Month: February 2015

Bio-Empathy

empathy

Finishing the second beehive this weekend, I had visions of buzzing creatures in my head. Bees are livestock, so I’m told. I have worked with livestock in the past and one of the rules of working with livestock is to never allow your self to think of them as anything but livestock. This is, of course, a diplomatic way of say “product”, and livestock are in the long run a product. But it dawned on me that perhaps this rule of thumb is the foundation of so much problematic action and consequences that we are seeing today.  Must show empathy to the world around us.

The lack of empathy towards creatures, whether they are bees, cattle, pigs, chickens, humans or the life that makes up our soils seems to be the cornerstone of much of agribusiness including CAFO’s and economic justification for the wholesale torture of animals for food. The exciting growth of agrarian movements including permaculture is, on the other hand, based upon empathy towards those same creatures. I was once told that greatest weapon against racism is friendship. I am beginning to think that this simple yet effective weapon is a useful tool in agriculture as well.

Permaculture, from what I understand of it, is a process of getting to know the soil, the creatures, the climate, the weather, and the micro and macro environments of your area. This seems to be breaking the rule of applying human emotion to non-human creatures (anthropomorphism); the single moral rule of thumb that most farmers claim that they must live by. We are, after all, raising animals as food or at least using them to raise the products we eat and we must do so on land that we understand; that we empathize with.

I must respectively disagree with this agricultural moral rule of thumb. I have looked animals that I have slaughtered for meat in the eye and watched death come over them. I have also done so with the knowledge that these animals have lived life as they should. I have felt the sorrow of my actions, but have understood the moral justification for those actions. The reasons that I have had these experiences is that I have felt empathy with the animals that I have raised and helped to slaughter. I am only now learning to empathize with the soil, the plants, and the creatures that live in those things in the same way.

To empathize, we must understand. To argue that we cannot apply human emotion to non-human entities and environments is a failed argument because we do not understand these entities and environments. If we did, I believe we could not help but do so. I would argue that if we do not feel empathy towards those things that we cannot feel empathy towards each other. I would further claim that the exciting agrarian movements that are currently under way are only possible because we have realized that our worst enemy is the lack of empathy that we feel for the world around us including each other.

Stephen Hawing was quoted as saying that the biggest threat to human life is our aggression. I agree with this, but something about the quote bothered me. Why were important threats to life always put into the context of human beings alone? Perhaps I would reword Hawking’s answer: the greatest threat to life is the lack of empathy we seem to have for it. To be good stewards this planet, we must be good friends with it. To be good friends, we must empathize. And to empathize, we must understand. The permaculture movement seems to be more than an environmental movement. It seems that it is a movement from anthropocentric viewpoints to biocentric realities; from fear to friendship.

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Permanent Culture

permaculture

We want something permanent and permaculture seems to offer the certainty that we search for. The answer, like so many answers that we find, is difficult to accept and at first glance we often sway away from it. However it has grown patient, being accustomed to our ignorance of it. It waits patiently, knowing we do not have a choice. We ignore it and it sits back down silently awaiting our return; we will return. We must return.

Permaculture does not begin with digging a hole, planting ground cover, planting bushes, fruit trees, and finally large, slow-growing giants. Rather, permaculture starts with an understanding that we can be a part of something greater than ourselves. It is almost religious, but without the reliance upon religious doctrine or dogma. Permaculture relies upon time and our acceptance that it is beyond us and at the same time makes up the core of what we, as agrarians, really are: stewards, renters of the land that we love.

We strive in so many ways to be remembered, to leave a legacy but these ways are bound to fail. Children forget and businesses crumble; blood is thin and love is short lived; people are irresponsible and the greatest of natural places fall to ruin. Permanence comes at a cost and permaculture does not let us forget this fact easily. Plant a tree that you know you will never see come to full fruition; be a part of an ecosystem that is not anthropocentric. Be a part of an infinite system that you somehow love and that cannot love you back. Pay the price to protect the one thing that can protect you.

The permaculture that we work toward now will become the permanent culture that lives after us. Permaculture is progress, but it is progress that stretches beyond the borders of desire, of economy, and even of human imagination. Stretch the limits of abilities and see what happens. Make permaculture permanent in our culture.

Life, Death, Life, Death…Life.

bees

As I stated in the last blog about bees, my bees had been plentiful throughout the summer, filling three boxes. However, I noticed a problem (varroa mites) and treated them dutifully. I saw the results and the results looked good. I was hopeful but eventually was horrified to find that most of the hive was empty. Rather than 30-40,000 bees I was met with 2-3000 bees!

The decision to leave the small remainder of bees to their fate was hard. However, nature rarely gives us a choice and remembering that gave me some solace, if not peace. The bees died shortly afterwards and it took me a few months before I could muster the heart take the hive apart. I eventually did, and cleaned it up even going so far as cleaning the foundation of most of the remnants of my little hive. I was left with some beautiful comb and even some honey stores. Not much, but then I was ahead of the game because my beehive had given its life to do what it had no choice in doing.

I think this is important to remember about death; that there is no choice. Life and death is not a choice and bees are no different. During the last few days the hive was robbed, the queen and her small entourage died and the hive was left empty. It sat as a reminder that it is often a mistake to expect nature to act differently simply because we have a vested interest in it doing so. Nature offers us no choices and that thought reminded me that my dead colony left me with yet another gift: philosophy.

And so I ordered more bees from my local supplier (the bees are local bees with semi-local queens). It was actually a hard decision because as a beekeeper I must accept at least partial responsibility for the death of the hive that I chose to take responsibility for. Mismanagement was almost certainly a culprit in the loss of my hive, but in more ways than one. Varroa mites were also to blame. However, even the mites that were eventually the cause of death were simply following the hallowed and harsh laws of nature. They were doing what they do best: survive. With this in mind I look forward to my new bees arriving in April.

With the arrival of the new bees I will become explicitly involved in the most natural of cycles: life and death, and I hope that my explicit involvement will somehow sway the likelihood of survival for my bees instead of the other way around. I have read that because of the varroa destructor problem that human involvement is now necessary for the survival of honey bees. I’m not sure that I agree with the argument entirely as it was human involvement that created the problem in the first place. I will certainly try to do my best and the bees will do what the bees will do. Life and death to them is simply the law of nature, but I will continue to try to be the best beekeeper that I am capable of being by continually trying to understand the nature of that law.

Aunt Ruth

abandoned farm

 I was remembering my Aunt Ruth the other day. Aunt Ruth lived outside of Delhi Louisiana on a farm and her son and my cousin, Bill, farmed the thousand or so acres that surrounded the old house. I remember that he was always busy repairing the irrigation systems that stood like giant centipedes along the dirt roads that crisscrossed the fields. I helped every now and then, and remember it was quiet except for the clanking of wrenches and the odd tractor in the distance. I remember the smell of diesel, of horses and hay, and of water and dirt. I also remember the chicken.

Aunt Ruth was a seminal cook; a chef, a magician of food that is rarely made anymore.   When I would help Bill on my visits to the farm Aunt Ruth would always have a table full of magic when we arrived home for lunch. There would be fried chicken (from the yard outside the house), green beans (from the garden), macaroni and cheese (homemade of course), okra (fried and sautéed), homemade tomato jelly, buttered rolls, ice tea, several pies, and sometimes homemade bread. On top of all of that Aunt Ruth would serve us all with a smile and throw in a few laughs for good measure.

These memories cropped up in me some years later after I had “grown up” and I made a trip back to Delhi to reminisce. I stayed at a hotel off the highway and drove to the cemetery to visit some family. I drove to the old house where my family had taken me to visit their families, my grandparents and to the old farm where I used to play with the kids who looked after the place. I drove past the house where my uncle who used to hide whiskey in the toilet tank and yell at the help through the screen door on the back porch. I drove through the memories that have since haunted me and still haunt me today and I drove by Aunt Ruth’s house. I loved those people and what they stood for; something that I did not realize at the time because I was young, because I was from the city, and because I did not put a price on the priceless.

Those days are gone, but I believe it is up to me to remember them, to keep them alive; something I am working towards as best I can because like so many others today I have tended to hide behind the walls of houses too often, buy ease at the store and comfort with a credit card. Those people in our pasts, that we remember, were not perfect and they were certainly not saints, but I believe that my Aunt Ruth was a rare commodity, a rare species of person that has made the idea of what I think of when I think of the freedom that America offers.

Freedom and self-sufficiency are words now that are becoming more and more popular, perhaps a bit overused. But I believe in them and am striving to live up to their ideals. However, these ideals require work, character, time and talent as well as a smile and a laugh. My Aunt Ruth gave me the memory of an old house, creaking floors and a musty smell, smiles and care, but most of all she gave me a piece of herself in the form of food not bought from a store, or made from a box. In a few hours Aunt Ruth gave me memories that would last for a lifetime. I believe I need a lifetime to keep those memories alive for a few more hours.