Have you ever had aphids in your garden? Aphids are tiny little light green bugs eat the sap out of a rosebush or a tomato plant. I know when I see them in my garden I tend to panic. They reproduce like crazy- I heard that aphids can actually give birth to female offspring that are already pregnant! Conventional wisdom is to spray everything with insecticide -- to kill them all because if you let even a couple survive they will reproduce quickly and your garden will be covered with aphids again in no time. Moreover, each generation of aphids that survive are increasingly resistant to those insecticides.
Last year about this time I went to a workshop led by writer and Activist Starhawk about the “Principles of True Abundance” she called this the “nuke what annoys you” plan, and said that true abundance comes instead from “feeding what you want to grow.” Pests like aphids have natural enemies. In the case of aphids, one of their enemies is ladybugs. So in theory it is best to leave your aphid problem to the local ladybug population. Here’s the tricky part: predators of all kinds breed more slowly than their prey. They are slower to respond to changes to the ecosystem. This is a good thing, because it keeps predators from completely wiping out their own food sources. But when you spray insecticide all over your garden, you are killing not only most of the aphids, but most of the ladybugs. And because aphids reproduce so much more quickly than ladybugs, they will recover faster.
In this case, in our garden full of aphids, what we want to grow is ladybugs. So if we are thinking long-term, we can plant Marigolds, or dill, or fennel which are favorite foods of ladybugs. Ladybugs overwinter under rocks and in leaf litter, so we feed what we want to grow by letting a layer of fall leaves lay on the garden all winter, instead of “tidying up” as many of us have been taught to do.
Know who else likes to eat aphids? The Chickadee and the titmouse. Birds are some of the best insect eaters there are. If we want to make our garden bird friendly, we can add not only a birdfeeder to help get them through the lean times, but we would also make sure there are dense shrubs and trees to nest in as well as branches to perch on. To make our garden a home for birds we would also need a source of water. Now if you’ve ever been in an airplane, you remember flying over what looks like a quilt – but those quilt blocks are actually huge fields of neat rows of crops. If you drive by such fields they stretch on as far as the eye can see. You don’t see this as much on the roads I take to work, the fields on my commute are not so vast, and usually bordered by wild uncultivated patches of trees and shrubs. But in those big huge fields of mono-crops, there is no place for our bird friends to live and hide and nest. Most conventional fields are sprayed with expensive insecticide which kills all the natural insect predators in the process of killing the aphids and other bugs which would do harm to our crops. The thing is -- this method is not working. Apparently the USDA has been keeping track of the numbers and you can see from their figures that 50 years ago, before our newfangled high-tech farming methods, crop loss to pests and disease was a bout 7 percent per year. Now that we have all these patented insecticides and high tech farming methods, or crop loss has gone up to 14%. This is compelling proof to me that the “nuke what annoys you” approach to pests is not as effective as we might believe.
This idea of “feeding what you want to grow instead of nuking what annoys you” can be extrapolated into our personal lives as well. I believe the usual phrase is “you get more flies with honey than with vinegar.” When I was reading every parenting book I could get my hands on this strategy was called “positive discipline.” This school of thought suggests that instead of focusing on punishing mistakes, we focus on catching our kids doing it right, and making sure they know what “doing it right” looks like. So if you see your child at the sink wet from head to toe and surrounded by a puddle of water, we all know what our first gut instinct would be, but we could also reply “oh, you remembered to wash your hands! Looks like you are doing a very thorough job. Now let me show you how to clean up all that water on the floor.”
I have found over the years that often my son when does something “wrong” he actually was never taught how or doesn’t have the resources to do it “right”. Sometimes a few minutes together at the sink is all a parent and child would need to prevent a hand washing catastrophe.
When it comes to relationships, often the most effective thing we can give them to help them grow is our attention. For example, when we adopted our rescue puppy Trey, he had just about every behavior problem there is. He was so timid and afraid that he spent most of each day curled up in one spot on the sofa. But part of the reason I had chosen to adopt a high needs dog was that my job as your minister allows me to work from home during the day, so I knew I would be around a lot. After that first month Trey could be in the same room with humans, and if I let him go to his special safe spot and cower, he would let me pick him up. Because he was afraid of the stairs, every time I went upstairs to my study to work I would scoop him up from his safe spot and bring him with me so he could spend the time in his bed by my desk, or peaking out the window.
We were supposed to go out of town that first Memorial Day weekend, but because Trey was still very tenuous in his behavioral gains, we decided to stay home and just spend time together as a family. All 3 humans and 2 dogs puttered around the house. I played a little mandolin, mopped the kitchen, and taught my son a new card game. I started to remember that when we spend a day together just hanging out at home, good things happen. Our new dog even forgot himself and took a biscuit out of my hand instead of waiting for me to put it on the floor a safe distance away!
Finally it got to be bedtime, and Trey, who was really feeling like part of the pack, looked wistfully up the stairs after us as we ascended. I decided it was worth a try and carried him up. He went first to his bed by my desk but wasn't sure where to go when I headed to the bedroom. He paced and explored until I decided he was just too excited to sleep, so I carried him back downstairs to hang out with my partner.
Imagine my surprise when I woke some hours later and saw Trey curled up at the foot of our bed. He had climbed the stairs all by himself, and found himself a place to sleep. And that was that. He goes up and down the stairs now whenever he must and sleeps with the rest of the pack. Something huge changed for him that weekend, and I learned once again that good things happen when the family just spends time together. Our relationships grow when we feed them with time and attention.
We often give our attention to troubles and obstacles, to things that annoy us. Instead, feeding what we want to grow means that we give our attention to things that we want to have in our life. Many years back my partner and I were watching the now famous Bill Moyers interview with Joseph Campbell in a series called “The power of Myth”.
Campbell says to Moyer: “I always tell my students, go where your body and soul want to go. When you have the feeling, then stay with it, and don't let anyone throw you off.”I heard that remark at a powerful turning point in my life. I had just dropped out of grad school where I was studying to become an opera singer, and it seemed like the most important thing to do was to get a good job that would bring in a steady income and maybe even health insurance. I should get an office job like normal people, I thought. (whatever that means.) Can you imagine if I had done that? If what I had decided to feed was “being normal” and “getting a paycheck?” Instead I decided to feed that part of me that was curious about why things are the way they are, and what it all means. I fed it by carefully choosing the books I read, the adventures I had, and eventually with 4 years of seminary education. That part of myself that I fed eventually did grow, and became a minister. I am still feeding it, and it is still growing.
MOYERS asks: “What happens when you follow your bliss?”
CAMPBELL replies : “You come to bliss.”
A woman came to me long ago for pastoral counseling. She told me that a co-worker was driving her CRAZY. You know how sometimes in your job situation or family, or maybe even here at the fellowship sometimes there will be a person who just rubs you the wrong way? My parishioner came and met with me several times about her conflict with this other woman. I asked her each time “what is good in your life? What are you doing to take care of yourself?” By our 3rd meeting on the topic of her difficult work relationship my parishioner could think of nothing good at all. She fed so much of her energy to this difficult relationship that it had grown and grown until there was room for nothing else in her heart. By counseling this woman I was able to see this tendency more clearly in my own life. When I get obsessed with, for example, how someone else in my house does or doesn’t do the dishes, this is a sign to me that there is probably something in my own life that I am not feeding. Whatever you feed will most likely grow- so be very careful about what you feed.
It’s not too hard to make the leap then to global politics. When Starhawk introduced this concept to us she asked “what if we had responded in this way to the events of 9-11 instead of responding with military might” in what she characterizes as the “nuke what annoys you” response. She asked- “what if instead of pouring resources into armed conflict, what if we had put that same amount of energy and support into our relationships with moderate Muslims and allies in those areas where terrorism had taken root?”
Going back to the garden she explained that in the Permaculture school of design you really want to avoid weeding. Usually the weeds serve some purpose, and if we plant the right plants and feed what we want to grow, the weeds won’t have an opportunity to take over. We asked her, thinking of movements like Occupy Wall street, and about the structures of power that are oppressive to many “don’t you sometimes have to weed?” Yes, she said, sometimes you do. But we must differential between people and structures. Sometimes structures need to be torn down, but there are people within them that we don’t have to demonize. When we weed we make room for new things to grow, and liberate energy and resources. When we tear down, she said, we must be careful of how we use the materials that made up the old structures, like when you tear down an old house.
She told us about the Gaza Freedom March she had attended in Egypt in the first days of 2010. They were supposed to enter Gaza through the Rafah border to meet with human rights groups to “bear witness to the continuing devastation” in Gaza. When they were not allowed to cross the border, they continued their protest in Egypt. There organizers were training grassroots communities in a school of organizing based on Gene Sharp’s work on non-violent struggle. Starhawk points out that when the people of Egypt rose up a year later everyone supposed it was just another protest, but in fact that organizing had been going on for years, starting in the poor neighborhoods and calling others to join them. Different news outlets calculate that somewhere between 500-800 folks died in the Egyptian uprising. But contrast those tragic deaths to these staggering numbers: over 4000 US service men and women and over 100,000 civilians who died in the Iraq war based on the Iraq war logs compiled by the US military.
The idea of “feeding what you want to grow” is that if we feed violence, what will grow is violence. If we feed nonviolent uprising and grassroots organizing, what will grow is non-violent uprising and grassroots uprising. You can see that this is a radical and subversive idea; it is not one adopted widely in our society. But the hope is that if you feed what you want to grow, what grows will be the very thing you wanted. Don’t take my word for it, try it in your life, and see what happens. Try it not just once, but consistently and patiently as you would care for a young child or a seedling in a garden. Notice what you are feeding and what is growing. May ladybugs and nonviolence, love, and harmony flourish in all our gardens.