I have just finished reading one of the most important books I’ve ever come across, Holistic Management by Allan Savory.
Savory is a wildlife biologist, farmer, and cofounder of the Savory Institute, an organization that teaches and supports regenerative land management. I read the book because I admire Allan Savory’s lifetime commitment to understanding the delicate complexity of our environment. He has successfully restored ecosystems and land on several continents using animals. His work, and the work of others like him, can restore and revive our planet, if we can muster the political will and willingness to give up some of our cherished and destructive ideas about how to manage land and animals.
Savory is an enormously important teacher for farmers. I became familiar with his work because of my interest in permaculture. This particular book, however, is a blueprint for managing any complex system, not just a farm.
I’m a great planner, goal-setter, and list-maker, but I’ve never seen any decision-making or management process like this, and as I read the book I marveled at how intuitively right it feels. Policies and standard operating procedures are so often inadequate, not enforceable, and ineffective, in spite of hours and hours of committee work and good intentions. This book explains why.
I picked up the book around the same time I was deciding to get more proactive with my writing. I recognize that I need a plan, but feel overwhelmed by all the moving parts and how to use my time and other resources effectively. What about work-life balance? I do, after all, have a job. What should my priorities be? How much time will I need for each aspect of writing? What about money?
As I read Holistic Management, I took copious notes. I could see that Savory’s framework for decision making was more complete than any I’d seen before, and specifically suited to complexity.
After finishing the book, I created a document using Savory’s model. Now comes the hard part. I need to apply his bare outlines to my own situation. It occurred to me that might be an interesting process to make visible, as this is a kind of decision-making most of us have never seen before, and who doesn’t have something to manage, a household, a family, a business, finances, a life?
The first step is figuring out the whole under management. Right away, we’re in new territory, because Savory realizes that any system is not a series of separate boxes, but a dynamic, nonlinear, and complex series of overlapping wholes containing people and resources, including the land on which the system exists. No matter what we’re trying to manage, the land will be part of the whole under management. Water cycles, mineral cycles, soil, animals and plants sustain every human activity, and creating management plans without acknowledging that truth has led us to climate change, catastrophic pollution, diminishing resources, and the destruction of billions of acres of land around the world.
Holistic management of anything must take into account the effects of our choices on the environment.
The whole under management includes decision makers, physical resources, people as resources, and financial resources. I’m the decision maker for my writing plan. For physical resources, I listed our 26 acres and the buildings on it, as well as the soil, water, plants and trees. I added technology to that list as well. For people as resources I listed friends, family, my partner, a professional support team, my community, and readers.
It didn’t occur to me until later to add myself as a resource. Typical!
Financial resources include money earned, inherited, borrowed, or dollars generated from my resource base, that is dollars earned from writing or the land under my management.
Working with the concept of wholes under management provides a new frame for decision-making that depends (surprise, surprise) on the recognition that effective planning means sharing power. When we approach management from the position of power-over others, including natural resources, we have failed to create a successful, sustainable policy or plan before we’ve even begun. Any system that ignores the needs of any part of the whole is doomed to failure, maybe not in the short term, but certainly in the long term.
This is particularly true in the context of relationships, as in a family or community. If we feel disempowered, our investment, loyalty, trust, and level of participation all diminish. We may, for a while, choose to comply with whatever it is the Grand Poobah at the top (power-over) demands, but sooner or later that system will fail and the Grand Poobah will fall. Unfortunately, this kind of pattern is hugely expensive in terms of lives, health, and resource.
Savory’s holistic management model is specific, complex, and requires time. The very first step – identifying the whole under management – can’t be speeded through. If we get that piece wrong, everything that comes after will be flawed. If we can’t define all the moving parts, we’ll never be able to figure out how to support them in working together, and we won’t notice or respond appropriately when things go sideways. And things always go sideways somewhere, at some time.
Defining the whole we are trying to manage forces us to step back and look objectively at our situation. Are we being too reductionistic in our view? Are we appropriately addressing the complexity of the entire system we want to manage? On the other hand, are we trying to manage aspects of a situation that are not ours to manage? Are we taking on, or allowing others to force us into, responsibility for parts of the whole that are not rightfully ours?
Take it from an experienced people pleaser. Trying to manage an interpersonal situation we’ve been coerced into, even if our intentions are the best in the world, is doomed to painful failure. Most people don’t want to be managed, even if they say they do. If we can’t get decision makers and human resources on the same page, our policies and plans will always dissolve. In such a case, perhaps the whole needs to be redefined and refocused on where our power rightfully lies.
I worked with Holistic Management a chapter at a time, and now I’m filling in the decision-making framework a piece at a time, feeling my way into mastery of this amazing new tool.
As I think about the whole(s) I want to manage in my life, I watch patterns and interactions in my workplace, the push-pull of politics as President Biden takes power after the disastrous last four years, and the ways I interact with my partner. All are complicated systems encompassing overlapping wholes. I’m looking at life through a new lens.
Identifying the whole in holistic management planning. My daily crime.
I went to the dentist last week. I spent the usual hour with the hygienist and then the dentist breezed in to give me four or five minutes of exam, comment, teaching and friendly conversation. Thankfully, I don’t require more than this, as my teeth are in excellent shape. In the course of those few minutes, I used the term “permaculture,” and he asked me what it was. I gave him a brief answer, and on the way out the hygienist said I had a “high dental IQ.”
“She has a high IQ, period,” he responded as he left.
I almost got out of the chair and went after him to explain that I’m the dumb one in the family, and certainly don’t have a high IQ.
As I’ve gone about life since then, I’ve thought a lot about that interaction. I’ve also been feeling massively irritated, isolated and discouraged. This morning I woke out of a dream of being in a closet groping for my gun, my knife, even my Leatherman, absolutely incandescent with rage, because a man outside of the closet was having a dramatic and violent meltdown, intimidating everyone present because of something I’d said or done that he didn’t like.
I wasn’t intimidated. I was royally pissed off.
When I had my weapons assembled, I stormed out of the closet and came face-to-face with a clearly frightened woman who was wringing her hands and making excuses for the behavior of the yelling man. I screamed into her face that he could take his (blanking) opinions and shove them up his (blanking blank) and unsheathed my knife, not because of her, because of HIM.
I woke abruptly at that point and thought, I’m not depressed, I’m MAD!
Photo by Nicole Mason on Unsplash
While I showered and cooked breakfast I sifted through IQ and conformity and cultural and family rules, economic success and failure, work, invalidation and silencing and keeping myself small . I thought of how pressured I’ve always felt to toe the line, be blindly obedient, follow the rules, ask no questions and be normal. Normal, as in compliant, and refraining from challenging the multitude of life’s standard operating procedures that “everyone knows.” Normal, as in not daring to resist, persist, poke, peel away, uncover. Normal, as in never, NEVER expressing curiosity, a thought, an experience, a feeling or an opinion that might make someone uncomfortable. Normal, as in never admitting that the way we’re supposed to do things doesn’t always work for me, and frequently doesn’t appear to work for others, either. I slammed around the kitchen, turning all this over in my mind, letting the bacon burn, and finally pounced on a keystone piece to write about.
What does it mean to be smart? Why do I feel like a lying imposter when someone makes a casual comment about my IQ? Why is IQ even a thing? Why does so much of my experience consist of “sit down and shut up!”?
Intelligence is defined on an Internet search as “the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills.” Please note the absence of any kind of test score in that definition. Likewise, there’s no mention of economic status, educational status or social status. Also, this definition says nothing about intelligence as a prerequisite for being a decent human being.
The definition takes me back to the playing field in which I wrote last week’s post on work. Here again we have a simple definition for a word that’s positively staggering under assumptions and connotations.
Fine, then. I’ve explored what work means to me. What does intelligence mean to me?
Intelligence means the ability to learn, unlearn and relearn. Good learners do not sit down and shut up. We question, and we go on questioning until we’re satisfied with answers. We try things, make hideous mistakes, think about what went wrong and apply what we learned. We don’t do the same thing over and over and expect a different result. We exercise curiosity and imagination. We pay attention to what others say and do and how it all works out. We pay attention to how we feel and practice telling ourselves the truth about our experience. After a lot of years and scar tissue, we learn to doubt not only our own assertions, beliefs and stories, but everyone else’s as well. We practice being wrong. We become experts in flexible thinking. We adapt to new information.
Intelligence endures criticism, judgement, abuse, taunts, threats, denial and contempt. It’s often punished, invalidated and invisible. Intelligence takes courage.
Photo by Cristina Gottardi on Unsplash
Intelligence is power. It does not sit at the feet of any person, ideology, rule or authority and blindly worship. It retains the right to find out for itself, feel and express its own experience, define its own success, speak its truth in its own unique voice, and it remembers that each of us is limited to one and only one viewpoint in a world of billions of other people.
Intelligence is discerning the difference between the smell of my own shit and someone else’s.
For me, intelligence is a daily practice. It’s messy and disordered and fraught with feeling. It means that everything is an opportunity to learn something new. Everything is something to explore in my writing.
I have no idea what my IQ is, and I don’t much care. I’m sick and tired of all the family baggage I’ve carried around about who’s smart and who isn’t and how we all compare. Honestly. What am I, 10 years old? Enough, already.
I’m also fed up with being silenced, and in fact I’ve already refused to comply with that, as evidenced by this blog. I understand a lot of people don’t want to deal with uncomfortable questions. Too bad. Those folks are not going to be readers. It’s not my job to produce sugar-coated bullshit that can’t possibly threaten or disturb anyone.
So there it is. The practice of intelligence. My daily crime.
My partner and I have hired a permaculture group called the Resilience Hub out of Portland, Maine, to collaborate with us in the development of a 30-year plan for our 26 acres.
Photo by Gabriel Jimenez on Unsplash
Permaculture, for those of you who didn’t follow the above link, is “the development of agricultural ecosystems intended to be sustainable and self-sufficient.” In other words, it’s a holistic management plan that includes plants, animals (insects, birds and reptiles), people, water and land. The land we live on consists of wetland, a river, a pond, a year-round daylight spring, streams, fields and woodland.
That’s what we tell people, anyway. I’m beginning to understand what permaculture really means to me, though, is a commitment to love.
I’m interested to discover that I’ve achieved the ripe old age of 53 and discarded nearly my entire definition of love after two marriages, two long-term non-marriage relationships and raising two children. At this point I know a lot more about what love isn’t than what it is.
Here’s my current working definition: A relationship revolving around what we want others to be is not love. A relationship revolving around the question “Who are you?” is love. Notice that sex is not part of the definition. I’m talking about love in the wide sense here, the act of loving another human being, independent of legal or blood ties. For me, this is also the root of self-love. Do we endlessly tell ourselves what we should, must, and have a responsibility to be, or do we allow ourselves to discover who we in fact are?
Creating a permaculture plan for this piece of land is a deliberate and intentional journey into what the land and the life it sustains is, as well as what we are as individuals and as partners. From our most private thoughts and beliefs to the boundary of the 26 acres we live on, we become note takers and observers. We practice surrender and acceptance. We listen and watch with curiosity and attention. We are present every day with ourselves, one another, and the land. We don’t think about imposing our will. We think about collaboration and cooperation, weaknesses and strengths, effectiveness and healing.
The consent to see and be seen is a profound and intimate expression of love rippling from the inside outward. We are not intruders here. We inhabit this land and want to protect and preserve it. The porcupine living in the barn cellar, the owls down by the river, the phoebes nesting in the barn, the passing bear who wiped out our suet feeder, are not intruders, either. The poison ivy, stinging nettle, ticks and mosquitos live here. The snapping turtles in the river and the leeches in the pond call this place home, just as we do. Permaculture is a peace treaty, the practice of appreciation for the variety and complexity of life around us, and the humility to admit much of its elegant mystery is beyond our knowledge or understanding.
Photo by Takahiro Sakamoto on Unsplash
As I walk these acres, alone, with my partner or in a group with the Resilience Hub, I’m learning the land as I would learn a beloved one’s body. I’m noticing the animal trails that wander from field to forest to river, lines and wrinkles of use tracing their way along the contours and folds of the land, suggesting where we, too, might make a path, a place to pause, a spiritual resting place.
I map old stone walls like the delicate sculpture of a spine, huge mossy boulders and landmark trees, learning the texture and landscape of this place. I wander in the thin-skinned places where old bones of ancient glacial esker are revealed. I think about bird nesting boxes, bee and pollinator boxes and honeybee hives.
Over the years, my partner has discovered all the delicate veins of water, daylight and underground, seasonal and year round, the lifeblood of the land. Thick forest hides damp, humid hollows and shallow bowls where the leaf-dappled air is filled with mosquitoes and the turkey and grouse hide. The grassy hair on the open slopes and fields is twined, in this season, with black-eyed susan, purple vetch, queen Anne’s lace, wild pinks, blooming milkweed, and red clover.
The land shows us where wildflowers thrive, and which type decorate which season. It demonstrates where water runs, so we know exactly where to position a well. The trees inform us of water availability, drought, crowding, disease and age. The raptors flying over us, hunting, help us know where raptor roosts would be welcome in order to protect the woody agriculture we think of introducing against rodent damage.
As we wander this terrain, we look for nothing and try to see everything. This is how the sun falls during each month of the year. This is where the field floods when the river ice dams thaw in the spring. This is where the doe that was hit on the road lay down and died. This is the special spot where I come, early in the morning, to sit by the river and be alive. This is where the wind strokes the exposed slope, and this is where the trees shelter a small clearing that catches the sun. This is the place where a bittern pounced like a cat on some small rodent by the pond one morning. Here the snow drifts, and here it lies late in the season as the bluets bloom in the boggy field. Here was the old fox den.
Trees topple, decay into humus where fungus thrives and new trees reach for the sun. The land stretches, sheds, sloughs away and reconfigures. Species populations rise and fall. We aspire to that resilience and sustainability. We aspire to the harmony and complexity innate in the landscape around us. We don’t want more than we need to eat, to live, to love. We don’t want to be well-groomed, civilized, obedient and sterilized. We want to root the rest of our lives in the color and scent and texture of the primordial wisdom of life and death as naturally and unapologetically as the raven, the fern or the tree.
Who am I? Who is my partner? What is this land? I believe these are the questions that open the way to true love; to sustainability; to reciprocity, respect and surrender. As long as we ask and cherish these questions and receive and cherish the answers, hour by hour, day by day, season by season, cycle by cycle, love endures.
This is a third post in a series in which I’ve questioned the relationship between American dietary standards and health and written about my own personal journey with diet. This week I want to focus on some of the ideology embedded in diet and food production.
In the first post, I briefly mentioned vegan bullying. Because of the way we choose to eat, my partner and I spend some time in digital conversations about food. I’ve been amazed about the amount of hostility and hatefulness directed towards people who choose to produce, harvest and/or eat meat.
Photo by Agence Producteurs Locaux Damien Kühn on Unsplash
All people need to eat in order to live. That’s a given. I believe most individuals want to be able to feed themselves and their families with high quality, healthy food. Sadly, because we live in a capitalist and consumer culture, this basic need is hugely impacted by financial, political, social and geographical variables. Additionally, diet is inextricably entwined in the religious and spiritual framework of many people.
Just this short list of factors make the basic necessity of putting food in our mouths complicated. Obesity and other eating disorders, as well as food-related diseases and health issues (which may be to say all diseases and health issues) reflect that.
Add to that a small but vocal group of people who take it upon themselves to judge, criticize, bully, shame and threaten others about their diet, and we’ve got a mess.
Now, there are all kinds of stated reasons why some people think they have a right to mandate what and how we all should eat. Some folks claim to be animal rights activists. Some talk about guilt, as in “What do you do about your guilt about eating the flesh of a dead animal?” Others say cows are killing the planet.
The list goes on. You get the idea.
I’m not a science teacher and this blog is not about handing out an academic education, but the cows killing the planet thing belongs under the heading of alternative facts. It simply isn’t true, and a brief survey of science-based permaculture, climate change and basic biologic history demonstrates that. Properly managed, the presence of animals is essential to healing the planet. Believe it or don’t believe it, but for me this is nonsense and I’m not interested in debating it.
The animal rights activism excuse really gets under my skin. First of all, equating eating meat with hating animals is first grade level reasoning. The world is filled with hunters who deeply respect and love the land and the animals they hunt and harvest. They show that respect by protecting the health of wildlife and wild land, doing their best to get a clean and efficient kill shot, using all of the animal they kill and supporting sustainable hunting practices. Of course, there are plenty of the other kind out there, lots of idiot trophy hunters and poachers who need a rack or a pelt in order to feel powerful. I don’t deny it. What I do say is that hunters are like everyone else—some are respectful and see themselves as part of the system we inhabit, and others operate strictly from power-over and see themselves as masters of the universe.
Photo by Greg Ortega on Unsplash
This also holds true for food producers. A small family farm that hand raises meat with love, affection, attention, rotational grazing on healthy land and a good natural diet is a beautiful place. These people love their animals and the land. They also slaughter, butcher and eat their animals. They participate in, understand and respect every part of the cycle, from breeding to table.
To equate something like that with the nightmare of some modern mass meat production is simply ridiculous. If you want to see cruelty to animals, all you have to do is whisper “profit” into the ear of a corporation. Big Oil, the cosmetic industry and the fashion industry are just a short list of entities who have done plenty to destroy animals and habitat, and most people don’t care.
Incidentally, I’ve spent much of my life involved with animal rescue. I’m proud to say that my mother is one of the most talented people I’ve ever met or heard of with animals and she’s largely given her life to making the world a better place for them, particularly horses and dogs, but by no means exclusively. This has all been volunteer work, done out of respect and love for the life in the world that can’t fight or speak for itself. She doesn’t see herself as better than. She sees herself as part of. The animals honor her with their presence and companionship, not the other way around.
So, yes, I eat meat with great enjoyment, AND yes, I love animals. I’m not limited by an inability to dwell in the sacred and powerful duality of life and death.
Bigger than all of this, however, is the guilt aspect, the real heart of this post. A vegan asks, “What do you do with your guilt about eating dead animals?”
For me, this question is much bigger than an issue of diet. The question reflects just how far we’ve strayed from wisdom, health and sanity in this culture.
When did we become amputated from our rightful place in the complex, miraculous web of life around us? What are the roots of the tragic and fatal arrogance that makes us believe we’re in control of life and death in our complex system? At what point did we become estranged from aging, loss, death and decay, which is to say HALF the full, powerful cycle of life?
Life is death. Death is life. Neither has meaning without the other. Both are essential. All life feeds on death. When we walk in the forest we’re walking on death. The whole natural world is based on prey and predator, eaten and eater. What does a tree do about its guilt as it feeds off and roots in the bodies of its companions? What does an eagle do with its guilt when it takes a salmon? What does a lion do with its guilt when it runs down a gazelle?
The guilt in that question is a projection. I don’t have any guilt about eating meat, and I think it’s tragic that anyone has guilt about the necessity to eat. If you pull up a carrot and eat it, you kill it. Every bite of food we put in our mouths is possible because of death. We exist as part of a vital, dynamic and inestimably beautiful and precious system that ebbs and flows, dances, fluctuates, cycles and revolves around life and death. We can choose to act as a unique and valuable part of that system by using only what we need, nurturing and learning from the life around us, and joyfully participating in all the ongoing life-death-life-death cycles around and within us, or we can choose to deny, destroy, and/or desperately try to control life and death, which is a completely fruitless (no pun intended) endeavor. We, thank God, are not that powerful.
The seasons will cycle. New life will be born in the midst of death. The green world will reseed itself, sprout, grow, bloom, fruit and die. The microscopic world and fungi will continue to break death into a rich placenta that sustains the next generation of life. Life is an incredible privilege. Death is part of that privilege. Nurturing life and allowing to die what must is part of what it means to me to be a woman.
I don’t know what’s going to happen to my country, the climate, or the planet. I’m afraid for us all, and the world we call home. What I do count on is the mighty cycle of life and death. All things change. All things move and flow. Nothing ever stays the same. All our fear and desperation, our greed and selfishness can’t change life and death.
Photo by Andrea Tummons on Unsplash
What I can do is figure out how to best support my body with food. Then, I can make choices about how I procure the food I eat—to some degree. I don’t have the means right now to grow my own meat. However, I can and do buy eggs from a neighbor farmer, driving very carefully into the yard so as not to run over her free-range chickens and ducks. I can take the time to relish and appreciate opening a many-times recycled egg carton and looking at a whole variety of shaped, sized and colored eggs, mixed with occasional bits of straw and feather fluff. I can save money so I can buy a half an animal in the fall from a local small farmer to put in the freezer. I can buy fresh local yogurt, butter, cream and cheese from the farmer’s market.
It seems to me our energy should be going into making sure everyone has adequate food and clean water, and that we treat our food sources, whether animal or plant, and the system within which they grow (you know, the planet? Earth?) with love, intelligence and respect. We all can do something about food. Those among us who are doing the hard and unprofitable (financially) work of growing food on small farms may well hold the keys to our future survival. What they know about permaculture, holistic environments, food forests, sustainability, breeding, planting, harvesting and slaughtering is truly the wisdom of life.