Tuesday, March 6, 2012

At the Edges of the Garden (March 4, 2012)

(This sermon is part of an ongoing series on the Principles of Permaculture. The 8 principles we are using come from Starhawk's "Principles of True Abundance")

Growing up in Pennsylvania, there were many things that amazed me when we moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, but nothing more than the coast where the Pacific Ocean meets the land. Now as you might imagine, growing up outside Philadelphia I had been to the jersey shore on occasion, but the Pacific coast is different. Instead of these long stretches of beach where hundreds of families put up their beach umbrellas, the Pacific is edged with rocky cliffs, and the distance from water to cliff is often quite short. Those cliffs provide a more fruitful home for vegetation and wildlife than a wide expanse of sand. The most amazing thing of all was tide pools. I didn’t think I would see a real tide pool in my lifetime; I thought that was something only National Geographic photographers got to see. But within an hour or two from my house there were several different state parks where at low tide you could see these tiny eco-systems inhabited by hermit crabs, snails, lipids, muscles, even occasionally a starfish and most amazing of all, anemone- those colorful ocean flowers. Each of these little tide pools is its own world – sometimes only a couple of feet in diameter. I read in a children’s book in the state park gift shop that if you were to pick up, say, a lipid from one tide pool and put it down in another it might not survive. These amazing little critters can only live on the edge where the land and sea meet. You could see how tide pools only a few inches deep was a great habitat for a hermit crab, but only in tide pools a foot or deeper would you find a starfish. Each anemone needed it’s own piece of edge to call home, preferably in the shade, and would only open when covered by the tide.

It turns out that the edge between water and land creates the most productive eco-systems on earth [Permaculture in a nutshell p. 48) for example, plants growing immediately adjacent to rivers and streams (they call this riparian vegetation] has greater diversity and grows more densely than just a few yards further away fro the waterway. I learned a new word- “ecotone” which is an overlapping edge between two bioregions, where there is greater diversity than one bioregion could produce on its own – the mixture not only of each of the two bioregions but also those special species that can only survive in such transitional space. For example, David Holmgren, one of the originators of Permaculture, reports that in his native Australia you normally see only 2 different species of eucalyptus trees in any given area, but in the Towamba Valley where 2 bioregions overlap, he counted 13 different species [p. 225 Permaculture Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability]

But our industrial culture doesn’t value edges. We try to reduce the number of edges, for example, by creating huge multi-acre farms, or by building houses in big residential developments. Consider those suburban areas where there are literally no mixed used areas, where you must drive past a mile or more of residential housing to get to stores or libraries, or to anything besides just residential housing. This is what we are used to- it feels efficient, and tidy and safe to us. It’s easy to see the benefits – if you are a farmer with a huge field of corn you can set a giant agricultural machine to go back and forth in neat horizontal passes. If you are a developer, you can buy a big tract of land, maybe an old farm, and just fill the whole thing in with houses without having to worry about all the complexities of city planning. Permaculture, which is a theory of agricultural and cultural design focused on sustainability, shows us actually the farms I pass on my way to work with a patch of farm next to a stand of trees may have environmental benefits. The edges of farms have great habitat for birds who provide pest control, the edges are allow for cross-pollination and hybridization that might provide needed diversity in times of drought or other farm disasters.

But many of us actually moved to the suburbs because we wanted to be on that edge between the farm or the wilderness and the city. Many of us would love to live around the corner from a state park or pedestrian business center, yet we build to minimize edge. In permaculture we are advised to actually try to create more edges. Now I learned the hard way in my 5th grade math class that a square or rectangle is not the way to make the most edges. A big block of housing or a large rectangular field has the least edge possible. IN my 5th grade math class I was stuck for weeks on the assignment to “Draw they shape with the greatest perimeter (that is to say, the most edges) with an area of 25.” I sat with my graph paper day after day drawing different shapes until finally the teacher took pity on me. It turns out that the shape with the greatest perimeter is a shape like a set of stairs- those open construction where you can walk underneath. Making nooks and crannies creates the most perimeter, the most edge. Think about the clean lines of the beaches in Atlantic City, and the many nooks and crannies of the tide pools on the pacific coast. The more edge, the more robust diversity of life. So the most diverse, productive farm or garden is going to be a patchwork of plants and trees and ponds and hedges.

Let’s move outside the garden into the community of persons. We can all probably call to mind a housing development or area that is single use only. They tend to be pretty quiet, and there is a singleness of purpose. I went walking near a friend’s home recently and we saw maybe one person who wasn’t in a car. Unless you are or out for a jog or a kid biking over to your friend’s house, there is no reason to go outside your house in such a neighborhood except to get into your car. But in what we call “mixed use” zoning, we might find retail stores and businesses mixed in with homes and you will find a greater bustle of activity. I moved from a neighborhood in California that was designed as a bedroom community. It was dense tracts of houses bordered by huge multi-lane roads to help people on their commutes to workplaces sometimes an hour away. Today I live in a neighborhood where people can live, and work and play and shop. It is a diverse and productive neighborhood which maximizes its edges much like the community of plants and animals we find alongside a pond or creek.

At the other edge of things, a lot of folks live out her in Bradford county because they want to be on the edge of agriculture and wilderness. I know a number of folks in this congregation have land where they raise their own food or animals, and other folks who live where they live because they can walk out their back door and right into a hike on uncultivated lands. Life is drawn to the edges.

I remember learning in high school about several different philosophical movements of western history. They always seemed start with the merchants- as the merchants opened up new trade roots or port cities, cultures from new places would meet and interact, ideas were exchanged and cross-pollination happened. It always seemed to happen the same way -- that these great intellectual and cultural growth spurts happened at the edges and overlaps of cultural eco-systems. And when I got to the San Francisco I realized that this was exactly what was happening there. At the edge of the pacific people from all over the world, but especially from the U.S., Latin America and Asia met and created amazing leaps in spirituality and theology and technology. I think it is no coincidence that West coast spirituality is considered so “far out” -- because it is born in a unique place where eastern and western theology meet and live together. I think it is no coincidence that there have been such massive technological advances in what we might call a cultural “ecotone” or that California has an the 9th largest economy in the world – it may be in part because of this tremendous cross-fertilization. Just as Holmgren found 13 species of Eucalyptus in costal eco-tone areas, there was tremendous cultural and racial and religious diversity in the valley where I used to live. My son went to a preschool in Cupertino, the town where Apple computers was born, and he was one of only 2 children in his preschool class who only spoke English. I think maybe 5 or 6 different countries of origin were represented just in his 3-year-old class.

In our political discourse right now, when we talk about “borders” the political rhetoric is all about defending them- defending them from the very diversity that makes borders valuable. We as a nation are saying that having 13 species of eucalyptus tree in the border where eco-systems meet is scary, that we feel more comfortable with the 2 species of tree we are used to.

Our US borders used to be mostly open. Until the 1790s any free white person became a citizen after 2 years. The Page Act of 1875 (Sect. 141, 18 Stat. 477, 1873-March 1875) was the first law to really single out immigrants to exclude, and particularly focused on women from China. We were eager to have immigrants from China to bring desperately needed income and labor into California, but most analysts say that we as a country excluded Chinese women, and in fact women from all over Asia, from immigrating because of, well racism – we were afraid that Chinese families would put down roots and bring the very cultural diversity that has over the centuries been so enriching to our nation. Then in 1882 the Chinese exclusion act singled out immigrants from china who had provided so much of the labor for mining during the goldrush, and for building our railroads – this act said that Chinese Immigrants could never become citizens, and if they left the country for any reason they could never return. It was not repealed until 1943!

Then in the 1920s that we began instituting the quota system based on country. According to the U.S. Department of State Office of the Historian, "In all its parts, the most basic purpose of the 1924 Immigration Act was to preserve the ideal of American homogeneity.” Though the diversity in our country has grown, the obstacles faced by recent immigrants to our country today are exponentially more difficult than those faced by immigrants when my grandfather and my husbands father and grandfather were entering this country.

Diversity is not an unequivocally better- there are strong, stable forests that have a simple mix of species, and there are certainly strong stable communities of humans that are homogeneous. And I think I understand why, when it comes to communities of humans, we are scared of margins and edges, why we are scared of the diversity it brings. Because diversity does change a local culture. When biology or culture mixes and mingles, it creates hybridization, which creates “new local cultures of place” (Holmgren p. 219)

Think about how when someone new joins our church, it changes us. When we add a new kind of plant to our garden it changes the garden. Holmgren writes “The change and transformation of the culture mainstream is an implicit part of multiculturalism” (p. 220) And all those immigrants who have come to America over the past 400 years have made our country into what it is today. What would the America we know and love be like without our Irish heritage? Our German culture? Italian? Chinese? African? Mexican? We could not be the country we are without any of these folks. Yet back in the early days of our country Ben Franklin remarked “Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion.” We are stunned now by Franklin’s racism against Germans, yet it is so strangely familiar that we might not be surprised to hear it on the television today. The principles of permaculture ask us to look at the margins, to look at diversity in a different way.

When we look to the garden we see that diversity creates stability. I’ve spoken often enough from the pulpit about the vulnerability of farming with a mono-culture of crops, and how poly-culture protects against disease and pests, but let’s think about, for example, a diversity of ages. Have you ever noticed how teenagers sleep late into the morning, whereas toddlers wake at the crack of dawn? There is some research now that it is beneficial to a community for different generations to have different sleep patterns, so that someone is always awake to mind the store. Or I think of an example from a campus ministry near a church I served. When I arrived at the church I inquired at the local college about the campus ministry there. They said they had had a good group but then the leaders had all graduated. The very next year a new group of leaders matriculated, and we worked to connect them to the local congregation where folks could give them rides to church, and where our ministry team could reach out to the new leaders and support them through transitions. The campus ministry became more stable as it became more diverse with regards to age.

Another benefit of diversity, whether we are talking about diversity of biology or of ideas, is that diversity provides new solutions to problems. I’ve seen independent bands who couldn’t afford mainstream gear create sounds using anything they could use their hands on- music boxes, drums, tanks (that’s where the steel drums come from - Caribbean musicians transforming old biscuit tins or paint pans or steel oil drums into an amazing new form of instrument ) If you have infinite financial resources there is always a solution for a price, but musicians at the margins must bring creativity to their sound. Or consider the GLBT pioneers whose growth at the edges of our culture just a generation ago have changed the way we see the world. They have made this a much safer time and a place for GLBTQ folks, and just as important, their pioneering presence creates space for all of us to more freely express gender and sexuality, it creates a more diverse numbers of models and ways for us to express ourselves. Says Holmgren, “Diversity provides alternative pathways for essential ecosystem functions in the face of changing conditions.” (P. 205)

It is the edges that provide habitat for diversity, not the great rolling fields of corn and soy, but the old English gardens divided by hedgerows, gardens with a diversity of fruits and vegetables edged by woods and residential areas, a patchwork of diversity that maximizes the edge, much as I learned in my 5th grade math class. Great diversity can be supported as we increase the edge, giving a niche, a tide pool, a “local culture of place” While the dominant culture steers us toward what Holmgren calls the “Global culture of no-place “ (p. 220) in which all local languages and cultures are inevitably lost in the “melting pot,” it is up to us in the local communities where we are rooted to value and enjoy the benefits of a diverse ecology of flora and fauna, of cultures and ages. Communities with diversity have more resources and flexibility as things change.

This principle- of valuing diversity and honoring the edges, is not one which matches cleanly with one of our UU principles and purposes. And yet it seems to me an important part of who we are and how our tradition has always grown. As a people of open minds, UUs have often been at the growing edge with our ideas and have often helped bring them into the mainstream. But we also see in our history for our institutions to codify those now mainstream ideas, and to forget that the edge itself is valuable, that It produces ever more novelty and diversity and growth. Our religious tradition is not just about those ideas and principles we learned at the margins, but is also a process of remembering to turn to the edges for solutions and creativity, instead of mowing them down to create uniformity.

True abundance can be found by honoring the edges, both of our gardens, of our waterways, and of our communities. True abundance is found when we value diversity; when we think of ourselves as one living organism we don’t need to fear the competition or change diversity brings, but be grateful for the both the stability and flexibility it adds to our community, to our ecology. Consider the abundance of the thousands of unique people in our little valley, the hundreds of thousands of unique species all over the world. If that’s not abundance, I don’t know what is. Whether we are in our gardens, in beloved community, or considering national immigration policy, let us remember always to honor the edges, to see what wisdom may be found there.

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