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Monday, July 30, 2012

Home again, home again, jiggity jig

That's that phase completed. In a week I covered about 1650 miles. I brought back hours of recorded interviews, pages of notes, hundreds of photos, and a head full of memories. I found what I went looking for. It's surprisingly simple, yet fraught with implications. I was enraptured at scenery, inspired by what people were doing, intrigued at oddities, annoyed at foolishness, and saddened by looking ahead. I discovered the magical effect on a room of saying "I'm a writer doing research..."

I slept in a cottage in the woods, at two tourist hotels, on a couch on a hippie farm in the bush, in a nice suburban bedroom, and on a hide-a-bed in an apartment in St. Paul. I talked with people sitting around kitchen tables, standing around gas stations and tourist traps, on back porches, in a Chinese buffet, in college offices and classrooms, in lakeside parks, and in a semi-clandestine activist gathering. I rescued a disabled veteran hitchhiker, and jumped an oil worker's car.

I talked to store clerks, journalists, construction workers, civil servants, professors, teachers, and farmers. They were from several countries, and ranged from pregnant young women with strapping young husbands, to middle-aged hippies, to retired folks.

What I found, in barest bones, is that people are scared. They see things falling apart, that nothing is dependable any more. They see different Major Threats, but it all adds up to trouble. Most are just rolling with it. Some are getting pissed-off and protesting. Others are thinking long-term, patiently building.

The New World lies in Community, Trust, Compassion, Cleverness, and Foresight. Those words kept coming up, with spins according to situations and experiences.

As I review what happened I'm amazed at all that I did, and what people came my way. My greatest danger was in taking three hours to make a one-hour drive, with all the pictures and people along the way. I could have taken a month on this trip and filled it. I feel bolstered by the words of Steinbeck and Heat-Moon- I'm an apprentice in their Guild. I can write this book. Books?

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Farther North than North

Looking south from farther north than North
Growing up in Minnesota, I came to think of the Lake of the Woods as waaay up there, the sticks, the boonies, a place where dog sleds and voyageurs still roamed. Imagine my surreal feeling at eating fish and chips tonight at a window overlooking that Utter North from yet further north.

My bed in a straw bale house at Room to Grow
Where I am- the Super 8 in Kenora, Ontario. In two days I've gone from sleeping in a hotel in a boom town, across miles of prairie, visiting the site of my earliest memories, crossing an international border, sleeping in the equivalent of an Irish thatched cottage, driving through miles and miles of canola (It smells like warm cauliflower), finding a friend of Minnesota friends on a back road of the Canadian prairie, driving through more miles and miles of canola, finding a place in the bush after three turns on unmarked gravel roads, crashing on a hippie couch, driving through glacial hills, across ordinary prairie, across flat-as-a-pancake prairie, through classic northern woods, past a huge meteor crater lake, into the oldest rock outcroppings on the planet among lakes and trees, to a place reminiscent of Grand Marais, but about five times as big.

Sunday, July 22, 2012


Good morning, world! Hello trees! Hello birds! Hello juniper bush! (If you get that, pass it on)

I was too bleary-eyed last night to file, although I did write several pages of notes that only I will need to decipher.

For a day when I really had nothing planned but travelling, a lot happened. In short:
  1. I saw the Prairie in all its glory
  2. I met a bunch of interesting bikers
  3. I picked up a hitchhiker with stories to tell
  4. I saw the camper-driving, Albertan, equivalent of the "Little Old Lady from Pasadena"
  5. I had an OK Chinese buffet supper with lots of people to watch

And all this while just heading toward the object of my quest. I feel a bit like Bilbo Baggins.

This morning I got an email about changes to the rest of the trip. My contacts, bless 'em, are hooking my up with excellent sources. I'll have to restrain and pace myself, but I'm embracing the itinerary changes. Oh, the places I'll see!

So, it's off to put the feedbag on Sleipnir, dig into my own life sustaining supplies, and head to Bottineau.

Friday, July 20, 2012

07/20/12- Onward

They got old on us!
“They've all gone to look for America
Simon and Garfunkle, America

I've been in the Local Foods Movement for about a decade. I've seen great successes in that time, including our own greenhouse, and our Northlands Winter Greenhouse Manual. Community Gardens, CSAs, Community Kitchens, and Food Co-ops are springing up all over. The “counter-food” culture has grown and changed enormously in that decade, even making the cover of Time magazine.

But some of my colleagues are expressing doubts. Have our successes been the “right successes?” Are we really building something sustainable, a sense of food-based cooperative community, or just a tie-dyed, free range parody of the Industrial Food System? What do we do now that our grass-roots movement has been overtaken by big players with huge resources, their own agendas, and little desire to coordinate efforts? Is that a good thing that we just need to adapt to, or something to shun?

Then there's the sense of urgency- or the lack of it. Fires, floods, droughts, and extreme temperatures are happening on unprecedented scales. Arctic lakes have begun literally fizzing, giving up their millenia-worth of stored CO2. The “recovery” from the Great Recession has stalled out but for isolated industries and places. Writers like Richard Heinberg and John Michael Greer point out that the “Era of Growth” is over. Yet, projects like the Transition Movement are making headway only spottily, and the Local Foods Movement seems to have little consciousness of its own vital importance.

I see enormous needs to prepare for, and have some grasp of how to proceed. Why do others seemingly not see or feel this, or don't know what to do? This isn't necessarily the End of the World, but it's certainly the end of centuries of exploitative “business as usual.” A big change is coming- We can do this easy, or we can do this hard.

It's also a spiritual question. Who we are is inescapably linked with the natural world around us, a fact that too many have forgotten. The Changes, which have already started, will force us to face that reality again. We'll need to devise new answers to the Great Questions: Who are we? What is our place? Is there a reason for our existence? What kinds of answers does a people who have lost everything devise? We've seen the wreckage when cultures are overrun and obliterated- What about when it's all human peoples, everywhere? I believe that those answers are growing, even now.

What's happening out there? Like Ulysses, I've fought my own “Trojan War,” and now undertake a voyage of discovery on my way home. What monsters are others battling? What narcotic lotus blossoms have lulled some to sleep? What seductive suitors are trying to steal away my kith and kin?

I need to go see. I may or may not like what I find. The voyage may even be perilous, but I doubt that it will be boring.

Sleipnir in Milan
I'll try to blog along the way, but may have limited Internet access in some places. The blog posts will also find their way into the book I'm writing, Travels with Chuck in Search of the New World, with an appreciative nod to John Steinbeck for blazing the road-story path. I plan that each chapter of the book will include interviews, photos, and the impressions and ideas that they bring forth.

Almost There

No Battle Plan Survives Contact With the Enemy”
        German military strategist Helmuth von Moltke

I've seen that the same can be said of trips. Just before, or just after, you start something will come up. This morning it did- nothing major, but resulting in a change of route and timing.

I wouldn't mention it at all, except that it relates directly to the book. Several of the folks I'll be visiting are involved in research to make Sustainable Ag more- sustainable. This often involves writing grants, which is a headache in itself. What's worse is how the grant agencies tend to write the requirements for their “Innovation Grants” in such a way as to exclude anything really innovative. They tend to want to fund projects to make fundamentally unsustainable Industrial Ag projects look “greener,” gobbling up funds that new ideas need to come to fruition. None of us has escaped this madness in our efforts.

One of my contacts emailed me today, that they need the time we'd planned on to recover from a surprise of this sort- disappearing funding and changes of plans. We'll still get together, just not when, where and for as long as we'd planned.

John Steinbeck got into trouble trying to take his dog, Charlie, across the US/Canada border. I'm planning to cross that border more than once, but Carol insisted that I need a “Charlie” along. I've also thought that this trip calls for a special cap. Problems solved!

Yesterday was Crazy Day in Montevideo. The dance studio on the main drag was having a garage sale, at which I found an authentic, new, well fitting Greek fisherman's cap, and an ideal traveling companion, a plush koala bear. I plan to name her/him “Travelin' Toonie, the koala copilot.” Toonie cost two dollars. In Canada they have a $2 coin called a “toonie.” Hence- Travelin' Toonie. (S)he will appear in photos along the way.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

07/19/12- Preparations

“We are on a mission from God.”

The Blues Brothers (The original, not that crappy sequel)

I finished Steinbeck's Travels with Charlie, again, and have started on William Least Heat-Moon's Blue Highways and Carolyn Baker's Sacred Demise. These books feel like conversations with good friends- sometimes sad friends, but simapitcos.

Christianity has a saying, “All things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose.” Most Faiths have something similar, but that's the best known version. For me, it's that smoothness when I'm “in the groove.” When I'm not, it's like I'm constantly bashing my head against obstacles and clashing with dunderheads.

As Joseph Campbell put it, “Follow your bliss.”

It was that way with Garden Goddess. We built the greenhouse, and things easily fell into place. People we needed to know just showed up. Chances to spread the word competed for our time. Not that it wasn't hard work, but it was work that flowed.

That changed. Yes, our greenhouse manual was selling. Yes, people were building greenhouses. Yes, we had speaking engagements. But, we ran into more obstacles. People started to get weird on us- Ones who should have been partners ignored us or got in our way. Connections and plans that should have worked out, didn't. We could feel that the context had shifted. I started saying to myself, “My work here is done.” We needed to rethink things.

With this trip and writing work, I'm back in the groove. Improbable but significant people have just shown up to be a part of it. I was prepared to camp, but folks all along the way have offered beds.

Carol's story is Carol's story to tell, but I'll just say that she's having similar synchronicities and bliss.

“I'm off to get my life-sustaining supplies- corn meal and gunpowder and ham hocks and guitar strings.”
Yukon Cornelius, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer

My, that preface got out of hand! What I was originally going to write about was going for trip supplies. Yesterday I went to the Big City out here, Willmar, population about 20,000. Don't laugh. That would have been considered a city anywhere on Earth clear up until about a century ago- context matters.

As I sat having lunch in my favorite Chinese buffet, finishing Travels with Charlie, and people watching, I got the feeling of being in Rome a few years before the barbarians invaded, or Pompeii before Vesuvius blew. No, not quite Rome- they knew what a threat the barbarians were. There was an episode of Doctor Who a while back that made the point- The Pompeiians didn't really know what a volcano WAS. They had no concept of the danger they were in.

Maybe both apply. Some people understand what kind of trouble we're in, but most don't. The insight that developed from last weekend's incident at the theatre, see my Lessons on Human Nature, is that they literally CAN'T. Getting angry and arguing with them is useless. It would be like arguing with that pleasant Down's Syndrome fellow the other night.

We must each ask, “What am I doing?” not “Who am I arguing with?” or “What fruitless protest am I involved with?”

Monday, July 16, 2012

07/16/12- Lessons on Human Nature

It's about half a week until I hit the road. My gear is mustered, and most of my supplies are laid in. I'm exchanging final emails with contacts about details. I'm hitting that angsty stage just before a trip- as Steinbeck wrote about in Travels with Charlie, there grows a conviction that it will never happen, that home is infinitely preferable to the discomforts of the road, that you're crazy to even think about going.

Where am I going? The “map answer” is: From West Central Minnesota up the Dakotas, across some of Manitoba and Ontario, back down to the Twin Cities via the North Shore of Lake Superior, then across Minnesota to Home. The “people answer” is: I'll be visiting folks who have accomplished things involving Sustainable Agriculture and Local Foods. The “philosophical answer,” the true core of my quest, is that I'm looking for signs of the new world that will emerge from our current predicament-ridden era.

Not to belabor the point, at the least we now face the end of about two centuries of energy-intensive, exploitative, “business as usual,” Industrial Civilization. Some respectable sources say that we may be facing much worse. I hope not.

Three of my efficient, courteous staffers
I experienced an incident the other night which has lessons for the situation. I'm Assistant Manager at a small-town, three-screen movie theatre. This means that I open and close, run projectors, sell tickets, supervise the cleanup and concessions staff, count money, and generally keep an eye on things. It's a great job for a writer- I can study and write during films and before we open.

Like any Mom and Pop scale business we have regulars. Among them are residents of local group homes for “challenged adults-” that's folks with handicaps, especially mental ones. A couple of nights each week they arrive in groups of five or six, with a caregiver/minder. That night I'd sold tickets to such a group. After the obligatory high fives and “have funs,” they went in to see The Amazing Spiderman.

About half way through the movie another regular came running out.

“Quick! Call 911! There's a guy in there having a heart attack!” he shouted.

I made the call, and ran upstairs to stop the projector and bring up the lights. The Good Samaritan said that he'd keep an eye on the cash drawer and all while I was gone. Three more guys came running out, saying, “Whatever we can do to help, just tell us!” They went out to wave down the emergency vehicles and make sure that the double exit doors were unlatched and wide open.

By the time I got back downstairs the EMTs and First Responders were there, working on the guy. None of the twenty or thirty folks in the movie freaked out. Many asked whether they could help.

In a very few minutes the ambulance arrived, and they wheeled the unconscious victim out on a gurney. Shit! It was one of the group home guys! As the Caregiver shepherded his flock out after their friend, one turned to reassure me with a big grin and two thumbs up.

“Thas' OK Shuck! We'll be back ta da movie next time!”

He had no idea what had just happened. I could have cried.

The first lesson I see in this is that most people, when they see trouble, want to help. It's pretty much an Article of Faith for me: Most people mean well. The other is that when bad things that are beyond their experience happen, they either put a good face on it, denying the severity, or they get mean, attacking the messenger: All people have limits on the bad news they can absorb. Both are normal. Humans are just like that.

The trouble today is, that while most people mean well, few can wrap their heads around the scope or time scale of the trouble we're in. Warning, warning, warning them isn't doing much good, as they freak out or stick their fingers in their ears and shout “la la la la la.”

We need to be able to say, “Yup, things are bad, but they'll get better after they get worse. Here's what we're gonna do...”

That's what I want to find out- what are those who see, doing? What comes in the next chapter of Humanity's saga?

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Useless Meetings

“Singing songs and carrying signs
Mostly say, hooray for our side”
For What it's Worth, Buffalo Springfield

 In sadness and frustration, I walked out of another meeting today. We Progressives have seen more of them than we can count- meetings that accomplish little more than making the organizers feel that they “did something,” and maybe passed along some warm fuzzies, or more likely a vague dissatisfaction. They never seem to realize that people's time and money are precious, and that the huge tasks we have to handle are too big and too urgent for farting around. I've seen many well-intentioned projects stall out and accomplish nothing because of this basic lack or organization. You know exactly what I mean, if you're willing to admit it.

I've seen what works, and I've seen what doesn't. Off the top of my head-


Meetings in general must provide:

  1. A challenge to the attendees to change something in their lives or to tackle a task- to ACT.
  2. Some new and interesting idea, not just a minor detail on something everyone already knew.
  3. An Action Plan- What do we do next? What do I do next?
  4. Some deeper insight than,”Yup, we're the good guys and they're the bad guys.”
  5. Definite solace to people who've been hurt- with a plan of how to help, even if it's just active sympathy and meals for a week.
  6. Clear affirmation that a good, or bad, situation is what it appears to be, and that we're there for each other in it.
  7. A progress report of a quality and clarity that you could publish.
Any meeting without at least two of these is questionable. Any with NONE was a waste of time.


Business meetings must have a clear, logical flow, including:-

  1. A clear agenda, either passed out or posted in big letters- and followed loudly and clearly.
  2. Time to clearly discuss/debate any item to be voted on.
  3. Candidates for offices speaking before the whole group before a vote is taken.
Failure to follow these will lead to confusion and resentment. If your group is incorporated, skipping them is likely illegal.


If it's an outdoor meeting-

  1. Provide LOTS of big, clearly legible signage saying-
    1. Who is welcome.
    2. Where the meeting is.
    3. Where to park.
    4. When and where any formal meeting will convene.
  2. If it's anything but a “blowing off steam” party, don't play music- it will limit conversation to trivialities. You will also annoy other people around you.
  3. If you have outdoor cooked food, make sure that it is ready to go, and has adequate staff. For two people to serve 100 people could easily take two hours- two hours of hot sun, hungry, crabby folks, and mosquitoes.
  4. Don't forget the drinks, the cooler, the napkins...


If it's a recruiting booth at an event-

  1. Have big, clear signage announcing who you are- mounted above and behind your people.
  2. Have “tagline” signage to pique people's interest.
  3. Have well-informed, briefed, people manning the booth.
  4. Have plenty of colorful, obviously informative literature. You have about 1/2 second to get your main idea across.
  5. Don't assume that anyone passing by has any idea of who you are or what you stand for.
  6. Saturate appropriate media ahead of time with the fact that you'll be there and why. Pay if you have to- then become so interesting that you won't have to the next time.
These are just for starters. There are more such rules, but you get the idea.

It may surprise you to know that there's a Right Wing, Conservative, Tea Party version of the Local Foods Movement. True, they do tend to be white, straight, Christians who are more concerned with keeping Commies out of government, the US out of the UN, and fluoride out of their water, than with social justice or sustainability. But, they know and use these rules. So do Corporate shills- which is why they're kicking the butts of arguably saner, more reality-based folks lately.