Seeing a Bigger Picture

~Priscilla Auchincloss, May 2021

1. Dreams.


The seed of this essay begins a few months ago, in the winter. I’m trying to figure out my way forward, at this time, going through an exercise to guide the thought process. The next question reads: “Intention: What future are you trying to create?”

In my mind arises a vast skyscape, a windy beach, on which uncountable sea birds are descending and rising, in a tumult of moving wings, a cacophony of wild calls, carried on the wind. I haven’t seen this except on TV. I’ve read about it in books. A time in history when the skies could be darkened by flocks of birds, the seas full to the horizon with the curving backs of whales, all in migration, as for eons, the motions and sounds of a living world.

I want a future of nature flourishing … species multiplying … ecosystems growing … humans rediscovering their place, much more minimal and coherent and in exchange with nature.

Who knows if it is possible. Wiser minds than mine would say those times are gone forever. But the image holds on to me. And the idea, with a sense of relief, of de-centering humanity in relation to a larger congregation, the family of the natural world and cosmos – this idea holds on, too. De-centering signals a move to a status much more minimal, a position much more marginal than in the present modern imagination.


And at the same time that people like me are trying to learn how to let go of what we took as “given”, other peoples are taking up the challenge to hold on to ancestral thought traditions, lifeways, and lands, that teach, over and over, the necessity of reciprocity in human interactions with the beings of the natural world.


“All flourishing is mutual”, says Robin Wall Kimmerer, writing out of the interweaving of indigenous wisdom and botanical research. The land sometimes needs help. There is a role for people, but to cooperate, not to dominate or control.

2. Plans.


Weeks later I read in Permaculture Design an article about individuals who started with little more than a dream - a strong intent to restore a piece of land, using the methods of permaculture. Near the end, the author cites President Obama’s 2015 speech to American Youth and writes


“... If you ever lose that sense … that you can bring about positive change, that isn’t just about you but is about something larger than yourself … then I think you’ve shrunk your own horizons.” Obama’s speech was a call for people to trust that every positive step we take in the world can make a difference. We need to be optimists grounded in action. Dreamers with a plan.”


- Monique Moreau, in “From Magic to Permaculture”, Permaculture Design, no. 119, Winter/Spring 2021 (Italics mine.)


In the same journal, I find excerpts of an interview drawing forth Allan Savory’s teaching on holistic land management. What strikes me are the questions he poses to clients, that might be adapted to making any decision. “We manage for one main reason, which is to improve our lives. So let me ask you now, very personally and deeply, how do you want your life to be? … What will your land have to be like 200 years from now if your great-great grandchildren want to live a life like you want? …Tell me how you yourself are going to have to be for people who are really a resource base to you to want to support you at all times?” (Find the full interview here.)

Holistic decision-making is a system, a way of thinking, that can be learned. As a land management tool, it involves a commitment to collaborate with nature, rather than control it. These questions remind you to remain in a state of ongoing observation, experimentation, adaptation, dialogue – with nature, with other people, and with your own deeply held intentions.

Maybe this is one example of how to dream with a plan. Not a totally new methodology, not replacing scientific research or methods that focus on addressing specific wants, needs, and problems. It expresses a movement of the mind, supported by conscious language, opening another dimension that might help a person, a community, a society, a nation, think bigger about their decisions.


3. Systems of power.


I took part in a four-session workshop “Building Racial Justice Through Allyship/Accompliceship” offered by SURJ-Rochester. I didn’t realize its impact until several weeks later, as I watched the documentary The Feminist in Cell Block Y. Here, men in a high-security prison were confronting patriarchy through a program called Success Stories. Step by step, the rules of patriarchy were exposed, as well as the mechanisms by which it ensnares the psyche to justify violence, and lead the person far from their true life goals. Each of the men in the group could now see his crimes in a larger framework – a mental prison that ultimately had led to needless loss of life and long-term imprisonment. Liberation was not just about getting out of physical prison but dismantling within oneself the vestiges of patriarchy and rebuilding from the ground up.

After the film, I saw how it is not just the men in prison but people like me who are caught in the sticky webs of patriarchy and white supremacy. How could one not be, without another context in which to gain perspective. The intersecting webs pervade modern society, as wave upon wave of incidents and protest and whistle-blowing have revealed. Those internalized systems of power are part of why people struggle to let go of what isn’t sustainable, and to hold on to what truly is.


You have to see systems of power, in order to change them. You have to see them to realize how you are ensnared, and you have to realize that you are ensnared to want to liberate yourself. When you begin to see this, a certain kind of personal, unproductive shame gives way to an inner yearning for justice that is larger than just yourself. More mental resources start to become available to you. And once you see, you can’t un-see. You begin to feel the call for justice not just in human-to-human relations but extending to all inhabitants of the natural world, the larger congregation to which humans also belong.


4. Policy.


Most recently, I received a message from NOFA-NY, the Northeast Organic Farmers’ Association, of which I am a member. They are excited about the Soil Health and Climate Resiliency Act, which is coming up for a vote in the NYS legislature. It feels like a turning point: a bill that tangibly promotes regenerative farming practices, in language that defines soil health as “the continued capacity of soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals, and humans''. These sound like terms that eco-dreamers can get behind.

I’m thinking about the people involved in writing this legislation and lobbying for it, so it could reach this stage. The movements of drafting and building support for such a bill have the capacity not only to shape decisions about land use and where money flows, but also to affect how people think about soil. To begin to grasp that soil health has a role to “protect and promote natural resources and the health, safety and welfare of the people of this state” is a step toward a mainstream understanding that people have a reciprocal role to protect and promote the health of the soil of this state. (If you are moved to learn more, see the Soil Health Bill Action Alert created in support of this bill.)


5. How to dream with a plan.


In forging a path forward, it’s helpful to imagine the future you are trying to create.


You work, as people everywhere and at all times have done, with the knowledge and methods available to you, whether science, permaculture design, indigenous traditions, or something else.


You also need to ask (and answer) questions that remind you what you really care about, and how you want to be, and that you live within a far longer timeline, a far greater context of relationships, a larger whole, than perhaps you were previously thinking about.


At some point, if you haven’t already, you are likely to need to tackle the internalized and institutionalized systems of power that constrict the sense that you, or anyone, can make a difference.


And then, opportunities for action are likely to appear, because before you and all around you, other people have been doing these things, talking to each other, liberating their minds, and channeling their life-force into coherent action.


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