The Pokey Finger of God

meditations on religion and culture

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Holy Land

April 3rd, 2008 · No Comments · intentional communities

I’ve been reading another Michael Pollan interview. He’s the guy with the radical, seven-word nutritional theory:

Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.

Naturally, anything this simple must be accompanied by a book which explains what food is, how to attain a leafy-plant based diet, and how to learn self-control at the plate. Pollan also make an argument that not only are over-processed foods non-nutritious, mono-culture food production is inherently poisonous. He says:

“We’re using the original solar technology, photosynthesis, making food from sunlight, but we’ve mistakenly focused on fossil fuel. We’re taking 10 calories of fossil fuel energy to produce one calorie of food energy. It doesn’t have to be that way.”

I’ve been dwelling on , with an emphasis on long, healthy lives. It is obvious to me that if I wish to avoid excessive health-care costs in my old age, I need to maintain a discipline of activity and nutrition, rest and recreation. Spending 10 oil calories to create one food calorie is neither sustainable nor desirable. Not only that, but I would rather eat organic vegetables from my own gardens produced with poly-culture food production techniques. With the price of housing and fuel, food and materials all skyrocketing, my overriding concern is how little time I now have to invest myself into my own sustenance.The snappy analysis (on my part) is that I have delayed action on these things because I am unsettled about where I should plant myself. I am clear that where I am now will not work. Pardon the bluebird of happiness and all, but I live on a postage stamp in a tree-filled, early-60’s suburb. My backyard is too small and too shady to seriously culture. I have watched my wife’s diligent work over the last five years and agree with her assessment that sun-hungry food crops simply will not grow well here. (If the front yard were larger or less shady, I’d even consider that alternative. But it’s not.) The other problem is that the land is simply too expensive to grow food upon.I love my neighborhood: I love our location, I’ve grown accustomed to my neighbors and local restaurants — we’re so central and yet well ensconced within South Austin. So much of what I dream of doing involves transforming a big chunk of land into a sustainable habitat — it’s simply not appropriate to do any of it on rental property in the middle of town. I’ve frequently daydreamed about buying an abandoned farm or homestead in an adjacent, Western county, and we’ve crisscrossed it so often that I know almost exactly where. It has been hard to consider making the break away from the friends and culture we’ve grown accustomed to, as would be required if we moved out into the sticks.

At the same time, it is just such a break that would provide the opportunity to develop new, sustainable habits, to solve old problems in new ways, and to rebuild a network of sustainable life support. One certainly opens oneself up to a vast improvement in quality of life when one controls ones own food production. Not only would the food taste better, but would actually be better for me. Better nutrition now means better health down the road. I’m excited to start, but I still have many unresolved issues.

Foremost: it’s counterproductive to assume that I can build a sustainable network of life support all by myself. I would certainly want my wife and child to be supported, but also my parents, and I’d like to be able to offer assistance to my siblings and siblings-in-law — so I’ve got a handful of potential dependents that I would like to house and feed. In order to really meet everyone’s needs, there has to be more able-bodied people — a working community — who can provide the means to support all of the dependents.

This is where I begin to get lost, as once you add people, you add complexity. So many more questions: How many ‘workers’ are needed to support how many ‘dependents’? How much land will be needed? How do we determine membership? How will housing be arranged? What would the community produce that would pay both for the land and for any other financial obligations the community might hold? How are investments in and ownership of the community managed? Will members ‘buy’ in? Will they be ‘paid out’ when they leave?

In brief, all of the problems of starting a corporation, a small town, and a sustainable community will hit all at the same time. I hesitate to move forward in that direction for fear of having to be responsible for these very kinds of decisions. The unpleasant aspects of running a non-profit organization are very clear to me, and the political fallout for being the one holding the bag is not to be relished. My desire to put more of my own sustenance under my own control grows stronger. Now I’m faced with the realization that I’m being cheated — even in the grocery store! — by food overproduced 1000%, unnecessarily wasting resources and degrading the food in the process.

Somewhere exists my Holy Land. I’m betting it’s in central Texas. I don’t know where or how big, but I know it’s out there. On that land, I’ll build super-insulated homes with thick, adobe walls, embedded with heating coils provided by camouflaged passive solar water heaters. The junipers will be stripped away and native oaks and elms will be restored. Polyculture gardens and orchards planted along areas with lots of open, Southern exposure. Water will be collected and retained in vast quantities, for personal use and for agriculture.

If all this work is done just for me and my immediate family, it would be an incredible waste of resources. Very, very expensive, and sure to be uneven work since I’m not skilled in building adobes or planting polyculture gardens. If we failed, we would have nothing to eat. If we were even moderately successful, we would have more food than we could eat or sell. Everything I know about long-term sustainable cultures indicates that several families are required in order to reasonably share the risk and the work and the fruits of such work. Further, the cultural unity of those families must be without break or question. Without instituting some new culture or forcing the majority into converting to a specific , it would seem to be extremely difficult to find compatible families unless they were self-selecting, somehow.

Since I’m at an impasse, I come again from another direction. I should look to see what existing sustainable communities already exist and seek to tie in with them. I may lose much of the direct control I seek, but would be placing trust in a similar community mechanism would get me the same result. Again, finding a group with compatible cultures is going to be difficult. Assessing the long-term viability of a group is problematic if the assessment is based on the presence of particular people and not community processes. At the very least, such a search may provide more ideas and suggestions if I do decide to go off on my own anyway.

All food for thought.