Wednesday, December 23, 2015

In the Shadow of the Sabertooth

Doug Peacock, the grizzly bear expert, lives near the Yellowstone River in Montana.  In 1968, the largest collection of Clovis artifacts was found not far from his home, on the Anzick ranch.  The Clovis culture of Native Americans existed for about 300 years, from 13,100 to 12,800 to years ago — during the era of megafauna extinctions.  Of the 35 genera of large mammals that went extinct in America, half of them vanished in a 500-year period, from 13,200 to 12,700 years ago.

The Clovis culture developed a new and improved design for the flaked stone points used as spearheads.  The long broad sharp points made it much easier to kill large animals, like mammoths and mastodons.  Amazingly, this new technology spread to every corner of North America within just 200 years.  Clovis points are sometimes found close to the remains of extinct animals.  Clovis technology appeared suddenly, and vanished suddenly.

Today, the waters of the Bering Strait separate Siberia from Alaska.  During ice ages, sea levels dropped, and the strait became dry land, called Beringia.  Around 20,000 years ago, the last era of glaciation peaked.  The glaciers made it impossible to travel from Beringia to warmer regions in the south.  Few, if any, humans migrated into America prior to 15,000 years ago.

About 14,700 years ago, the climate changed when the Bøling-Allerød warming period began.  At that time, sea levels were 450 feet (137 m) lower than today.  During the warm period, thawing opened up a corridor to the south, vegetation recovered, and by 13,100 years ago, it became possible to migrate from Beringia to Alberta and northern Montana.

The human immigrants from Siberia did not live at the top of the food chain.  They often had lunch dates with hungry sabertooth cats, lions, dire wolves, American cheetahs, grizzlies, and short-faced bears.  Short-faced bears weighed a ton, and when they stood on their hind legs, were 15 feet tall (4.5 m).  Maybe Clovis points were invented to reduce losses to predators.  Better weapons also made it easier to hunt large animals.

After 1492, the early European explorers were astounded by the incredible abundance of wildlife in the Americas, compared to the battered ecosystems back home.  But what they saw in America was actually a biosphere that was missing many important pieces.  The zenith of American wildlife was prior to 13,000 years ago.

So, the Clovis period began, existed for 300 years, and vanished.  It ended when the frigid Younger Dryas period began, 12,800 years ago.  The Younger Dryas lasted 1,300 years.  When warmer times returned, some clever people began fooling around with plant and animal domestication, which blew the lid off Pandora’s Box.  We’re still living in this warm phase, an unusually long period of climate stability.  We’re long overdue for another ice age, but industrial civilization has seriously botched the planet’s atmosphere, and we’re sliding sideways into an era of ecological helter-skelter.

There are four theories about the megafauna extinctions, and this subject is the source of decades of loud shouting and hair-pulling.  One theory asserts that a comet or asteroid strike filled the atmosphere with dust, causing a very long winter.  Where’s the crater?  There is none, because the impact hit a glacier.  Why did the short-faced bears vanish, but not the other bears?  How did moose, bison, elk, and humans manage to survive?

The disease theory notes that some viral pathogens, like influenza or cowpox, are sometimes able to transfer from one species to another.  Maybe species that migrated from Asia smuggled in some virulent viruses.  But species-to-species transfers are more likely to happen in confined conditions, like barnyards and livestock herds.  During the extinctions, a variety of browsers, grazers, and carnivores disappeared, from an entire continent, in a short stretch of time.

The climate change theory notes that when the Younger Dryas blast freezer moved in 12,800 years ago, the Clovis culture suddenly vanished.  Eventually, “nearly every animal over 220 pounds (100 kg) died off and only animals weighing less than that survived this extinction.  A notable exception was the grizzly, along with modern bison, moose, elk, caribou, musk ox, polar bear, and chunky humans.”  Why hadn’t numerous earlier ice ages caused similar mass extinctions?

Paul Martin was the father of the Pleistocene overkill theory, which asserts, that man, and man alone, was responsible for the unique wave of Late Pleistocene extinctions.  He believed that the American extinctions occurred rapidly, in a “blitzkrieg” of overhunting.  He argued that across many thousands of years, extinction events corresponded to human colonization — in Australia, the Americas, Tasmania, New Zealand, the Caribbean, and so on. 

Hunting clearly played a role, but it’s hard to believe that all of the horses and dire wolves in America were driven to extinction by hunters with spears.  Blitzkrieg seems like too strong a word.  Unlike mice and bunnies, large mammals have low rates of reproduction.  “If hunters remove just 4 or 5 percent of a population of slow-reproducing wildlife, those animals are on a road headed toward extinction.”  The megafauna extinctions could have occurred gradually, over decades and generations, too slowly to raise alarm.

Climate shifts can spur extinctions.  The hills near Peacock’s home are red, because pine beetles are killing the whitebark pines.  The beetles are thriving because warmer winters enable more to survive.  For grizzlies, pine nuts are a dietary staple.  He worries that the bears might be driven to extinction by tiny beetles that benefit from the emissions of consumer society.

Let’s zoom back to the Clovis site discovered near Peacock’s home in 1968.  He didn’t learn about the site until the mid-1990s.  Scientists had hauled away a bunch of artifacts, but didn’t return to perform a thorough excavation.  Peacock was able to encourage additional work at the site, which began in 1999.  This inspired a years-long adventure in learning, which eventually resulted in a book, In the Shadow of the Sabertooth.

The Anzick site was the richest discovery of Clovis artifacts.  Among the findings was the skeleton of a boy, about 18 months old, the only remains of a Clovis human ever found.  It is also the oldest human skeleton found in the Americas.  The results of DNA sequencing were published in 2014.  “The Montana Clovis people are direct ancestors to some 80 percent of all Native North and South Americans living today.”  This line came from Northeastern Asia.  The boy’s genes strongly resemble those of a 24,000 year old skeleton from Lake Baikal in Central Siberia.

“The one unmistakable lesson of the Late Pleistocene extinction is that human activity combined with global warming is a potential, ageless, deadly blueprint for ecological disaster.”  Today, the disaster we’re creating will be of far greater magnitude, and technology will not be able to rescue us.  It’s time to rise up and defend this planet.

For readers who have a comprehensive working knowledge of paleontology, this book might be easy to understand.  It summarizes the highlights of decades of scholarly research, and comments on the major controversies.  General readers (like me) are more likely to struggle with the non-linear presentation.  Be sure to look at the revised edition (2014), not the first edition (2013).  The first edition was printed before Peacock could review, correct, and polish the manuscript, due to a health crisis — and the text was a mess.  The Kindle version is the first edition.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Indian Summer

Thomas Jefferson Mayfield (18431928) was among the first Americans to move into California’s San Joaquin Valley.  He arrived in 1850, when he was six years old.  His family had moved west to get rich quick in the Gold Rush, but the gold belonged to the land, and it cleverly hid from the loony looters.  His father shifted to raising livestock, assisted by his two older sons.  Young Thomas and his mother stayed at their small shanty, near Kings River.

The wild valley was a magnificent wonderland, millions of colorful flowers, with snow-covered mountains in the background.  Neighbors included elk, deer, antelope, grizzly bears, black bears, raccoons, rabbits, gophers, ground squirrels.  The sky swarmed with clouds of blackbirds.  There were billions of geese, and flocks passing overhead might be four square miles in size (10 km2).  Huge flights of pigeons would block out the sun.  Wetlands were loaded with tules (bulrushes) that grew 20 feet tall (6 m).  Along the streams were unbroken forests of ancient oak trees.  Nearby was Tulare Lake, which was filled with fish and waterfowl.  The region around the lake was home to a fantastic abundance of wildlife.

The Yokut Indians who lived across the river from the Mayfield’s shanty were friendly.  They generously brought food to the family (…so the strangers wouldn’t shoot their guns and disturb the wildlife).  Within a year of their arrival, Mayfield’s mother died.  The Yokuts offered to take care of the young fellow, and his father agreed.  The boy spent almost ten years among the Indians.  He fluently spoke their language, dressed like them, ate their food, and had almost no contact with white society.  He helped them hunt and fish, and spent lots of time playing with the other boys.

The Indians were warm people.  They rarely quarreled, often laughed, shunned gossip, respected their elders, and only spoke when something meaningful needed to be said.  Honesty was the norm, and theft was unknown.  Mornings began with a bath in the river.  In the hot summer months, much time was spent in the cool water.

The Indians built houses made with tule mats, and some lodges were 100 feet long (30 m).  Acorns were stored in elevated cylindrical granaries.  Mostly, they lived outdoors.  Homes were only used for sleeping, and for shelter from bad weather.  Cooking, eating, and other activities were done outside.  Food was cooked in watertight baskets heated with hot rocks.  They stored dried fish, dried meat, dried grasses, acorns, and many kinds of seeds.  Tule roots were a staple food.

Around 1855, the Americans began rounding up Indians and moving them into concentration camps, known as reservations.  Prior to the roundup, many had already died from the diseases of civilization.  In captivity, living indoors made them miserable, and many died from tuberculosis and measles.  Whiskey led to painful social breakdown.  In 1850, at the beginning of Mayfield’s stay, there were over 300 in the tribe, but ten years later only 40 survived.  In 1862, his father was killed in an Indian war, and the young man said goodbye to the Yokuts and drifted away into white society.

Mayfield almost took his story to the grave.  He spent much of his life in the valley, but never told anyone about his childhood.  White folks hated Indians, and he would have been stigmatized by revealing his story.  But in 1928, Frank Latta was working on an oral history of the San Joaquin Valley, heard about the 85-year old Mayfield, and went to visit him.  For the first time, Mayfield had an eager listener, and he gushed stories for several months, until he died.

Indian Summer is the story of his time among the Yokuts.  It’s just 123 pages long, with large type.  The writing is simple, just the facts.  His story is the only eyewitness account of a colonist who knew California Indians when they were still wild and free, living in their traditional manner.  It provides a wealth of details about how the Indians lived.

Even after Mayfield was a teen, old enough to take care of himself, his father left him with the Indians.  “He said that I was in better company with the Indians than I would be staying around the white towns with him.  There I would be in contact with saloons, gamblers, drunks, bums, and many other undesirables that I would not know at the rancheria.”  Whites were notoriously untrustworthy, and masters in the fine arts of vulgarity and profanity.

When he was in his eighties, Mayfield said, “There is no use trying to deny that the Indians I knew were, for the most part, naked savages.  But I have found that in the sixty-six or more years since I left them that just wearing a lot of clothes does not make people decent.  Neither does going around naked necessarily make people indecent.”  He added, “I knew the Indians in their natural state and I know that they were the finest people that I have ever met.”

In the good old days, Tulare Lake covered Kings County, and portions of Tulare and Kern counties.  It was the biggest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi, and it sometimes swelled to cover 760 square miles (1,968 km2).  A thriving fish mining industry was established by the Americans.  Four rivers once emptied into the lake, but water-mining farmers and land speculators diverted their flows, and the lake disappeared by 1910.  Tulare Lake is now called the Tulare Lakebed, flat dry land, mostly cotton fields.  In extremely wet El Niño years, like 1997, the former lake temporarily holds some water.  Now the Americans are pumping out the groundwater, and the land is sinking.  Some locations are falling two inches per month.  Roads are cracking, and pipelines are breaking.

There were 16 subcultures of the Yokut people, and there may have been up to 50,000 of them in the San Joaquin Valley 200 years ago.  Abundant wildlife and plant foods allowed them to live in high density for hunter-gatherers — in good health, usually peaceful, with a leisurely lifestyle.  By 2010, the valley was home to 3,971,659 Americans, and it had air pollution comparable to Los Angeles and Houston.  The current way of life does not have a long-term future.

Thomas Jefferson Mayfield was born in 1843, the same year as my great-grandfather, Richard Edward Rees.  Richard’s granddaughter Martha lived until 2009, and she remembered him well.  The Yokut people had lived in balance for several thousand years, but civilization furiously obliterated the wild paradise in less than three generations.  Bambi was splattered by a runaway freight train, and nobody lived happily ever after.  There may be important lessons here.

A huge and glaring omission from the book is California’s wars of extermination on the Indians.  The Tule River War was waged against the Kings River Yokuts at the time Mayfield was staying with them.  In the first 20 years of the American occupation of California, 90 percent of the Indians died.  Bounties were paid for the scalps and heads of Indians.  Who omitted the genocide — Mayfield, Latta, or the publisher?

Mayfield, Thomas Jefferson, Indian Summer, Heyday Books, Berkeley, 1993 (Original 1929).

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Remembering John Trudell

John Trudell has passed to the other side on December 8, 2015.  He was a Santee Sioux activist and a spoken word artist.  Trudell had a profound influence on my thinking.  Over the years, I’ve stashed away a collection of information about him.  The following is a sampler.


Trudell, Appaloosa Pictures, 2005, directed by Heather Rae, starring John Trudell.  This is a full-length documentary about John Trudell, very well done.  It’s available on YouTube.  The commercial DVD includes additional material.

Trudell:  The spirit of life is almost nonexistent in the perceptional reality of the society that we’re in.  It’s almost nonexistent.  They got religion, they got civilization, they got military, they got politics, education.  They got all the stuff.  They don’t have the spirit to live.


“Crazy Horse, We Hear What You Say” is an essay that Trudell wrote, which was used as the introduction to Of Earth and Elders, by Serle L. Chapman, Mountain Press, Missoula, Montana, 2002.  It’s a clear and strong five page summary of his perception of reality.  Here are a few snips:

The coherency of our future depends upon us knowing who we are — and truly understanding who we are — because our relationship to reality and our relationship to power is based upon that understanding.  Today we live in an industrial society and this technological perception of reality, this shadow world, presents a serious crisis: it is a reality where we don’t remember who we are, so therefore we don’t know who we are, we speak a language we don’t understand and because of this, we don’t know where we are.  We are part of an evolutionary reality but part of the purpose of this technological civilization is to erase our memories and erase our identities.  <snip>

If we truly recognized who we are, this society we exist in and the way we live would be different.  We all live on a reservation now, an industrial reservation that stretches across the world, and the alienation you can find in extreme forms on an Indian reservation — the loneliness, alcoholism, drug abuse and violence — is being replicated more and more throughout industrial society.  <snip>

We all share a common collective experience: we are all the descendants of tribes.  Back in the time of the original dreams we were all members of tribes and we were all the earth’s children and we all knew that the earth was our mother.  We were part of a spiritual reality.  We were physical in a spiritual reality.  Whoever we are today, we carry the genetic experience of our lineage from the very beginning, encoded within our DNA.  It’s like our genetic memory and somewhere hidden in there we all come from a people that understood that we lived in a spiritual reality and because of that realization everyone of our beginning ancestral peoples understood that life was about responsibility; so we were responsible for the past and the future as well as the present.  So we knew who we were, we understood what we were saying, we knew where we were and we knew our purpose, and this reality lives in our genetic memories.  The purpose of technology is to erase our realities and make us powerless but ancestral power is real.  <snip>

The gift we’ve been given to protect ourselves as humans is our intelligence.  Our intelligence is our medicine.  We were not put here, defenseless, to be eaten up by this mining process.  This mining process takes place through our intelligence, so if we understand the value and power of our intelligence we can influence our evolution.


Rezamerica in the Shade of Blue — A Conversation With John Trudell by Ben Corbett.  This interview went extinct online.

Corbett:  And that means taking responsibility?

Trudell:  That’s exactly right.  That spiritual reality is based upon responsibility.  Religious realities are not spiritual.  The religious reality that exists in these technolgic industrial perceptions are not about responsibility, they’re about authoritarianism and guilt and sin and blame, domination and submission.  They’re not about responsibility.  Look at the situation and condition that the world is in and you can tell that they’re not about responsibility.  They accumulate wealth, they create their own authoritarian systems, they use their authoritarian systems and accumulated wealth to influence economic and political decisions that get made.  They use their resources, they use their authority and accumulated wealth to influence military decisions that get made.  Every behavior they have is really and truly not about responsibility.  <snip>

Corbett:  In other words, by being authoritarian, what you do is you take the responsibility away from the people and then the people feel there’s no need to take responsibility because somebody else is doing it for them?

Trudell:  Well they feel disconnected.  They don’t really know what the meaning of responsibility is.

Corbett:  Do you think that’s one of the biggest challenges facing the human race?

Trudell:  Yeah, actually I do.  It may be the biggest one.  Becoming reconnected to reality.  <snip>

Corbett:  What do you think it’s gonna mean for the future?

Trudell:  That’s still to be decided.  Because when we look at the non-native people here, remember they all came from tribes.  And the civilizing process took that memory away from them.  So it happened 3000 years ago.  Now we’ve been put into that same process, but we’ve been in it for 500 years.  So if we can keep our identity, our spiritual identity, if we can keep our identity as human beings, then we’ll be okay.  But if we can’t keep that identity, then we’ll go the way of the descendants of the tribes of Europe.  The future will be decided by what kind of coherency we pass to the next generation.  <snip>


This interview with WOJB’s Lori Townsend took place on February 28, 1998, before Trudell performed in concert in Kyle, South Dakota, part of the 25th Anniversary of Wounded Knee. 

Townsend:  I know that people have said, this is to commemorate a time of healing, from that time when there was a lot of division.  People were separated by the very nature of the struggle.  What have you seen in 25 years, as people come together, being able to heal from that time?

Trudell:  (laughs) That’s a hard one to answer.  I think we’ve learned more.  And I think that learning is the healing itself.  In pragmatic, practical terms, there are still personality differences and political differences that different individuals have.  So on one level, it doesn’t look like it’s been healed.  But on another level, we can all come back into one environment together and be together.  Whatever our opinions and attitudes are, they don’t get in the way of us all being together.  That’s like, there is some type of healing that has taken place.  But I’ve never really approached it myself so much from the healing aspect, as the survivor’s aspect.  Here’s who survived, here’s who still standing.

I look at it like that.  I think healing, in a way, is an individual process.  It has to happen in an individual before it can happen in a community.

Again, if we learn from our experiences, then we have more knowledge.  To me, that’s always essential to healing — knowledge and understanding.  Very essential.  But on the other hand, you can’t have real healing if one does not look within themselves and start that healing process.  <snip>

Townsend:  Well, how should people pick their battles now?  As you said, if you get too involved in politics, you become a politician.

Trudell:  I said you can get involved in politics, but you don’t have to be a politician.  It’s a mental thing.  People start working on political issues and then, at some point, they say, “I’m a political activist,” and that becomes their identity; that’s where the problem comes.

The question you started to ask, whatever it is that we have to do, how we’re going to approach it, I think we should think it out.  Look at it from every direction.  It’s almost as if we’re stepping out of our minds, out of ourselves, and looking at the whole thing, with us in it, as neutrally and as objectively as we can.  That way we’ll have some clarity to go after it as clearly as we can, rather than emotionally, or limited by these identities that we impose on ourselves around an issue.

It’s going to take clarity to see our way through these things, to the future that is coming.

It is in our best interest to use our intelligence intelligently.  But we don’t do that enough; 99.9 percent of us use our intelligence to manifest our fears, and our insecurities on a daily basis.  <snip>

Townsend:  What can be done?  It sounds too bleak.

Trudell:  I don’t look at it as bleak.  I think it’s best to recognize reality for what it is.

What did I say about the cannibals?  Let’s recognize that reality for what it is and the reality of who we are.  We have intelligence.  We have spirit.  We have the ability to think our way through this.  I think it’s more optimistic to see how dark it really is, and know what reality is, and then I won’t be fooling myself about what I must do.

Wouldn’t it be better to understand that if I’m going to do something, I’m not going to lie to myself about what I’m doing, whether it’s glorious or ugly.  I’m not going to fix it up, romanticize it, or make it clean.  If I’m doing it, I’m going to be as honest about it as I possibly can.  If I can’t live with it, then I stop.  If I lie to myself, then I’ll find ways to live with it and continue to do it.  That obstructs our clarity.

Always tell ourselves the truth.  Learn from mistakes.  Don’t judge ourselves.  We’re not in the judging business.  Trust our ability.  If we use our intelligence as coherently as we can, we will create the solutions.

If we go back in our history, our ancestral understanding, we always understood we had a purpose to be here.  That purpose is to take care of life the best we can.  What has changed is the harshness of the environment.  It was hard, not romantic back then.

The hard now is the predatory civilization that surrounds us.  Our ancestors trusted themselves, they respected themselves.  Pride today is the mask people hide behind when they feel no respect for themselves.

Trust ourselves.  Like ourselves.  I like myself.  I always don’t like what I do.  There is no collective solution without an individual solution.

The darkest thing I see for the future is all these people that are hoping and wishing and don’t want to see what’s coming.  That’s the darkness.  But they say they are bringing light and being optimistic, but to me these people are the ones bringing the darkness because they don’t want to deal with reality.  These are the ones who will perish.  These are the ones that will be fed upon and eaten up.

If one really thinks about it, we can romanticize being here before the white man came.  We were free, we could do what we wanted, we had responsibilities, but I tell you what, you see the storm we’re having right now.  It was hard surviving back then.  So this is just a different hard.  These cannibals are just a different hard.  But they can be dealt with.

I think if we really understand self-respect, we would look at this and say, “this is the challenge and I’m up to meeting it.”


Protecting the Earth — An interview with John Trudell by John Bowling, Earth First! Journal, May 1, 1998.  This interview went extinct online.

Bowling:  The new generation of EF! activists are arguing over whether or not nonviolence is the most expedient strategy for the movement.  People are discussing whether or not it would be appropriate right now to employ more self-defensive, possibly even violent means of defending the Earth.  What effects do you think that would have on the movement?

Trudell:  I think we need to have an understanding of what violence is because a great many people say they are against violence, yet they live off of the fruits of violence...  We live within systems that are violent.  We live in excess.  We are part of an excessive consuming society.  That’s the result of violence against the Earth…  The reality is that even though we say we are against violence, we still consume the products of violence against the Earth.  Anytime that we have more than we need, anytime that we live a life that we are consuming all we want, especially in the material sense, then we are perpetuating violence.

Bowling:  You’re familiar with Gandhi’s work and the civil rights movement.  What then is your opinion of Gandhian-style non-cooperation?

Trudell:  Gandhi was operating in a different situation than here.  So, I think that there are elements of what he was doing that work here.  But, what Gandhi did in India is not going to work here because this isn’t India.  We aren’t Gandhi.  But, I think lessons can be learned.  I think it is really about non-cooperation in the long run.

Say it became Earth First!’s objective, on behalf of the Earth, as a means of raising environmental awareness, to organize on one agreed upon day that we didn’t spend any money.  We went to work.  We did whatever else it is we do...  but we don’t spend any money.  Look on a national level and try to get 25 percent of the population to do it.  Everything we do violently or nonviolently is feeding into the economic system.  We’re attacking the issues but we’re not dealing with the reality of what’s behind the issues and that is the economic system.

Let’s say 25 percent of the population is involved...  That would add up to incredible number that would affect the daily economic reality...  You look at the economic system.  It is in such a fine line balance anyway.  If people would just one day say, “Hold on, I’m not going to consume,” then they would really understand what kind of power they have in this society, which goes way beyond the power of the vote.  I think it could be accomplished...  There doesn’t have to be any party line, no one idea that is prevalent other than protecting the Earth, standing fast with the Earth.  It’s a fast for her.  If somebody’s issue is the river or if somebody’s issue is the trees or if somebody’s issue is toxic waste, they can still talk those issues...  To me it goes into the area of non-cooperation.  It’s not about violence or nonviolence or obedience or civil disobedience.  We just won’t cooperate.


My first blog about Trudell was posted in 2013: HERE.  There are many videos of Trudell on YouTube.  His recordings are for sale at his website.

Monday, November 30, 2015

One-Straw Revolutionary

Long, long ago, hip folks in the Beatles era were jabbering about Masanobu Fukuoka’s book, The One-Straw Revolution.  It explained how he grew healthy food via natural farming, a low budget, low impact approach.  On his farm in Japan, Fukuoka was growing grain, fruit, and vegetables without plowing, cultivating, chemicals, compost, fertilizer, fossil energy, erosion, pruning, or regular weeding.  He farmed like this for more than 25 years, and his yields were comparable to those at conventional farms.

The Japanese edition of his book was published in 1975, at a time when oil shocks had spurred interest in energy efficiency.  When the English version was published in 1978, it was an international smash hit, and Fukuoka became a celebrity.  Larry Korn was the book’s translator.  He’s a California lad who worked on Fukuoka’s farm for more than two years.  Now, in 2015, Korn has published One-Straw Revolutionary, which is the subject of this review.  It describes Fukuoka the man, and his philosophy, with glowing praise.

Korn detests conventional industrial farming, because it has so many drawbacks.  A bit less troublesome is organic farming done on an industrial scale.  At the positive end of the spectrum, he sees Fukuoka’s natural farming as very close to the ideal, both environmentally and philosophically.  A bit less wonderful than natural farming are permaculture and old-fashioned small-scale organic farming.

The ideal is something like the California Indians that were fondly described in M. Kat Anderson’s book, Tending the Wild.  They were wild hunter-gatherers who included wild plant seeds in their diet.  They devoted special care to the wild plant species that were important to their way of life.  Most folks would consider this to be mindful foraging — tending, not farming.

These Indians did not till the soil, and were not warlike.  Nobody owned the land.  There were no masters or servants.  There was no market system or tax collectors.  They had a time-proven method for living, and this knowledge was carefully passed from generation to generation.  The Indians were wild, free, and living sustainably — in the original meaning of the word.  When the Spanish invaders arrived, they saw these Indians as lazy, because they worked so little.

Fukuoka, on the other hand, resided in a densely populated industrial civilization, which was eagerly adapting American style industrial agriculture.  While the Indians foraged in a healthy wild ecosystem, Fukuoka worked on an ecosystem that had been heavily altered by centuries of agriculture.  He raised domesticated plants and animals.  Fukuoka was experimenting with radically unconventional methods, and had no traditions or mentors to guide him.

He practiced natural farming on one acre (0.4 ha) of grain field, and ten acres (4 ha) devoted to a mix of fruit trees and vegetables.  When Korn arrived in 1974, Fukuoka was assisted by five apprentices, who were not at all lazy, and rarely had a day off.  Cash had to be generated to purchase necessities and pay taxes, so surplus food had to be produced.  Food shipped off to cities carried away phosphorus, potassium, and other minerals that never returned to the farm’s soil.  Thus, his natural farming was quite different from California tending.

On the plus side, Fukuoka’s experiment benefitted from rich soil and generous rainfall — especially during the growing season.  Vegetables could be grown year round in the mild climate, and two crops of grain could be harvested each year.  On the down side, few succeeded in duplicating his success, even in Japan.  It took years to get the operation working, requiring extra servings of intuition and good luck.  Korn warned, “In most parts of North America and the world the specific method Mr. Fukuoka uses would be impractical.” 

In the natural farming mindset, the strategy should not be guided by intellect; nature should run the show.  Fukuoka talked to plants, asking them for guidance.  When he planted the orchard, he added a mixture of 100 types of seeds to wet clay, made seed balls, and tossed the balls on the land.  Seeds included grains, vegetables, flowers, clover, shrubs, and trees.  Nature decided what thrived and what didn’t.  Within a few years, a jungle of dense growth sorted itself out.  But sometimes nature gave him a dope slap.  In the early days, Fukuoka allowed nature to manage an existing orchard, and he was horrified to watch 400 trees die from insects and disease.

My work focuses on ecological sustainability, at a time when the original meaning of sustainability has largely been abandoned, and replaced by sparkly marketing hype.  I go on full alert when I see “sustainable agriculture.”  In my book, What is Sustainable, I took a look at what Korn calls “indigenous agriculture,” which is often imagined to be sustainable.

California tending was far different from the intensive corn farming on the other side of the Rockies, which led to soil depletion, erosion, population growth, health problems, warfare, and temporary civilizations like Cahokia.  In his book Indians of North America, Harold E. Driver estimated that less than half of North America was inhabited by farmers, but 90 to 95 percent of Native Americans ate crop foods, indicating that farm country was densely populated.  In corn country, defensive palisades surrounded many villages.

In 2015, humankind is temporarily in extreme overshoot, as the cheap energy bubble glides toward its sunset years, and the climate change storms are moving in.  Obviously, feeding seven billion sustainably is impossible.  At the same time, highly unsustainable industrial farming cannot continue feeding billions indefinitely.  It’s essential that young folks have a good understanding of ecological sustainability, and our education system is doing a terrible job of informing them.

The California Indians provide an important example of a vital truth.  When voluntary self-restraint was used to keep population below carrying capacity, people could live sustainably in a wild ecosystem via nothing more complex than hunting and foraging.  They had no need for farming, with its many headaches, backaches, and heartaches.

Korn’s book got exciting near the end.  Farming was just one facet of Fukuoka’s dream.  As a young man, he attended an agriculture college, and then endured a dreary job as a plant inspector.  His mind overloaded, his health fell apart, and he nearly died.  In 1937, he had a beautiful vision, quit his job, and went back home to the farm. 

In his vision, he suddenly realized that all life was one, and sacred.  Nature was whole, healthy, and perfect — and nothing our ambitious intellects imagined could improve this harmonious unity in any way.  Humans do not exist in a realm outside of nature, no matter what our teachers tell us.  Heaven is where your feet are standing.

The world of 1937 was a filthy, crazy, overpopulated train wreck, and this was largely thanks to science, dogmas, and philosophies.  Intellect alienated us from our “big life” home.  Civilization had created a dysfunctional world that was far too complex.  The lives of most people were no longer intimately connected to the natural world.

In agriculture, the herd of experts insisted that plowing, pruning, cultivating, chemicals, and weeding were mandatory for success.  One after another, Fukuoka abandoned these required tasks, made some needed adjustments, and didn’t crash.  His farm got simpler and healthier.

No other animals harm themselves by pursuing science.  Fukuoka realized that people should be like birds.  “Birds don’t run around carefully preparing fields, planting seeds, and harvesting food.  They don’t create anything… they just receive what is there for them with a humble and grateful heart.”  Bingo!

How can we reorient to nature?  “For most of us, that process begins by unlearning most of the things we were taught when we were young.”  The healing process requires abandoning many, many beliefs and behaviors that our culture encourages.  We need to waste less, spend less, and earn less, take only what we need, and nothing more.  “Wearing simple clothing, eating simple food, and living a humble, ordinary life elevates the human spirit by bringing us closer to the source of life.”

Korn, Larry, One-Straw Revolutionary, Chelsea Green, White River Junction, Vermont, 2015.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Grizzly Years

Doug Peacock grew up in rural northern Michigan.  As a boy, he spent a lot of time alone outdoors, exploring the woods, swamps, and streams.  Later, he fell in love with the West, especially the Rockies.  He enjoyed fishing and rock climbing.  His plan was to become a geologist, so he could wander around in the great outdoors and get paid for it.  But one day he realized that his dream career would likely involve working for oil and mining companies, “whose rape of wild country repelled me.”  Sadly, he abandoned the plan, and volunteered for an exciting job with the U.S. government.

Peacock loved the central highlands of Vietnam.  It was a gorgeous region, inhabited by good people.  Then, the war spread there.  He was employed as a medic in the Green Berets, an elite combat unit.  His job was to provide first aid to injured soldiers and villagers, and the fighting kept him very busy.  He witnessed far too much senseless death, destruction, and suffering, far too many dead children.

By and by, he came down with a devastating case of war rage, which he has been struggling with for most of his life.  Back in American society, it was no longer possible to blend into the crowd, and feel at home.  He couldn’t talk to his family.  He spent a lot of time in the woods, trying to pickle his demons with cheap wine.  Finally, he bought a jeep, and headed west, to pursue two powerful medicines: solitude and wildness.

For American soldiers, Vietnam was not as safe and secure as strolling through a shopping mall.  There were tigers, vipers, snipers, booby traps, and Vietcong.  The odds for survival were boosted by good luck, common sense, being with experienced warriors, remaining as silent and invisible as possible, and maintaining a state of heightened awareness.  Survivors slept lightly, easily awakened by snapping twigs and other irregular sounds.  Survivors developed an acute sense of smell, because an odd whiff could warn of danger.  Survivors frequently stopped, looked, and listened.

Similar skills were useful when moving through grizzly bear country, where Peacock spent many post-war years.  Near the beginning of his wilderness quest, he hiked around a corner and discovered that a large brown grizzly was approaching, and it was not at all happy to see him.  The bear’s head was swinging back and forth, jaws gnashing, ears flattened, hair standing up on his hump — the ritual that precedes charging, mauling, and a bloody hot lunch.

Peacock slowly pulled out his large caliber handgun, had second thoughts, and lowered it.  His shooting days were over.  He was ready to die.  Something happened, the energy changed.  “The grizzly slowly turned away from me with grace and dignity and swung into the timber at the end of the meadow.”  It was a life-changing experience.  He became a grizzly tracker.  He acquired a movie camera and began filming them.  He did winter lecture tours, wrote about bears, and told his story in Grizzly Years.

Importantly, the book reminds us of a forgotten reality, living in wild country amidst man-eating predators — the normal everyday reality for our wild ancestors, whose genes we inherited.  Outside my window each morning, the blue jays stop by for a pumpkin seed breakfast.  Before they glide down from branch to porch, they look in every direction for winged predators and pussy cats.  They don’t live in a constant state of fear and paranoia, they simply live with prudent caution, look before leaping, and never do stupid things.

In grizzly country, Peacock stayed away from animal trails, and slept in concealed locations.  He tried to remain invisible and silent.  He tried to approach bears from downwind, so his scent would not alert them.  He spent years studying bear behavior, and the quirks of individual animals.  He was charged many times, but never mauled.  He learned how to behave properly during close encounters.  Never run, climb trees, make loud noises, move suddenly, or look weak and fearful.  Instead, act dignified, and display peaceful intentions without appearing docile.  Calmly talk to the bear, while keeping your head turned to the side.

Peacock’s tales are precious, because they encourage readers to imagine wilderness as their true home, and to contemplate the normal everyday tactics used by our wild ancestors to avoid being eaten.  Grizzly country was one place where humans were not the dominant critter.  The bears could kill you and eat you whenever they wished.  This ongoing possibility freed Peacock from wasting hour after hour in self-indulgence — thinking, analyzing, daydreaming.  It demanded that he always pay acute attention to the here and now.

Americans expect wilderness to be as safe as a mall.  We don’t want to be killed and eaten when visiting a national park, yet parks foolishly build trails and campgrounds in high-risk locations.  If a hiker is mauled, bears are killed.  Now, if a cat kills a blue jay, we don’t kill the cat.  In automobile country, the streets are lined with busy enterprises selling chunks of dead animals.  So, why are government bureaucrats so uptight about what God-fearing American bears choose to have for dinner in the privacy of their own homes?  Why do delicious primates from Chicago expect to be safe in grizzly country?

I’ve never seen a “Save the Grizzlies” bumper sticker.  To maintain a pleasant Disneyland experience, and avoid lawsuits, the Park Service kills aggressive bears, and bears that beg for snacks.  Backcountry outfitters kill them.  Ranchers kill them.  Violators get light punishment from judges in redneck country.  Bear numbers are in decline, and this infuriates Peacock.

In Vietnam, he had a ringside seat at a contest between a full-blown industrial civilization and a society that practiced muscle-powered subsistence farming.  He witnessed the indiscriminant massacre of countless innocent villagers and children.  Back in the U.S., he saw that the same monster was obliterating western ecosystems, from mines in the Rockies, to developers in Tucson.  He had escaped from the Vietnam War, but there was no escape from the American war on America, where “greedy scumsuckers” were raping and desecrating “the last refuge of sanity on the planet.”

Peacock wasn’t the only Vietnam vet with war rage who found sanctuary in the mountains.  Other vets were equally pissed at the scumsuckers.  They had lost many friends while defending the freedom and democracy of God’s most cherished nation.  And so, in those mountains, angry American vets defended the sacred American ecosystem against the atrocities of the “syphilization” they had been trained to serve.  When loggers built bridges that had not been authorized by the angry vets, the bridges were mysteriously demolished.  So were helicopters used for oil exploration.

Peacock did not become a corporate geologist, and spend the rest of his life shopping with the herd.  It was a great gift to live so many years outside the walls.  He was able to observe the insane monster that lurks behind the cartoonish façade of the American Dream, and he was able to explain the horrors that so many folks inside the walls were unable to see, feel, or imagine.  In wild country, Peacock was careful to never be seen, or reveal his plans.  “If I got into serious trouble, I didn’t want to be rescued.  My considerable carcass could feed the bears.”

Lots of additional information can be found at his website.  He’s also the star of numerous YouTube lectures and interviews.

Peacock, Doug, Grizzly Years — In Search of the American Wilderness, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2011.  [Originally 1990]

Friday, November 13, 2015


The following is a rough draft of the introduction to my third book.

Welcome to Understanding Sustainability!  On the following pages, you will find reviews of books that explore many facets of ecological sustainability, an extremely important subject that remains largely unknown in our society.  You will meet authors with gifts for thinking outside the box, writers who can give us keys to treasure chests of vital knowledge.  It’s sad to wreck the ecosystem for no good reason — or any reason at all.  It’s especially sad that the masterminds of the great demolition are among the world’s “best-educated” people, and they have countless “well-educated” collaborators.

In its original meaning, a sustainable way of life is one that can continue for millennia without causing permanent degradation to the ecosystem.  All animals have succeeded at living in this manner, and they have done so for millions of years.  They can satisfy their essential needs (food and shelter) without damaging the community of life, a precious skill.

But one species has spawned several billion smarty-pants renegades who have stumbled far from the path of balance.  This outlaw society is zooming into deep trouble, and it barely understands why.  If we understood why, there is a fair chance that we would behave in a manner that was less destructive.  There is a fair chance that we would abandon myths that hobble our ability to think clearly and live responsibly.

Outlaw society is heavily addicted to extracting nonrenewable resources, like coal, oil, gas, metals, phosphates, potash, and on and on.  The reserves of these resources are diminishing every day, while the cost of extracting them increases.  Obviously, this approach can only operate temporarily.  It has an expiration date, a point at which the goodies are depleted, the bubble bursts, and the machine melts down.  No other animals suffer from addiction to nonrenewable resources, because they continue to live in their traditional manner.  They did not get lost.

Outlaw society is also heavily addicted to depleting renewable resources at rates faster than nature can replenish them.  We’re exterminating forests, mass murdering fish, destroying topsoil, draining aquifers, and pumping rivers dry.  This is also a dead end.  Other animals don’t mutilate the ecosystem.

Outlaw society generates many wastes and emissions at levels far beyond the ecosystem’s ability to harmlessly absorb them, and this is causing serious irreparable damage — melting icecaps, acidic seawater, coastal dead zones.  No wild animal has basic needs that require high-impact amusements like automobiles, computers, or electricity — these are “wants” not “needs,” and we don’t need wants.  Needs are basic and simple, wants include everything money can buy.

Most of humankind is in overshoot, because our population and way of life far exceeds the long-term carrying capacity of Earth’s ecosystem.  Every day, the planet’s carrying capacity shrinks, as the ongoing ecological wreckage accumulates, and this worsens the overshoot.  Nature has a low tolerance for overshoot, and outlaw society is too lost to comprehend why it’s swirling the drain.  Luckily, there are effective cures for ignorance, and they are most often found outside the walls of the outlaw culture.

In the following pages, you will not find The Solution.  Only problems have solutions — sleepiness is a problem that can be solved by taking a nap.  Predicaments, on the other hand, cannot be effectively eliminated by solutions.  There are no rituals, medicines, or gizmos for undoing climate change, or inspiring educators to abandon their diabolical obsession with perpetual growth.  We are way over our heads in predicaments. 

Every civilization collapses, and ours will too, one way or another, suddenly or gradually.  This is perfectly normal.  Industrial civilization was designed to grow like crazy, flame out, and collapse.  And we were thoroughly trained to devote our lives to it, so don’t be embarrassed, be annoyed.  The consumer way of life was a grand adventure in soul-killing foolishness.  The squirrels in the tree outside my window are so much healthier and happier.  They live in the here and now, satisfying their needs, playing with great enthusiasm, celebrating the perfection of creation.

Now, if these yucky ideas make you twitch and squirm, there is an effective distraction — magical thinking!  The well-educated wizards of outlaw society have a thrilling answer for everything — sustainable growth, sustainable fish mining, sustainable soil mining, sustainable forest mining, and on and on.  I call this ersatz sustainability, a murky elixir of snake oil loaded with mind-numbing intoxicants.  We see and hear the word sustainable many times each day, and this is what it usually refers to.  Sustainability can be anything we want it to be!  If we call something “sustainable” enough times, then it is!  Whee!

The devious wizards are giddy with joy, because humankind has finally completed the long and difficult journey to Utopia.  This is it!  We are the luckiest generation of all!  Wild predators no longer devour our friends and relatives.  Pandemic disease and world wars are ancient history.  More and more babies survive to maturity and reproduce.  Natural selection no longer weeds out the weaklings and mutants, because science has rendered evolution obsolete.  We’re working hard on a cure for death.

A growing population is wonderful, because it allows more and more to enjoy the Utopian delights.  Feeding ten billion will be no problem, thanks to science and technology.  Eliminating climate change will be a piece of cake.  The transition from fossil energy to renewable energy will be smooth and painless.  Ingenious innovation will make all the bad stuff go away, and we’ll all be able to continue enjoying a wondrous high tech lifestyle without any major sacrifices.  Electric cars, green energy, and all the latest gadgets can now be made from sustainable fairy dust and good vibes.  Utopia is awesome.

The Sustainable Development cult has billions of converts.  Its holy mission is to keep industrial civilization on life support for as long as possible, at any cost, and leave the bills for the kids.  It’s about enduring jobs you don’t like, to buy stuff you don’t need, to impress people you don’t respect.  It’s about living as if we are the last generation, without a thought for those who come after us.  It’s a sustainable suicide cult. 

Nobody reading these pages in 2015 will experience humankind’s return to genuine sustainability.  Healing will take centuries, and success is not guaranteed.  Luck is fickle.  Our closest living relatives, chimps and bonobos, share about 99 percent of our genes.  Their ancestors have lived in the same place for two million years without trashing it.  They did not get lost.

Humans strayed onto a very different path, and the way that most of us now live is the opposite of sustainable.  Yet every day we are bombarded by grand proclamations of ersatz sustainability, thundering geysers of bull excrement.  My mission here is to provide intelligent pilgrims with tools that increase their ability to recognize the difference between ecological sustainability and ersatz sustainability.  Where we belong is so far from where we are. 

It is deeply troubling to contemplate the staggering implications of ecological sustainability, because they blow the fundamental illusions of our culture to smithereens.  We are indeed animals, and we are indeed living in an unbelievably harmful manner.  Should we think about this?  Should we talk about this?  What should we do?  Well-fed minds and clear thinking are vital.

The reviews in Understanding Sustainability will introduce you to dozens of books that might be of interest.  Reviews only provide hints of the contents.  They are never a substitute for reading the full work.  Authors that intrigue you may have written other books or essays.  They may be the stars of online videos.  Critical thinking is essential for any adventure in learning.  I do not agree with every idea in every book reviewed here.

Understanding Sustainability is a companion to my previous book, Sustainable or Bust, another collection of book reviews.  Both supplement my first book, What is Sustainable, an introduction to environmental history and good old fashioned fundamentalist sustainability.  If you like one, you’ll like them all.