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WATCH THIS: Ancient Futures – Learning from Ladakh 12/07/2012

Posted by ALT in Alternative Lifestyles, Historical Context.
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This film documents the rapid transition from subsistence lifestyles to a “modern,” developed economy in the Himalayan region of Ladakh. From mutual support freely given to paid employment… from learning “in the field” (literally) to compulsory, militarized schooling… from myriad regional dialects to Urdu and English… from community, family, and relationships to alienation and true human poverty…

What are the real social and cultural consequences of a breakdown of the local in favor of a seductive (but ultimately rather destructive) global?  It’s all here:

***

If you liked this film, here’s some other posts you might like:

THIS living being eats LIVE foods! 10/02/2012

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A live food is any food that has not been irradiated, pasteurized, sterilized, or otherwise treated for the removal of bacteria and enzymes — that includes cooking at very high temps.  A fermented food is one in which helpful bacteria have been deliberately cultured and multiplied.

Most of what you pick in your garden or obtain directly from your livestock is live.  Most of what you buy at the grocery store is dead.  I have to ask again:

If we’re putting almost exclusively dead things in our bodies, why are we surprised at the outpourings of a deadened mind and spirit that result?

(read a little more about all of this here)

THIS living being eats LIVE foods!

Dinner last night:
2 eggs over easy, laid by chickens 10 miles away about 3 weeks ago
turnip sauerkraut w/ turnips from garden
sourdough roll (baked by me!)
homemade, cultured applesauce with apples from local orchard

I can truthfully say that I eat live foods for every meal, and at least one fermented item, too!  This is not a rule I set myself – it just worked out that way because live and fermented foods are convenient (they keep a long, LONG time so you can make/procure massive quantities at once) and more importantly, they taste better!

I wanted to share a few of my current ferments with you:

Pickled Armenian Cucumbers

I tried some different spices — Penzey’s Pickling Spice Blend on the left (produces a Bread & Butter type flavor) and garlic & dill on the right.  With the cooler weather I have a second generation of dill volunteers that are ready for harvesting!

Sourdough Starter/Bread

It is possible to make your own sourdough starter — and easy, too.  It just takes time; about 10-13 days.  Once you go through the process, however, you never have to do it again.  Simply reserve a quart of starter from each bread-making batch.  It keeps in the refrigerator for a LONG time, probably 2 months or more!  Right now I’m multiplying a reserved sourdough starter.  It takes about 5-7 days to turn 1 quart of starter into 3.  2 quarts make 2 large loaves of sourdough bread, and 1 quart goes back in the fridge for next time. 

If you’ve ever baked yeasted bread, you know that it is finnicky and time-consuming — from start to finish it takes about 8 hours and requires several kneadings, risings and (if it’s not rising) hair-pulling and frustration!  Sourdough bread is EASY comparatively.  Add some flour and water to your 2 quarts of starter, knead once early in the morning, let it rise for 12 hours, then you pop it in the oven.  Done!

Fresh Yogurt with Cinnamon

My very first culture — yogurt.  A couple of years ago I was having a nasty time doing battle with a certain fungus that can take over when there aren’t enough probiotic bacteria in your gut (this can be caused by diet or by an antibiotic-induced dieoff of good gut bacteria).  The doctor couldn’t help me and actually refused to believe me when I reported my symptoms!  Anyway a family friend and nutritional expert prescribed yogurt and cinnamon every morning for breakfast.  Worked like a charm.  This was my entree into fermented foods… I never looked back.  Still have this breakfast quite often.

Here are a few excellent sources of recipes for fermentation:

Nourishing Traditions, by Sally Fallon

This is my #1 kitchen resource, and one of only 2 cookbooks I own (the other being Home Cheese Making).  I can’t recommend it highly enough.  Some of the best recipes: Sauerkraut Soup (probiotic, of course), Pemmikin, Twice-Baked Squash, Eggplant Kiku, Mayonnaise, Sourdough Starter and Bread, everything in the “Fermented Vegetables” chapter, etc. etc.

Wild Fermentation, by Sandor Ellix Katz 

Recipes, history, social/political commentary.  He also has a blog with new recipes posted pretty frequently that I’ve just discovered.  Some portion of the sourdough starter pictured above is destined to become the fermented bread pudding desert he mentions…

But you don’t really have to follow a recipe.  Literally ANY dish can be made live by the addition of something probiotic.  If it’s a raw recipe (like coleslaw) just throw the probiotic in during assembly.  If it’s cooked, add the probiotic after the food has cooled to at least 120F– most probiotic bacteria die at 130F. Here are some easy-to-obtain probiotic things that you can add to any dish to make it live:

  • Organic Apple Cider Vinegar.  Make sure the bottle says it contains “the mother.”
  • Raw Honey.  Its consistency is rougher than pasteurized honey, but it should also say on the label.
  • Whey.  This is the clear-ish liquid that separates out from a yogurt culture.  It must come from a live, plain yogurt culture (like FAGE yogurt). Bonus points if the yogurt’s made from raw, whole milk. You can also obtain whey from many cultured cheese-making processes.

Cider Vinegar and honey have very distinctive flavors, so if you don’t want to change the taste of the dish at all, whey is the best option.  Also, in order for the probiotic to work its magic it has to set for at least 12 hours.  So if you wanted to make live chicken noodle soup, you would add the probiotic (I’m thinking whey, in this case) once the soup is fully assembled and has cooled down to at least 120F, let it set for a day, than reheat being careful not to bring the temperature above that magic number – 120.

I don’t mean to preach, dear readers.  Just wanted to share something that has brought me a lot of joy and countless tasty meals. Fermentation has had a profoundly positive impact on my health and the underlying process is an excellent analogy … “ferments and foments,” I keep thinking to myself. 

Ferments and foments.

Living Foods for Living People 09/25/2012

Posted by ALT in Alternative Lifestyles, Treatments.
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It amazes me how many different and conflicting belief systems there are about diet – what we should eat, what we shouldn’t, what’s good for your brain, your teeth, your toes. I use the phrase “belief systems” deliberately because most camps can produce dozens of academic publications, statistics, etc. justifying their dietary assertions (or at least showing there’s no “conclusive evidence” that they’re wrong).

A good friend of mine is the offspring of some hardcore Vegans; I myself come from a family firmly entrenched in the Weston Price camp (animal fats being considered essential for good health).  Both of our parents have a tendency towards nutritional proselytization. “My parents would think yours suffer lack of energy and low brain function because they’re starved of animal fats,” I said.  “Mine think your parents’ arteries are clogged with the disgusting detritus of a heavy meat diet, and that they’ll die early, cholesterol-induced deaths,” he cheerfully replied.  We both laughed.

My thought is this: dietary needs differ between people.  Even in one person, they can cycle.  A lot of times I find this corresponds naturally to the change in season.  But it can also be affected by life events, other ongoing healing processes, changes in environment or routine, etc.

Given those variables, however, there are a few nutritional truths that apply to everyone:

  1. processed foods (that means, anything that has an “ingredients list” on the back!) are not nourishing
  2. locally produced, small-scale plant or animal foods are far more nourishing than mass-produced plant or animal foods monocultured under industrialized conditions
  3. live foods are far more nourishing than dead ones

The first two are basically common knowledge at this point.  But the last one?  Here in America there seems to be a cultural aversion to live foods, which are commonly perceived as dangerous, potentially culprits in food poisoning debacles.  This is unfortunate, because without live foods, your gut health suffers, and the link between gut health and mental health (not to mention overall health!) is pretty firmly established at this point.

Live Foods

A live food is any food that has not been irradiated, pasteurized, sterilized, or otherwise treated for the removal of bacteria and enzymes — that includes cooking at very high temps. By this definition, truly fresh foods are all live.  An apple from the tree, lettuce from the garden, raw milk from a cow.

But an apple from the grocery store?  Not likely.  Most produce at the grocery store is irradiated or otherwise sterilized, ostensibly to kill E.coli and salmonella and other such plagues of modern, industrialized food production. But the sterilization of food has another consequence – it decreases our immune system’s ability to function by depriving us of all the enzymes and helpful bacteria contained in live foods, thereby making us more susceptible to not just E. coli and salmonella, but many other bacterial infections as well.  Catch-22.

REALLY Live Foods

Beyond live foods are fermented foods, where good bacteria — called probiotics, meaning “for life” — are deliberately cultured and multiplied.  These include things like homemade sauerkraut, pickled eggs, yogurt, kefir, kvass, kombucha, relishes, miso,  and  of course beer and wine (store-bought versions of these items are likely not live, though that varies… check the label.  In any case it’s always best to make your own).  Probiotics help us digest food better, which means we are better nourished.  They are connected to higher immune system functioning, better mental and physical health, better mood, [see here] and they have been part of nearly every long-lived, sustainable culinary tradition studied

The removal of live and especially fermented foods from our food supply has led to severe, culture-wide dietary problems that manifest themselves in so many different ways.  More fundamentally, the conversion of food into mere commodity, instead of nourishing, life-giving BLESSING to be shared by humankind has had a huge impact on the way we relate each other, the earth, and the divine:

The difference between food produced by someone you know and shared through means that respects both producer and consumer, and food grown, processed, and sold by strangers working for faceless corporations, is a difference you can taste. The body responds differently. Food given in fair and respectful exchange by someone you know and trust is more nourishing…

Food should not be primarily a commodity. Food is a gift of God’s Good Earth, for which all religious traditions teach gratitude. To subject it to the economic regime of the lowest bidder is to desecrate the gift and insult the Giver. For most of human history, the sharing of food was a significant social act, cementing ties between friends and kin, showing welcome to strangers. Today it has become an anonymous act of commerce.Other people in other times would no doubt have thought it exceedingly strange, if not downright obscene, for total strangers to grow, process, and even cook nearly all one’s food…

- from Charles Eisenstein’s essay, “Economics of Fermentation

What you put into your body has a profound effect on what comes out of it – that’s an essential tenet of nearly every religious discipline. 

If we’re putting almost exclusively dead things in our bodies, why are we surprised at the outpourings of a deadened mind and spirit that result?

   

Ferments and Foments

This is why I consider the production and consumption of truly live and fermented foods to be a revolutionary act.  I revolt against society’s demand for sterilization and monoculture in the realm of ideas, the realm of the spirit, and in the realm of food! I do not worship death, I worship life.  Life is what I put into this earthly vessel, and an enlivened spirit is what comes out!

A culture unaware of itself 09/17/2012

Posted by ALT in Alternative Lifestyles, Historical Context, Philosophy/Spirituality.
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I recently came across a book entitled Learning Native Wisdom: What Traditional Cultures Teach Us about Subsistence, Sustainability, and Spirituality, by Gary Holthaus.  Did you ever spend years of your life unknowingly waiting for someone to come along, the person who had the key in his pocket and would effortlessly open doors long closed to you, just by being himself? 

That’s what this book is to me. 

Here’s a little bit of what I’ve learned:
[excerpts from the book in italics]

We are a subsistence culture

We [Americans] are as dependent on the land as any traditional people ever were. We may not see ourselves as such, but our frantic hunt for the last barrel of oil is not a metaphor but is very real hunting and very real gathering… Our culture is a subsistence culture unaware of itself.

…we all live in a subsistence relationship to the land, every economy regardless of cash, credit, stocks, or other media for the exchange of goods and values, is but one part of a subsistence life based upon what the land has to offer.

Subsistence – far more than economics

Subsistence is not an economic system, mere “hunting, fishing, and berry picking.”  It is not a somehow inferior “level” that others (unlike our superior selves) live on — the poverty level, the subsistence level.  Subsistence is a complete, holistic way of life. 

Native people see subsistence as a base upon which an entire culture establishes its identity: philosophy, ethics, religious belief and practice, art, ritual, ceremony, and celebration, law, the development and adaptation of a variety of technologies, and an educational system that will ensure the survival of the people.  All fall within the realm of subsistence…  Subsistence, then, is not an economic system, nor a matter of numbers of fish and game harvested in the course of a season; it is a matter of worldview.

A fundamental understanding of the relationship and reciprocity between humans and the natural world (all my relations), explored through ritual, art, and philosophy.  A subsistence lifestyle is a life filled with meaning.

It is my right to choose my own meaning, no matter what the various institutions hoping to profit off my life’s blood have to say about it.  Endless consumption as the means and the end?  If I can resist it, in part or in whole, then NO!

Here is the meaning I seek – two feet planted firmly on the ground, the Earth, and a heart that beats in concert with others.  Simplicity, frugality, wholesomeness, from the moment I awaken to endless possibility, to the moment I close my eyes on a day-well-done. 

No more pollution!  The actual pollution of the Earth, yes, but there is so much more.  Genetic manipulation of our food (are there any pure landraces of maize left?).  The pollution of our language, a thousand new Orwellian words to make beautiful vagaries out of what is clearly hypocrisy and lies. The pollution of basic moral and ethical codes, until there is nothing under the sun which has not been blasphemed.  Even our wants, desires, choices – is there a spare second of the day when we’re free from advertising? We have to fight for it, build a fortress around every a moment of pure, real silence.  Will our defenses hold? I think the armed forces of mass consumption will not rest until the walls are breached, and privacy and all space for meditative introspection is gone for good.

Does anyone care to own a part of me? Much of it is for sale to the highest bidder – my emails, keystrokes, purchases.  Who my friends are, what we talk about.  What books I read, what movies I watch.  Every prescription written (and whether or not it was filled), every lab test, every medical procedure.

My body, my mind, my time.  This so-called culture claims them all as products, “human resources,” to be bartered for, stolen, bought, traded, prostituted. But there are some things that simply aren’t for sale. 

An older way, a better way…

Holthaus makes a compelling comparison between a culture like ours (which he calls a “structural culture”), where all is for sale and most things are done for supposed individual gain, where science is seen as somehow “other” than art and personal experience, and data is valued much more highly than wisdom, and another, older, more sustainable model, which he calls “functional cultures.”  He takes his time and builds his case exceedingly well.  Here are a few extracts from this beautiful idea: 

Functional cultures are complex, balancing and holding together a huge web of information, intuition, ritual, spirituality, arts, humanities, and science to create a whole cultural system that operates within greater natural systems… Structural cultures tend to put their faith in a harder, more structured knowledge called “science.”  Structural cultures tend to suppress the disorder of intuition and to create order in the structure of their ritual or religious systems; they are based on hierarchies, including codes.

The aim of education in a functional culture is wisdom that will ensure the survival of the people.  The means of education are storytelling, dance, experience, imitation of elders, and careful observation of the natural world and of the human, social world that is included in it… The aim of education in a structural culture is knowledge that will lead to personal advancement or advantage.  The means are “facts,” acquired via books or computers.

Functional cultures have members who belong, all of whom are enfranchised to participate in public life.  These are members in the sense of family members, recognized as such by the community.  Structural cultures have citizens who may or may not participate in public life, and some have no role in civic life because they are disenfranchised by poverty or lack of education, race or sexual orientation [ALT: or a label of so-called “mental illness,” an unwillingness to conform to consensual reality!].  Those who live in a structural culture become citizens by various kinds of legal certification rather than recognition…

Both cultures seek power.  Functional cultures seek the power inherent in good relationships.  They try to find their place in a system in which they live.  They want to stand in right relationship not only to the human community but to all the creatures in the natural system.  They are horizontally integrated: their own structures are part of the larger system and the other natural cultures that surround them, everything connected and reaching out to affect and include everything else… Structural cultures seek the power inherent in dominion.  They try to create a place in the system that will give them what they want from other cultures and from Nature, both of which are seen as resources.  They want to maintain a more powerful stance than other human societies and to be vertically integrated in the highest positions in their own system, regardless of what that may mean to other cultures, human or otherwise, around them…

The healing that functional cultures seek to employ is aimed at restoring balance and harmony in relationships… Structural cultures aim at healing the self first.  Psychiatrists assume that if individuals get themselves together, their relationships with other humans will automatically improve. 

Read the rest here if this comparison speaks to you, as it did to me.

More US soldiers died from committing suicide than died in combat 04/04/2012

Posted by ALT in Alternative Lifestyles, Depression, Mental Health News.
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So says a report released a couple weeks ago. 

It bears repeating:

In 2010, and again in 2011: More US soldiers died from committing suicide than died in combat.

And that’s according to official reports, numbers that the Army itself tracks and then [if prodded] releases to the public.  Are they renowned for their excellent body-counting abilities, their unflinching and honest reporting of the true costs of war?  No, not even a little bit. *

[Oh, and on that note – check out this clever vocabulary replacement policy the Army has employed to mask the number of people wounded in combat.]

Yes, as it turns out the Department of Veteran’s Affairs went to trial in 2010 for (among other things**) deliberately hiding rates of suicide amongst soldiers and veterans.  Internal emails from Dr. Ira Katz, Deputy Chief of Patient Care Services for the VA’s Mental Health Division, contain some juicy tidbits not meant for public eyes:

From: Katz, Ira R.
To: Chasen, Ev [top media advisor for the VA]
Subject: FW: Not for the CBS News Interview Request

Shh!

Our suicide prevention coordinators are identifying about 1000 suicide attempts per month among the veterans we see in our medical facilities. Is this something we should (carefully) address ourselves in some sort of release before someone stumbles on it?

(from a set of emails made public here)

Oooh.  That doesn’t sound good, Dr. Katz.  Especially since you told CBS reporters in November of 2009 that “there is no epidemic of suicide in VA,” and that their statistics, remarkably similar to the ones quoted in the email above, were “not, in fact, an accurate reflection of the [suicide] rate.”

Dr. Ira Katz. Who looks a little worried about being caught in a lie...

The courts ruled in the veterans’ favor.

Suicide rates aren’t the only thing going up

Mental health diagnoses in the military population (especially that of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder [PTSD]) and usage of psychotropic drugs are, too.  The New York Times reported on the sometimes disastrous effects of overmedicating active duty and returned veterans thusly diagnosed.  Part of the problem may be the current view of PTSD as a mental illness, when it is perhaps better understood as an injury to the autonomic nervous system.  More information on that here.***

Alternatives?

One article I was reading this morning suggested making acupuncture more widely available to active duty troops.  They call it “battlefield acupuncture.”****

Yeah, sure, ok. 

But how about NOT HAVING A WAR IN THE FIRST PLACE?

That’s apparently not an option.  I guess the engine of our economy, the military-industrial complex (which now certainly includes pharma) cannot run on fumes alone; we need this war.   Like an internal combustion engine needs fossil fuels to burn?  Yes. 

And let’s not hear any nonsense about alternatives.

More nonsense about alternatives

One commenter’s perspective on the military suicides issue really resonated with me:

Native American cultures used a ritual of honor, respect, and spiritual cleansing to help their warriors return to “normal” life. Our society could sorely use a similar process.

- commenter from news article “More US soldiers died from committing suicide than died in combat

On the road trip I took last summer, I had the opportunity to witness at least part of this ritual — in North Dakota, on the Fort Berthold (3 Affiliated Tribes) Reservation, at their annual Pow Wow.

A young woman had returned from 2 tours of duty, one in Afghanistan and one in Iraq.  On the first night of the Pow Wow (the giveaway night), a large part of the ceremony centered around her.  She was asked to stand in the middle of the sacred ceremonial dance space, wearing her full military attire.  She was given a strikingly beautiful, handmade bonnet of eagle feathers.  It reached almost to the ground!  She was honoured with specially composed songs and tributes from relatives and friends.  Her body was wrapped in 8 or 10 homemade quilts of beautiful colors. 

At the close of the ceremony, a box was placed in front of her, and all who watched were asked to step forward and place something of value (money, basically) in the box.  To help her as she adjusted to being home.  To support her and her family.  They would then press her hand gently, kiss her cheek, or perhaps touch her feet.  Signs of respect and love were heaped upon her. 

A similar ceremony honoring veterans as part of the Grand Entry at a Native American Pow Wow.

Over and over the emcee emphasized the fact that “in our culture, we honor our warriors, we honor our veterans.  We welcome them home with open arms.”*****

It was a powerful and moving ceremony.  I truly felt the whole community’s support for this brave young woman; I hope that she felt it, too.  Contrast this with most returning veterans’ feelings of utter isolation, and perhaps even shame and despair.

The contrast is somewhat apparent in the data on veteran suicide, too.  National data for veteran suicide by ethnicity was not available, but this analysis of veteran suicide data from 2008-2010 in Nevada shows (in that state at least) suicide rates amongst returning White veterans were almost 5 times higher than those of Native American vets.  Native Americans, as an ethnic group, had the second lowest suicide rate of those surveyed (the “Asian” ethnic group had the lowest).

We as a culture have so much to learn.     


* Here’s an older reference on that, too, specific to US casualties…  Doubtless the trend continues.

**Those “other things” included deliberate and unnecessary delays in the provision of mental health care and in the adjudication of service-connected death and disability compensation claims by the VA. The court ruled in favor of the veterans, stating that this was a violation of “veterans’ due process rights to receive the care and benefits they are guaranteed by statute for harms and injuries sustained while serving our country.”  Full opinion available here; a very good read.

*** The PTSD label may be the new “hysteria” – a diagnostic catchall category in mental health that is really describing brain injury or pathology.

**** Which nobody seems to find ironic.  Ho-hum.

*****More information on the Native American attitude towards veterans here

An update from ALT 08/28/2011

Posted by ALT in Alternative Lifestyles.
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For the past month and a half, ALT_sig (that would be my significant other), a furry companion of ours, and I have been traveling by car across the country.  We’ve seen mountains, prairies, badlands, glaciers, lakes, mighty rivers, and a few metropolises.  We’ve cooked many a smoky-tasting meal over the campfire and slowly accustomed ourselves to life without a mattress, house, or job*.

It's not so bad, really. The views are terrific!

Though we don’t intend to give up the aforementioned amenities for good, it’s been an interesting experience – one that hasn’t always been easy to savor, but savor it we have, the sweet and the bitter, too.  And we will continue to do so for at least another month.

The sweet: NATURE, naturally

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My favorite has been to pick a quiet spot out there and just sit for a long, long time.  Watching.  Listening.  Being still.  It’s amazing – the more you look, the more you see.  The more you realize how wise this creation is.  The answers are embedded in all around you: in the creaking trees, sunlight traveling through branches, casting ever-changing shadows, in a tiny wildflower barely visible amongst the bramble, in puddles, rivers, oceans alike.

Best of all, the same wisdom you see externally exists internally, too; after all, we are nature.  I think we forget that – much of Western society/science/philosophy is predicated on the idea that we are somehow separate from and perhaps even overlords of creation, when the fact is… we’re part of it.  We are a part of this holy, dynamic, and life-affirming EARTH, and part of it in a very intimate way.  Not as a member of some kind of club, but as a member of the body.  The body of living things.

We are the Earth becoming conscious of itself, and collectively, humans are the Earth’s most highly developed sense organ.  In this sense then, humankind is nature, looking into nature.

(Gregory Cajete in Native Science: Natural Laws of Interdependence… my vacation reading, and highly appropriate to the thinking I’ve been doing recently)

Pretty cool.  Feeling trapped in a society that worships death (or at the very least, lifelessness), I find the idea compelling, uplifting.

The bitter: NATURE, when controlled, regulated, contorted by humans

The cosmology that has shaped the evolution of the West with its focus on dominion over nature, the hierarchy of life, and a transcendent male God, has also shaped modern people’s perception of the “real world.”  Modern Western societies are rooted in institutions based on the old unexamined tenets of this cosmology… the mindsets of many modern people are still firmly vested in the old mechanistic worldview.

The ambiguity, conflict, and tension that we are now experiencing at all levels of modern life are reflections of our inability to come to terms with an essentially dysfunctional cosmology, a cosmology that can no longer sustain us at any level… God was seen to live outside the universe, transcendent and greater than the universe, while also having dominion over the universe and all inhabitants.  Humans were seen to have a connection to this divine god, but in order to fully consummate this union or connection, people had to transcend the material world, and become transcendent and exercise dominion over it in God’s name.  This orientation leads to a perception of the world in purely material terms; hence, the objectification, secularization, and scientification of the world.  The non-human world was considered the property of the transcendent God and his chosen people.  Although it was considered holy, it was also considered material, without spirit, and therefore eligible to be used or exploited according to the chosen people’s needs.  This conception of the world as spiritless (dead/lifeless) material allowed Western peoples to have a sense of detachment that was religiously justifiable.

(Gregory Cajete; Native Science)

For-your-own-good interventionism [something I’ve complained about quite a bit] is alive and well outside the mental health field, I’m sorry to say, and its consequences are just the same: dynamic beings, superficially deprived of choice, make their spirit known in unpredicted ways, incurring retribution in the form of further controls and setting in motion a never-ending cycle of restriction and rebellion in their frustrated attempts to live.  Well, never-ending only until the day that we decide to relinquish our controls and allow life to take its own course.

Which I’m all in favor of, especially after seeing…

A ranger at the Teddy Roosevelt National Park describing his hero’s (Teddy Roosevelt, of course) love of nature.  Teddy loved nature so much, in fact, that he decided to kill a buffalo, at that point a species so endangered that a four day search through much of North Dakota and Montana yielded only one specimen, which he promptly shot and then mounted on the wall in his home on Long Island.

Bully!

And how did the buffalo become endangered in the first place?  Spite, and a strong institutional desire to destroy a way of life different from (and therefore in conflict with) the State.Ah, yes, but now that very same State is sponsoring a repopulation effort, intervening with the breeding, feeding, and migration of small herds of buffalo contained within national parks like Teddy Roosevelt.  And hundreds of buffalo invade the national park’s RV campground on the banks of a moonlit Missouri River – threatening the revenues of the park (!) and the peace of mind of the tourists (!) – peacefully made their presence known.  We still live, and in our own way. 

The Sol Duc Hot Springs of the Olympic Peninsula, once holy to the Quileuete Indians, have a very interesting story of “discovery.”

The Quileute name for the hot springs is si’bi’, stinky place. In the 1880′s, Theodore Moritz nursed a native with a broken leg back to health. In gratitude, the Indian told Moritz of the “firechuck” or magic waters. Moritz staked a claim, built cedar-log tubs and soon people were coming great distances to drink and bathe in the healing water. Michael Earles, owner of the Puget Sound Mills and Timber Company claimed he was cured of a fatal illness after visiting Sol Duc. When Moritz died in 1909, Earles bought the land from his heirs and built a $75,000 road to the springs from Lake Crescent. Three years later, on 15 May 1912, an elegant hotel opened.

The grounds were immaculate – landscaping, golf links, tennis courts, croquet grounds, bowling alleys, theater, and card rooms. A three story building between the bathhouse and hotel held the sanatorium. With beds for one hundred patients, a laboratory, and x-ray it was considered one of the finest in the west.

(from the Olympic National Park website)

Lovely, and pretty typical.  Can’t tell you how many informational plaques and signs on national forest and park lands I’ve seen along the way that say something along the lines of “the Native Americans once traveled in this area, fishing, practicing permaculture, etc.  And now you can enjoy it, too!”

Is it just me, or was there a gap in that story?  A deep and very dark chasm, really, into which the history of the State’s suppression of a way of life fell, never to be retrieved for discussion, study, or maybe even forgiveness, healing.

Dear readers, I still have a month of nothing but timeand I intend to use it to think about what wellness, balance, and ethical living might look like for a child of this modern society who wishes, above all else, to live right.  Any insights you have on this vital question would be very much appreciated.

Yours truly,

_________________

* That’s right – I don’t work for the “Research Scientist” anymore.  It was a rather uninspired departure; no grand speeches or public demonstrations, just a polite goodbye.  And a long exit interview with Human Resources, which may lead to an audit that will most likely amount to – at worst – a small slap on the wrist.  And the fraud will continue.  But not with my blessing!

Phlox Peniculatum: A parable 05/06/2011

Posted by ALT in Alternative Lifestyles, Historical Context.
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Phlox peniculatum.  Perennial, they stand about three feet tall, flower all summer long, and are incredibly hardy.  You can’t really buy them in the store nowadays, but back around the turn of the century, they were a favorite.  You see them growing alongside old farmhouses, in cemeteries, in overgrown vacant lots, the only remaining survivors of long abandoned garden plots; they stand as a last testament to the skill of some unknown gardener of a different age, a living heirloom. 

When I was a little girl, I lived in what was then the country (now – suburbia, in all its shallow, vinyl glory).  There was a particular field near my house, probably once a pasture, whose back treeline was lined with a host of Phlox peniculatum.  My mother would eye them enviously every time we drove by.  “Someone must have had a garden there once.” 

One day, we saw bulldozers in that field.  It was an early victim of the tide of “development” that was sweeping our township (in time, nearly all the fields would be similarly converted into something “useful”).  They were going to build a strip mall, or a dentist’s office.  Or was it a KFC?  I can’t remember now.

My mother just couldn’t bear the thought of those flowers from a garden long gone being bulldozed.  It was time to go guerilla!

She put a shovel in the trunk, and some cardboard boxes.  She parked the car alongside the road, and in a matter of 10 minutes or less, had efficiently transferred most of the phlox into the boxes and placed them carefully in the backseat of the car.  [A young ALT admiringly thinking, “my mom is like a secret agent!”]  They were happily settled in their new home – the front flower bed – in a few hours more. 

We used to tease her, accusing her of stealing those flowers.  But she always proudly proclaims that she rescued them. 

She’s right – the very next day they began tearing up that treeline.  The phlox that were left behind did not survive.

This was many years ago.  True to form, the Phlox peniculatum have prospered, multiplied.  There are so many now that my mom has to give some away every year [in fact, I just transplanted some in my garden, a few hours ago]. 

An heirloom that stood forgotten and was nearly bulldozed over by the forces of “development” and “modernization,” given new life by someone who saw its value and fought to preserve it. 

What other heirlooms of a past age, representing a different value system or way of life, stand waiting for us to discover them?

Geriatric care from loved ones will clear the “fog of psychotropic drugs” 02/19/2011

Posted by ALT in Alternative Lifestyles, Mental Health of the Elderly.
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This recent piece from the NY Times shed a few rays of light on the issue of psychotropic drugging  in nursing homes (they call it the “fog of psychotropic drugs”). It’s a subject not often talked about—but the elderly make up a very significant (and growing) chunk of the market for psychotropics. In 2004 a national survey found that 25% of nursing home residents were taking psychotropic drugs, many of them on potent cocktails of 2-4.

A nursing home which made an attempt to step down the medication of its patients (and with excellent results) was the feature in the Times. This is encouraging, especially in light of some disturbing statistics about the harm over-medicating the elderly can cause:

  • 10-20% of adults over the age of 65 who go to the hospital do so because of prescription medicines that have been taken improperly.
  • 1 in 3 elderly hospital patients becomes sicker during hospitalization because of prescription drugs.
  • Up to 140,000 seniors die each year because of problems with medications—three times as many people as die from breast or prostate cancer, which are both considered public-health emergencies.
    (from the research of Dr. Andrew Duxbury)

Now, geriatric professionals claim that psychotropic medications are necessary because: 1. the all-too-common condition of clinical depression in the elderly is best addressed with SSRIs 2. the early stages of so-called “dementia” involve a lot of disruptive behavior that is not conducive to institutionalized “order” nursing home staff generally require.

In short, psychotropic medications are a way to suppress the feelings (quite legitimate, in my mind) of some “residents” that they don’t want to be there, they don’t like the way they’re being treated, and that something is very wrong with a world where the elders are left to finish out their days in an institution, cut off from the rest of society that is so desperately in need of their wisdom.

When there aren’t nursing homes

Not every country is quite as “advanced” as the United States when it comes to geriatric care; in a lot of places the elderly are cared for by their children (not professionals, and with no official “certification”), at home.

I had the privilege to witness this personally. In the summer of 2008 I spent about two months in Oaxaca, Mexico — one of the poorest states in the country; it also had the second highest indigenous population. Much of that time was spent in a small village, called “Totontepec,” high up in the mountains. The folks there were from an indigenous group called the “Mixe” (pronounced MEE-hay), and nearly everyone was bilingual, speaking both Mixe and Spanish.

Totontepec

The Gomez family – Vidal and Eusabian (husband and wife), Eusabian’s sister Maura, and their mother (we just called her “Mama”) – welcomed me with open arms. They showed me their life together, subsisting mostly off the food they grew in their milpa, working and laughing together most of the day. I will never forget their kindness…

Maura (left) and Eusabian (right)... sisters

Mama, happy at home.

Mama had Alzheimer’s, and it had progressed to the point where she didn’t always recognize everyone, had trouble bathing herself, was sometimes incontinent, and was telling the same jokes every 5 minutes or so (I gather she was quite the humorist in her younger years!). But she was cared for in house, not as a favor or duty, but as a matter of course.

At that point in my development, I didn’t question the necessity for nursing homes. Elderly people need to have somewhere to go, right? And their children are likely too busy with their careers to take care of them. So it makes sense that they should go to nursing homes!

But in Totontepec, the number one priority is taking care of family. That is your career. You walk the mountain road to the milpa in the morning for the family. You grind the corn into masa and cook tortillas on the metate for the family.

And you have a grand time doing it, laughing the day away with smiles and love and compassion, with the ones you love!

Through halting dialogue (my Spanish at the time was atrocious), I tried to express my admiration for them, for the care they gave their mother. They really couldn’t understand it, because they couldn’t conceive of another way. So I tried to explain about nursing homes. I’m not sure how much I conveyed, but I read expressions of dismay and perhaps horror on their faces. What a place! God, save us.

From my Oaxaca journal:

July 1, 2008
But the thing is, these people are letting their mother, who has Alzheimer’s, can’t remember a blessed thing, and hockers incessantly, live with them; they’re taking care of her, and not grudgingly, either. They love her, and she knows she’s loved. She can’t be left alone, so someone is always home to take care of her. She sleeps in Maura’s bed – sometimes (3 or 4 times since I’ve been here, I think) she wets the bed. They just laugh it off!

As it is with the young, so it is with the old – the best caregiver will always be the one who feels an unconditional love for you, the one who shares that bond. Love of this kind makes the caregiver infinitely sensitive, considerate, and compassionate. What Mama needed in order to be comfortable and cared for was, above all, unfettered/uninstitutionalized human contact, the hand of her daughter on her shoulder telling her that she’s loved.

What I learned that July: I will be that daughter someday. Happily, and with all my heart.

When it took a village to raise a child, we didn’t need institutions 02/18/2011

Posted by ALT in Alternative Lifestyles, Children's Mental Health, Historical Context.
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“It takes a village to raise a child” seems to be the official slogan of social workers and children’s mental health professionals everywhere.  They chant it from the podium at their national conferences and write it in bold, ALL CAPS on the tops of position papers and task force reports.

It’s an old African proverb, though it seems to apply to traditional cultures worldwide.  The idea was – and in a few places, still is – that the village is a combination playground/one-room schoolhouse, and each villager a potential mentor, teacher, or caregiver.  Everybody has a stake in providing support, love, and kindness to children, because, as the old cliché goes, the children are our future. 

[I always say that a cliché is someone else’s epiphany that you just haven’t had yet…]

But, again, we see that the language has been changed to suit the purposes of an industrialized society.  What the proverb seems to mean today is that it takes a cadre of certified professionals and a good amount of restrictive, institutionalized settings to get the job of raising children up to be “productive members of society” done.

A great way to insure job security – but is it a great way to raise a child?  I’ve seen the children with said “village” watching their every move… they don’t seem too happy about it. 

There was a time in this country when it did take a village to raise a child, in the traditional sense.  Back then, they didn’t have compulsory schooling, Child Protective Services, hospitalized birthing, child psychiatrists.  Below is a slideshow of some images from those days.  For me, these photographs evoke a wistfulness, a curious longing…

They make me wonder:  What have we done?

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Reframing Subsistence Lifestyles: when enough is enough, so-called “poverty” is irrelevant 02/01/2011

Posted by ALT in Alternative Lifestyles.
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Should poverty be defined institutionally, officially (ie, one definition meant to apply to all peoples of the world), or should it be a subjective, more personalized concept?  Does an institution have the right to label a group of people as “impoverished,” or should people decide that for themselves based on an existing disconnect between their needs and their realities?

 
Poverty defined institutionally, for the first time

In January of 1949, then President Harry Truman gave a speech that at once defined, for the first time, over 2/3 of the world’s population as “underdeveloped” (ie, impoverished), and demanded that lifting them up, improving their lots, become a matter of national and international priority.

WAR ON POVERTY.  Subsistence farmers the world over – from Oaxaca, Mexico to the Gambia to our very own Appalachians – were living sub-standard lives!  Something had to be done!  (Keep in mind, this was before globalization had spurred the monstrous growth of “Global South” cities like Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro, etc.  “Impoverished” in its official capacity today includes those millions of rural immigrants, displaced, living in slums in unutterably horrible conditions, living the “industrialized dream” as it were…)

The War On Poverty is ongoing today.   The UN has set benchmarks for 2012, the IMF is handing out “aid” (with strings attached, of course) left and right, and we even have an International Eradication of Poverty Day.

But what does a war on poverty mean?  One way to frame it is a war on “impoverished lifestyles.”  Subsistence lifestyles.  To lift those impoverished ones up to a “better standard of living.”  That better standard of living would of course involve a lot of capitalist/corporatist economic growth, a lot of consumption, a population of people who always want more – more gadgets to buy, more stuff.  A population of people who just don’t know the meaning of the word “enough.” 

Problem is, nobody thought to ask those “impoverished” people if they wanted a so-called “better standard of living.”  What if they were happy just they way they were?

Poverty, subjectively defined

What happens when you let people define for themselves what constitutes “poverty”?  People take a moment to evaluate their lives, think for themselves.  “What do I need to be well?  To be satisfied?  To be me, here, in the moment?”

You’ll get some surprising answers! 

The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty. We must start in our own homes to remedy this kind of poverty.  (Mother Theresa)         

Who, being loved, is poor?  (Oscar Wilde)

Real poverty is lack of books.  (Sidonie Gabrielle)

As it turns out, defining poverty can be anything from an official task to a spiritual quest. 

12 X 12

Floorplan for William Power's 12' X 12' cabin in rural North Carolina.

A recent book by William Powers, 12 X 12: A one-room cabin off the grid and beyond the American Dream, places supposedly impoverished, subsistence lifestyles into a modern American context.  Basically, William moves into a small cabin (officially considered a “shed” in North Carolina legalese) that is literally 12’ X 12’ for about 6 months or so.  No electricity, no water, no plumbing.  No refrigerator – who needs one when there’s a bountiful garden right outside your door?  The experience prompts all kinds of post-modern musings, spiritual awakenings, etc. (the book is a bit self-indulgent; however it’s at least more readable than Walden!).

There are some really powerful ideas here.  William learns the “art of leisure,” of being, rather than doing.  By practicing permaculture, his need to “cultivate” his gardening space is quite diminished – he can produce his food with only a moderate amount of effort. 

He spends whole days doing little more than walking around in the woods.  Mindfulness.  Things become a bit more peaceful, calm.  He radically re-evalutes his own ideas about “poverty.”  And he comes to the realization that the subsistence lifestyle in a 12’ X 12’ cabin (given a clean, natural space and a good supply of books), works quite well for him.

Some of the benefits

Subsistence builds community:

They [Stan and Mary, two subsistence garlic farmers from New Mexico] were constantly ‘snatching from the cash flow,’ as Stan put it, living without savings right on the edge of subsistence like most of humanity.  Yet that’s exactly what bound them with others.  A kind of barter system existed in the area – I shear your sheep, you midwife for me – as well as a traditional communal relationship over irrigation that centered around maintaining tiny dirt canals called acequias.  This wasn’t just pragmatism; I sensed a real passion and spirit that comes from subsistence.  I saw it again all over the Global South, where living along the contours of enough, without much surplus, keeps you on your entrepreneurial toes and linked to others through reciprocity.

“Vernacular culture” and a productive idleness:

Tough choices face both the Workaholic North and the Idle Majority.  We’re in the same ship, trying to navigate choppy twenty-first century waters.  Those in the Idle Majority who navigate it best seem to be the ones who don’t exchange their entire culture for seductive consumption… They still maintain a connection with the land, including continuing to plant and harvest potatoes.  They retain the best of what their grandparents knew, stewarding ‘vernacular culture’ – a body of knowledge that has evolved over thousands of years in every corner of the globe.  Vernacular culture is the enduring wisdom that sustains a spiritually rich life, so it is regenerative by the nature of survival… Nearly all vernacular cultures embrace abundant idleness, the “beingness” that binds humans and nature.

Living well vs. living better:

Looking up into the heavans, I considered a fundamental question: Is the modern [development] project, the flattening world [globalization] ultimately leading us to greater happiness, health, and enviornmental sustainability?  There’s so much we can learn from the cultures of the Global South.  I thought of … the Aymara idea of ‘living well.’  The Aymara do not seek to improve their lot in any material sense.  The idea is not to live better, but to live well: friends, family, healthy body, fresh air and water, enough food, and peace.  Jackie [owner of the 12 X 12] joked that she was ‘downwardly mobile.’  A lot of people would call her poor.  But perhaps she had consciously scaled back from the paradigm of living better – with its high levels of enviornmental destruction, collective anxiety, and personal depression – to living well… where many in the world still live, and live quite well.

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