Sunday, September 11, 2011

Back to the Garden (September 11, 2011)

When I was a teen-ager, my favorite thing in all the world was to hide out in my bedroom listening to albums on my turntable. Not so much of the rock and roll, but musical comedy and opera. One of my favorites was an opera by Leonard Bernstein called “Candide” based on the famous French novel by Voltaire. It’s the most cynical depiction of human nature that you can imagine in musical comedy form, yet at the end the ensemble unites in one of the most stirring moments from my massive record collection, singing
Let dreamers dream
What worlds they please
Those Edens can't be found.
The sweetest flowers,
The fairest trees
Are grown in solid ground.

We're neither pure, nor wise, nor good
We'll do the best we know.
We'll build our house and chop our wood
And make our garden grow...
And make our garden grow.

I hadn’t thought about that song in maybe 20 years, but this week the tune started to come back to me. I’ve always been a dreamer and an idealist, and by the time I went off to seminary and grappled with the big questions of life, I decided that the best single statement of truth was best found in the Beatles' song “All you need is love.” Being a dreamer and an idealist, so have often been disappointed in my life by the way things turn out. I experienced betrayal and loss as all people do, and the oppression of un-just systems. I realized that while this was Love is a good guiding principle in general, it must be grounded in the reality of our daily lives. When dreams are grounded in, well, solid ground, change happens.

This year the worship team has chosen to explore in a series of sermons the principles of permaculture. I’ll let the other members of the team speak for themselves about what this means to them, but to me this is the most hopeful vision I have to offer you- the fairest trees, the sweetest fruits are grown in solid ground. I think permaculture speaks to a deep and primal dream- the return to the fair garden where things grow in harmony.

The story of Genesis in the Hebrew scriptures was written probably 5 or 600 years BC, but I was taught that these stories were from an oral tradition that had been passed on through story telling long before that. UUs tend to look at this story not as a historical fact, but as an archetypal story that has spoken to many peoples over thousands of years, and to me, today, it speaks of an ecological system in harmony, where all the beings in the system, including humans, have enough to eat, and can co-exist in peaceful cooperation with one another. Oh, and it’s not too much work, things just kind of grow and are fruitful and self regenerating.

In our Unitarian Universalist history we have often worked to create a more just and compassionate world. In our old statement of belief the (The Washington Declaration of 1935) “we avow our faith in … the power of men of good-will and sacrificial spirit to overcome evil and progressively establish the Kingdom of God.” I’ve always had trouble with that phrase, but back in seminary a friend of mine said she preferred the “kin-dom of God” because it expressed a more egalitarian sense of our vision, of what we were working to accomplish with our lives as individuals as a church community, and as a movement. I think of the Kingdom of God in our Universalist statement of belief not as a heaven with pearly streets, nor as a time in the future when life will be perfect, but as a vision of what could be that guides us in the right direction, that gives us something to work toward. I think we still need that hopeful vision today. A guiding vision of what this world would look like if it were imbued with fairness and balance. Instead of a kingdom, I propose a garden.

To describe this garden I’m imagining, I need to talk first about systems. A System is a “set of interacting or interdependent components forming an integrated whole. ” Like the human body, or a society, or a garden. This is a way of looking at the world developed by a German Biologist in the mid-twentieth century who was trying to address the fragmented way science looks at things, dividing them neatly between specialties. He was trying to integrate all the scientific disciples, both natural (like biology and physics) and social (like psychology and sociology). It turns out that there are a number of things that all systems have in common, enough to really change how we look at the world. Because this disciple was seeking for the ways different systems are a like, it has raised some wonderful new questions like “how is a farm like a forest” and “how is a church community like a living being.”

This year as we look at principles of permaculture, we are not just looking at tips for gardeners, we are laying out a holistic map of principles or paths that will tend to get us closer to integrated healthy productive systems in balance, back to the garden. I propose that the Eden of our imaginations is actually a vision of a system in balance. As integral parts of many systems ourselves, we are hardwired to long for homeostasis, to long for a system in balance. Because by any account we are out of balance. And the culture we are living in is not sustainable- we all know this not only because we watch the news but because as living beings we know what balance looks like, we know what sustainability looks like, and this isn’t it.

In this very discouraging time, Permaculture offers a source of hope. The permaculture movement was begun in the early 1970s by two Australians: David Holmgren and Bill Mollison They were disturbed one the issues we have been talking about here in this congregation for the past few years; the way contemporary agriculture is practiced is not sustainable- it uses up top soil and fossil fuels with no thought for the future. Permaculture comes from the words “permanent” and “agriculture” Holmgren wrtires that “The idea which initiated permaculture was the forest as a model for agriculture”, since forests are self-sustaining systems teeming with life.

But Mollison and Holmgren they started to work with these ideas, they realized that the problem was bigger than agriculture, for example even the oil industry agrees that we are due to see an irreversible decline world oil production in the next couple of decades. So they enlarged the scope of their vision to be “Permanent Culture” Permaculture. Sustainable culture. A system where what is coming in is in balance with what is going out. This holistic way of looking at problems and solutions has at its core 3 values: Care for the Earth, (the soil, forests and water) Care for People (our selves, kin and community) , and Fair Share (setting limits to consumption and reproduction, and redistributing the surplus). Because we are part of something larger than ourselves, part of a living system, and therefore it is foolish to think that we ourselves could be self sustaining if we as a global economy are running out of topsoil and fossil fuel.

In this pursuit of a balanced sustainable system, the garden itself will be our teacher. Nature has tremendous wisdom about creating balanced sustainable systems or we ourselves would not be here on this planet. And nature generally tends towards that balance, but nature takes thousands or millions of years sometimes to achieve that balance, and while I have no doubt that my backyard garden will come into ecological harmony if left to its own devices for a decade or two, we are builders and creators. It says in the genesis story that we were put in the garden “to till and to keep it.” That’s who we are, it’s in our nature. This summer I spent as much time as possible in Lake Cayuga. And on the shore there was always a child or two moving around piles of earth and stones. Is there anyone else here who’s ever built something on the beach? It’s almost instinctual for us I think. And anyone who has ever built a sand castle remembers the first time that big wave comes and washes it all away. Oh the humanity! So the next time we build our sand castle maybe we build it further inland, or maybe we build channels for the water to flow so that our castle now has a moat for the tide to flow into instead of just knocking down our castle right away. Or maybe we build a bigger higher castle, with big rocks cause darn it that ocean is not going to stop me building my castle where I want to build it. Permaculture is a school of study that says “you know what? You are never going to stop the tide from coming in, build your sand castle accordingly.”

Our next step when we are building the sand castle is to look around the shoreline to see what nature has done over the past thousand years or so about this whole problem of building near a body of water. WE use nature’s wisdom as a model. This is called “bio-mimicry” It is the hopeful idea that solutions for many of our challenges are already out there in the world. We don’t have to invent a better pesticide- that’s what bats are for. We create solutions that work with nature like a partner, a teacher, a collaborator instead of as a foe to be vanquished and overcome. When we work against nature, we waste time and money. My favorite example, and one I fall into myself, is how every fall we rake up leaves, bagging them up and hauling them off to the dump, then purchasing fertilizer or compost or mulch to replenish our gardens. Permaculture notices that in a forest, no one hauls out the leaves, and no one has to haul in fertilizer. It proposes that if we look to the forest as a teacher we see that perhaps we are wasting not only our time and energy, but the fuel to power the trucks and the financial and environmental costs of hauling it away, the financial and environmental costs fertilizing. Nature has been working on this problem for millions of years- the answer is to use waste as food. The leaves don’t need to be outputs that leave our garden, they can be used right where they fall, or moved to a part of our garden that needs that can use those dead leafs for nourishment.

The most important aspect of permaculture is that we have to look at the garden, the system as a whole- as an interconnected web of life of which we are all a part. If we don’t take the time to time to think of the whole community, the whole ecosystem, the whole culture, then we are like a kid playing whack-a-mole, plug a hole here and the problem pops up someplace else.

Last spring I went to the Rowe Retreat center for the first time to attend a weekend long workshop by my favorite Witch and activist Starhawk. Her topic was “Principles of true abundance.” These can be scary times we are living in; when we lose a job or find our retirement savings plummeting in value with the stock market it is hard to see our world as abundant. It is easy for us to tie abundance to money, and feel insecure and powerless. But true abundance comes from a system in balance, when inputs balance outputs. Remember Ben Franklin said “a penny saved is a penny earned?” Well many are starting to realize that a penny saved is better than a penny earned, because you didn’t have to exert that energy earning it in the first place.

It turns out that her principles of abundance were also the principles of permaculture, counseling us to look in new places for abundance, like our relationships, like the web of life of which we are a part, like the trash heap, like our ancestors, or our diversity. In this time of imbalance and scarcity, we need to know where abundance truly lies. So this year our worship team will be exploring 8 principles of abundance, principles of a sustainable and balanced culture. What makes these permaculture principles relevant for us as a faith community is that they are rooted not only in the pagan tradition, of which Starhawk is a leader, but also in the humanist tradition which honors science, reason and the direct observation of truth in the world, and it also links to this ancient Judeo-Christian tradition of a garden where the fruit trees grow, where all live in balance and harmony.

As Unitarian Universalists, we already are committed to affirm and promote a respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. I think we need to take that one step further- we need to be committed to bring the web back into balance, a sustainable balance for the natural and human worlds alike (knowing how intimately those worlds, those systems are interdependent), and as Universalists who believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person, I think we can commit to sharing fairly among all those with whom we share this earth. Way back in 1887 Unitarian minister William Channing Gannett declared: "We believe that we ought to join hands and work to make the good things better and the worst good, counting nothing good for self that is not good for all.”

This is a hopeful vision: a world in balance, a garden where the leaves that fall from a tree become food for new growth, where apples from the tree feed the gardeners and the canopy of the tree provides shelter from sun and wind for creatures and people alike. This vision will be our guiding star, and though we may never reach it except in part, it will lead us in a worthy direction. As our map to lead us there we will use these principles, and I challenge each of us to apply the principles not as a set of directions but as is uniquely appropriate in our own daily lives, in our own corner of the earth. I challenge each of us to think of ourselves not as isolated individuals, but as part of something larger than ourselves, part of countless interlocking systems. I challenge each of us to notice what works and what doesn’t work as we move through this year, and so to add to the wisdom of our tradition. Because a vision is only useful, in direct relationship to what grows from the springs from the ground to which we ourselves are connected. A vision is only powerful if it makes our garden grow.

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