10th Bioregional Congress at The Farm in Tennessee

Posted by Carole Crews, January 22nd, 2010, 5:10 pm

And what a wonderful week it was, not unlike the great times I’ve had at Natural Building Colloquia during the past fifteen years. These types of events attract delightfully enlightened, forward-thinking people who are deeply concerned with creating “thrivability” on this planet…..a step beyond sustainability. My hope is that we can make a more inclusive circle, banding together those created through Natural Building, Permaculture, Bioregionalism, the Transition Town movement and other groups working toward overlapping “Eco-Culture” goals.
The consensus among the various groups is that we can reach the most people and pull them into our common way of thinking by showing them how much more fun we are having! This includes more vibrant health due to eating good food and exercising through gardening, natural building, dancing, hiking, etc., which naturally leads to a hopeful attitude. The lightness of spirit among members of these circles is mostly due to faith in and love of the natural world: people, plants, the elements, music, dance, and art. A sense of being all one family with humanity and other species is evident through everyone’s inclusive sense of global connection, commonly held environmental concerns and peace-making efforts.
The Bioregional Movement defines place through one’s own particular watershed and the natural conditions that influence culture, agriculture, commerce, and all life in any given area. It involves acting locally to achieve food security, water purity, regional ecological integrity, and promotes local community organization to achieve these goals. Permaculture is a common buzzword among bioregionalists, even financial permaculture, and everyone seems to agree that this way of thinking about whole systems incorporates the vital pieces of information we need to reverse planetary decline.

The Farm was a perfect community in which to hold the 10th Bioregional Congress, as the people who first moved to the central Tennessee farmland four decades ago hold the same values and have inspired many others to live more simply in communities. Evidence of early days can be found in numerous busses rusting in the woods. Now, many lovely homes and gardens have been established and most people live privately in their own family homes scattered across many acres. Near the store a large open-air stage with a domed cover offers a great venue for music and dance, and the community garden feeds many people.
We learned of the “change-over” when the Farm went from a communal organization to a collective, from communal sharing of all money to everyone having their own incomes, so nowadays many work in nearby towns or for on-farm businesses such as “Mushroom People” and the Farm’s Publishing Company.

Albert Bates heads up the Ecovillage Training Center where many folks come to learn about natural building, gardening, water catchment, compost toilets, waste-water treatment with a series of ponds, poultry raising, greenhouses, mushroom cultivation, bio-char, etc. Gaia University is a global program established to train people in permaculture, planning, and all things related to a healthy planet, and uses the Ecovillage Training Center for part of their educational program.
The Farm is home to many non-profit organizations that help people in amazing ways. The most well known of these, called “Plenty”, was responsible for providing many homes to people in Guatemala after a devastating earthquake around 2o years ago. This organization continues to offer help to those in need.
Transportation around the farm is often by bicycle, or golf carts recharged with solar panels. Something that struck me only after I had left was that I had not seen one dog in the entire week, although I don’t know if this is Farm policy.
The Bioregional Congress began with Cherokee drumming and chanting by four energetic young men, and the gathering of a large smiling circle of those being welcomed to the gathering. The ceremonial fire was started inside the circle, to be kept going throughout the week, and was followed by more drumming. A Cherokee elder spoke about how connected we are to the earth we stand upon and all the other life we share this space with. We were asked to take a “Bioregional Jump,” leaving the idea of borders, states and nations behind to arrive at the true meaning of place.
The Bioregional Congress has been meeting for 25 years, so a group of insiders already knew each other well, although many of the rest of us were meeting most of the people for the first time. The practice has been to meet every other year in a different place, and at least two of the congresses have been held in South America. There were several participants from the south who added a great deal to the group, including several members of the Caravan Arcoiris, who shared stories and photos from their 13 year long journey through South America. With art, music, dance, circus acts, and infectious joyfulness, they spread information about living lightly in a light-hearted way, traveling on decoratively painted buses and engaging children and adults while receiving good press along the way, and trading art for food on many occasions. Several photos showed even the skies welcoming them with concurring rainbows.
Brilliance abounded in a variety of presentations and I wish to share some of what I learned.

As in Natural Building Colloquia, one was forced to choose between many events going on at the same time, so I naturally missed more sessions than I was able to attend. As a group, we were introduced to the farm with a wonderful slide presentation given by a long-time resident who later in the gathering played some fine music for us. We heard the story of the Farm’s beginning, and Steve Gaskin, who inspired thousands with his Monday Night lecture series at San Francisco State University in the late 60’s, graced us with some of his own stories. He inspired a caravan of busses to head east until they found the right land, which happened to be in Tennessee where they started a community and lived in the busses for quite some time.

MIDWIFERY Babies were due among the hippie moms, so Ina Mae Gaskin accepted the challenge and helped them into the world even though she had never yet seen a puppy born. She read, studied, and was mentored by various doctors until she became quite an expert in the field, and inspired many with her book, Spiritual Midwifery. I very much enjoyed her moving presentation on the subject, having had my own three daughters at home and later witnessed the birth of my two grandsons into warm water. Now women from all over come to await the births of their babies at The Farm to avoid hospital interference. It is still not legal everywhere to have one’s baby at home with a midwife, although outcomes are statistically much better for those who take that route. Dangerous chemicals are used now to induce labor, often for the doctor’s convenience, and many of those births end in caesarean sections, or even maternal deaths. Ina Mae corroborated my own feeling that the time of conception is often a guess and the law requiring a hospital birth (and too often, an induction) if the mother is assumed to be two weeks late, needs to be changed. My own last child was considered to be two weeks late, but showed biological signs of being exactly on time. “When the fruit is ripe, it will drop,” our friend Dr. Shultz used to say. Trust natural processes.

WOMEN’S CIRCLE About half way through the week, men and women gathered for separate circles one evening. I was told that the men shared their life stories around the fire until well after midnight. We women were asked to sit in a spiral according to our ages, and starting with the eldest at the outer edge, we shared what it is like to be a woman of our particular age. It was a very moving and revealing exercise and surprised most of us with the information that it’s actually not a problem for most of us to get older. Youth is full of burdens, questions, and often too many needs and expectations. But what a brave and beautiful youthful contingent we were honored with! It certainly gives me hope! We happened to be a healthy group of older women, but it seems the issues of illness and death can crop up at any age. It was wonderful to get to know all the women better through this intimate connection based on the timeline that is so basic and often in control of our lives.

ECOVILLAGE TRAINING CENTER Albert Bates’ tour of the Ecovillage Training Center was very informative. I learned about bio-carbon (or bio-char) for the first time. He makes charcoal from excess bamboo, and puts it in a container something like an old mailbox inside a stove to turn it into charcoal. It is then crushed and placed in a container and urine is added to charge it with nitrogen. The carbon has a huge surface area for its size and supports microbial life, feeding the soil for many years after it has been further infiltrated with microbial life and nutrients in a compost heap for a time. When buried in the soil, this substance causes the plants to grow at an accelerated rate as it replenishes depleted soil.
Albert, along with a farm business called “Mushroom People”, grows Shitake mushrooms on small hardwood logs. Shallow holes are drilled in the logs, which are leaned against a supporting structure, and a compound of a starter (not sure whether it’s spores or mycelium) is placed in the holes and sealed with wax. Over a 5-year period, mushrooms mature on these logs and provide protein and other beneficial compounds for human consumption, not to mention gourmet flavor. Later I helped prepare a delicious meal from a 5-lb harvest of Shitaki grown by the people at Moonshadow, near Chattanooga, who first learned the process at The Farm.

The Waste Water Treatment Ponds appear to be working beautifully, and support water hyacinths that are composted in winter to improve garden soil. Yellow Flags are grown in the water to discourage mosquito larvae. Albert grows many varieties of bamboo and is careful to plant them where they will not take over garden areas or other plant species.

GREEN BUILDING The Green Dragon Tavern is a hybrid building that has been worked on by many students over the years. It’s scale feels massive due to thick walls and a very tall roof, and someday it will be magnificent. (probably serving home-made mead). I led a workshop in plastering one section of the tall straw bale wall and everyone involved seemed to have a good time mixing the mud by foot and mashing it onto the occasionally soft bales. The fireplace is actually a masonry stove (Russian Fireplace) that needs to be fed with a lot of wood for a quick hot fire, then it radiates that heat into a very massive wall for many hours. The giant face of this fireplace, with the glass-covered mouth holding the fire, has a huge nose above it, and adds to the fairy-tale quality of the building. Ianto Evans built a beautiful set of windows to the south side of the fireplace, and a student made a gorgeous large lion above an opening on the opposite side. Another artist came and made the large green dragon on the exterior above a section of living roof. Very recently more sets of hands built up a cob section of windows on the same level.

LIVING ROOFS cover most of the natural buildings in the ETC and are made first by covering the roof with overlapping wooden boards, laying carpet (or carpet padding) over them, then pond liner, then more carpet which holds the roots of moss and other plants. This works very well in the Tennessee forest climate and helps to keep the buildings cool in summer. Water is well directed along the sloped road to feed bamboo and fruit trees. Another building captures water specifically for use on the garden during the dry season. A recent addition has been “the shout,” a shower/ compost-toilet combination with solar heated water and raised toilets to collect a lot of compost before eventually being used in the garden. Joe Jenkins recommends a year or two, depending upon moisture and heat in the compost pile.

THE SCHEDULE itself presented a few problems, mostly at the beginning of the congress, perhaps because even the schedule itself was to be arrived at through consensus. The Council, who had been “holding” the Congress during the four years since the last one, had a directive from the previous Congress to create and agree upon a curriculum in order to certify teachers of Bioregionalism, much as Permaculture teachers are certified. There was too much involved and apparently it needed a committee to develop it rather than to use any more group time on the subject. I missed the last group plenary because of a work duty and never did find out why the discussion vanished.

BOOKS ARRIVE As I stood watch in the welcome tent on my youngest daughter’s 18th birthday, the first 50 copies of my book arrived from the printer and it felt like birth number four with no discomfort! That evening I presented my slide show and brand new book to an audience of people I had not even met 3 days before. One of the greatest benefits of that experience was the feeling throughout the rest of the gathering that more people felt they knew me much better, and conversations flowed in directions beyond the basics more easily.

“OPEN SPACE” time worked out very well. The process starts with anyone being allowed to offer a subject to discuss informally, lead a fully worked out lecture, or anything in between. There was a lot of excitement around the many subjects, from group dynamics, human history and the Caravan Arcoiris to city gardens, forest devas, and midwifery. There was not enough time to explore all that was offered, which always seems to be the case in events such as this.

SPIRAL DYNAMICS was one of two lectures presented by Andrew Langford and dealt with understanding the motivational forces of various types of individuals and segments of society. Developed by Dr. Clare Graves, it offers a biopsychosocial system of categorizing people and institutions.
Mr. Langford also offered a lecture on climate change and human culture, offering views on the PATRIX (Patriarchal Matrix), our ingrained cultural bias against all things feminine. He suggested that we are all suffering from cultural post-traumatic stress disorder ingrained into society because of previous climate-changes that came very quickly. The one recorded in the bible may have come from the flooding of the area around the Black Sea over 7,000 years ago. Later, when the land that the Mongolians inhabited became frozen over nearly 4,000 years ago, the famous “hoards” on horseback descended upon peaceful Minoan Matriarchal cultures and wiped them out.
The recapitulation theory suggests that humans are trying to recreate similar traumatic conditions so that they can have a better outcome the next time. Extreme Patrist behaviors such as genital mutilation, seem to follow desertification. The Patrix is very irrational, and ingrained in most modern societies. We can best deal with it by admitting sexism, racism, classism, etc. and deconstructing it, asking help from those close to us in rooting it out of our behavior and words. We must work on seeing all others as potential allies, our liberation being bound to that of everyone else since our global problems involve all life.

GAIA UNIVERSITY Andrew Langford is an integral part of Gaia University, a worldwide educational group affiliated with several other universities. Training for an Applied Permaculture Design degree requires 10 completed projects from each student. Documentation of the projects is an important part of the curriculum, the point being to spread this information far and wide. These future Eco-social innovators have a group of mentors and form an action-learning guild as part of the process.

REACHING OUT One of the most dynamic sessions I attended involved brainstorming about how to reach out to those who are not already members of “the choir.” The first step is to listen to others and assess their needs. Often we are working toward the same outcome but have framed it in different ways. Avoid politicizing anything and be inclusive of everyone. Identify a particular problem and try to envision it solved, then try to agree on the best way to get there. There are many things we can all agree on: loving and wishing to protect the environment, our children, water, clean air, etc. This agreement puts everyone on the same side from the beginning. Reaching out to a broader audience is always made easier with the help of a sympathetic reporter. Speak at churches or groups or anywhere those outside our usual social network gather, and bring them into a common cause.

I’m so pleased to have seen a Bill Moyers program about how some in the Christian right have embraced “His creation” and preach that desecrating the planet in ways such as mountain-top removal, is a sin. We can find common ground! Always listen and acknowledge another’s needs and perspective. Explore everyone’s experience in a non-judgmental way. Engage others through theater and music. One person mentioned the Shambhala Warriors, those whom with insight and compassion go into the heart of the “beast”, whose members must first must be identified. Use intuition, reach youth, train trainers and transform fear into hope.

RUSSIAN GARDENS A fascinating film was shown about Russia in which we learned that since the collapse of the government, over 50% of the food is grown in home gardens on only 7% of the arable land. Agrobiz still uses about half the farmland, but produces only a small fraction of the food. We were also told about a series of books known as the “Anastasia” or “Singing Cedars” series. They explore our mystical connection to Earth, and teach us how to deepen that bond. What I most remember is that before planting seeds, we should hold them under our tongues for nine minutes so they can encode our own biological needs and produce plants that will best nurture our particular bodies. Walking barefoot in the garden is also said to encode the soil with ways to best nurture plants for our consumption. The magic of the divas can be accessed by simply asking, and then waiting for the answers to come, according to several sources.

WILD FERMENTATION Sandoor Katz came for a day to teach a well-attended fermentation workshop. Most of this information is also in his book, Wild Fermentation. We learned how to make simple mead from honey, water and fruit. Left for about 10 days, it will produce 50% of the full alcohol content that it would create through complete fermention, and can be imbibed at that point without bottling. We also learned how to preserve vegetables without fermentation by slicing them up, massaging them with clean hands in a crock while adding salt until they make enough juice to cover them. Left in the dark juices with the right spices, they make a delicious concoction similar to sourkraut or “kim chi”. We also learned how to make kifir, and a similar beverage made with herbal tea or juice fermented with the same kifir nodules found in dairy kifir.

THE FARM did a fabulous job of hosting such a large group and fed us superbly on a vegan diet rich in soy protein, all the fresh vegetables imaginable, blueberry biscuits, yummy chocolate cake, brownies, and plenty of coffee and tea to nourish the ongoing bounty of mealtime conversation. It was fabulous to meet so many fascinating people and feel the almost instant sense of community brought about by similar interests and goals. I felt especially blessed by the music shared by the beautiful and vivacious Leonore, the drummers led by Bico and Odin, and many other singers and instrumentalists in concerts and enjoyed informally around the fire.

Too bad it’s so difficult to keep all the fresh connections over time and space, but we have felt the beauty of community, can create it anew wherever we go, and are lucky enough these days to have internet connections.

I am left with the feeling that I can do more to have an influence on whatever feels important enough for me to work on. May all the circles come together until we are all “walking in beauty” everywhere, making a difference in the lives we touch and the earth we tread upon. Blessed Be.

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