Tag Archives: green living

Ten Years of Rural Life

Ten years ago ago this week, Geoff and I were packing our belongings. We had bought a farm, sold our house, and were preparing to move to a place where we had no friends, no family, no connections, no jobs—a place where we had been only once before, two weeks earlier. I was eight months pregnant with our fourth child. It felt as if we were jumping off a cliff. We were so excited.

We wanted a place where we would be able to do our art, raise our kids, and grow our love in closer connection with the natural world. Sure, we were terrified, but that terror was tempered with intense curiosity. What would our new rural life be like?

It has been everything we wanted, more than we imagined, and far different than we anticipated. What we didn’t know would fill many books—some of which I have already written. Here are a few notes from the ten-year mark.

1. A place is not what you make; a place is what makes you.

As Geoff and I prepared to move, we had great visions of how we would make this farm our own. We would carve out a space for ourselves, put our stamp upon it, create it into the place we wanted it to be. Our home. Our center. Ours.

We quickly realized that this land and this farm had ideas of its own—existing structures, patterns of fertility and growth, vistas and views. And nothing we wanted to accomplish would succeed unless we paid attention. The garden would not grow. The water would not flow. The fence would not stand.

This place did not belong to us. We belonged to it.

We submitted. The place was too beautiful not to do so! It has made us into who it wanted and needed us to be—caretakers of its ongoing health and well-being. People who love it all the more for being so.

2. Perfection unfolds in time.

When we moved, there were so many things about the farm that were broken, run down, and just not quite right. At first we did not even think we would stay in the house for long. We would fix it up, and then build another house further up the hill, in the hayfields. We did not want to live so close to the road.

But the farm resisted. Who needs two houses? Why spoil the hayfields? Why abandon the lower part of the property? We contemplated selling this place and trying to find another piece of land in the area, but in the end, could not bear to leave this one. What were we to do?

Meanwhile, the septic system was failing, the front porch was falling off, the big barn was falling in, and suddenly, all of these glaring issues that had been nagging us for years came together in one glorious opportunity. We decided to do what we could to make the road not matter. We got some help, and took off the porch, took down the barn, built some fences, and opened up a soccer field on one side of the house and a barnyard on the other. We no longer wanted to live anywhere else.

3. The farm will provide.

Of course, once the big barn was down, the barnyard was a field of rubble. Trucking in topsoil was far too expensive to contemplate. What would we do? It was one of those moments that happens all the time: the farm provides.

While we did not have money for fine dirt, we did have cattle—to whom we feed large bales of hay cut from our fields all winter. So we put those bales on the rubble. Magic. Hay plus manure equals grass the following spring. Instead of feeling poor, we felt incredibly rich. We had what we needed.

4. We are nature when we work with it.

When we moved, we carried with us a certain romantic notion of the natural world—a back-to-the-land naiveté. I imagined walking through the fields, appreciating their beauty, feeling my connection to the earth, and then going to the grocery store for milk and cheese. I did not imagine that I’d be walking through nature while fixing a cattle fence, that I would be connecting to the earth by shoveling manure, or that I would be washing buckets and processing our own cow’s milk to meet all our dairy needs.

Humans do need to cultivate love for the earth, for themselves as earth, for sure. But humans also need to get their hands dirty, to sweat for the earth. In the daily work of taking care of particular animals and plants, and a particular patch of ground, we come to know how far from the natural world we really are so much of the time as we shop, communte, and surf the net.

Nature is work. Nature is always working, generating, creating. And we know ourselves as one with it when we allow it to work on us. Then we start asking questions that mean something to us. How are we spending our time? How are we spending our money? What are we planting? What are we raising? What are we creating?

5. No room for righteousness.

One of the challenges we set for ourselves after moving here was to provide as much of our own food as possible. It was fun. How far could we go? With milk from a cow, a coop full of hens, a fertile plot of land, a stove, a freezer, and some information, what could we do? We were well-trained to habits of eating branded, processed foods. So we took it slowly, food by food. We chose one and then another: what would it take to make this ourselves? Soft cheese? Hard cheese? Ice cream? Butter? Bread? Snacks? Granola?

The challenge wasn’t about adopting an ideal eating program and imposing it upon ourselves. It wasn’t about adhering to a principle or to the terms of contemporary debates over vegan, vegetarian, meat-eating, or other. It wasn’t just about the food. It was about being where we are—in this plot of a place—and learning how to participate in a workable system of production and consumption that would nourish both us and the earth.

Our cows are not just milk machines. They are living creatures who link us to the land in mutually life-enabling ways. The cows enable us to take care of the land and the land to take care of us. We move the cattle through twelve different pastures to ensure that the grass keeps growing for them. We give them year round food, shelter from storms, and lots of chin scratches, not to mention mountain views. The cows feed and fertilize. The milk they make that we take is grass we gave them, now nourishing us, so that we can keep caring for them.

In this search for earth-friendly ways, there is no formula. There is no model for all to follow. All humans are caught up in a vast cultural net that wrecks havoc on the natural world, regardless of what we individually do. People live in different places with different resources and requirements. However, we all do have experiences to share and insights to offer, as we strive to steer the trajectory of humankind in ways that will support the ongoing life of the planet.

6. Dance is everywhere.

It is not immediately obvious why someone would move to a farm in order to dance. What does pulling weeds have to do with working a plie?

For me the connection was sensory. The inspiration to dance wells fullest in me when I am moved to move by the movement of the natural world. So I sought it out. And in seeking it out, my desire to dance evolved. Soon dance was no longer about creating concert productions for performance in a black box—as valuable and rewarding as such endeavors can be. It was about tapping into a primal, kinetic creativity that funds every moment of my life—and writing about it.

On the farm, I have come to realize that dance is everywhere, in everyone. In this place, where it is impossible to ignore how everything is constantly moving, changing, evolving, the importance of dancing appears anew.

If movement is all there is, then how humans move matters. And if how humans move matters, then dance appears as something more than physical exercise or an optional art. Dance appears as a way in which humans learn to participate in the ongoing creation of what is. It appears as a way of cultivating a sensory awareness that can guide humans to create relationships with sources of wonder and sustenance in their lives. And it has always been so.

Life on the farm has helped me to appreciate, as I never could before, how fundamental dancing has been to the evolution of the human species, how important it is to the development of individual humans and communities, and how important it may be to our collective future. Dancing is human.

What will the next ten years hold? I have no idea. But at least I know what I’ll be doing tomorrow.

Kimerer L LaMothe is the author of Why We Dance: A Philosophy of Bodily Becoming

When the Dish Breaks: An Internet Time Out

I think of myself as a technomoderate. While I sit at a computer for some time nearly every day, I do so selectively. I email regularly, blog periodically, and update my website from time to time. I surf the New York Times daily, and Facebook weekly. While writing, I invariably call upon google or amazon to help me find a source or research an idea. In all, I use the web in moderation, to get the job done, while living most of my life in the real world—or so I thought. Then we spent two weeks at the end of the summer without an internet connection. Two weeks?

One day in August, the satellite dish stopped working. It simply refused to send our signals or receive those from afar. Was it clouds? The skies were clear. Over-grown trees? We trimmed. A shift in dish position? The technicians tried several before concluding that we needed a new transponder. Time required to order, deliver, and install: two weeks.

Two weeks. I wasn’t on vacation, or on the road. I was home, where all of the farmwork, artwork, and bookwork happens. I had proofs in hand for my next book that needed to be done and delivered, electronically. Two weeks?

Immediately, I felt disoriented. How was I to proceed? I routinely rely on my computer connection, I realized, to organize me. It sets my tasks to do, with its in box, out box, and drop box; its pop ups and sidebars; downloads and documents, blog feeds and posts. It is more than a list; it is a desktop with depth, a room in itself. And as I enter my computer’s room, that room enters me, recreates itself inside of me, as my world.

Yet my computer was strangely quiet. It no longer beeped and blinked at me with news of incoming messages. It was as flat as it looked, no longer a portal into realms peopled with friends and family, experts and strangers; and no longer offering a daily array of thickets to explore. To be plugged in to a virtual world is to be oriented by it, and I hadn’t known to what degree.

Hanging a Clothesline and Other Movement Matters

It has been three weeks since I did it: I hung a clothesline.

In the end, it was easy. I took the cotton cord Geoff bought at the local hardware store, walked into the backyard, and strung the line between two obliging birch trees. Five minutes later, the deed was done.

I had been waiting to hang the line, however, for months. Despite my best intentions, I couldn’t manage to get out the door. On the one hand, I was so tired of the queasy disease that erupted in my belly every time I pushed the “on” button of our electric dryer. I know too much about how much electricity my dryer consumes (up to 12% of the household tally), in order to do the work that sun and wind can do for free, without cost to the environment, just steps beyond the wall.

On the other hand, I was hemmed in by habit, and by lingering doubts as to whether or not line drying would be as cool or as convenient as plug, press, and spin. Finally, the resistance overrode the ruts, and pushed me out the door with cord, clothespins, and hamper in hand. My kids came along, cheering me on, eager to participate. I wondered how long this festive air would last.
*
To hang my first shirts, I reach into a bag for wooden pins that look exactly like ones my grandparents must have used. Generations collapse. I lift the clothes to the line, and place the clip, then another. Piece by piece, I lift and stretch and smooth.

 As the line fills with clothes, niggling doubts flood my mind. I should be using a dryer. I smile at my cultural conditioning. It wasn’t so long ago that everyone hung clothes to dry. Then came the marketing campaigns of the 1950s, urging people to Live Better Electrically. The meaning of a clothesline shifted. No longer a useful implement for drying laundry, it became a waving flag alerting all who could see that those living here were poor, behind the times, and unable to keep up.

Since then, the clothesline has been a social stigma, legally banned in cities, towns, and neighborhoods throughout the United States for being aesthetically unappealing, a drain on property values, a blight to the neighborhood. It is most often a question of class.

Since 2007, Susan Taylor has been fighting her homeowner’s association for the right to hang a line. On July 26, 2008, a man died in Verona, Mississippi when his neighbor, tired of asking him not to hang his clothes, shot him.

Yet, as I make my way down the line to the second birch tree, I remind myself. Times are changing, and so is the meaning of the clothesline. Increasingly, the clothesline is a sign of freedom—the freedom to resist patterns of consumption that are fueling our ecological crisis. It is a sign of a commitment to reduce the energy we use to wear and wash, and its attendant costs. I want to stay in touch with my freedom.

Recently, Colorado joined Hawaii, Maine, Vermont, Florida, and Utah in passing a right-to-dry act; other states are following suit. In March 2010, British filmmaker Steven Lake released a documentary, Drying for Freedom, based on the Verona murder and more. Susan Taylor has received national and international media coverage for her three-year battle.

A recent survey from the Pew Foundation found that the percentage of Americans who believe that a clothes dryer is a necessity (rather than a luxury) declined by 17%, a drop in status second only to the microwave.

Once a sign of being unable to afford a dryer, a clothesline is a sign that we can no longer afford the environmental cost of operating one.
*
I empty the laundry basket and step back to survey the array. Shirts of assorted sizes hang shoulder to shoulder; pants jog in the breeze. Sheets flutter, socks flap, and towels hang heavy. There is pleasure in the patterns of shape and color, and in the movement that reveals the movement of the breeze I now sense blowing against my cheeks. The sun is warm. The grass soft beneath my feet.

As the day passes, I peek out the window. The clothes are still there, waving away, like so many Tibetan prayer flags, honoring the earth. They are drying, all by themselves, without the sound of an electric motor. Without chemical odor. So much work is being done for so little. I love it.

Later in the afternoon I go outside again, take a breath, and take down the clothes. They are slightly stiff. Sun-baked and wind-swept. They fold crisply into piles like so many leaves.

I like this. I am surprised at how much I do. It is the relief of not hearing the noise. It is the occasion to go outside. It is the smell of the fresh clothes. It is the money and energy and earth I am saving. But more than any of these, what makes the experience remarkable to me is the reminder it yields about movement.

Now, as I do laundry, I can move. I reach and twist, bend over, sink down, and rise again, folding and unfolding a bodily self that has spent more than enough of the day sitting at a computer. It is the movement of walking outside, of responding to the whims and whorls of nature, of being present to this place. It is the movement of aligning my efforts with the rhythms of day and night, sun and rain, heat and cold, in ways that pace my efforts and nourish my sensory self.
*
This clothesline and my unexpectedly enthusiastic response to it have got me thinking. So many of our labor and time saving devices work to save us labor and time by reducing our opportunities for moving our bodily selves. Yet in the name of granting us pleasure, they deprive us of a primary source of it—moving our bodily selves. In the name of protecting us from the inconveniences of the natural world, they separate us from its nourishing effects.

When we move we breathe; when we breathe we feel; when we feel we have resources for thinking and feeling in new ways. We bring our senses to life. We bring sense to life.

Of course, we want to believe that our labor and time saving devices are giving us the freedom to move however we want to, whenever we want, to get that pleasure pure and unhampered by practical concerns.

However, the reality is that once we separate our immense capacity to move our bodily selves from our requirements for living, our bodily movement no longer carries the same significance it once had. Movement is then about entertainment or recreation or physical health; we no longer perceive it or value it as essential to our mental and spiritual well being, or as a key to creating a mutually enabling relationship with the natural world. Movement drops as a priority in our lives, falling in rank below the “necessary” tasks of school and work, screen time and the effort of maintaining all of our time and labor saving devices. We find it difficult to motivate ourselves to move, and cannot figure out why.
*
I have been looking over my blog entries for the past two and a half years. I see a pattern. Every fall, I have made a new move, reinventing my blog to focus on a different aspect of my project. I spent the first nine months laying out the structure of What a Body Knows, before devoting a year to telling Farm Stories, and another to Making Connections between my work in What a Body Knows and cultural conversations in the news.

It is time to string a new line. The sense of needing to make a change is overriding my habitual approach. In the next few months, I will be focusing more specifically on movement—human movement, bodily movement.

I want to explore how we are moving and what we are creating when we do. I want to investigate what movements we evolved to make and why we can; what movements we have the potential to make and why we should. I want to explore how vital our practices of movement are for creating a mutually enabling relationship to the natural world. I want to write about dance.

It’s time to hang some new thoughts, air them out, and give them time to flap in the breeze.

Radical Homemaking: A Revolution in Progress?

Forty-five minutes from now my cultured milk will be ready for the next stage in the cheddaring process. It’s time to write, for I’ve been stirring thoughts while stirring this foamy white elixir that my son and daughter pulled a couple of hours ago from the teats of our three cows.

I am thinking about an excellent book I just read by Shannon Hayes called Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture. At the heart of the book are a set of home visits Hayes made to twenty families and individuals whom she describes as radical homemakers. These are people who are—how can I say it—like us. It has been five years since Geoff and I packed our belongings, sold our house, and left work, friends, and family to make art on a deserted farm in upstate New York.

Indeed, Hayes’ critique of contemporary culture lands close to home. In pursuit of affluence, she writes, we Americans of the western world have created an economic system that is ravaging the health of our selves, our communities, and the planet. In this “extractive economy,” women and men leave home to work for wages they spend to fill their emptied homes with food and domestic goods they no longer know how to make. These goods are generally produced in bulk, far away, by strangers working under exploitative conditions, as part of a production and distribution process that extracts resources from the earth, and leaves polluted air, soil, and water in its wake.

Page after page Hayes shells out the statistics: despite our relative affluence, we are not happier, healthier, or richer. We are depressed, stressed, and restless. Our local communities are weak; our planet is dying. Many of the jobs available to us are not what we consider meaningful work, and yet, because of those jobs, we don’t have time in our lives to do what matters most to us. “The extractive economy,” she insists, “is terminal” (58).

There must be a better way—or many better ways—and Hayes sets out to document what some intrepid explorers are discovering. These radical homemakers, as she describes, are transforming home from a place of consumption to a place where women, men, and children work together to grow, make, and create what is vital to their living.

I get up from my computer and check on my cheese, where it waits on the stove. The milk is still warm, a balmy 90 degrees. I add a half-teaspoon of rennet and stir for a minute, slowly, as not to slosh. I set the timer again. Another forty-five minutes and I should have a nice firm curd.

None of the radical homemakers Hayes describes milk a cow, but in the end, Hayes’s concern is not with the practical activities of homemaking themselves. She maps the phenomenon in general terms, describing three overlapping, cyclical phases: radical homemakers redefine wealth in terms of family, community, good food, pleasure, and health. They reclaim skills lost in the increasing dependence on corporations for our livelihood, including nurturing relationships, setting realistic goals, redefining pleasure, and cultivating courage. They work to rebuild society, engaging in civic, artistic, and entrepreneurial activities often in their communities. In these ways, Hayes insists, radical homemakers are building a bridge from an extractive economy to one that is “life-serving,” where the goal (she cites David Korten) is “to generate a living for all, rather than a killing for a few” (13).

As I reflect on this book, I am struck by how dangerous it is. Isn’t Hayes promoting a nostalgic escape to a romanticized home life that never existed? Isn’t she advocating poverty and deprivation for all? Doesn’t she risk perpetuating gender stereotypes that have trapped women in domestic drudgery, denying them the opportunity to share their talents with a larger public?

I chew on the thought as check on my cheese. The curd should be forming now, firm to the touch, floating in a halo of whey. I am making this recipe with three gallons of milk—a bit more than half of this morning’s catch. The rest we will skim and drink, churning its cream into butter and ice cream, making cottage cheese, yogurt, and mozzarella too. Later.

I turn back to Hayes, a radical homemaker herself. She is well aware of the dangers. A Ph.D. from Cornell who graduated with fistfuls of ambition, she is wrestling with these issues herself. It is why she is writing the book. It is why she lays out the historic, economic, and cultural contexts that enable her readers to appreciate how radical the work of homemakers is. As she explains, the history of the United States is a history of a shifting balance of power from homes to corporate institutions, spurred by industrialization, the rise of advertising, and the shift to a consumer culture. By embracing home as central to their living, then, radical homemakers are saying no to corporate dominance, and yes to good old American values of democracy, self-reliance, family, local community, and quality of life. Ambitious indeed.

Nevertheless, the question lingers: is it enough for homemakers to know that what they are doing is radical in these ways? Hayes admits, the radical homemakers who are “truly fulfilled” expand their “creative energies outward,” beyond their homes, in that third phase of rebuilding society. Home becomes the philosophical and practical base for “deeper social accomplishments”; “the fertile ground” that feeds a “deeper fulfillment” (250). As important as this rebuilding phase of homemaking is to her thesis, Hayes spends five pages on it, versus sixty plus pages on the phases of redefining wealth and reclaiming skills.

What is it, then, about radical homemaking that allows us to feel this “deeper fulfillment” more than we would in any other way of living? Is it really about working in the home—or about moving beyond it?

The timer goes off. I stroll to the stove. The curd is done. I smile as it pushes back against my finger. I take out a long knife and cut the curd, back and forth. The knife clicks on the edge of the pan, tapping out a rhythm I consciously repeat. I finish the checkerboard, make some diagonal moves, turn the stove to low, give a good firm stir to the mass, and go back to my desk. It’s coming. So is my blog.

I think about my latest book, What A Body Knows: Finding Wisdom in Desire. In it I talk about the cultural epidemic of depression (that Hayes also describes) as evidence of a dissatisfied desire for spirit. Humans, I argue, have a need for a sense of vitality, direction, and belonging that allows us to affirm that our lives are worth living. In the west we undergo a mind over body sensory education that leads us to believe that we will secure the affirmation we seek when we find the right belief, the right practice, or the right community—the right something outside of ourselves to fill our inner lack. We aren’t finding it.

What we need instead, I counter, it to cultivate a sensory awareness of the movements that are making us. When we do, we learn to participate consciously in the process of naming and bringing into being a world we love that loves us. It is this participation, I argue, in our own bodily becoming, that will yield the sense of affirmation we seek.

I trot back to the stove and give the cut curd another stir. So, then, is it helpful to think about radical homemaking as a way to express a desire for spirit? How are the movements of radical homemaking making the people who make them?

From the stories Hayes tells, it is clear: the movements that these people are making in their lives, as they redefine, reclaim, and rebuild, are making them into the people they want to be. The movements they are making in every case are addressing acute sensations of discomfort that these people have had. In most of the stories, there is some catalyst—a lost job, a sick child, a divorce, an illness—that breaks them open so that they are able to feel discomfort with their lives, and feel that discomfort as an indictment of corporate dominated forms of work, health care, food production, education, or government.

Further, not only were all of these persons able to feel their discomfort as an indictment of corporate culture, they were also able to find in that discomfort impulses to move differently—they were able to discern what I would call the wisdom in that (frustrated) desire. Instead of wishing the pain away, they were able to feel and receive the impulse to re-center their lives around home-making as a way to name and make real a world in which they want to live.

In this sense, these acts of homemaking are not a nostalgic escape nor a retrenchment in gender roles; they represent creative responses to untenable situations that align with the life conditions that the failure of those situations have enabled them to appreciate as having value. Here Hayes’ analysis is brilliant, for she demonstrates time and again how the move to radical homemaking is what the overwhelming success of corporate power is itself producing in many of us—its own overcoming.

What is it then, about radical homemaking that yields the “ecstasy” that Hayes’ recounts? It is not necessarily the activities of homemaking itself—even at the level of general skills. Rather, the pleasures of gardening or canning, home schooling or baking bread, nurturing relationships or redefining pleasure emerge as a result of how well those movements address the discomfort that the people who are making them have felt: the sense of alienation and isolation; the frustration with work, health, and educational options; the plastic glaze of industrialized food; the stifled creativity.

It is true: in so far as these feelings of discomfort are characteristic of contemporary society and even epidemic in proportion, then the activities of homemaking may prove radical as well to others feeling the same frustrations. Given the kind of challenges we as a society face, the tasks of home making can indeed provide us with opportunities for discovering patterns of relating to ourselves, one another, and the planet that are life-affirming.

However, the power that home has as a site of resistance—and pleasure—is rooted elsewhere: in how the acts of home making encourage people to cultivate the kind of sensory awareness that enables them to participate more and more consciously in the process of sensing and responding to their feelings of discomfort, frustration, and despair as impulses to move differently than cultural norms prescribe. It is this kind of sensory awareness that our dependence on corporate powers discourages us from cultivating.

Here lies the ecstasy Hayes identifies. When people are present in their lives, engaged in actions that require them to cultivate a keener awareness of what their bodily selves know, they will feel that sense of vitality, direction, and belonging that makes life worth living.

I pop back in to check on the cheese. The curds are cooked, wrinkled and squeaky, adrift in a growing sea of golden whey. I pour the curds into cheesecloth, wrap the ends around a wooden spoon and let them hang from the pot. The whey will go to the chickens, or the tomatoes. Then one more hour until salting and pressing, and two months at least before eating. It’s a process, for sure. It takes time.

Is this cheesemaking a radical act? I ponder its pleasures. Sure, I love the sensory dimensions of the seemingly miraculous transformation from liquid to solid. I appreciate the variations and complexities, the possibilities for error and discovery. I also appreciate how I am securing our dairy independence from forms of industrial farming that leave cows to stand all day on concrete, in their own manure, shot through with antibiotics to keep them from getting sick. Milk is a resource we have, in abundance. It makes sense to use it. I appreciate the ability to nourish myself and my children with untreated, local milk products, that come from healthy cows. Our family of seven (mostly) vegetarians saves over a hundred dollars a week by making from milk all that we do.

Then again, I know that in making this cheese I am enabling my kids to do what they want to do–milk their cows–and thus realizing a vision of family where we all work to ensure that each one of us gets what we need to become who we are. I know too, in making these moves, I am making myself into the philosopher and dancer I want to be—ever growing in my understanding how the movements we make in every moment of our lives make us who we are. It’s why we’re here.

Besides–or because–of all these reasons, the cheese is simply, incredibly delicious. Let the revolution continue.

Do What You Can–For the Earth

The air on my cheek is cool and moist. The room is silent. My opening eyes greet gray. It is 6:16 AM. My partner sleeps to one side; our infant the other. How can I move? I am sure to disturb someone.

Carefully, slowly, I wriggle out into the morning. I get dressed, go downstairs, eat a banana, lace up my shoes, and head out the door.

A rush of spring warmth hits my face and I breathe deeply. It is good to get out, be out, feel freely out. I need this walk. Why?

Is it my ecological unconscious? The ecopsychologist Theodore Roszak is convinced that we have one. Humans, he writes, have evolved with a fundamental biological need to be in nature, surrounded by nature, subject to its winding winds, its rhythms and rains. Doing so nourishes us, relaxes us, and stimulates our health. When we ignore this need, he claims, in avid pursuit of money and material goods, we make ourselves sick. We act in ways that make our earth sick. The pain of our psychological neuroses, he continues, are providing us with the impetus to move differently in relation to the natural world.

I walk along the road under a low white sky, wrapped with feelings of expectation. The earth looks silent, but I hear the birds singing of a soon-to-be springing, calling it forth. In days, every surface around me will ripple and hum with emerging shapes of life.

As I move my arms in large circles, the energy rises in me, pulling my legs into a jog. A cramp wrinkles my right hip. As I breathe down into the pain to explore its source, my right toe turns in, and the hip grip releases. How did my bodily self know what it needed?

I think back to Roszak. Our only hope, he claims, in addressing our mutually entwined psychological and ecological crises, is to learn to discern, trust, and move with our intimate, unending connection with the natural world. He writes: “What the Earth requires will have to make itself felt within us as if it were our most private desire” (47).

A flash of white by the side of the road catches my eye—a McDonald’s bag. Here, miles from any store, I find someone’s litter. If not a fast food wrapper, then cigarette boxes and butts, or beer cans or bottles. The people who put trash into their own bodies hurl their wrappers onto the earth’s body. Why are we so careless with our bodily selves? I pass by for now, vowing to pick it up on the way back.

Small trash. Big trash. I swallow a surge of righteous indignation. I pollute too. I know that the gas fueling my car spews toxic fumes; that the cheese wrappers and cereal-box bags we buy filled at the grocery store land in someone’s backyard; that at least some of the electricity fueling our lights, well-pump, water heater, and my computer is produced by processes that leach some burning byproduct into the atmosphere. Sure, I can pick up the bag, but who will remove my waste from the air, water, and soil?

Author Bill McKibben reminds us: there is no longer any place on earth where the atmosphere does not contain traces of human pollutants. For Roszak, any animal that soils its habitat as we are doing is by definition, crazy.

What am I to do? I can recycle and reuse, but the pile of trash keeps growing.

I turn the corner onto a dirt road. It is soft beneath my feet. The snowmelt has eroded the edges. Soon the mighty town Tonkas, running on my tax dollars, will pass through to rebuild the road, moving the earth so it can and will support our transportation habits.

A blast of stinging drops bounces off my cheeks. For a second I pause, surprised, then tuck my chin and keep going. But the shock has woken me up. I shake out my fingers and hand, rotate my shoulders, wiggle my hips, happy to be alone on this deserted stretch of dirt. I can make new moves, silly moves, playful moves, and feel the pleasure of doing so. I can take in the elements, and ride them. There is no one watching. Joy swells.

What new moves can we make to ensure the health and wellbeing of the elements that not only surround us but are us?

Yesterday I read a recent and rare interview with biologist James Lovelock, author of the Gaia hypothesis, now 90. He is not so sure we can learn to make new moves. As he says: “I don’t think we’re yet evolved to the point where we’re clever enough to handle a complex a situation as climate change.” We have too much inertia. Our patterns are too entrenched.

I know what he means—we aren’t clever enough. But it is not because the problem is too big and complex. The sign that we are not clever enough is that we keep trying to address the problem by relying on the same patterns of sensation and response that got us here in the first place. We keep approaching the problem as a mind-over-body problem, sure that if we can just find the right argument, the right data, the right technological fix, we will have what we need to reign in the forces we have unleashed that are destroying our habitat.

But world pollution is not a problem that is amenable to mind-over-body solutions. Its roots wind way down into the very substratum of nearly every individual life that participates in western civilization at all. Simply by living in this country, we are complicit in economies, politics, policies, and patterns of consumption that are depleting our earth’s ability to sustain life to an unfathomable, immeasurable degree.

As Lovelock admits, only some catastrophic event has the capacity to dislodge us from our inertia. As Roszak insists, it is a matter of desire.

To change our current course, we have to shed the selves that our participation in these economies have enabled us to become, and the expectations, hopes, values, and ways of being we have developed in response. It’s not just that we have to stop throwing trash out the window. We need to stop making it, buying it, and consuming it. There is no window. We are the earth and the earth is us.

The task sounds impossible. Is it? Can we grow into people who can and will and want to tackle the issues of how we humans are impacting the planet? What would it mean to be clever enough? What would it mean to be sane?

I reach the half way mark and turn around. I will be needed at home. It’s down hill for a while now. I ride on the gravity lift; my stride lengthens. My movement reminds me.

Do what you can.

It is not an all or nothing proposition. We can only begin where we are, and move towards where we want to go. And the first step is, literally, to be where we are. The first is to cultivate the kinds of sensory awareness that will allow us to discern the desire of the earth sprouting in us—a sensory awareness of our own absolute dependence upon the natural world. It is to discern the desire of the earth taking shape in our desires for food, for intimacy, and for spiritual fulfillment. It is to learn to find the wisdom in these desires, impelling us to ask questions, demand alternatives, and one by one, create the matrix of relationships that support us in becoming who people who can and will and want to honor the earth in us and around us.

It is time to move.

I pick up the bag, a candy wrapper, and beer bottle, and make it home. The rubbish in my hands reminds me: do what you can. I turn off a few lights. Brush crumbs off some not-so-dirty plates. Fold the clothes that have only been worn once. Toss bottles and boxes and cans and white paper into the recycling bins. So little, never enough. But the actions remind me: Do what you can.

Later in the day, sitting at my computer, I follow a news trail to a People’s Petition to cap greenhouse gases that is being circulated by 350.org. I remember to sign it. You can too.

Plugged In, Turned On, Tuned Out

Findings published from the third installment of the Kaiser Foundation’s research project on children and their use of media shocked technophobes and -philes alike. According to the report, kids ages 8-18 spend more than seven and a half hours a day plugged into an electronic device (such as an ipod, smart phone, computer, or television). This figure does not include an extra hour and a half spent texting or talking on cell phones; time devoted to homework, or an extra three and a half hours of media exposure accrued by multitasking.

As one commentator concedes: it no longer makes sense to debate whether such technological use is good or bad. We need to “accept it” as part of children’s environment, “like the air they breathe, the water they drink and the food they eat.”

Must we equate ipods with oxygen? Debates over the morals and merits of technology are as old as human civilization. There are questions to ask that move us beyond good and evil.

1. Are we using our tools in ways that weaken the sensory capacities they extend?

Every human invention extends a set of basic bodily capacities in a direction farther than it could otherwise go, and in effect, reduces our need for developing those skills and sensations.

Recall Socrates’ debate, for example, over the act of writing, as an extension of our capacity to remember. When we write something down in order to remember it, aren’t we giving ourselves permission to forget?

2. Who is using whom?

The tools we use organize our patterns of physical and mental movement; shape our thoughts; space and time our tasks, and map our sensory awareness. Using tools grants us a sense of ourselves, and what we can do. It structures our relationships to other people, places, and elements. Whether pencil or plow, book or boat, ipod or iphone, the tools we use use us to make them work. We learn, in using the tool, what turns us on.

The issue these questions share concerns our participation in the rhythms of our bodily becoming. The movements we make are making us. But how? As we invest ourselves in this technology, are we cultivating a range of skills and sensibilities that aligns with our ongoing health and well being?

Answers are trickling in for kids who are plugged in. Regarding the sensory education such technology use provides, evidence is emerging of a correlation (at least) between hours spent consuming media and pounds added consuming calories. However, the causal factor between childhood obesity and screen use, believe it or not, does not seem to be sitting.

While researchers point to food advertisements as encouraging excess intake, the issue may have more to do with how screen use educates our senses. While watching a screen, regardless of whether we are in a chair or on an exercise bike, we train our attention away from what our bodily selves are doing and towards what is coming to us through the monitor. Tuned in we tune out. We reinforce the sense of ourselves as minds over bodies that causes us to override the wisdom of our bodily selves in all realms of our lives–including in our ability to follow the arc of our eating pleasure to a sense of enough.

Moreover, in using these devices we not only train ourselves to think and feel and act as if we were minds in bodies, we train ourselves to desire this sense of ourselves as itself a primary source of pleasure, accomplishment, and even health. Our dopamine level surges when we override our bodily discomfort to check email, harvest soybeans in Farmville, or receive the latest tweet from our favorite star.

As for how our tools are using us, commentators regularly comment on the enhanced multitasking ability of the techno-savy. However, it isn’t the multi in this formula that is new. Humans have been manipulating complex maps of parallel and entinwed processes for millennia in order to survive. What is new is the sensory and kinetic range of the tasks: since media use occupies a smaller swath of bodily selves than the tasks of, for example, making all our own food and clothing, we can indeed train ourselves to tolerate more of them.

So what difference does it make if our kids use these technologies in ways that reinforce their sense of themselves as minds over bodies, and reduce their sensory range?

I offer three points, knowing there are more.

First, Rodolfo Llinas’ recent book argues that how bodies move influences how brains develop. One implication, anticipated by Nietzsche in Human All Too Human, is that when we train ourselves to still our bodily selves in order to think and read and write, we cut ourselves off from a primary realm of our creativity—our senses—and the source of materials through which we think at all. It is not an accident that Nietzsche’s Zarathustra is a dancer.

A related vein of inquiry concerns empathy. As the Blakeslees document, people with a greater visceral awareness—that is, a heightened awareness of their own feelings and sensations—demonstrate a greater capacity to empathize with other humans. Such empathic qualities correlate regularly with the ability to create and maintain mutually life-enabling relationships. One implication is that bodily practices that train our attention away from our sensory selves—even in the name of networking—may diminish our capacity to form strong, mutually beneficial relationships with other humans. (In what sense are fellow Facebookers friends?)

A third line of concern is one Richard Louv raises in his book, Last Child in the Woods. Louv diagnoses a nature-deficit disorder among our children, precipitated in part by an increased use in technological devices. As kids train their senses away from the natural world, they don’t learn how to be in the natural world—how to open to receive it. They think that “nature” is what they see in their wildlife videos, and get bored with the real thing.

Louv asks: where is the next generation of environmentalists and natural scientists who will be able to notice and care about the destructive impact humans are having on the very web of life that enables them to be?

Whether we are talking about the relationship to our bodily selves, to other humans, or to the natural world, then, the logic is the same. We may be losing our ability to sense and enact what we need in order to be able to create relationships that will support us in our ongoing sensing and enacting. Nietzsche called such a state decadence.

We do know that the question of how to cultivate relationships with ourselves, each other, and the natural world is a primary challenge we confront in the 21st century. It is also clear that electronic devices are not about to disappear.

The question that arises then is this: what kind of practices can or must we engage alongside our electronic device use, so that we can be sure to develop the sensory awareness we need to engage and use this technology in ways that enhance our ability to thrive? What kind of movement matters?