January 30, 2018

The Ringing Cedars of Russia

August 04, 2017

A Lesson in Education (and in reading the Ringing Cedars books)

Atulya Bingham meets a man who lived in the forest for four years and teaches permaculture. The resulting conversation is a great read. I'm posting an excerpt below that illustrates a method of "teaching" described in the Ringing Cedars books.
“What’s this box of dead bird bits for?” I asked at last, unable to ignore it.

“I use it for teaching. It’s great for children.” My host pushed the box a bit closer. I stuck my hand in and rummaged about in the grisly, ornithological lucky dip. A game is a game. You have to play.

“Which bird’s feather is this?” I asked pulling a black and white striped plume from the box.

Ludwig sat back, formed a bridge out of his hands, and shrugged. “What do you think?”

I shifted on my chair. “I’ve no idea. I’m hopeless with bird names, especially in this country. I haven’t lived here for 20 years.” Well, I thought I’d better have some excuse for my ignorance, didn’t I?

“Which part of the bird is it from, do you think? The breast? The wing? The tail?”

I turned the feather over and stroked it. It was soft and silky. “I’m not sure. Not the breast. But could be the wing I suppose.”

Ludwig’s face was deadpan. I held the feather up, and peered even closer at it, hoping to see the bird in it somewhere. But no amount of hard staring drew the answer out. Turning back, I asked again, “Which bird is it?” feeling my eyes straining in curiosity.

Bilbo Gandalf shrugged and sat back. He was giving nothing away. I pulled my chair closer to the table while I racked my brain, trying to haul out mental images of black and white stripy birds that might live around the Scottish west coast. None came to mind.

Eventually, the bird collector stuck his hand in the box once more. He pulled out two more stripy feathers, much longer than the one I was holding. Then he bunched them all together and held them upright. Immediately I saw a tail.

“Pheasant! It’s a pheasant!” I grabbed the three feathers and stroked them lovingly. “Well, that was a bit tricky, you have to admit,” I chuckled. Carefully replacing the feathers in the cardboard box, I mused on the art of teaching. The patience required. How brilliant teachers always stand back and allow students to own their learning experience.

Strictly speaking, this is not really teaching. Which is why I put the term in quotes, because the learning here comes from the student itself with the "teacher" acting only as a facilitator.

The ten-volume Ringing Cedars book series is written with the same premise. This is one of the reasons why some people who read it as a regular book are disappointed with it, unable or unwilling to follow through with the thinking process required to really process and understand what they read.

June 05, 2017

The Lorences: Walden Recreated

A couple who lived in the woods in an unelectrified cabin for seven years now invite the world to reconsider the simple life.

For seven years between 2005 and 2012 Diana Lorence and husband Michael Lorence lived in a house that had no electricity and measured only 144 square feet. Located in the woods of California the house was built by a group of friends who came together to search for the ideal of Henry David Thoreau's Walden.

When a TV crew visited them in 2012 and asked Diana whether she considers herself a Luddite, she responded that she did not even know the term. After looking it up this is how she responded:
Well, I'm not a Luddite (laughs).

I am perfectly happy with the entire world living exactly as it wishes. But. I would live my life the way I wish.

And, I would have others know... not others who don't want to live this way, but others like the person I used to be when I didn't know there were any options. I didn't know there could be another way.

I'm not trying to persuade anybody of this life but I would offer as an alternative to those who are hungry for it as I was hungry for something I couldn't identify.
Michael Lorence serves as "practical philosopher, private designer and personal guide" to people in high places who find themselves seeking meaning in life.

Their house is called the Innermost House, The Lorences have now formed a foundation with the same name that is "dedicated to renewing the ideal of plain living, high thinking, and fellow feeling at the heart of American culture." They "seek an underlying unity in nature, fine hand craft and thoughtful conversation as a way home to the original wholeness and harmony of the individual soul."

May 24, 2017

A Relation of Love

"When human love and the love of the planet join forces, Edens are created" says Atulya Bingham.

If I were into species research, I would declare the discovery of Atulya Bingham as that rare new species that the world desperately needs. If I were a birder she would be that exotic bird whose sight delights every time one sees her. I almost feel kinship with her.

She is rare because she writes about nature in a way no one else does. Until recently, Atulya lived alone on a secluded spot on mountain in a mud hut she made herself. What is so special about that, one might ask. After all, so many people in the past have lived in nature, sometimes in complete seclusion, even in the wild, and have discovered the joy and peace it brings to one's life.

I recently posted videos of a successful businessman who gave up his business to restore a large parcel of degraded land, an accomplished sports personality who gave up her career to respond to her lifelong yearning for life in nature, and a medical doctor who gave up the rat race and city comforts to live and work on a farm.

Each of them have grasped what Atulya calls the magic of nature but only intuitively and partially. None of them, to the best of my knowledge, have been assisted by direct knowledge of what happens when one lives on the land in a certain way, as has been the case with her.

Atulya Bingham has understood the magic of nature because she held a relation of love with the land with conscious awareness of it being a living entity that responds back with love and magic that bestows protection on you and helps you realise your aspirations.

This knowledge is contained in the Ringing Cedars book series. The books have been super popular in Russia but have met limited success with the English translation. When I came across Atulya's writing for the first time, I couldn't stop, and strongly suspected that she has read the books. It turned out she has indeed. [See UPDATE added on 26-May]

In her most recent piece, she travels to Portugal and describes an eco-community project known as Tamera. Tamereans have done some wonderful work on what is sometimes boringly called "watershed management", technical jargon for practices that conserve water over large areas of land. To the readers accustomed to seeing only a world of "problems" and "solutions", Atulya briefly describes the physical attributes of the project but then talks about something more important:

But hold on there! The water solution isn’t actually the solution.

Now I know people love to geek out on these types of solutions. But to obsess over the lakes and the swales, to focus only on the most obvious physical structures of Tamera’s landscape is to revert back to the dam-building engineer mentality. It’s missing the point. I'd go as far as to say, after my own experiences on Mud Mountain, without Tamera's founding principles, it wouldn't even work in the same way. Because, the Earth is not a machine, and it’s not something to be solved. It’s a responsive organism.

What are those principles?

When I sat at one of the water retention lakes’ banks, it hit me. I hugged my knees under a pine tree watching dragonfly wings shimmer, butterflies flitting overhead, birds slipping so close they almost touched me. And I wept. I was suddenly back on Mud Mountain, in a space of beauty and love. Because this is how it was on my land too. When humans love the earth they live upon, when they truly see each part of the ecosystem as equal and valuable, when they build a non-violent relationship with it, something magical occurs. It’s alchemy. And nature becomes something else. Wild animals scuttle about with a relaxed confidence that is palpable. Flowers bloom. Trees bear fruit. And the ground oozes healing. It is this type of environment that makes anything possible. Life burgeons from deserts. Balance is restored in a matter of years. Miracles occur.

Tamera’s water experts say they can create their scenario anywhere in the world. When you see Tamera, when you move away from a screen and live it, it’s obvious it can be done anywhere, though Tamerans would be the first to agree that the water retention lakes are the least of it.

Who knows what life really is. But one thing is for sure, it thrives not only on water, but on connections, relationships and love. Oh how obvious this is when you've lost something you love! Everything responds to care, respect and attention; be it human, animal or plant. When human love and the love of the planet join forces, Edens are created.

Spaces like Tamera show the structures of urbanity, with their conveniences and comforts for what they are: Barren, love-starved, polluted, ugly, noisy hell holes. After four months in what feels like exile from Mud Mountain, I simply cannot fathom how people stand it. It’s hideous. It’s banal. It’s soul-destroying. How could anyone live in that and not feel depressed? It’s a complete and utter excommunication.

As the birds of Tamera chirped in delicious excitement of yet another day alive, I remembered what I had to do. I remembered what the point was. Because I’d lost it there for a moment.

My space. The Earth. Eden. I must co-create it again. ​​​​​Because there's nothing else like it.

UPDATE 26-May: I should add that the knowledge Atulya acquired through the books was of course confirmed through her personal experience. She first came across the books when she found herself living alone in a tent on the land and told me that she would "never have read or believed the the Ringing Cedars had I not been in that situation. It completely changed how I approached the space." And "many of the things the critics say are unbelievable, I have actually witnessed with my own eyes." She will describe these experiences in her forthcoming book. Sample this blog post about her experience on, what she calls, the 'Mud Mountain': The Lizards Dance

May 13, 2017

The Blueprint

Tom is a medical doctor in New Zealand who lives with his wife Sarah, an illustrator, and their toddler daughter Neesa in a tiny cabin on a farm. Until recently they lived in a large three-bedroom house, trapped, like many others in the cycle of working hard just to be able to pay off the rent or the monthly loan instalment. This six-minute video goes into why they moved to the farm and captures a slice of their life.

I really like the insight Tom shares in the end.

Select transcript with added emphasis:
I guess, in theory we have no security, there's nothing legal about living here. But. Somehow that feels completely fine. I feel trusting, the way we're choosing to live. Try and learn how to live more in relationship. Rather than, it's just us, we gotta make our money, we gotta have our walls tight to have security. And... maybe there's another way of being secure through being really embedded in our web of community.

There's a lovely poem that talks about we don't have to be good, we don't have to walk a 100 miles on our knees repenting in a desert. We just have to do what the soft animal of our body loves. I really like that. I really like that.

For me, this turns out to be what I love. And I have a suspicion that this is actually the blueprint. And there's some thing when people get to it - everybody would want to live this way. I suspect. But. It might be a really long journey for some folks to get to that knowing.

April 29, 2017

David Bamberger: Love of The Land

In the 1960's David Bamberger owned a successful fried chicken business with over 1600 outlets in the U.S. (For perspective, there are less than 400 KFC's in India today.) Then he decided to sell off his business and put the capital into buying some 5500 acres of the most degraded land he could find in Texas, in order to restore it. Fifty years later, the once overgrazed and bone dry land is completely restored. It is flowing with streams and springs and is a habitat for over 200 species of birds.

In this beautiful video portrait Bamberger says he inherited his love of nature from his mother. Another influence was a childhood lived among the Amish.

April 20, 2017

On Self-Sufficiency

I hold self-sufficiency as one of the highest aspirations that truly liberates us from dependence on money, market and other systems of exploitation. Most people in the environment/ organic food space would agree. But there are others like Aaron von Frank of Tyrant Farms who says one can never be self-sufficient.

His idea of self sufficiency is the proverbial man stranded on island who must survive using only the material at his disposal. But that's total self-sufficiency, an extreme version of it, as stultifying as total dependence on others. To me, to become self-sufficient does not mean abandonment of everything produced by society, even tools, rejection of community, all organisation and social institutions.

There are degrees to which one can be self-sufficient just as the degrees to which one can be dependent on others. One can participate in community and yet can be self-sufficient to a high degree. On the other hand a complete reliance on community only breeds conformity and lack of critical thought. It's unhealthy for a community to produce only yes-men. How do you expect a member to be critical of community when the well-being of his family depends on it?

E F Schumacher, author of "Small is Beautiful" wrote about self-sufficiency in a forward to John Seymour's "Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency". In the one-page piece Schumacher succinctly provides the forgotten context around self-sufficiency and highlights why it is a fundamental requirement for the health and well being of human society. I find myself going back to it time and again. It is included below in full.

We can do things for ourselves or we can pay others to do them for us. These are the two "systems" that support us; we might call them the "self-reliance system" and the "organization system". The former tends to breed self-reliant men and women; the latter tends to produce organization men and women. All existing societies support themselves by a mixture of the two systems; but the proportions vary.

In the modern world, during the last hundred years or so, there has been an enormous and historically unique shift: away from self-reliance and towards organization. As a result people are becoming less self-reliant and more dependent than has ever been seen in history. They may claim to be more highly educated than any generation before them; but the fact remains that they cannot really do anything for themselves. They depend utterly on vastly complex organizations, on fantastic machinery, on larger and larger money incomes. What if there is a hold-up, a breakdown, a strike, or unemployment? Does the state provide all that is needed? In some cases, yes; in other cases, no. Many people fall through the meshes of the safety net; and what then? They suffer; they become dispirited, even despondent. Why can't they help themselves? Generally, the answer is only too obvious: they would not know how to; they have never done it before and would not even know where to begin.

John Seymour can tell us how to help ourselves, and in this book he does tell us. He is one of the great pioneers of self-sufficiency. Pioneers are not for imitation but for learning from. Should we all do what John Seymour has done and is doing? Of course not. Total self-sufficiency is as unbalanced and ultimately stultifying as total organization. The pioneers show us what can be done, and it is for every one of us to decide what should be done, that is to say, what we should do to restore some kind of balance to our existence.

Should I try to grow all the food my family and I require? If I tried to do so, I probably could do little else. And what about all the other things we need? Should I try to become a Jack of all trades? At most of these trades I would be pretty incompetent and horribly inefficient. But to grow or make some things by myself, for myself: what fun, what exhilaration, what liberation from any feelings of utter dependence on organizations! What is perhaps even more: what an education of the real person! To be in touch with actual processes of creation. The inborn creativity of people is no mean or accidental thing; neglect or disregard it, and it becomes an inner source of poison. It can destroy you and all your human relationships; on a mass scale, it can - nay, it inevitably will - destroy society.

Contrariwise, nothing can stop the flowering of a society that manages to give free rein to the creativity of its people - all its people. This cannot be ordered and organized from the top. We cannot look to government, but only to ourselves, to bring about such a state of affairs. Nor should anyone of us go on "waiting for Godot" because Godot never comes. It is interesting to think of all the "Godots" modern humanity is waiting for: this or that fantastic technical breakthrough; colossal new discoveries of oil and gasfields; automation so that nobody - or hardly anybody - will have to lift a finger any more; government policies to solve all problems once and for all: multinational companies to make massive investments in the latest and best technology; or simply "the next upturn of the economy".

John Seymour has never been found "waiting for Godot". It is the essence of self-reliance that you start now and don't wait for something to turn up.

The technology behind John Seymour's self-sufficiency is still quite rudimentary and can of course be improved. The greater the number of practitioners the faster will be the rate of improvement, that is, the creation of technologies designed to lead people to self-reliance, work-enjoyment, creativity, and therefore: the good life. This book is a major step along that road, and I wholeheartedly commend it to you,


April 18, 2017

What is Our Purpose? A Ten-year Old Answers

A simple conversation with my ten year old nephew indicates that the answer to the eternal question, "Why are we here?" is not so elusive after all.

In Ringing Cedars books children are considered next to Gods in their purity of thought. The elders treat children as adults in respect and never disturb them when they are engaged in thought. It is also said that the elders often use the children as a benchmark to check their own purity of thought.

A day or so before my nephew Kshitij turned ten he came for a sleepover and I decided to check his purity. I also wanted to test my own assumption that anyone could be made to understand our purpose on this planet with a simple guided conversation. I learnt about this method in a book by Tom Chalko.

Below is my recollection of the conversation as it happened over six months ago as we lay down on the bed ready to go to sleep.

Me: Kshitij, let's do an exercise. I'll ask you a series of questions and you tell me the answer of each. This is not a test though. There are no right or wrong answers. Just think about the question for a moment and then let me know what you think.

Kshitij: Okay.

Me: What do you think is easier of the two: to build a house or put life into a dead body?

Kshitij: (Begins to say "to put life into...", stops midway and corrects himself) To build a house?

Me: Okay. Do you think a house could build itself? That all the material needed comes together and ends up in a functional house with a kitchen, toilet, carpeting etc?

Kshitij: No.

Me: Okay. Do you know why? Maybe because a house has to be designed first? It has to be thought of and planned and it has to be built by someone, right?

Kshitij: Right.

Me: Okay. Okay, so if a house cannot build itself, do you think life can create itself? Remember, you said it's easier to build a house than to put life into a dead body.

Kshitij: No, I don't think life can create itself.

Me: Okay, so can we agree that if a house cannot build itself, there's little chance that life can create itself.

Kshitij: (Nods in agreement)

Me: If a house must be designed by someone, can we then also agree that life must have be designed by someone as well?

Kshitij: Hmm.

Me: Life is much more complex than a house. There are so many species that co-exist in harmony with each other and there are complex systems such as the seasons and the solar system. Everything has been designed in such great detail even at the level of a cell.

Can we agree that such a complex life must require a high degree of intelligence to design it?

Kshitij: Yes.

Me: Can we call this, the great intelligence? Or let's say, God?

Kshitij: Okay.

Me: Alright, let's talk about something else for a moment. Do you know anyone or have you ever seen anyone designing or creating something without reason?

Kshitij: No

Me: There's always a reason, right? Even if it is to pass time or destroy what's created right after creating it, no one creates something without a reason.

Kshitij: (Nods)

Me: So there must be a reason for creating such a complex life too, isn't it?

Kshitij: Yes.

Me: Why do you think the great intelligence or God designed life and created our world?

Kshitij: (thinks for a moment and delivers a thoughtful reply) For his entertainment?

Me: (delighted) "For his entertainment!" Exactly!

In other words, can we say, "for his pleasure"?

Kshitij: Yeah.

Me: Now tell me something. Which of these two acts do you think would please God, the great intelligence: those that improve his creations or those that destroy them?

Kshitij: Improve.

Me: You've answered all questions, Kshitij! Thank you.

Kshitij: Mamaji, can I go to sleep now?

Me: Yes, Kshitij. Have a goodnight.

April 17, 2017

Kimi Werner: Living in Nature

How one woman's bond with nature formed during childhood kept calling her in youth to return to it.

In this wonderful TEDx talk Kimi Werner, a free diver and fish hunter, uses her life's story to illustrate a key lesson she learnt - that of slowing down when everything tells you to speed up. Her talk deeply resonated with me but not just because of the stated lesson. What really shines through is how her childhood memories of living in nature shaped her experiences later in life.

Kimi Werner hosts a NatGeo series currently running in India called "Living Free with Kimi Werner". I haven't seen the show but am told in it she travels the world to live with "people who are not just surviving, but thriving in the wild".

UPDATE 18-Apr: A longer interview with Kimi was broadcast by PBS Hawaii.

November 09, 2016

Trumpet Blower: 'Exactly What We Deserve'

On this historic occasion, re-posting (without permission) Mr. Fish's incisive caricature of Mr. Trump from six months ago with George Monbiot's equally accurate portrayal along the same lines.

The Man in the Mirror
By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 26th October 2016

Donald Trump is not an outlier, but the distillation of our dominant values

What is the worst thing about Donald Trump? The lies? The racist stereotypes? The misogyny? The alleged gropings? The apparent refusal to accept democratic outcomes? All these are bad enough. But they’re not the worst. The worst thing about Donald Trump is that he’s the man in the mirror.

We love to horrify ourselves with his excesses, and to see him as a monstrous outlier, the polar opposite of everything a modern, civilised society represents. But he is nothing of the kind. He is the distillation of all that we have been induced to desire and admire. Trump is so repulsive not because he offends our civilisation’s most basic values, but because he embodies them.

Trump personifies the traits promoted by the media and corporate worlds he affects to revile; the worlds that created him. He is a bundle of extrinsic values – the fetishisation of wealth, power and image – in a nation where extrinsic values are championed throughout public discourse. His conspicuous consumption, self-amplification and towering (if fragile) ego are in tune with the dominant narratives of our age.

As the recipient of vast inherited wealth who markets himself as solely responsible for his good fortune, he is the man of our times. The Apprentice tells the story of everything he is not: the little guy dragging himself up from the bottom through enterprise and skill. None of this distinguishes him from the majority of the very rich, whose entrepreneurial image, loyally projected by the media, clashes with their histories of huge bequests, government assistance, monopolies and rent-seeking.


Read rest of Monbiot's piece