement from anything other than an ideological point of view. I mean, think how ridiculous it would be if I applied this same reasoning to an entirely different thing. What if I said, “horses are mammals; only mammals exist, therefore all other animals are mythical and it’s a betrayal of horses to investigate them.” Or, “painting is done with paints; and therefore all other art forms are imaginary, and it’s a betrayal of painting to do other kinds of art.” But notice how normal and familiar it sounds if I say, “Islam (or Christianity, etc.) is the only true religion; all other religions are lies/sin/delusion/heresy/paganism/etc. and it’s a betrayal of God to follow them.” As Sheldrake says,

“These beliefs are powerful not because most scientists think about them critically, but because they don’t. The facts of science are real enough, and so are the techniques that scientists use, and so are the technologies based on them. But the beliefs that govern conventional scientific thinking are an act of faith, grounded in a nineteenth-century ideology….Many people are unaware that these doctrines are assumptions; they think of them as science, or simply believe that they are true. They absorb them by a kind of intellectual osmosis.”

I do know some scientists that are aware of this. Unfortunately, true-believers–the evangelists of scientific-materialism–rarely even understand how scientific experimentation is done, let alone do it themselves, let alone know anything about the history and philosophy and cultural context of science and how the method has changed over the years. Just as 99.9% of Christians I encounter have virtually zero knowledge of the history and philosophy and cultural context of Christianity. Part of why I get so irked by the pop-science Facebook memes (a few of which I dissect in my next post), and the pandering of prophets sciencelebrities like Neil deGrasse Tyson, is that their proliferation, their sheer numbers, give them credibility in the eyes of anyone who doesn’t think critically about this stuff. The more that stuff is shared uncritically, the more natural and normal it appears to be. “Everybody knows.” “They say.” “Studies show.” “It’s a well-known fact.” They’re all code for ideology.

Oh, really?

I love how it looks like Tyson is experiencing some kind of mystical communion here.

I’m not sure when science came unmoored from its fundamentals and its history. Remember the scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade where Indy tells his class, “Archaeology is the search for fact–not truth. If it’s truth you’re looking for, Dr. Tyree’s philosophy class is right down the hall”? Indy was correctly acknowledging that questions of “truth” are not the domain of science, but of philosophy. Have Tyson and his fellow sciencelebrities forgotten that, or are they simply ignoring it? I can tell you that scientists’ unwillingness to engage with philosophy is a sign of science’s devolution into a cult. It’s more important to belong to the group, and to show that by espousing the same opinions and beliefs and not doing transgressive stuff like, say, cryptzoology to name just one example (unless the point is to belittle the notion). This is an extremely inflexible, and therefore fragile, position.

Because this is where we get into Black Swan territory. For a materialist or a so-called skeptic, a philosophical challenge taken seriously could be a Black Swan. Nothing in your past led you to believe it could be possible, so when it happens, it blows your world up; yet looking back, you see that really, all the necessary ingredients were there all along, you just didn’t realize it. The important thing about Black Swans in this context is that they are dependent on your worldview. An oft-quoted example is that Thanksgiving is a Black Swan to the turkey, but not to the butcher. It all depends on your prior experiences and your perspective. It is possible to turn a Black Swan to your advantage, but all of them are dangerous to some extent. The more inflexible you are, the more likely a Black Swan is to break you. The antidote is to have horizons so broad and mental doors so open that it’s almost impossible to take you completely by surprise.

Once you grasp that there’s more than one way to add up to 9–and even more importantly, that 9 is not even a foregone conclusion but some may be adding up to 7, or 15, or 232–you are down the rabbit hole my friend. You have chosen the red pill, and shit gets weird. You’ll never be able to go back to the comfortable certainty of your prior belief system, whatever it was. Being truly aware of and open to other ontologies isn’t mere political correctness, or even cultural relativism, it’s an awakening that completely changes your views of the universe. Meeting actual flesh-and-blood Martians would not be any more mind-imploding than this. From then on, no premise can be taken for granted. You will, like it or not, be forced to think critically about everything all the time. (The good news is there will be infinite new horizons of thought to explore.)

This is not incompatible with good science–science that lives up to its stated ideals rather than its secret agendas. However, it does reveal scientific-materialism for what it was all along, which is merely one among many metaphysical propositions which cannot ever be proved or disproved. Scientific-materialism is an ideology, and those who trumpet it as the Alpha and Omega, the Way, the Truth, and the Light, are ideologues. They have a vested interest in converting you to their belief just as Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Evangelical Christians will try to convert you to theirs. They cannot see that, though, like the fish who can’t see the water. Now, I think they are all entitled to their religions, I only want them to recognize them for what they are.

What we have to avoid here is falling into the same trap as the true-believers. Being critical of some current scientists (and their followers) for not recognizing the philosophy underlying their work does not mean we get to reject scientific principles or findings out of hand. These findings still represent generations of empirical observations made by our ancestors. They are now part of the Western tradition. It means we take things on a case-by-case basis, critically evaluate the claims, realize they are probably at least partly wrong and so are we. Yes, we need guidelines on which to base our life decisions. You can be philosophically a Skeptic or a Gnostic who views life as a flight simulation, but as long as you’re in it, remember that you don’t get infinite lives and play as if it were real. We can even take our guidelines on faith and be totally devoted to living them, as long as we don’t call it truth, ram it down everybody else’s throat, and infantilize and demean them for having different guidelines.

Next time I tackle how ideological arguments are constructed so as to beat us into submission.

In praise of weeds

When I look at current events I want to curl up into a fetal position and cry myself to sleep. It’s not that I don’t see stories of beautiful and uplifting things–“Earth’s crammed with Heaven”–but the good and the beautiful all seems to be fighting a losing battle against vanity and greed. The forces of what I deem to be Evil–those who would exploit anything and everything and would sell tomorrow for a few more pennies today–are huge and powerful. And even though it feels like bad news gets worse by the minute, people have been lamenting this for millennia. People of conscience are left wondering, “What can I do? What should I do?”

And those of us asking this are really on our own. Who do you talk to? Is this a safe topic of conversation over the holiday dinner table? Or maybe you look to the internet? It connects us to billions of people around the world, and yet inevitably we tend to gravitate to those who agree with what we already believe. If you do try to expose yourself to some alternative values and views, there’s a good chance you’ll be verbally attacked for sharing yours. The level of vitriol, superficiality, and paranoia is depressing. The internet is a veritable paradise if you’re looking for the cast of some obscure ’80s film or another YouTube makeup tutorial (seriously, how hard is it to put on makeup?), but it’s a blasted hellscape if you want a civilized philosophical conversation.

There are no easy answers for thinking people (and indeed, one could argue that would defeat the whole purpose of this incarnation) and perhaps no two people find the same ones. But here are some of the messages that have made their way to me, which seem especially relevant. First this from Runesoup:

“This is going to sound like cold comfort until you experience it. It is going to sound like running away from your problems until you try it. But there is a part of you -your innermost part- that cannot be hurt, damaged or stopped by the unrelenting horrors of the world. It is a diamond; bright and impervious. Just a few minutes in meditation and you begin to discern its presence, its location. Once found it can be grown, it can be lit up like a thousand christmases: so bright you cannot look upon it.

“This core sits at the centre of a universe that -if it isn’t actually a dream- behaves according to the same rules. …there is no getting around the realisation that the world seems particularly flimsy when compared to that experience of your inner core. … This whole thing is a construct. Do not give in to fear, do not give in to disgust.”

This is not mere New Age “only the light exists, think positive and nothing bad will ever happen and you’ll be thin and rich” pablum. That is an attempt to commodify and dumb down the ineffability of your personal relationship to the cosmos. Dear readers, I really urge you to think beyond the straitjacket of reductionist materialism. This isn’t about being religious (unless it is for you), it’s certainly not about being “anti-science,” it’s about prioritizing your lived experience over received wisdom. Yes, even–no, especially–subjective experience. Objectivity is a good goal if you are measuring something, but nothing in human experience is really objective. More importantly, nothing meaningful is ever objective.

Rather than asking, “Is _______ real?” I urge you to think in terms of “What does ________ mean?” Partly that’s because when we’re lying on our deathbeds, I’m willing to bet that the things we think about won’t be objective data measurements. And data certainly won’t give you a sense of purpose. I’m also concerned–given pretty much everything that has happened in history–that focusing on the terms that allow something to be granted the status of “reality” or “truth” too often puts us at the mercy of authority (be that political, academic, scientific, medical, or whatever) and its preferred ideology du jour. You don’t need to imagine vast conspiracies to observe that the people in a position to write metanarratives are never writing them for our benefit. Don’t give up without at least trying to write your own. Always seek the weird and the challenging.

Science is a wonderful way of investigating the universe, but it was never meant to be the only one. Before you ask, “Is ________ real?”, you need to ask what real even means. If you think you know the answer without a doubt, you’ve been drinking somebody’s Kool-Aid. The next question should be whether that Kool-Aid is doing you any good. In my opinion, if you’re not asking this most fundamental question you are wasting the opportunity (and shirking the responsibility) that comes with having a human brain, and if that’s not a sin I really don’t know what is.

weed mural by Mona Caron

weed mural by Mona Caron

Then I stumbled across these murals of weeds by artist Mona Caron. Why weeds? She writes:

“They may be tiny but they break through concrete. They are everywhere and yet unseen. And the more they get stepped on, the stronger they grow back. …
“I look for weeds in the city streets near a wall I’m about to paint. When I find a particularly heroic one growing through the pavement, I paint it big, at a scale inversely proportional to the attention and regard it gets. …
“Breaking through seemingly invincible layers, they reconnect earth to sky, like life to its dreams. It’s happening everywhere at the margins of things, we’re just not paying attention. …
“…in the context of suffocated environments, these undesirables are the first to carve a path for the rest of nature to follow, in due time.”

Be a weed. You can accomplish so much more as a weed than as a garden ornamental. It’s a principle of both permaculture and magic that creation happens in the in-between places. Perhaps it’s the compensation for not being a meta-author of the exploitative sham that passes for “reality” nowadays–that by virtue of our very smallness we continually slip through the holes in their bullshit tapestry. Zhuangzi understood this. So did Tolkien.

If you’re useful, you get used up. Your littleness, your weirdness, your imperfections, your invisibility can be your strength–but only if you can embrace being a weed. There’s no guarantee that you will make it to Mount Doom with the Ring, but the alternative–to sit home and let history write you–is unthinkable.

Gardening techniques for water conservation

I intended to publish this quite a while ago, but wanted to have a picture of my own ollas (discussed below). But, they’re taking longer than expected, and anyway they’re ugly. You can see much prettier ones elsewhere!

As I detailed recently, I am a big proponent of gardening as a way to increase self-sufficiency and reduce dependence on unsustainable, nonlocal food production systems. Continuing in that mode, I wanted to share two gardening techniques invented by the Native peoples of the southwest which can help conserve water.

I’ve been very interested in applying permaculture, but haven’t been able to find much information on desert permaculture. These two techniques are a good place to start for those interested in creating a sustainable desert garden. After all, indigenous peoples managed to do it for thousands of years–so it is possible. It’s just high time we started learning from them instead of trying to reinvent the wheel as if we were living on the Mid-Atlantic seaboard.

Waffle gardening

Raised beds or boxes are practically de rigeur for modern gardeners. They make sense in rainy climates where too much water could rot plants’ roots. But that is not a problem in the southwest. Instead, it makes a lot more sense to use sunken beds here.

The Zuni people invented a method of gardening in 2×2-foot or 1×1-foot sunken squares–nowadays called a waffle garden for obvious reasons. The sunken bed helps contain water, preventing waste through runoff. The little walls help protect seedlings from cold and slows evaporation by disturbing wind flow. Each 1×1-foot square can support a corn plant, a bean plant, and a squash. These three are known as the “three sisters” because of their unique interdependence: the cornstalk provides a pole for the beans to climb, the beans accumulate nitrogen in the soil, and the squash leaves provide shade and thus act as green mulch. More importantly from the human perspective, the three vegetables combined provide all the necessary amino acids for the human diet. Sunflowers and lambsquarters are other indigenous crops, in case you’re interested in trying Native methods with Native crops.

Sadly I didn’t learn about this method until after putting in all my plants this year, but I plan to try it next year. Another plot holder in my community garden seems to be giving it a try though.

20150419_174823Your waffle garden beds don’t have to be perfectly regular; the important thing is that they are a few inches deep and that the walls hold water.

More information:


Ollas (from the Spanish for “pot”) are narrow-necked unglazed ceramic vessels which were used for gathering and transporting water and for irrigation by Native southwest peoples. The pot was buried in the garden plot with its mouth above the soil. The vessel was then filled with water, which slowly seeped out to keep the soil moist at the root level. Since the water was contained below ground it prevented evaporation and helped regulate the temperature of the soil, and by keeping the soil surface dry, weeds would not flourish. Interestingly, this brilliant idea seems to have occurred to many farmers around the ancient world, with the earliest instance possibly being north Africa. They are still used in China, India, Iran, Brazil, and Burkina Faso (source).

Ollas made by Cahuilla people.

Ollas made by Cahuilla people.

You can even add fertilizer directly to the olla. It is recommended ollas be refilled when the water level drops to about 50% to prevent the buildup of salts which could impede seepage.

There are a number of online tutorials for DIYing your own ollas, such as this one. You can even decorate your olla lid like this. You can also buy ollas, but they are more spendy than making them yourself by gluing and caulking a couple small terracotta pots together. Two 6-inch pots and two 4-inch trays (the makings of a single olla) cost me $4.20, not counting glue and caulk which will seal more than one olla. So about $4.50 a piece, which is a lot better than the approximately $20 you will pay for a pre-made olla here in the U.S. If you have access to clay and a kiln, you can handbuild ollas (no wheel necessary) like the indigenous peoples of Inland Southern California did.

I have read, though I don’t yet know from experience, that using ollas is twice as effective as drip irrigation and 10 times more than typical surface irrigation. I’m lucky in that I don’t pay for water at my community garden; but saving water is now even more important than saving money. I’m planning on installing four ollas with my native perennial herbs to begin with. Next year I’ll see about branching out to the vegetable section of my garden.

In making my own ollas, I have found the process to be somewhat more complicated than suggested by the various tutorials I consulted. Getting a truly waterproof seal with the caulking is very time-consuming because there are tiny, tiny little gaps. I’ve had to caulk and re-caulk one olla probably four times now, each time discovering new leaky spots. Also, when you DIY an olla using terracotta pots, you won’t be able to see inside to gauge how much water is in there, at least not easily, because the opening is about the size of a quarter and it will be dark inside. So figuring out exactly when the olla needs refilling might take some fiddling. Finally, the water that seeps out of the olla doesn’t travel very far. I gather from the charts in the article linked below that for an olla made with 6-inch diameter pots, the water will extend out about 1.5 inches from the surface of the pot. Your plants’ roots will grow toward (and even eventually surround) your ollas, but they can only go so far, so your ollas need to be fairly close to your plants.

But in spite of these fiddly aspects, I think the potential water savings is well worth a little learning curve. And if your garden is small (i.e., you don’t need a lot of ollas), they are cheap. I was given some extra drip line by fellow gardeners when I started with my plot, but had to buy a bunch more, and now have to buy yet more. I swear there is a mile of drip line crisscrossing my plot. I’m willing to spend on irrigation supplies because they will (fingers crossed) last for years: they’re an investment, and if there’s one thing I’m willing to invest in, it’s food. But I know that for food-gardening to be a realistic proposition for the average American family, it has to be possible without requiring a bundle of capital. Ollas can help make that possible. Another thing I like about them is that whereas drip lines have to be at least partially planned out and laid in advance, it’s relatively easy to add an olla as needed.

More information:

Happy New Year!

New Year

Dear readers, this is just a short New Year’s greeting to wish you a happy and healthy 2015. The days are getting longer (whew!) but we still have a lot of winter left, so please don’t neglect your winter medicine chest.

I don’t bother making resolutions, or rather, not at the New Year. I have sort of a running list going at all times–a list that’s much too long! But recently the idea of a New Year’s annual review was brought to my attention. I don’t especially like to plan, but I do like to review, so I might make this a habit. In particular, I like the idea of making a list of things that went well in the previous year, and a list of things that didn’t go so well. Not to make yourself feel bad about your “failures,” but instead to remind yourself of all the things you are grateful for, the things that are no longer relevant that can be released, and the things that you now know are important, and worth another try.

I also like the idea of having an annual theme. A yearly theme seems more realistic and flexible to me than resolutions. For me, 2014 was a year of Trial and Error, or of New Beginnings. I tried many new things and ideas on for size. Most of them I love, some of them I can’t even remember. I am hoping that 2015 will be a year of Simple Pleasures, where I jettison things and practices that are cluttering up my space and my time, and make more room for what remains.

Whatever your theme or resolution, I hope you have more joy this year than ever before!

Blog synchronicity


Do you experience blog synchronicity?

It happens to me all the time. “Blog synchronicity” is my term for when many of the blogs I read all cover overlapping topics at the same time–even though I don’t have any reason to think the authors follow each other, and the subject matter of the writing is all over the map–and these overlapping topics happen to be something I’d independently been thinking about or experiencing.

Seeing other people pondering the same imponderables, separately-together, in real time, really reinforces my learning of the topic du jour. It seems to me that these blog synchronicities can’t be explained away as just themes that are upmost in public discourse–for example, it wouldn’t be remarkable for a bunch of bloggers to be talking about Ferguson, or holiday shopping. So that would not count as a synchronicity.

There is a sort of sampling bias that happens. Maybe another reader wouldn’t see any particular overlap between different bloggers’ writing, and I only see it because the topic is already in my mind. In fact, I know that happens. But does that make it any less meaningful? I submit it doesn’t. It’s almost as if my curiosity calls the needed information into my orbit where I can access it. You may see it as coincidence, which is fine–it doesn’t diminish the value of the wisdom I’m able to glean from the experience. It’s the feeling of synchronicity and meaningfulness that makes the lessons stick.

The current theme is the celebration of light in the midst of some undeniably very gloomy current events. Dredging up hope and purpose–by main force if necessary–from the depths of despair. It seems like an appropriate topic for the winter holiday season, but it’s all the more poignant for me as my mother is about to enter hospice care. It’s beginning to sink in that this may be the last Christmas we spend together. (On the other hand, she is one tough bird, and has already lived years longer than anyone expected. She has already bounced back from the brink more times than I can count. But I will not take for granted the time we have together–just in case.) Anyway, I thought I would share with you some of the gleanings I run across in the blogosphere in the next few days. I hope you’ll put up with my meandering, because I have years of academic writing experience which is very heavy on context and background–it’s a deeply ingrained habit and I just can’t help myself. But if I disappear, it will be to deal with family health issues and I will return, hopefully with renewed vigor, in the new year. Stay tuned!