Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Catch and Store Energy (April 22, 2012)

Each Summer Eric and Nick and I go to a music festival up in Trumansburg. Because we like to camp, we need to get up and get on the road as early as we can stand that first morning. But no matter how early you get up, as you turn onto the road approaching the festival you will see that the line of cars already waiting at the camping entrance goes farther than the eye can see. So you pull over at the end of that line of cars, turn off your engine, and get our your lawn chairs and your cooler, because you are going to be there for a while. Last year, this coincided with the hottest day of the year, maybe the hottest day in years. In an incredible stroke of luck, at the moment when we pulled up the end of the line was in front of an old old house with a border of old old trees about 10 feet from the road. We threw down a picnic blanket in the abundant shade provided by those trees and lay there reading and daydreaming as the day got hotter and hotter, until some hours later we finally we saw signs of motion up the road and entered the parade of vehicles into the camping section of the fairgrounds. As we crawled along in our station wagon loaded down like modern day pioneers, the hot sun blazed. It turns out there were very few trees on that road old enough, tall enough, with a canopy large enough to block out the mid day sun. We had been the beneficiaries of some wise person, generations ago, who had the foresight to invest in a few saplings, and the vision to see the shade canopy those trees would provide in their maturity to grandchildren or great grandchildren playing on the lawn.

It turns out, once again, that our grandparents were right; it is critically important that we put something away for a rainy day. I remember my grandfather was the one to walk me over to our local bank to help me open a pass-book account when I was just a little girl. I’m pretty sure he gave me $10 to get it started too. Because you all are a fair compensation employer, you make a contribution to my 401K each year so that I will have something tucked away for my retirement. Saving money is one way we “catch and store energy.”

It’s easy for us to forget, however, that money is only a means of exchange for what we really want and need. Eric and I once showed up at an outdoor concert where we were sure they would be selling food, and spent the day with grumbling stomachs wishing we had brought a couple of sandwiches instead of that $20 bill in our pockets. As the bumpersticker goes, “you can’t eat money.” My dad, who lived through the depression, taught me to always have reserves in my pantry as well as emergency savings in the bank. One of the most basic things that the Red Cross recommends people do to prepare for an emergency is to have an emergency preparedness kit- a backpack or trash can filled with things we might need in an emergency- bottled drinking water, shelf stable food, prescription medication – because when there is an emergency just having money in the bank will not get us through a time when basic services have broken down. We have only to remember the impact of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and surrounding communities to know that this is so.

Because this is the last of this year’s sermon series on the “Principles of True Abundance” I want to talk a little bit about how nature catches and stores energy. The most basic form of energy that you and I and everyone being on this planet need is not fuel for our cars or electricity for our computers. It is the energy that runs our own bodies- food. And ultimately our food comes from the sun- the sun’s energy turned by plants into carbohydrates which we, and the animals we eat, turn into fuel. But plants also need good soil to grow. The soil itself is this amazing savings account, storing and transforming all the nutrients that arrive by rain and gravity, and the falling of dead leaves and bodies. All those nutrients of beings who have died become the ultimate inheritance for future generations. When you ask yourself, what is the best form of investment- is it stocks? Is it bonds? Gold? A mutual fund? Really, the best most enduringly valuable investment the best way to catch and store energy, is good fertile soil. Another one of Mother Nature’s good long term savings plans is seed. In these tiny packages not only all the Genetic material to create a highly evolved life forms, but also some really dense nutrition for that seed to start its life. This is why nuts and other seeds are so nutritionally dense, and also so fattening. This is why the great Indian environmental activist (and physicist) Vandana Shiva has devoted so much of her career to creating a seed saving bank, because no matter what the future holds, if you have a diverse collection of seeds and some good rich soil, you can feed your community.

Another of Mother Nature’s really long term savings plans … trees. Trees take carbon, one of the basic building blocks of life, and store it for hundreds, even thousands of years. We talk a lot about “carbon sequestration” when we worry about global climate change, because we know that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere leads to the green house effect that dramatically chances our earth’s climate. But Carbon Sequestration is not just about taking carbon out of the atmosphere. David Holmgren, one of the Co-Originators of the Permaculture Concept, reminds us what a great savings account a stand of trees can be. Wood is also a good way to catch and store energy, because not only can be used to fuel fires as humans have done for warmth for over a million years, but because homes, furniture, even battleships have been made from timber until quite recently. Trees also provide shade and habitat for birds (who, you will remember from a few weeks back, are one of nature’s best insecticides). And finally as the leaves fall to the ground or when the trees decompose and all that wealth joins the savings plan that is our humus. When I get my 401K statement in the mail, there is always a reminder to “diversifying my portfolio” Which usually means to have both stocks AND bonds. But they never mention trees. And not just trees, but all perennial plants. We’ve all enjoyed the abundance of our neighbor's rhubarb plot over the years. Rhubarb is a hardy perennial, an investment that pays off every after year as the plants catch and store energy that we enjoy in pie form.

Then of course we must consider water. There can be no life for us without water. And it just falls right out of the sky around here- for anyone to use! Sure we could go to work and earn money and take that money to the store to buy bottled water for our emergency preparedness kit, but we could also build a water catchment system to use now when we water our plants, and also to have a self-renewing source of water should our local wells become contaminated. Creating small catchment systems (which, when mother nature does it we calls lakes or ponds or aquifers) is a great way of putting aside something for when we need it later.

But this year, our series on Principles of True Abundance is not just about how we can let Mother nature teach us practical lessons, like how to make sure there is always enough to eat, but to let Mother Nature be kind of like a scripture for us, to read the bio-systems of our world for wisdom we can use in our own spiritual lives.

For example, have you ever felt burned out? You know you are burned out when you have no energy for the work you are doing, and even though you know you should care, and even though the work may at one time have been something you felt very passionate about, now it just feels like something you have to slog through. A person whose spirit is burnt out is a lot like land that has been over-farmed. All the nutrients were taken out with no system for restoring those nutrients to the soil. Sometimes burnout is caused because we just plain work too hard for too long. Our society really encourages us to do this. In some workplaces seeing a co-working still plugging away at their work at 9:00 pm is considered the sign of a committed worker. In some work places going home before 7 shows that you are kind of a slacker. In most cases your boss doesn’t care if you are living a balanced life, or if you are spending enough time tending your relationships, their job is simply to increase productivity.

Have any of you read the books of Tamora Pierce? She is young adult author who has these great strong heroines. And when the heroine comes for her great battle with evil, she uses every bit of strength she has left, and then passes out. Seriously. Then the heroine wakes up later in a hospital bed or something, and the friend or nurse or teacher who has been caring for her while she was unconscious explains that she has used up all her energy and has been resting, unconscious, for hours or days trying to “get her strength back.” And I always wonder- what if that friend or teacher hadn’t been there to drag her off the battlefield and dress her wounds and keep her safe and dry while she “got her energy back?”

So part of burn out is using up all your energy, but the other part is about not catching and storing energy as you move through life. Where does our spiritual energy come from? It’s different than physical energy, right? I am crazy about the women’s marathon, and when those women finish, even if they can barely walk, they are not “burned out” they are flying high. They are proud and fulfilled even though they are exhausted. So part of catching and storing energy is about giving our energy to something that gives back. For me yoga is one of these things. I often go to yoga at 4:00, which is a time of day when I am normally grumpy and useless. So I go invest a little time in my physical health- in flexibility and strength, and in my spiritual health, by paying attention to my breasting and centering myself. I think of yoga very like the savings club at my son’s elementary school Every Thursday he brings a dollar and his Alternatives Federal Credit Union passbook, and builds his savings a count a little at a time. When I go to yoga I rarely see a big leap in strength or flexibility, but when I look aback over 5 or 10 years I a amazed at the changes I see in what my body can do.

There are also big investments in the spirit. 2 weeks ago I spent the weekend at the Rowe Retreat center with an old professor of mine. It was a weekend filled with “Aha”s that I am still unpacking and that are still feeding my spirit. I realized the other day that my last sabbatical, about 7 years ago, is still providing nutrients and richness for both my spiritual life and my professional life.

One of the best ways I catch and store energy in my own life is by giving energy to my relationships. It is invariably true that the relationships to which I give my time and attention grow and thrive better than those I neglect. And yes, probably that friend I spend so much time with will be there for me if I pass out unconscious after defeating the giant, or when I face one of those staggering losses that life deals out to all of us. But just as importantly, really good healthy relationships feed us as we feed them. And that nourishment is something we can draw on when things get tough. We are more resilient when we are healthy and nourished and strong, and less likely to pass out at the end of that important battle.

One more way we catch and store energy is one we talked about a few weeks back when we discussed the first Humanist Manifesto. They believed very strongly that not only was working for a just world for all the right thing to do, but they also believed that it feeds our spirits and helps us develop as persons. Sometimes, for financial reasons, we have to spend our days building widgets, even if we don’t particularly are about widgets. And if we are leading a balanced life and our work environment is decent this can be fine. But when we are doing work where we believe that we are making a real difference, whether we are paid for this work or do it as volunteers, the meaning of that work feeds us. Moreover, whenever we work for an equitable infrastructure to our world this is also like putting something away for a rainy day for ourselves.

Or consider art, or music. Think of all the hours Beethoven put into writing one of his great symphonies, or the time the Beatles took recording their albums. Every time we hear Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band on the radio, Every time we go to an art museum, or the library, we are enjoying the fruits of energy caught and stored for our benefit.

One of the keys to catching and storing energy is balance. First a balance between short term yield and long term security. In balance, that family vacation that deepens relationships and creates good memories may be just as good an investment as that same amount of money in a 401K. The other balance is investing in all the different kinds of vitamins and minerals a healthy person needs to live. I have known families where both parents work 50-60 hours a week or even more. They don’t’ have time to make their own food, or clean their own homes. The children are in daycare until 6 every night, or have a nanny to take care of them. And so such a system requires a lot of money to make it go. And all of the energy is being caught and stored in the form of money. I have seen a lot of burn out in communities that demand such long hours at work. But energy could also be stored in the form of a garden where we grow some of our own food, or a big Sunday dinner made from scratch with leftovers in the refrigerator for lunch the following week. Energy could be spent mending clothing instead of earning money to buy new clothing.

Like a tree we catch and store energy in the health of our bodies, in the trunks and branches of the lives we build for ourselves, and in the seeds we grow each year as hope for the future, and ultimately in the layer of humus, the minerals and nutrients that once made up the leaves of a certain season, and now are recycled, decomposed into raw fertility for all life to use, passed down from generation to generation like a family heirloom. This week, as you move through the patterns of your daily life, notice where you are catching and storing energy like a tree, and when energy is running out of your life like rain washing fertility out of un-covered soil. Notice where energy is being caught and stored all around you, like a row of towering shade trees planted by someone as wise as my grandparents.

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