Off the Contour #12 – ‘Challenge of capability, community & caring: Axioms & a grandson’s journey towards a permanent culture’

Off the Contour #12 – ‘Challenge of capability, community & caring: Axioms & a grandson’s journey towards a permanent culture’

This is a speech Darren J. Doherty given to the ‘2º Encuentro Internacional Amigos de los Árboles – ‘Más Árboles ante el Cambio Climático’ – Institución Cultural El Brocense, Cáceres, Extremadura, España (’ 4, 5 & 6 June, 2010

I wanted to introduce to you to the guiding principles of my life and how this allowed me, as a boy who lost his father as a baby and ‘failed’ student, to become a highly capable, caring and community-minded citizen of the world. These principles were provided to me by my maternal grandfather, who became an emboldening father figure following my father’s death as a conscripted soldier in the Viet Nam, or rather American War when I was 4 months old. From that point when my mother’s milk stopped, Grandad and Nana stepped into the breach with their first grandchild (and their ‘ninth’ child) on our small family farm that was Grandad’s father’s, and his father’s before that….I was the end of the line on that land.

Interspersed within this will be a range of slides and examples of how we have applied these principals to our work on nearly 2000 projects in close to 50 countries between 1ha to 1 000 000 ha.

Our farmhouse faced the forest across the road and it was a farm out of Cato’s blueprint some 2 millennia before: capable, small enough for a community, large enough to care for a family and those that followed, until that is, when modernity caught up. As per Cato in his ‘De Agricultura’, there was enough selectively harvested forested land to build anything of wood and warm us, enough orchard trees to give us fruit thoughout the year, enough rainwater for our crops, livestock & ourselves, enough storage amenities to ‘put sunshine in a bottle’, it was small enough to have plenty of neighbours & suitors, and close enough to a town such that we could get there by bicycle in less that 30 minutes.

From the farmhouse verandah we used to sit in the afternoon, after working in the morning and I would listen to the saged wisdom of the generations before and his own life up to that point. We would sit and Grandad would share things with me he didn’t share with his own son’s as if to make up for the opportunities lost, opportunities not taken that in the end cost our farm.

I would have been maybe 7 or 8 when Trotsky first came up: ‘I am to the left of Trotsky‘! he declared repeatedly, without actually explaining what that actually meant right there and then. What it did mean for us was that there are societal inequalities and poor distribution of resources. For me now it translates to our need to have a primary client in Gaia and in work that means building topsoil at every opportunity, for it is this stuff of humus that is the antithesis of hubris, and where you have humus we have equality….of course it is now somewhat fashionable, or a badge of honour to have a socialist or communist heritage, but back then its was extraordinarily polarising and often dangerous. Back in the day however, it was not uncommon for farmers to be socialists, and in an eternal frontier of little population and plenty of land such as in Australia communism wasn’t necessary, at least in the rural and regional areas: it was for the industrial workers and the intellectual elites. But now ‘to be green you have to be in the black‘!

Of course the free-marketeers view the best means of ‘correcting’ climate change as being via market mechanisms that commodify ecosystem services such that the transfer of financial capital as the only means of creating the change, with of course a return on investment that is wholly financial, notwithstanding the indenturing of those at the action end of the equation. Would be great if we just paid farmers more directly so that they could afford to build soil and regenerate their landscapes with nutrient dense food, clean water, clean air, increasing bio-diversity and vibrant family-based communities being the externalities of such an endeavour.

Then came ‘To Profit is to Steal‘….I was too young to know profit and my family was about having enough and sharing what we had. Every few weeks, in the twilight, my uncles and aunts & cousins would come ‘Home’ and we’d kill a pig, sheep or steer and we’d all have a job to do, be it skin a leg, ‘punch out the hide’, wheel away the guts, or swipe away the flies with some brush till the sun went down. We all knew our job and no one needed to ask, the succession from fly swatting to knife wielding was seamless and went with a nod, your next apprenticeship having to begin as you mastered the last. The animals all had a quiet enjoyable life, stayed with their young, living off of the sun, air and water that hit our land and had a day by themselves that was right to that moment a quiet surplus not stolen but returned. The family never bought nor over consumed meat: it was valued and chewed properly.

Funny, there is a Basque saying that ‘the best times in life are 1st year of marriage and the week you kill the pig’; we killed the ‘pig’ every couple of weeks and so our lives were rich with the sharing of our ‘home’.

Next came ‘Humans are just like yeast: they eat all of the sugar and die in their own shit!’. We’d made beer from our barley and mead from our honey, plus a ‘quiet’ still in the shed to keep us invigorated via the more advanced chemistry and the promise of the result. Now we have reached so many peaks: water, phosphorus, oil, life quality, people, that we need to find a new sugar: just like we find in well managed perennial grasslands that are driven by the sun and furnished by the fungi and soil life and minerals, nurtured by the migratory timeliness of management of dense herds ad infinitum: no such thing as peak topsoil! Or so titled by our esteemed President Patron (Vandana Shiva), ‘Soil not Oil’!

You need rural skills to survive when the shit hits the fan‘ seemed more about hard labour at the time but labour spent in the company of cousins: the first best choice of friends as a child. We were put to task on an array of jobs that when I look around now so few have the skills to do and we need to take classes to learn from ever fewer who possess them. That’s ok as we have to ‘know what we don’t know’ but the divisions of labour are the greatest outcome of agriculture, where the unequal toil and risk of others nourishes the rest with now around 0.8 of a hectare of agricultural land for each of us: Peak Land! We need to bring back the land lost and we need to re-skill to do it, ‘starting at the back door’, even if its just a lettuce: if that’s too hard try Arugula: its tastier and a weed! This reminds me of a saying that, ‘…stop growing things that want to die, and killing things that want to live!

Listen carefully‘: I still have a problem with this though my wife in particular has been extremely helpful there with changing one thing I did learn from Grandad that wasn’t so good: chauvinism…’Am I your mother?’ she would say as I blindly would lurch around the house walking over clothes or not seeing dishes that needed to be washed etc etc…We need to breach the perpetuation of this inequality such that we negotiate our lives as adults and not continue our childhood as such. True quality leadership comes as much from listening as it does action. Our late great teacher Masanobu Fukuoka mentioned ‘…that we need to apply thoughtful and protracted observation, not thoughtless and hasty action…’

Family first‘: the quality of life statement is one that we need to invest highly in. We have negotiated a whole range of outcomes such that we have a family holistic goal that entrenches our quality of life, forms of production and future resource base:..It is: ‘…to maintain creative & intergenerational family lives built around regenerative & profitable production, management & educational systems…’ We are heavily influenced by the loss of our land such that we are taking steps so that our forebears will not suffer the same fate. Not all have the capacity to own land though in so many ways it is a powerful step, whether collectively or within a family. Certainly a family community or community of families with a strong intergenerational and localised focus present one of the greatest opportunities to us regaining the ground lost, literally…Personally, we will place our family resources in trust such that debt is a burden no more and limits to growth are always in place. Every family relies on its elders and in our case we need to set this up once and for all. Tough, fair and regenerative love!

As for our family what that meant for the ‘greater human family’ there was always a bed, a feed, a lift up, a shirt and a wash, and a kick if you ever languished on your laurels and pull your weight for the original team sport.

I wish I could have manifested that difficult principle of Grandad’s: ‘To pay off then have‘. He made me do this when we bought his old truck, and I still have it. Wish I could have done this when I bought our land and our house. Though now that loan until death, the ‘mort’ gage in our case will not be that: though we are still vulnerable to the whims of modelled economies, the artificial economies propped up by concentrated fossil sunlight, far from the economy of the forest, of the prairie, regenerative economies where deposits are always greater than credits.

Our farmhouse bore 22 children from my great grandmother and 8 from my grandmother and there was only one bathroom and it was outside so you had short washes, especially in winter. The waste water ran through a mint field that sauced our roast lamb. We live in a world of limits and the home is one place where the limits are running wild, especially in Australia and the US where the frontier of wide geography provide a bathroom and room for every child and the family table is a chair in front of a TV. Our fee from this endeavour is building some 10m2 cottages: cottages of no debt, but rather the donations of you good people and that of our sponsors. We are building a small dam, fed via runoff draining off the new accesses we will also build: this you are also paying for as are our students who are coming to be part of the ‘great reskilling’ to enable the ‘great retrofit’.

Why buy what you can make yourself‘ is an expression of ‘Necessity is the mother of invention’…I use to, and still do love the culture of the various farm sheds: the way they were hewn from recycled materials, framed using coppiced saplings and places where innovation ran riot out of the daily need to be so. This is part of the great problem with agriculture now, especially in the ‘brain drain’, where agriculture is dummed down and so simplified that it holds no invigoration and therefore encouragement for young people to resist the cafe, playstation and plasma culture. Bill Mollison said that ‘…the purpose of cities is to keep people out of the country’ and this is now very true with more people in the world now living in urban systems than in rural. Less having to produce more on less, less and less.

The Rules of Labour‘ are many and range from those of solidarity amongst comrades to facing the cart in the direction of next movement. The efficiency of our system designs on our farms and of our students are entrenched with these principles. The physical rules of labour are there to often use physics, chemistry and biology to animate solid state scenarios of regenerative on-going management, driven by knowledge and observation, not by a succession of vulnerability and ‘type one errors’. I learnt early that ‘gravity is free‘ via the rainwater harvesting system on our farm that caught the rains when they fell and then used gravity to irrigate both us and our land. We only took what we needed to grow our European & Meso American crops and stock, and left the rest to run to the next, never damming past the valley to the creek.

When we were told ‘to do the hardest job first‘ that meant digging the deepest hole first, or starting at the furthest point first and working our way back. For us now that means working on ourselves, within our families and communities such that we are like the soil: the more there is the more production there is above it. The power of choosing what we put in our mouths, where we defecate and how we deal with that, and how we distribute our harvests and surpluses are the most powerful choices the everyday human can make. To borrow from Kwan Tzu,

‘when planning for a year sow corn, when planning for a decade plant trees, when planning for a lifetime train and educate people’

Code for do the hard yards, create you knowledge base of demonstrated capability and capacity and then share this with those around you…as opposed to ‘those that can’t do teach!’ Become strategic, methodically question decisions to fix weak links, consider society, get the biggest bang for your buck, work on the causes not the effects. If we want to reverse climate change then we all have to build topsoil at every opportunity. Rapidly building and growing topsoil is the answer to almost every problem that we have: to do this is actually very easy: the hardest thing to change is us and we need to grow up fast and become adult about this as opposed to being like children in the candy store.

My Nana cooked over the same slow combustion stove for nearly 60 years and had a soup on that stove that was of a similar vintage. It never varied, though with the seasons came the nuances of flavours of whatever that season bore. It started every meal and was topped up by whatever didn’t go to the chickens, the compost or the pigs. I loved pleasing my nana with a porch of well split wood with my only reward being a neat job, knowledge of the axe and a kiss on the forehead. How old is your soup? Where did it come from? Are you in one place long enough to have a soup that goes on for more than a day, let alone a week, a month or a year: how about 60 years. The fact is that this soup, just like the flames that kept it warm, was my great grandmother’s and her mother’s before that….a 150 year old soup until the flames went out and the farm was lost to the poor principles of a few for whom such matters are the stuff of nostalgia, rather than the height of regenerative culture. That is perhaps the stuff of no principled pedagogy and a world order that rolls over so many of us. To relocalise our economies has to start at home and within each and every one of us and again the choices we make of what we consume and where that then goes.

You can never make enough soap‘. Our other time for the passage of principles was when we made soap. We made soap from the saved fat of our livestock and caustic soda. We made so much soap over the years that some 20 years later we still have enough for another 10 years: so I guess you could say we have now reached ‘peak soap’! Its a process of patient work and timing: though one morning’s work is enough for a whole year and remember we killed an animal every few weeks! It funny the memory of smell: you all must remember a smell – such a gift that we can do that! My favourite smell memory is of as a child sitting in front of the open fire in my nana’s arms smelling that soap on her and her clothes. The warmth of her loving embrace whilst viewing the original TV: the fire. I’m there right now.

We are here as friend’s of the trees and yet how is it that our economies are not like that of the forest, where all of these principles are found and more that we don’t even no about! We are creatures of our stories and now our stories are passed not by us but by the avalanche of unbridled and overwhelming multimedia. Out of this can only come an idiocracy of incapacity, incapability and uncaring apathy. Perhaps this is part of the conspiracy that so many speak of? For me that’s humans not taking the choices that lie before them and allowing the disconnection to continue. Not growing up!

What our family ultimately lacked was a rounded pedagogy, in the time and place in a child’s eye it all worked great, but then I didn’t understand the greater world picture and how the choices of adults are so powerful on their effects on those still yet to come.

Now however we have put this out there, so there is no secret: with our knowledge of Regrarianism in particular, ‘Home’ would still be ours….a new ‘Home’ is there for us to have where the threat for our own is no longer open. Our earth is our home and this too is under threat: my challenge to you all to increase and express at every opportunity your regenerative capacity, capability and caring so you too can pass on the principles of success to those around who listen, are listened to and most of all look up to you because of the integrity of your words and residues of your actions.

Please celebrate, understand and encourage photosynthesis: its our greatest hope of all! Now we have a new story and I would like us all to take part.

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