|The Great Eastern Sun Rises over a Forest Garden|
By Rachelle N. Yeaman, Guest Contributor
The word “spiritual” is going to put some (most?) folks off right away. We’re uncomfortable with it. Many of us are quietly afraid that permaculture won’t be taken seriously if it’s associated with tree-hugging nonsense. Only numbers can prove the importance of what we strive to do. Many of us have incredibly complicated relationships with the religions of our childhood, and whether we still practice or not, we don’t want to be preached at on permie blogs. And in any case, does spirituality really have any place in real conversations about real problems? The world is burning, people. We don’t have time for navel-gazing.
First, let me point out that two out of those three arguments are based in scarcity thinking. That’s a big, flashing sign that they’re bogus. The middle argument is valid; spirituality is a deeply personal thing. But I’m not here to talk about what to believe or even how, only about why we need to openly acknowledge and celebrate the importance of spiritual work, which I define as any belief, act, or process that allows one to find an innate sense of peace and a deeper connection with the world as a whole.
So, not only do we have the time to talk about it, but we have an imperative, as well. Humans are not by our nature logical or mechanical beings; to shame or even merely ignore one’s search for personal solace and worldly connection is to undermine one’s integral strength. And to do that is to reproduce everything permaculture strives to reverse.
In 2013, I attended the first Michigan Permaculture Convergence. It was a long weekend of project presentations, wide-ranging conversations, campfire stories, and excellent food. I had a wonderful time meeting great people and delving deep into interesting subjects. But by the second day, something that I had dimly noticed in reading the program became an important topic of discussion: all of the presenters were male, despite having a roughly equal male/female attendance, and in fact nearly all of the presenters were cis-gender white males, specifically, though that was less of a surprise because there was regrettably little racial or sexual identity diversity in the overall group.
There was no The Man running the show. The call for presenters had gone out to everyone, and the application process was relatively informal. The group that coordinated the event was at least partially female. And we were all self-identified permaculturalists; gender (or race or sexuality or age or…) wasn’t supposed to matter in these things.
So there was no point in looking for anyone to blame. The important observation was that, with the absolute best of intentions to the exact contrary, we had reproduced a white male dominated setting and conversation. Seeing that staring us in the face, could it be any real surprise that Michigan permaculture is also consistently racially homogenous, with a few happy exceptions?
We had a long conversation about the issue as a group. A few of us shrugged it off as a coincidence; there just didn’t happen to be any women who felt like presenting, obviously. Most of us were vaguely uncomfortable with the circumstances, but couldn’t really put voice to why. We talked about women in our culture often feeling that whatever project they’re working on needs to be good enough in order to be taken seriously, whereas men appear to have an easier time believing they can and should talk about whatever it is they’re doing. We talked about female communication often being different from the male-dominated cultural norm of what a presentation to a group of peers should look like. And we talked about a feeling that many of us work on projects with our partners and so had nothing of our own to discuss. None of these were answers or solutions, but they were a chance to air unspoken tensions and perspectives, a chance to re-evaluate the roles we play in the greater system.
How many of these unspoken tensions are staked through each of our lives? And how can we keep from encoding them back into our brave, new world if we don’t find them and reckon with them?
Unconsciously complying with and perpetuating hurtful cultural norms is something we do out of fear. It’s not the dramatic fight-or-flight kind of fear of meeting a bear in the woods. It’s the quiet, constant kind of fear that comes of predicting patterns and understanding cause and effect. Much as feelings of scarcity lead us to drain ancient aquifers to water geographically inappropriate crops and to dump fossil-fuel based fertilizers into dead and dying soil, scarcity of self-acceptance and power leads us to act against our personal self-interests in countless tiny, daily ways. It’s how the current system keeps going, with each of us doing our parts to legitimize it, whether that’s in denying our own power or in denying the power and validity of people who don’t look or speak like us.
Permaculture talks about leaving behind a scarcity mindset and then often skips on to abundance of food and energy and water. But yields and hectares and gigawatt hours don’t create abundance in human beings. As scarcity is a fear, abundance is a feeling of peace and connection. In a culture of scarcity, we cannot find a sense of abundance without persistent, conscious effort. What will change if we don’t tend and respect the fertility of our own inner selves?
One’s spirituality is a deeply personal process that should only be discussed and shared to everyone’s own comfort level. But the concept of spirituality, the idea that searching for peace and connection is an ongoing and important work, should be one that has equal legitimacy to discussions of soil health and micro climates. As we reclaim skills and biodiversity, we must reclaim ourselves. Because every time we go out to our gardens or confer about new projects, we are creating the system in our own image.