Non-Urban Hedonism

I say it all the time. In the face of the Anthropocene and all of the  related positive feedback loops contributing to it, fear is the most useless of emotions to evoke.  Fear is a perfect tool if you lack sophistication in your language of optimism.  But I scoff at the attempts to mobilize a culture who is already gripped in fear, with more of it.

In my mind’s eye the future isn’t dictated by fear, it is draped in sensual bliss.  Those who I follow, and who follow me believe in something way beyond fear, and way beyond sacrifice.  I don’t have to sacrifice to reach self-actualization, I just have to design the easier route during a sit down with wild fermented cider and Connecticut grown hash.

The Designer is the Recliner

I live by this, the prospect that through mind calories we can offset body calories, never to waste them again.  Clearly it dovetails from a powerful myth in the dominant culture of the U.S., which, in fact, is a myth that by proxy exists for the whole world to be enraptured.  The myth of progress holds out hope that leisure will come for those who work hard now, because technology will liberate us from the drudgery.

Ironically, when there are people out there who aren’t working, they become vilified in the eyes of those who are employed.  In fact they are living out the myth of progress as advertised…less work!  Those damned parasites, who take my taxes and use them to do a lot of stuff I don’t like.

The myths are powerful but go both ways, as an individual I need to make the myths work for me, not the other way around.  It is possible that I can design a life that requires less work from me, but that takes work.  The designer is the recliner only through diligence, just like progress only comes when you aggressively seek it out and use it.  Work is always necessary, but it doesn’t have to be drudgery, it can be transformative.

The Non-Urban

Rural and suburban land use areas of the United States perceptually lack the cultural amenities that cities provide.  It is probably a simple factor of population density and the creative power of many people in a smaller amount of space.  However, the internet makes it possible for anyone, regardless of location, to be in the know of all bleeding-edge cultural manufacturings.

The delicious and nutritious organic produce flows from upstate New York into NYC via farm shares.  It flows from western CT to New Haven and Hartford.  The city market demands the best organic food stuffs from the countryside.  The hedonism of the Urban is well known, but what about the hedonism of the Non-Urban?  What kinds of pleasures exist fundamentally within the Non-Urban, and what kinds flow from the cities to the mind of the Non-Urban citizenry?

I’m a Hedonist

I’ll admit I’m a foodie, which means by extension I am also a braggart. And how could I not be?  I don’t just make pasta sauce, I make it exclusively from Striped German tomatoes for a unique and sweet tasting product.  My cold remedy for the winter is 4 quarts of wild elderberry cooked down into a single ball jar with raw honey, cloves, and ginger. A 15 minute drive brings me the best raw milk in the state, not to mention the yogurt and butter than comes from the same source. As I throw the butter onto a pan over medium heat it releases a cadre of floral notes, which totally changed the way I looked at butter from the first experience I had with those scents.

This is daily.  For me, it’s not out of the ordinary to be high, it is my default state.  I am stimulating my senses all the time, the sights that will cause my emotions to react positively, the smells that release dopamine in my brain and gut, the tastes that cause my eyes to close and my chest to resonate with a pleasant vibration known as mmmm.  You don’t have to be rich to be a hedonist, you just need to be conscious that it is a function of design.

I am a Hedonist?

So what is hedonism to me? I tend to make these definitions up and use them to suit my own interests. I have little use for a hedonism that views pleasure as the highest good. Pleasure is easily reduceable, but hedonism is truly a holistic venture.  Pleasure does not exist within a vacuum, and my pleasure frequently depends on the source.

Take the Striped German pasta sauce for example.  The pleasure on the surface comes from the taste.  The taste is pleasure at its most reduced. But there are many more interactions between me and the sauce beyond the taste. I know that the tomatoes were grown in good soil, I know the people who took care of the plants, I prepared and spent hours cooking the tomatoes myself. Many associations are created with my first taste of this sauce. The music I play while I work pleases me, the memories I have with those who grew the tomatoes please me, the smell and the food storage potential of the sauce please me as well.

Now, the above paragraph is a horse that has been beaten to death countless times.  I truly cannot bestow through words the experience of these things, and we know on some level that these connections have importance.  But, what if hedonism could improve our health?  Holistically speaking, it could, and for me it does.

With the advent of scientific findings such as New Genetics and the Microbiome, there is compelling evidence that suggests that health is very much a holistic venture.  Yet, no where in the literature is fear seen as a positive force for feeling good, or making a desirable change.  No, a much better way to approach the problems we face is through pleasure, a diligent, disciplined pursuit of pleasure informed by wisdom.

Pleasure vs Pain

The buddhists would say we’re all suffering anyway, and that pleasure and pain are two sides of one suffering ass coin.  Duly noted, but the science indicates that pain carries much higher physiological costs than pleasure.  Pain and stress cause inflammation in the body in various forms, which in turn cause decreased health over time.  Pleasure on the other hand will do the opposite.  We adapt in real time, and with a holistic effort to keep our body in homeostasis, we can be our best as much as possible.  So while flipping a coin will always result in suffering, the path to a better life is paved with more heads than tails.

Think, better sleep (which is pleasurable), little stress (which is pleasurable), great tasting food, music you like, that high after doing physical activity, and optimism.  These kinds of things feel good.  Hope is better than fear.  Optimism, better than pessimism. At least, this is the decision I’ve made for myself, I won’t speak nor decide for anyone else.

 

The Inescapable Anthropocentrism

The way I see it, there is no way to escape the anthropocentrism when designing with the land. Let’s take a cold hard look at the concept of a better world without human beings. A world that allegedly is much better than a world full of humans could be. I think this world that lacks human beings is a construct in the mind of human beings, an ideal that cannot even be contemplated without a human brain.

While it is certain that our activities are not always aligned with patterns that emerge in nature, let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater in our search for the ideal mother earth. There is a reason why if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, it does not make a sound. It’s an age old riddle that has two answers that are equally valid. Yes the tree does make a sound because physics instructs us that anything falling with that kind of mass in an atmosphere like ours must make a sound. No the tree does not make a sound because no one was around to corroborate the experience and communicate it to others.

The fact of the matter is, there is no real tangible benefit to viewing our existence here as hopelessly antagonistic. This type of riddle is along the same lines as the tree falls in the woods. Both answers are equally valid, yet we come to understand that this is a purely theoretical exercise. Yes, a planet without humans would indeed be without the antagonistic qualities wrought by humans. No, the planet would not be better because there is no one to determine if it is or not anyway.

Therefore, if we are to really start getting into the tangible meat of how to design more ecologically, it is always going to be one that is anthropocentric. It is utterly an inescapable aspect of how we view any system to be managed. I exist here on this planet, and I have needs that are met by the environment which means I have this fundamental, inescapable affect on the environment. Not only that, but when I look into the land it looks back at me. The environment has a fundamental, inescapable affect on me. Which leads me to the conclusion that it will take understanding the patterns within myself just as much as the patterns within the environment to do good design.

I exist here and there is no reason I will contemplate a world without me, I will design with the land, together.

Deep Time and Constraint-Based Design

My lifetime is pretty short, but the ramification of the design journey I am choosing to embark on will effect things long after my time ends.  Permaculture is very much meant to be permanent, it is supposed to last a long time, that is what I am trying to wrap my head around as I learn from day to day.

Site analysis and assessment is something that is undertaken by everyone after obtaining agency at any kind of site.  It is the basic skeleton on which designs can be puttied on top of.  The more robust the skeleton, the tighter the design.  The skeleton is realized from the observations of the designer, the flashlight of consciousness unveils the skeleton as it observes separate parts within the massive structure.

My time is short, but I am designing for eternity.

Site A&A is an eternal affair, it is a constant relationship between the individual and the non-individual, i.e. the site.  Change is inevitable.  As things change, the patterns are emergent.  Within the patterns lie the keys to better design and more conscious decision making.  So when I am first getting onto a site I am doing a lot of unrecorded and relatively unattached observation, to get the gist or the lay of the land.  It isn’t long though before I begin to do site A&A, and then the work is never done.

Exhaustive Site A&A

I am a proponent of a highly exhaustive and dynamic site A&A.  This kind of A&A ultimately serves as the toolbox of patterns and data to which a designer can realize more design goals.  Because of the idea that permaculture is aspiring to be permanent, the exhaustive nature of A&A is crucial.  My own personal design method is constraint-based.  Constraints are determined by site A&A.  Patterns elicited from site A&A create real constraints that can then determine parts of the design.  It is more about what one cannot do on site rather than what one can do on site.

With modern economic constraints for professional designers and typical time-based constraints for non-professional designers, it is difficult to do such a lengthy A&A.  However, the ideal still remains.

Past/Present/Future Patterning

There are patterns of past, patterns of present, and patterns of future to be realized through observation and recording on site.  Each aspect of time has it’s own types of recording methods and attributes which I will outline here.

-Past-

Patterns of the past generally deal with things that have occurred and have shaped the site to be what it is today.  Examples of patterns of the past are paleo-climatology, land use history, and phylogeny.  The Scale of Permanence has aspects that exist in the past like climate and landform.  By taking on a study of patterns of the past for a site, one may find helpful constraints that can inform design in the present.  For example, when looking at the phylogeny of Rhus typhina (or Staghorn Sumac) I can determine what kinds of things would work better on a site that has a lot of the plant growing on it.  Right now I am working on a site that grows it prolifically, which cause constraints with managing the stands.  A better example would be an event that happened in the past the prevents certain design in the present.  This is more apparent with sites that have pollution or a real serious limiting factor.  After examining patterns of past, one should be able to elicit both constraints, opportunities, and catalysts.

-Present-

Patterns of present deal with A&A elements that are changing more rapidly like vegetation/wildlife, microclimate, zones of use, soil management, and aesthetics.  Patterns of present also deal with observations of patterns that are accrued on a daily basis like phenology.  Phenology is recording annual events as they occur on site like budding, fruiting, flowering, first sighting of fauna and etc.  By recording events like this one can get a really good understanding of how the climate is changing on site.  It can be incredibly important to have many of these datasets since official governmental climate studies use phenological records from individuals to understand how climate has changed.  Though there are not many…so we have predictions based on the writings of Henry David Thoreau and only a handful of others.  The present is where most of the constraints will be discovered.

-Future-

Patterns of future are based on the past and present and can be a rewarding exercise to brainstorm about.  It is worth spending time to try to predict constraints that may occur in the future and how to begin to mitigate those constraints in the present.  For example, if I understand that short-term drought is to become more of a reality in Massachusetts with changing climate I should definitely be planning for a more robust water catchment and transportation system on the site.  I would take the drawbacks of overbuilding my water system if it meant that I would hardly experience consequences of lack of water which could be potentially much worse.

Conclusion

I am looking to measure as much as possible on site that will provide me patterns on how to design the site to function better.  While it may take a while to construct the system of data collection, I ultimately think that the extra effort will pay dividends in the future.  The site-specific document that I create with an exhaustive site A&A will be authoritative when dealing with the site and instructive as an analog for sites that experience similar conditions.  No longer will people who live in the area of my site have to rely on aggregate data based on large systems, they can see what kind of energies are occurring near their own site.

Site A&A, to me, needs to be exhaustive, dynamic, and site-centric wherever possible to be able to inform not only the designers on the site but also anyone who is curious to learn what the document entails.

CSA? I think you mean FSA.

It was a humid and somewhat rainy night in Great Barrington, MA. We were celebrating Rob’s birthday at Baba Louie’s pizza with some farmer friends. It was my first time meeting these young idealistic farmers from CT, but it was easy to relate immediately to their mindset and strife.

The truth of the matter was that these two interns were experiencing the troubles of farming, not the work, but the financial woes. Debt is so ubiquitous in the U.S., but it is especially insidious in the farming world. The farmers are well aware of their lifestyle slowly obliterating, but it is the consumer (read: non-producer) who takes no notice of this phenomena until CSA sign-ups for next year never come around…because the farm suddenly ceases to exist.

It is not that our fair shareholders are to blame, after all the dominant CSA model has come to be reified by both sides of the coin, the producer and the consumer. Shareholders pay the money, come to the pick up, shoot the shit, and then leave gracefully as they came. Farmer’s use the early sign-ups for up front costs (or to regrettably cover last years losses), buy the seeds, work the land, weed, water, pay for repairs, pay for labor, pay less for unskilled labor, manage fertility schedules, manage CSA pick-up, do wholesale, do farmer’s markets, and perhaps meander ever slowly into debt.  But it’s cool, bankruptcy is the new early retirement in America.

The question that this elicits for myself is…where is this community? CSA is meant to be Community Supported Agriculture, in the dominant model today there is agriculture (duh), there is support (money), and there is…well actually that is it. There are farms with 30 shares (ours), 170 shares, 300 shares, and some we at Sun One know of that do 1200 shares. But these shares are not Local, some are being delivered to NYC, Fairfield County, and wealthy suburbs north of NYC.

Now, this is not a critique on the exploited providing quality for the elite. This is a critique on what I believe CSA has become not only to the consumers of the food in the baskets, but the producers. The issue is that while the quality of life is maintained for the consumer, it gets worse for the majority of the producers out there.

FSA is the dominant CSA model.

Enter FSA. Or what I like to call Financially Supported Agriculture. If there is to be any support happening for agriculture, it is overwhelmingly through money. This is an issue. This is a very dire issue if the goal is to be community supported. Tell me what kind of community is being created 50 miles away from the locus of production? It isn’t. Even when there are members that come from surrounding towns and even our own town of Bethlehem, CT…I cannot say I know anything about them or vice versa.

After putting out surveys this season I was pleased with the results, many of our members were happy with their baskets and vegetable selections.  Spoiler, cabbage isn’t a favorite.  Though there was one member who felt that the baskets were just not covering the expectations and needs of his family, and that the local supermarket would be a better option.  It was a valid opinion piece.   But, of course, I felt melancholy about the whole notion.  On one hand I felt a little closer to this member, I actually learned something about him…he had a family and wanted to provide for them.  On the other hand I couldn’t shake off the idea he had no clue about what he had signed up for.  I suppose this time ignorance was not bliss.

Transactions as the Fundament of CSA

The dominant CSA model (or FSA) has come to regard transactional relationships as fundamental.  I give you the money, you give me the food.  Plenty of authors have dedicated time to this phenomena so I will leave it to you, the reader, to self educate on self-interested rational actors, neoliberal economics, late capitalism, commons, gifting, debt, and money.  Read broad and varied though, for with different perspectives emerges a more well rounded opinion.

The point is that community is not developed via this fundament.  Community is perpetuated through continuing relationships.  Interestingly enough, continuing relationships are not created through transactions.  FSA is transactional, and the relationships continue inasmuch the transactions do too.  So our most unsatisfied customer will terminate our relationship by refusing a CSA sign up for 2015 and quite possibly strengthen his existing relationship with the store via increased patronage or begin a new relationship via alternative CSA.  I doubt I’ll care.

The real CSA

Ideally, if community is a goal, then models that do not rely predominately on transaction must be experimented with.  An example of this is incentive-based labor CSA.  Let’s say hypothetically it costs $500 for a full season share, and this cost covers operations and perhaps a sliver goes towards the owner as income (Hah!).  In a community oriented model, the cost of the CSA has to be high but reducible through participation of the member.  Let’s say we hike the cost to $800 per share and $5/hr reduction on the cost.  But wait…hold the phone, $5/hr is all for farm work?   Yes…I am suggesting a low reduction in the share price.  If you have interned at a farm (or if you’re a millenial doing…any internship) chances are you’re getting that or worse.  The point is empathy, and one would never experience that when transactions are paramount.  Working 60 hours to reduce your CSA bill $300 is a pain, but working 60 hours to increase your savings account $300 is poverty.

This is just one option and I would never suggest a farm relies solely on this model.  FSA is necessary because CSA needs a culture of support and we need to wait on that to come into vogue.

A Radical Model

One other model may include higher transparency on both sides of the transactional relationships.  Farmer’s should ask for more if members stand in good financial graces.  In other words, progressive payment plans.  Already in existence are sliding scale CSA payments (say $500-$800 pay what you can), but there is no real guarantee that those who can afford $800 will pay $800.  What I am suggesting is that members and farmers be up front about their financial standing and work out a consensus-based dollar amount for the CSA share.

Consensus is important because it would be absurd to attach a % of income onto a CSA share.  $50,000 net income and $100,000 net income families of four shouldn’t pay $500 and $1,000(1%) respectively for equal sized baskets, but I imagine a frugal and community oriented family may be willing to donate more.  However, with the prevalence of the FSA model, it is unlikely that we ever even deliberate on what could be appropriate for real support of farmers, communal or financial.

Final Thoughts

Don’t be fooled, there are little real communities being cultivated through the dominant CSA model of FSA.  It is no different than any other transaction done in life.  Whether it is at the farm, a department store, bar, hotel, local market, or strip club, each person can walk away when the transaction is done.  The community that does emerge comes from talking, spending time with one another, empathy, and gifts.  So while I find it somewhat tragic that a ‘CSA’ member will be leaving us after this year, it is also somewhat tragic that I maintain a Fuck Shit All attitude through it all.