Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Hard Times

The great thing about starting a new blog is chances are nobody's reading, so I can pretty much say whatever I want. Most everything I write is a disconnected ramble anyhow. It's been a few days since I posted anything here and I wanted to visit if nothing else to remind me that this blog is here as I try to figure out what I'm trying to do.

I get most of my news online these days. I seek out news, but there is so much truth in what psychologist Karl Jung observed: "people cannot stand too much reality" sometimes creeps up and that not being able to handle it creeps up at times.

Underlying the reasoning for this blog is that people alive today face two dire challenges to our ways of living: First is the down slope of peek oil and second anthropomorphic climate change. Obviously both are really big problems, but both are problems that our individual lives cannot but be affected by. I'm not ready. And it's not particularly a comfort to look around to see hardly anyone else is either.

James Howard Kunstler is well known for his book The Long Emergency which was influential in widening the awareness of the general public about the convergence of these twin challenges. This Rolling Stone article provides a synopsis of the book. I also read Kunstler's weekly posts at his blog.

Kunstler's writing can be quite acerbic and he adept at using the time-honored Internet tradition of ridicule. I like that in moderation, but too much is enervating. Something I've noticed is that as oil prices have skyrocketed and plunged over the past year Kunstler's tone seems to have mellowed a bit. His most recent post contrast two realities out in the public discourse: The dominant reality,The Status Quo view, where after this economic rough patch things will get back on track like they were. And the minority reality, which he handily calls, "The Long Emergency" where we've got to make radical adjustments in the way we do things and soon. I'm of the opinion that the minority reality is closer to the truth.

Kunstler writes of the minority view:
Since the change it proposes is so severe, it naturally generates exactly the kind of cognitive dissonance that paradoxically reinforces the Status Quo view, especially the deep wishes associated with saving all the familiar, comfortable trappings of life as we have known it. The dialectic between the two realities can't be sorted out between the stupid and the bright, or even the altruistic and the selfish.
Kunstler goes on to make predictions for 2009. It seems a an ordinary thing to do this time of year. So even in exchanging New Years greetings it's hard not to bring up the atrocities in the news as we do. I might think it's just me being a whiner, but I'm noticing that my friends can't seem to help themselves either. We all know we might be wrong in our predictions, but as never before I get the sense most of us really hope we're wrong.

Here's a prediction I'm make: President Obama won't get much of a "honeymoon." Political leaders are important, but it seems too much to try ot lay salvation in their hands. It seems the best we can do is to try to develop reasonable views of the situation as we see it and pull others towards what constructive things we can do. I believe gardening is one of those constructive things. Perhaps this blog can serve some good purpose in that arena.

When thinking about Kunstler's point about cognitive dissonance reinforcing the Status Quo view, I thought of the song Baltimore composed by Randy Newman on his 1977 album Little Criminals. It's such a great song that many performers have covered it. There's a verse that stuck in my head:
And they hide their faces
And they hide their eyes
'Cause the city's dyin'
And they don't know why
I love YouTube for music. But I'm often a bit shocked how videos there sometimes make me feel old. There are many renditions of the song I love. Nina Simone's is there, and there's a nice video of Newman performing the song at a 2006 concert in Stuttgart. One of may favorite versions was done by the reggae band Third World. There version hasn't been posted, but there is a great version by the Tamlins. In the wonderful YouTube tradition there's a response video which is Scientist--Taxi to Baltimore Dub recorded contemporaneously to the Tamlin's record at King Tubby's Studios. Listening to that it hit me that these records are almost thirty years old. Yikes! One consolation was then to watch a video of Sly and Robbie & TAXI Gang at a fairly recent concert in Seattle. The young people in that audience seemed to be able to Chant Down Babylon.

Ah, well the Scientist Dub video provided the picture of the taxi for this post. If you're a fan of Dub, be sure to check out Scientist Club at YouTube because they uploaded lots of great videos.

The picture is appropriate in an incompetent gardener sort of way. The Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions
has produced an important documentary How Cuba Survived Peak Oil. Well, the Cuban Taxi is somehow related. The video is available for purchase or can be viewed online. It's very important, and speaks to the fact that it takes some time to develop gardening skills as well as to get garden soils healthy enough for productive yields. The Community Solutions Web site is very worthwhile perusing as there's lots of great information there.

I know I can't take too much reality. Sometimes the news leaves me overwhelmingly sad. Music always seems to make me feel better, even sad songs like Baltimore. Efforts like Community Solutions make me feel better too. There is much we cannot change, but somethings we can. Much of what we can do, like gardens, music, parties, community building, are real and can make us feel good.

I predict hard times ahead in 2009. And I predict we can make some happy times and take joy too. I am an incompetent gardener, but there's much joy to be had not just in feeding hungry stomachs, but our hungry souls as well.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Numenous Garden

I was searching for a word for one of my motivations for gardening and thought of a word that impressed me, numina.

Numina gets underlined with a squiggly line by my spellchecker. That's a good sign of obscurity. The first definition in the American Heritage Dictionary of the singular numen is: The presiding divinity or spirit (of a place). I recall enthusiasm for garden devas in certain circles and liked the sound of the plural form numina.

I only came on it from the word numinous, an adjective I understood to mean “sensing holiness;” “The American Heritage Dictionary” provides the definition: “Spiritually elevated.” I wanted a noun and searched the dictionary. The word I want is numinousness, but it isn't listed. I'm convinced that its a perfectly good word. Anyway, I'm glad to have found the word numina; I like it.

I was having a beer with a friend whose mechanical competency I admire. I was marveling at his clever solution to the problem of removing and reinstalling the engine to his backhoe. He had removed the bucket and propped the arms with angle iron. Then with a heavy steel bar between the arms he had attached a winch to hoist the engine. And reveling in his telling of the trials and tribulations of rebuilding the engine, although I had only the vaguest notion of what he was talking about
He said:
“Sometimes I put out little pieces of bread or cake out
and it seems like it helps to keep the fairies and pixies off my case.
You know, stuff like loosing my tools in plain sight.”
My face remained grave and my mouth shut suiting the masculine tenor of the conversation. But my friend's fiancee and gardening buddy cast her eyes towards me and gave me a wink; they know I believe in fairies and pixies too.

My favorite storybook as a young boy was Rupert. The stories follow a familiar pattern of children's literature: a child wanders from the safety of home to explore the wider world and returns safely. Rupert is a venerable comic strip in the British Paper, Daily Express. During World War II space was limited by rationing, but space was made for Rupert the Bear to contribute to morale.

My affinity for fanciful creatures inhabiting the natural world can be traced to my childhood delights in the adventures of Rupert, a bear in a comic strip and his encounters with fairy beings. As time has passed since its beginning in 1920, Rupert has had three illustrators. My storybook was from the long
middle period when Alfred Bestall wrote and illustrated the strip. Bestall's story lines followed the fairy tale tradition including underworld beings such as Brownies.

I understand that in today's Rupert such encounters have been ditched in favor of the more pragmatic sensibilities of today's youth. But the popularity of the Harry Potter books suggests that kids haven't lost their taste for fantasy. I haven't read the new comic and I'm curious to. But from looking at the new illustrations on the Web, I can see that the numinous rendering of the natural world that Bestall masterfully captured is retained,; oh well, I really don't know about that. Of course Rupert of my childhood was experienced through books aided by my active imagination.

What does capture the some of the numinousness of Rupert from my childhood is a 1985 film, the brain child of Paul McCartney, Rupert And the Frog Song. Apparently it was re-released on DVD in 2004, but I can find no trace of that at Amazon. There are copies of it for sale on VHS tape, and pricey at that. I noticed a short piece today about this being the last Christmas that a distributer of VHS tapes will be shipping them out. Ah, but there are several clips of the film at YouTube. Here's a link to the climactic scene. The whole film is lovely and I found myself looking at some of the other clips too.

I grow Inula helenium, Elecampane because I read somewhere--probably some cleaver ad copy-- “Fairies live beneath it.” It's probably long past time that I gave up such childishness. And it curious why I'd want to invite fairies into the garden as folklore makes plain they are hardly always beneficent. If I were to encounter a garden deva, gnome, brownie, pixies, fairy, or Pan himself, I'd surly leap right out of my skin! It's not as if I expect to see them.

The numen, the presiding spirit of a place, suggest a being of some dimension. The American spirit conjures up a different notion; a psychological outlook and shared values.

The quintessential American poet begins his epic poem about the Civil
War, John Brown's Body:
“American muse, whose strong and diverse heart
So many men have tried to understand
But only made it smaller with their art,
Because you are as various as your land...”
The plan for American global hegemony and domination is a grand
ambition. In this time of war, the call rings out: “Either your with us or against us.” The sound is clear and shrill; still it's too small an ambition. It diminishes the big and diverse heart of our American spirit.

Donald Rumsfeld strikes out against critics of American warring as aiding terrorists. He complains about “hits” the administration is taking and said, “It is hard to function in the world without there being losses.” I read recently that nearly 40,000 of the troops wearing American uniforms in Iraq are “green card soldiers,” aliens seeking a fast track to American citizenship.

Today many of our social institutions are riven by polarized opinions. Regardless of which end of the political spectrum Americans find themselves, perhaps we might all agree that Americans are big hearted. How strange then to cast an accusing finger towards those of us who ask, “What are we loosing? Who lies wounded? Who has died?

While garden devas, fairies and a tendency to attribute human characteristics to plants and animals begs the label flaky, “numinousness” isn't so easily dismissed. Gardening is in part a spiritual journey.

Sometimes in the garden the awareness of the sacred is present. It's not something I've made rather something I'm responding too. It's a feeling of awe, wonder, and being a part of creation. It's not the garden alone I experience numinousness. The experience is something we've all had. Perhaps we experience it in a beautiful landscape, or perhaps in the light at sunset; sometimes, somehow some moments in time
are special.

More competent gardeners than I know that gardening often demands a ruthlessness. Seedlings need thinning so plants will thrive, and pruning to insure fruit. It's often observed that spiritual growth begins when a person critically examines closely held notions and casts off ideas that serve poorly or do not map accurately the way things are. So our gardens in sometimes mirror our spiritual journeys.

Sometimes in our gardens, in certain magic moments a numinous present is experienced. Living is sacred. War means dying.

This post was written September 7, 2003. I updated it with links and made a few other changes.

Monday, December 22, 2008


Hello I'm John Powers and I'm an incompetent gardener. Almost ten years ago when I first got online. I discovered email lists and wrote a couple of dozen posts under the guise of The Incompetent Gardener. I'm not sure these essays are very good, in fact I'm fairly sure they're not. But I loved writing them and discovering the pleasure to be had in putting content on the Web. I'd like to update them with links to make them as current as possible.

The word "incompetent" has quite negative connotations. One might expect, for example that I might be utterly bonkers, out of my gourd. Surely I do have a few screws loose, but I'm not legally incompetent. Rather it's more that I'm unskilled, and probably don't have a keen awareness of that fact. So what I mean by saying I'm an incompetent gardener is that I tend to treat my gardening adventures as experiments that have a good chance of not working out, but still hoe along not unduly concerned about failing. Part of the process is learning, yet because my approach is haphazard to begin with what I learn almost always comes as a surprise.

I'm a rather incompetent blogger as well. I most frequently update, but not frequently enough, my blog Bazungu Bucks. Bazungu Bucks is a blog that seeks to explore how communities outside the African continent can engage productively with communities in Africa. More specifically how I might be of service to a few friends in Uganda. I often just write about what's on my mind at that blog. Another blog I sometimes maintain is Hats for Health. The premise of that blog is that what the people of the world really need are clean water and more parties. I've tried to join the two in encouraging paper hat fashions that might be a way to fund raise for clean water projects, and at least promote gleeful parties.

I'm awful at raising money for anything. Still money is useful and over and over again I've found that money in support of worthwhile community projects can go along way to assuring better lives in Uganda. With that in mind, I've got some half baked ideas. Among them is to put together some books or e-books about gardening and paper hat making with the proceeds going to various projects I care about in Uganda. The nice thing about blogging is that it's a way to collect writing, and writing with nice hyperlinks.

The economy is tanking, and the situation looks dire. Growing more of our own food locally, even in our back yards, can go along way to stretching our budgets and staving off hunger. I've been at this incompetent gardening thing for a while, so I know that growing things is sometimes harder than we think. Sometimes a bit of encouragement can go along way towards keeping on. So perhaps this blog can be of some little service to fellow gardeners.

None of this is all to sensible. In general outlines what I have in mind is a blog about growing things without knowing too much, but with a steady expectation that gardening is full of pleasant surprises.