Meeting Ryan and Cathy

Monday morning I met with Ryan and Cathy of Reclaim Urban Farm, a new market gardening business set up along very similar lines to what I hope to do (  I have been hoping for an opportunity for some sort of apprenticeship/internship with more established permaculture-informed market gardeners, and it seems now that “way has opened”, as we Quakers say.  When I get back from my trip to Baltimore, I’ll be working out the details of my volunteer arrangement with them.

Out in the garden

We may have another frost this weekend yet, but the soil has been warm enough this week to plant some frost-tolerant items.  First, I put in the 11 kale seedlings which I started indoors.  I also planted (from seeds) 4 rows of Paris Market carrots, 4 of  spinach, 3 of  Rhubarb Red chard, 4 of Crimson Turnip beets, and 4 of Crisp Mint Romaine lettuce.  Outside the fence, I planted some free radish seeds I had been given.  Also, in the herb spiral, I planted (from seeds) a patch of cilantro, some parsley, and a little dill.

I managed to assemble a sort of mini-hoophouse kit that Friend Betty gave me, which will go over the tomato patch, but I’m not confident enough of the weather to put the tomatoes in yet.

A couple of days ago I put a mulch of leaves (scavenged from neighbours’ garbage bags) around the base of some of our fruit bushes.  I put some BTK (a natural bacterial anti-worm treatment) on the gooseberry and honeyberry bushes.  The remaining leaves I mixed with our vegetable scraps compost and have put in the beyond-the-gate compost bin to (hopefully) cook down quickly into usable compost.  I watered the compost today from the rain barrel.

Also, I’ve  put up some temporary plastic fencing to keep Théo (our dog) out of the vegetable beds until the plants are established.

Here’s a plan of relevant areas in the back garden:

garden planoutside the fence

Update on seeds

All the eggplant seeds (6) have come up  by now.  That took about two weeks for them to germinate.  The seedlings are still tiny, though.

Also, as of a week ago (Apr 21), I transferred the cucumber seedlings from the starting tray to little pots.  I hope I don’t have to repot them again before they go outside.

Steps toward the cold room

Today I cleared out the storage area in the basement and measured the dimensions.  My plan is to convert it to a cold room, by moving the insulation from the exterior walls to interior ones.  I’ll also need to build some shelves around the outside.

cold room dimensionscold room dimensions current insulationcold room dimensions new insulationcold room shelves

Bicycling as direct action

This post follows up on my previous post regarding the notion of positive direct action.  Let’s examine a simple, perfectly legal act such as bicycling on the streets of Edmonton.

The point is that, by cycling regularly, I’m taking direct action to achieve the goal … of challenging the hegemony of cars and thereby making cycling a bit safer and more accepted in our society.

Why I like bicycling. I like to get around town by bicycle, rather than drive a car.  Bicycles are a brilliant invention, a perfect example of what permaculturists call appropriate technology, allowing able-bodied humans to get around at speeds of 10-20 mph with great energy efficiency.  In fact, if the calories burned were converted into fuel terms, a bicycle would have mileage of somewhere around 1500 miles per gallon, over 500 times that of a typical car!  Depending on traffic, distance and availability of bike routes, I can usually get from point A to point B in the city in  less than triple the time a car trip would take.  Without having to worry about parking.  Or having to fill up the tank, or paying insurance. I can usually take side streets and avoid heavy traffic; I don’t find myself sitting immobile in traffic jams. I’m not a purist, I do use our car sometimes: if it’s a long distance, if there’s a heavy snow, if I’m getting over an illness, if there’s no easy bus route, if I’m hauling a big item,  if I’m going with a family member who I can’t talk into cycling, etc.  Here in Edmonton, there are whole months in winter when cycling doesn’t seem worth the hassle: ice and road grit can quickly wear out the whole drive train.  I can usually get around by bus then.  But the more I cycle, the more money I save, the more exercise I get, the less fossil fuel I consume, the less greenhouse gases and pollutants I emit, the less I add to road traffic, the better I’m living in accord with the Quaker testimonies and my own sense of how I want to live.

What’s wrong with cars? Urban design to accommodate cars has brought a raft of problems upon our society. In addition to the obvious fossil fuel consumption, air pollution and greenhouse gas emission issues, there’s the isolating, anti-communitarian aspect of the car-based lifestyle, and the costly infrastructure needed to support it. We step from our suburban garages and driveways into our insulated transportation bubbles, drive to work, drive to the store, all with minimal interaction with neighbours and passersby, except to honk and swear at other drivers who get in our way. Richard Register’s book Eco-Cities points out that, were it not for cars, we could have high-density, socially vibrant cities with very little paved area. Neighbourhoods could be connected by paths just wide enough for trams, bikes and emergency vehicles. No eight-lane expressways, no ringroads, no vast parking lots, no suburban sprawl. Large areas within the city could be depaved, for gardens, for meadows and woods in which biodiversity could flourish. Cities could be self-sufficient in food production. Less land outside the cities would be needed for agriculture, or human living space, so it could return to wilderness.

Why riding a bike is a political action. So, I have a vision of transforming my city, Edmonton, from a concrete wasteland into a substantially depaved eco-city. A central element of that vision is that bicycles will be a widely adopted form of urban transportation, for all ages, with well supported infrastructure that makes this safe and convenient. This is a political vision, as it concerns how our society is organized, primarily at the municipal level, but with regional and global ramifications. And though the ultimate goal is the eco-city described above, the incremental goal is to make cycling somewhat more prevalent, somewhat safer, somewhat more convenient, somewhat more socially accepted, while concomitantly making car transportation a little less dominant.

It may seem odd to speak of making cycling more socially accepted, given that it is already completely legal. But anyone who has tried urban cycling will recognize that the prevailing attitudes in society are far from accepting towards bikes. There are the car drivers who honk or yell obscenities at me because I happen to be in front of them, or gun past me in the right lane with scant inches of clearance, who turn left into my path as I enter intersections, who swerve round to pass me as I pull up to 4-way stops, who pull out of parking spaces without bothering to look, who throw their car door open in front of me, who honk at me from behind at traffic lights, expecting me to get out of their way so they can make a right turn on red. I encounter such drivers two or three times a week; but I’ll give motorists as a class the benefit of the doubt and assume these dangerous drivers are a small minority, or maybe they’re normally safe drivers who are having a bad day. (And, yes, there are reckless, inconsiderate cyclists as well, and I’d like to believe that they too are a small minority.) But then there’s the policeman who stopped me to warn me not to ride in the centre of my lane (as I’m legally permitted to do). I had been riding further to the right, but then an overwide truck roared past me, nearly pushing me into a ditch, so I moved left to claim my lane. The cop was only interested in the fact I was slowing down some cars. Or there’s the business owner who tells me she has no room for a bike rack in the store’s parking lot – though there are spots for twenty cars. Or there are writers of letters-to-the-editor to papers who insist (contrary to traffic law) that roads are for cars, end of story, and cyclists are simply a public menace. Or there are the voters who got up in arms in the last municipal election because the city had put in a few bike lanes – who angrily claimed, apparently with straight faces, that the city is under the thumb of a sinister, all-powerful biking lobby! Or there are well-meaning friends who express doubts about my wisdom in choosing to cycle, in light of the risk. In sum, our society is, de facto, far from accepting the bicycle as a form of transportation.

One thing I’ve noticed is that there are areas within the city with regular heavy bike traffic (such as the area round the University, or 124th St.), where drivers are almost always courteous to me as a cyclist; and there are other areas, in more industrial or commercial parts of town, where bikes are fewer, and I can almost count on an unpleasant interaction with a neglectful or aggressive driver. The lesson in this is that the more bikes there are on the road, the more we exercise our right to be there, the more drivers see cyclists as legitimate road-users and get used to the idea of sharing the road with us, and the safer it becomes for us cyclists. (I hesitate to use the word “right” in the previous sentence: it’s a concept that comes from a legalistic kind of discourse that can be disempowering.  What I mean is simply that cycling is a totally sensible means of getting about the city with no serious downside for anybody; we have the ability to use this technology, so let’s do so!)       

Back to direct action. Yes, there is some risk of injury or death, somewhat higher cycling than driving a car (but probably not as bad in Edmonton as in cities with a seriously aggressive car culture, like London, New York or Los Angeles). It’s not fair, but I accept that risk. The point is that, by cycling regularly, I’m taking direct action to achieve the goal stated above, of challenging the hegemony of cars and thereby making cycling a bit safer and more accepted in our society. The safer it is, the more people will try cycling, and so a virtuous cycle is established, bringing us closer to the eco-city ideal.

Regarding the issue of risk, I’ve been a regular cyclist most of my adult life, but I’ve actually been hit by cars only twice, and only once was I injured (a broken clavicle), both times by oncoming drivers who negligently turned left into me at intersections. Both accidents happened a long time ago. Perhaps as a result, I try to ride very predictably, giving clear signals, obeying all traffic laws, always alert and ready to respond defensively if a car does something dumb. So it seems that the real risk I face is not so much the serious injury, it’s just the honking, verbal abuse, and intimidating behaviour I occasionally get from drivers who don’t really want to hit me, they just want (it seems) to put me in my place. It’s tiresome to put up with, but I accept that risk too.

One last point: is it hypocritical for an anarchist to follow traffic laws, or to complain when other people break them? Well, there are laws that are used by elites to control the rest of society and protect their privileged position. On the other hand, there are protocols and social conventions that allow us to interact cooperatively with each other; they may have the status of law, but they are largely or entirely self-enforced. For example, we have complex sets of rules governing how the participants in a conversation take turns, how we indicate that we want to speak, or are willing to yield to somebody else. These rules don’t have to be imposed by the state as laws, people just learn them and find them useful and abide by them. It seems to me that traffic law is more like this sort of convention: it is useful for everyone on the road to be able to rely on certain expectations of how other agents (in whatever sort of vehicle) will behave – or rather, it would be dreadfully dangerous if there were no such norms. A stateless society would, I imagine, adopt a code similar to current traffic law (perhaps different in some particularities) by mutual agreement. However, in our current society, I would not sic a cop on somebody for violating traffic law, or otherwise invoke the power of the state on my own behalf.

What does Neighbour Grow have to do with anarchist direct action?

Bear with me, this will take me a little while to explain, particularly if you’re not familiar with anarchist theory.

First of all, by ‘anarchists’, I do not mean wild-eyed inciters of social disorder. That is a mischaracterization of anarchism perpetrated by apologists of the state, so they can dismiss anarchism out-of-hand without bothering to consider what anarchists actually say. Real anarchists reject the legitimacy of state violence and coercion, and work instead towards self-organized societies based on cooperation and mutual aid, in the tradition of Proudhon, Thoreau, Bakunin, Tolstoy, Kropotkin, Goldman, Gandhi, Ellul, Chomsky, Starhawk, and others. In fact, for Quakers and other pacifists, it seems to me that anarchism is the only consistent political philosophy. The essential feature of a state, that distinguishes it from other types of social organization, is its claim to legitimate use of violence to enforce compliance with its decisions, externally as warfare, or internally as police power. I personally cannot reconcile the Quaker peace testimony with acceptance of the legitimacy of any state. And so I identify myself as a Quaker anarchist. I further observe that the Quaker testimony of equality, our consequent lack of clergy and general eschewal of hierarchical structure within our Society, our decision-making method in business meetings, are all consistent with, and in some cases have even directly inspired, anarchist practice and theory. But I digress from the main point of this post, which is to argue that those of us who are concerned about social justice and ecological sustainability have conceived of political action too narrowly.

The term ‘direct action’ is often loosely applied to protest tactics that are particularly edgy and confrontational toward authorities.  However, in anarchist discourse (which is where the term comes from), direct action strictly refers to action which directly achieves the political goal that the activists seek — as opposed to indirect action, i.e. trying to persuade the authorities to meet the activists’ demands.  Gandhi’s salt march campaign is a classic example of direct action: the British colonial administration required Indians to buy imported salt at monopoly prices, shutting down domestic salt production through punitive taxation; Gandhi and his followers massively, publicly, nonviolently broke the law by producing their own salt without paying the tax, demonstrating in the process the authorities’ powerlessness, versus the people’s inherent power.

But the sorts of activities that come to mind for most people, even radicals, when they think of political activism, are typically forms of indirect action:  demonstrations, petitions, letter-writing campaigns, advocacy, electoral campaigns, etc., all geared towards ‘sending a message’ to the powers-that-be.  The tragedy of indirect action is that it can suck up vast amounts of activists’ energy and time, yet its success depends entirely on public officials who decide to heed the activists’ arguments, or to yield to their pressure. That is to say, indirect action doesn’t challenge the existing power structure: it reinforces that structure, by recognizing the power of the authorities to make the relevant decisions. So if the official in question decides to ignore the activists, what can they do?

Indeed, it seems that this indirect action strategy is increasingly futile.  On a range of major issues — climate change, an extremely unequal distribution of wealth, the corrupting influence of money on political decision-making, massive electronic spying on ordinary citizens — opinion polls show strong support for progressive action, yet these issues barely receive even cosmetic attention from politicians.  In the US, the electorate threw the Republicans out in 2008, but have seen no substantial change of direction under Obama. It has become increasingly clear, in North America and Europe at least, that politicians are merely the window-dressing for a ‘deep state’ (powerful corporations allied with ‘national security’ sectors of the government, see whose oligarchic, planet-raping agenda chugs along unchanged no matter who is in office.

Let me put this in even simpler terms. Consider that nugget of insight from the 12-Step movement: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” What is indirect action, if not a neurotic strategy of pinning my hopes on things that I cannot change, namely the decisions of other people? Conversely, here’s the deep power of direct action: it is change that lies entirely within my own sphere of control. If I as an individual, or as part of a group, decide to take direct action, to achieve some goal, nothing can stop me/us. Of course, the repression visited upon someone who challenges the power structure can be brutal, and so the 12-step prayer reminds me to ask for courage. I must decide whether the goal is worth the risk of repression; and if it is, I must be willing to pay the price. As Gandhi did, as Chelsea Manning is now doing.

But sometimes the ruling class may fail to perceive a challenge for what it is (they’re not omniscient after all); or they may be constrained by the optics of the situation; or the challenge may become too widespread for effective repression, as in Gandhi’s salt march campaign, discussed above.  And so a measure of positive social change may be achieved. (After the fact, the authorities will often try to save face by legalizing this social change, and then claim credit for it, as though they had supported it all along.)

So, I’m suggesting that we think more innovatively about strategies of social/political change, outside the box of conventional indirect action.  But I’ll go further: it seems to me that even proponents of anarchist direct action have focused too much on what I’ll call negative direct action: i.e. action to oppose or obstruct some harmful measure that the state or its corporate owners are trying to implement, e.g. setting up roadblocks to hinder environmentally unsound and/or aboriginal-treaty-violating logging or mining operations. Such actions may be perfectly appropriate responses to many grievous situations, and I’d love to see such direct action flourish. But let’s not miss opportunities for positive, proactive direct action.  That is, if we stop focusing our attention on the weapons that the state is brandishing at us, take a step back and survey the scene more broadly, we may discover opportunities for significant social change on issues where the authorities are not expecting opposition, and hence will be ill-prepared to mete out repression.

For example, economist Richard D. Wolff has recently been promoting an old anarchist idea: worker cooperatives (see’-self-directed-enterprises).  Imagine how the economy would be transformed if people typically chose not to sell their labour and creativity to corporations; instead they formed or joined coops, so that the wealth generated by these businesses remained under the democratic control of the workers themselves.  Among other things, a business so run would be much less likely to engage in activities, such as dumping toxic waste, that harm the community in which the workers themselves live — as opposed to a corporation run for the benefit of absentee shareholders.  Imagine how the political landscape would be transformed if conventional corporations’ wealth dwindled away, so they could no longer pay politicians to do their bidding. Here’s the kicker: nothing stands in the way of people starting to do this right now! Worker coops can be established as partnerships under existing law. Conventional corporations, once they awoke to the threat, might want to crush such competitors; but they would be inhibited by centuries of free-market ideology, which these business interests themselves have promoted, touting the economic benefit to society of vigorous competition and innovative entrepreneurship.  I’m not saying the corporations would necessarily play fair, but they and their political hirelings would be ill-positioned to take any effective systematic action against worker coops.  If the society we now live in is a corporate-run prison, here’s a wide-open door we can walk through, to free ourselves.  How many other open doors might we discover, if we would just stop and look for them?

OK, I’m finally ready to bring Neighbour Grow into the picture; and it’s probably obvious by now where I’m heading with this. By allowing powerful corporations like Monsanto to feed us, we have become dependent upon them, so that we cannot effectively resist the political and economic power they now wield, or prevent the destruction they are wreaking on the environment.  So let’s stop depending on them for our food!  Let’s grow our own, as people did just a few generations ago(or buy from local market gardeners if you can’t grow it yourself).  Let’s incorporate all the brilliant innovations of permaculture, so that we can grow food even more efficiently and resiliently than our ancestors did.  Let’s transform unproductive, boring lawns into food forests, in the urban areas where people live, where the food is therefore most needed. Let’s reclaim our food sovereignty.  Establishing a business like Neighbour Grow, that seeks to do these things, is thus a step I can take, of positive direct action, towards the kind of society I want to live in.  Can I hear an ‘amen’?

Yes yes yes, it’s my April almanac

I’ve been working on a longish post that tries to articulate how Neighbour Grow as a business venture ties in with my philosophy of socio-political change, as well as my with my spiritual leadings; that should be ready in another day or two.

In the meantime, here’s an update and recap on the seeds I’ve started indoors.  Indeed, one of the purposes this blog is to record when I’ve done what, so I (and anyone else) can consult it in future years to see what worked and what didn’t, i.e. a personal almanac.

On Monday, 3 March I started some seeds on my window shelves (using self-watering trays from Lee Valley, in some organic seed-starter mix from Apache Seeds), to wit:
1.  Earliana tomatoes (18)
2.  Gold Medal tomatoes (12)
3.  Red bell peppers (6)
4.  Cilantro (6)
5.  Sweet basil (6)
It was certainly time to start the peppers.  The tomatoes could have waited a few more weeks; that would have saved me some extra repotting.  The herbs were just to fill out the remaining cells of the tray, under the assumption that these can grow inside in pots indefinitely.  (I subsequently learned that cilantro should not be started indoors; none of the seeds came up.)  So of these seeds, the following plants have come up:

1. Earliana tomatoes (17)
2.  Gold Medal tomatoes (8)
3.  Red bell peppers (5)
4.  Cilantro (0)
5.  Sweet basil (5)

I moved the tomatoes and basil from their trays into separate pots on, I think, March 24.

Then, around April 8 or 9, I planted

6.  Double-yield (pickling) cucumbers (24)
7.  Lacinato kale (18)
8.  more basil (6)

Of these, all the cukes, all the basil and 13 (so far) of the kale have come up.  They’re still in their trays. Also, I moved the peppers from their trays into separate pots.

Finally, on April 10, I belatedly realized in response to a comment that I should have started the eggplants (Brit. aubergines) at the same time as the tomatoes.  So I started

9. Round mauve eggplants (6)

Apparently these take a while to germinate.  No sign of them coming up yet.

Today, April 15, I moved the tomatoes into bigger pots.  I had to bring up an extra table from the basement into the dining room to put them on, as there’s no longer enough room on the window shelves.  Once the cucumbers get big enough to repot, I may have a space crisis.