Dear Folks, It’s early Saturday morning. Heavy snow is falling, sticking to the branches, outlining them beautifully, bending them dangerously. It’s the sort of day that takes down power lines. (Note to myself, typing on the computer: SAVE FREQUENTLY!)
Kerry is in the Springfield hospital, an hour’s drive away in normal weather. Yesterday she had a second operation, to rebreak and pin her other leg, which, like the one that was operated on in July, has not healed properly. We’re calmer than we were in July, because that operation came out so well. We also know now — and wish we had known last January when the accident happened — that if you ever break your tibia (front leg bone below the knee) without breaking your fibula (smaller bone in back of the tibia), have the operation right away and save months of agony. The intact fibula sets up a pattern of forces that makes it difficult for the tibia to heal straight.
The leg that got the pin in July is fine now, except for knee pain, which we’re hoping will go away eventually. Kerry has been getting around with a cane, driving, working full time at the Upper Valley Coop, learning to do accounting on the computer. She’s planning on going back to work next week and cooking a Thanksgiving dinner with me for her family. You can’t keep that kid down, though it turns out you can slow her down. We pray that this operation will be the last step for her, and we’re wondering whether titanium pins set off metal detectors in airports.
Winter has come early and caught us unprepared. It started a week ago yesterday, when a coastal storm roared in and dumped a foot of snow. I had to drive to Marion MA that day (more on that later), and given the weather I had to leave hours early. So I headed out with the snow coming down, the sheep still in the hayfield, their portable electric fence getting buried under drifts, the geese and ducks down on a rapidly freezing pond. I knew I should stay home and deal with the storm, but I was a speaker in Marion, so I had to be there on time. “Walk the sheep to the lower pasture, so they can get into the shed,” I said to Mary. “And hope for a quick thaw.”
Well it’s a week later, and no thaw, just more snow. Mary and I managed to unbury and roll up the electric fence last night. The sheep are still down on the pasture. We have to lug hay to them, because they can’t scratch through to the grass. After many attempts, Mary and I managed to catch the geese and three of the ducks and get them up to the barn. The other two ducks eluded us, but they didn’t elude the fox. The tracks in the snow told the whole story. (As long as they have a pond, the waterbirds can escape the predators, but when the pond freezes, they’ve no place to hide.) At least we saved two ducks and a drake, so we can hope for more in the spring.
We didn’t have the snowplow attached to the truck yet, of course, so Stephen, trying to get it on in the middle of the storm, got the truck so stuck that we still haven’t been able to get it out. And we’ve got all sorts of equipment still out, buried under white. And the raspberries aren’t pruned and my garden isn’t cleaned up. (Stephen’s is manured and seeded with winter rye.) And so on. We haven’t been lazy; we’ve been working all along, but we thought we had another month to do all this. Fatal assumption in New England.
On Monday I have to get the truck out somehow and haul five lambs to the butcher. I have eight ready to go, but the butcher only has time for five. I’m not sure how I’ll deal with the remaining three, because I MUST bring the breeding flock up to the barn, where the slaughter lambs are now. Complications, complications. We have a new ram, name of George, who is in with the breeding ewes, making next spring’s lambs, we hope.
(If any of you within driving distance want a lamb or half-lamb for your freezer, let me know right away. I give you good deal!)
I tell you this tale of woe partly for therapy (it feels better to complain) and partly to assure those who long for the idyllic life in the country that there are a few things about such a life you might be glad to miss. Most of them happen in November.
Well, there’s lots been going on. Marion. My brother’s wedding. Community loan funds. Hmmmm, let us proceed chronologically.
On Halloween morning I took off for my brother’s place, which is out in the country west of Racine WI. We relatives knew we were going to a wedding; the 250 local guests thought they were coming to a Halloween party and a housewarming for the huge new house Lorna and Jay have built. (Are still building would be more accurate — mirrors and lights were still going up the week before the wedding, and minor accessories such as doorknobs are yet to come.)
It’s an impressive house, Jay’s and Lorna’s dream, design, and hard work. And such an antithesis to housing our community is dreaming of! Now I know what a 5000 square foot house looks like. (My space in the new community will be 600 square feet, tops.) To be fair Jay and Lorna mean to start a bread&breakfast — hence 7 bedrooms and 8 bathrooms, if I counted right. Also a big office for Lorna, who coordinates graduate courses for teachers all over Wisconsin. The garage/barn will be a business place for Jay, who plans to go independent in the seed-sales business. So as house plus place of livelihood, by normal U.S. standards, it’s not so extravagant — nevertheless it’s extravagant. My brother, who cares a lot about the environment, is a typical American, never taught to connect his own actions to their sources and sinks on the planet.
Biting my tongue about the house, I had a great time working with Jay. The day before the wedding I helped him clean out his massive barn/garage, to make a dance floor and place for 250 guests to see the ceremony. That meant moving and sorting the lifetime accumulations of a do-it-yourselfer, everything from walnut boards he’s drying from trees he cut down to make space for the house (and intends to make into a dining room table) to the three boats he’s made. I don’t get to spend much time with my brother, and I was grateful for the insight his workshop gave me into his mind. It’s a practical mind — he’s not heady and abstract and wordy like me. He knows a lot I don’t know about wiring and plumbing and fixing old tractors — stuff I wish I knew.
Even better, the day after the wedding he and I walked all over his 80 acres. He and Lorna acquired the run-down farm two years ago, and since then he’s planted thousands of tiny trees on the fields. We inspected and blessed just about every one — oaks, maples, tamaracks, pines, spruces, Kentucky coffee trees. Then we walked through his mess of a forest, cut over and invaded by buckthorn, a typical Wisconsin ecological disaster. We had a great discussion about ways to restore it. It will be a labor of a lifetime for him, and a labor of love. On this ground, the land, the soil, growing things, my brother and I meet easily, though he’s likely to give those trees a shot of fertilizer and a ring of herbicide to keep the grass down.
The wedding was a hoot. Imagine a Midwestern potluck for 250 people. Food that took me back to my childhood (because I’ve hardly seen it since) — jello molds and sheet cakes and hot dishes and roast beef and ham and meatballs. (Did you know they put grape jelly in that Midwest sweet-sour meatball sauce?) A jolly crowd in weird costumes. Jay and Lorna dressed like hillbillies, she in a Dolly Parton wig.
They started with jokes, Lorna’s son Mike hauling out a rifle and demanding that Jay make an honest woman of his mother. (My serious brother turns out to be a comedian!) Lorna asks for someone to stand up for her, so out of the crowd sashay her girlfriends, dressed as outlandish flower girls. (At a Halloween party no one noticed.) Jay asks his guy friends to come stand by him. Mike calls for a judge. A judge appears, a real one. The crowd falls silent. Hey, this is SERIOUS! Then, when it was time to kiss the bride, an explosion of applause.
Our side of the family is amazed by Lorna. She’s incredibly capable and incredibly playful. She has given fun, travel, sports, and dreams to Jay’s life, and has brought out sides of him we didn’t know he had. She really loves him — and he’s really happy.
So it was a fun wedding and also an unprecedented family reunion. Three of Lorna’s kids were there, and all three of Jay’s kids, whom I hadn’t seen for years. My dear cousin Eddie drove all the way from Kansas. Eddie seems, like Jay, to be launching out in middle age to the life he really wants, which has a lot to do with music-making (tuba and accordion and jolly old tunes), athletics, and ballroom dancing. (What a fun-loving streak my upright, Midwestern, preacher-descended family seems to have hidden deep within it!)
Most amazing of all, both my Mom and my Dad were there. They hadn’t seen each other in probably 15 years, and I have no idea when we were last all together as a nuclear family — probably 30 years ago. My Mom had been around all week helping Jay and Lorna get ready. (For an 82-year-old she washes a mean window and wields a mean vacuum cleaner!) My Dad arrived on the wedding day a few hours before the other guests. I was in the living room with Mom when he came in and they saw each other for the first time in so long. I think it took a moment for them to recognize each other — 15 years can make a lot of changes. Then they just sat down like old friends and started talking. I watched for a minute in wonder and then went out to find Eddie and Jay in the barn and burst into tears. I never thought I’d see my parents together again.
Aren’t families amazing? Especially how they can send you back to being 8 years old?
They took gentle care of each other through the party, Mom and Dad, and decided to be proud of their kids and let bygones be bygones. We all stood up for Jay at the wedding.
(The power blinked and the computer crashed twice while I wrote this, so I’ve switched to my laptop, which can run on batteries. So far only blinks. The white stuff is still coming down.)
The new community is in a flurry getting ready for The Closing next week and beginning the design and legal processes. The dear Curtises moved out last week, after 44 years — Jane Curtis said she cried all the way to their new place in Woodstock. But they’re thrilled with what we’re doing, and their good friends Art and Marie Kirn are moving in, so they will come back to the old house often and continue to be, I hope, great friends of the community.
We had a long meeting with our lawyer and are beginning to get clear about the legal structure — or structures — we will need to hold us together. First we’ll form a nonprofit development company to hire the designers, engineer the site, and put up the houses. Then we’ll sell the place to ourselves in the form of a zero-lot-line homeowners’ association, sharing the land and commonhouse, owning our own family units. As soon as the Closing is over, we’ll start drafting the documents for all that. We’ve collected samples from other communities.
Two more families are ready to buy in, one of which will be renting the Hunt house as of next month. Between them they bring in 8 kids, ages 6 to 17, which will liven things up. (The first 6 families account for only 1 baby, with another on the way — not counting grown kids who have fledged.) So far 8 families, 10 at-home children. We’re aiming for 20 families altogether.
I’m scheming about the financing, especially since we don’t want to go to a bank if we can help it. (Banks charge interest rates that are prohibitive for some of our low-income families, and banks take a dim view of some of the radical green design we’ll want to have.) So I called up a former student, Nancy Wasserman, who heads the Vermont Community Loan Fund, to ask how we could set up our own mortgage fund, taking loans from interested investors and pooling them into mortgages to spread the risk. It has always seemed to me that we ought to be able to cut out the bank as middleman, and thereby offer interest to the lenders at, say, the rate of long-term Treasuries, while offering the borrowers a lower interest rate than they’d get at a bank.
Nancy gave me levelheaded and encouraging advice. As a result of that conversation I found myself the keynote speaker last week at the annual meeting of the NACDLF (National Association of Community Development Loan Funds) in Burlington VT. Mary and her friend Don Faulkner drove up with me through the Green Mountains on a beautiful clear afternoon. We got to spend several hours plus dinner with the loan fund folks, which was eye-opening.
Apparently they started with nuns’ pensions. The nuns did not want to manage their pension money, they wanted professionals to do it, and they gave these professionals the following investment criteria. The money must be invested in our own communities, so we can see the good it does. It must be used to help the poorest of the poor. You are not to lose the principle, because that is our old-age support. But we don’t care about highest possible rate of return. And you are not to foreclose on poor people.
There are at least 50 such funds operating now, loaning to low-income housing, small businesses, day-care centers, clinics, small farms, nonprofit organizations. There are a few foreclosures, but mostly if there’s a repayment problem, the loan fund sits down with the delinquent borrower to work out whatever problem is causing the trouble. The default rate is extremely low. Lots of people other than nuns invest in these funds now. I’ve had some money for years in one of the first of them, the Institute for Community Investment in Massachusetts.
The day after that meeting I took off into the sudden storm for Marion. It was 6 hours of slush, cars off the road everywhere, but four of us carpooled — Jim Schley the Chelsea Green editor, Ellen Furnari of the Center for the New American Dream, and Ann Forbes, a professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth and member of our farm/community. We took it slow, had a 6-hour gab fest, and arrived safely.
Some of you may remember my trip to the Marion Foundation last year for a meeting on The National Step. The Foundation was set up by Michael and Philip Baldwin, brothers of my friend and publisher Ian Baldwin (of Chelsea Green). In a nutshell, the foundation is Michael and Philip and friends following their intellectual curiosity wherever it leads, inviting in speakers they want to hear, and letting about 100 friends listen too. Their intellectual curiosity leads to a rare mix of New Age spirituality, business savvy, and sustainability. The attendees tend to be well-heeled activists. Marion sells tapes of the meetings afterward. I enjoyed my participation there last year, and this year they made it essential for me to come, because they centered it on My Topic.
My Topic is growth, of course, and Michael (who runs an investment company) assured me that I could even assail the whole idea of stock markets. (I did shock a few people with that.) The other speakers were John Mack, Herman Daly, and Vicki Robin. Paul Hawken was the moderator. James Thornton was one of the small-group facilitators. And Alan AtKisson sprinkled the whole gathering with his songs. From Growth to Balance was the theme.
I started with the usual Beyond the Limits stuff, the systems structures that cause population and capital growth, the surprising power of exponential growth, how money growth got hooked into the picture and then came to drive it, how growth is necessarily limited on a finite planet, the various ways it could stop, and how growth has become a Holy Grail, a paradigm, a religion, so we nonsensically celebrate corporate or economic growth without ever asking what exactly is growing, for whom, at what cost, to whom, or how long that kind of growth can last.
John Mack, a psychiatrist, talked about how our growth fixation arises out of a mentality of scarcity and fear, and how other mentalities are possible, especially the one called enlightenment, the experience of total interconnection with nature, other people, the whole universe. John is infamous for his interviews with “abductees,” people who believe they’ve been carried off by space aliens. Whatever experience the “abductees” have actually had, John says they come back with that universal consciousness. And whatever the source of that consciousness, when you have it, you can’t possibly treat the earth (or another person) as a thing to be exploited.
Herman Daly gave a clear and rational talk, as he always does, about uneconomic growth — growth that has gone so far over limits that it actually costs more than the benefits it brings (though the costs may not be obvious, because they’ve been put onto someone else or onto nature). There are four abiding critiques of conventional market economics, pointing to four enduring problems, each of which economists say can be solved by just a little more growth. They are:
Malthus — population growth. (Economists: growth will fix that by bringing about economic development and the demographic transition.)
Marx — unjust distribution. (Economists: growth will enable the poor to get richer.)
Keynes — involuntary unemployment. (Economists: growth will create more jobs.)
Environmentalists — destruction of nature. (Economists: a growing economy will produce enough money to clean up pollution.)
Of course two centuries of economic growth have not solved any of these problems that growth is supposed to solve, casting the economists’ claims into some doubt. But worse, said Herman, if our growth is now becoming uneconomic, making us poorer, then there’s no way it will solve any problem. In fact the four classic problems have always had to be solved not through indirect market machinations, but directly through social and political measures at the national level. And so economic globalization is a particular disaster — “the last gasp of the empty-world view, a ‘solution’ that converts a lot of solvable national problems into one unsolvable global problem,” said the wonderful Herman, who I think is the clearest thinker on the planet.
Then Vicki Robin, batting cleanup and looking more radiant and beautiful than ever, reminded us of who we really are — not consumers, not materialists, not beings who are derailed by mere quantity, but beings who want quality in our lives. Her way of dismissing the “truths” that marketers and economists and politicians spew out every day — without making them or anyone wrong — her invitation to us to take back our lives and live for true human purposes — was so joyful and resonant and full of integrity that it even got across to that audience, which included a lot of people who are in a position to be gross materialists.
Vicki was magical. I would love to learn to speak to an audience from as centered and transcendent a place as she does. I’m going to study that part of the tape.
Now imagine this gathering of great speakers and good friends, and add to it Alan AtKisson singing “Whole Lotta Shoppin Goin On” and “The GDP Song” and “I Love Therefore I Am” and Joe Dominguez’s memorial song “I Volunteer,” and finally Rilke’s Love Poems to God, and you have a truly transformational weekend. I just loved being with this powerful group of people. I think we’re finally learning to put our minds and hearts and souls together to make a complete, human, uplifting, nonsacrificial, joyful, and accurate message about sustainability.
In further news our Sustainability Institute has just received its second grant to model the full physical and economic effects of global commodity flows. The funders who got first into the gate determined which commodities we will study — forest products, shrimp, and corn. (I’m glad we got a Midwestern one and one with a future market. Do not ask me what they put into shrimp ponds, if you intend to go on eating shrimp.) I’ll be able to hire good young system dynamics modelers from MIT to work on the project, some of whom will be members of our community.
The snow’s still coming down. The power’s still on. Slowly the pieces fall together!