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Standing Rock, the Sagrada Familia and permaculture in Paekākāriki

Lessons in slowing down

Another way to organize

In the autumn of 2016, just before the US presidential election, Drew and I traveled to Standing Rock with a collective intention to lend a hand to the organizers in the pipeline resistance. What we brought was able bodies, willingness to work hard, and a few days of our time towards campsite chores. But what I took away was an entirely new perspective on what activism can look like. For me it was a paradigm shift.

So much of my work and experience in the realm of activism has been a direct response to — and in the same culture as — the systems we’re working against. The current dominant culture is ruled by short term returns and urgent response. The organizing culture I’ve been exposed to is therefore urgent, reactionary, defensive, and focused on short term action. And that was absolutely not the experience I had at Standing Rock.

Images courtesy of Cannupa Hanska Luger and Haithem El-Zabri

In my time chatting with folks at camp, there was a recurring theme around the seven generations that would come after us. People were explicitly working towards protecting the future that their descendants would inherit in 140 years. Their focus was on keeping a fire going for now and holding their ground to fight for those who would come later, long after they were gone themselves. It seemed to give people much more of a sense of calm, and it seemed to distribute power. Not only that, but it also seemed to allow more space for all ages. Instead of the two siloed factions I’m used to seeing — fiery university-aged youngsters and more meditative elders/retirees — there was a mass of intergenerational mixing. Elders teaching children, parents and teens collaborating on projects, and an overall respect for that diversity of perspective, not just begrudging tolerance.

The takeaway for me was: if the reward (the “win”) wouldn’t be seen in this lifetime, what would be the sense in taking credit? What would be the sense in rushing? Just like an endurance athlete who knows to take it slow and steady, the folks I encountered at Standing Rock were in it for the long haul.

136 years of construction

One year later, in the autumn of 2017, Drew and I visited Spain to chat with people working in cooperative spaces/groups in the midst of the Catalonian independence movement. Our intention was to make and strengthen as many connections in our network as possible, learn lessons from other peoples’ failures and successes, and share tools and ideas. While we had a great time doing that, it wasn’t the height of the trip for me. The bigger takeaway is something I’m only now beginning to see in its entirety.

The a-ha moment came when we got to the Sagrada Familia. If you’ve not hear about this architectural masterpiece, I’d highly recommend reading up on it. And if you’re ever in Barcelona, I’d suggest booking a ticket to go and see this modern marvel. It’s been under construction for nearly 140 years. The connection to seven generations hit me when we were descending the front towers.

People from all over have been working collectively towards the same goal of completing this temple for seven generations. Each architect, designer, stone mason, carpenter, glassworker, crane operator, and tour guide has slowly and diligently been adding their little piece to the project. Each person has, knowingly or unknowingly, shaped the future of this place and this space; every one of them contributing their time and labor to something they may never see finished. And all in line with the original vision, which was never theirs at conception. They’ve each adopted this vision as their own, in their own unique way, no matter how subtle the difference.

And when I had this a-ha connection to the seven generations principle, I realized that this building is an example of what this other way of thinking/working/organizing looks like. If Standing Rock was the perspective on work, this was the manifestation, the result of it.

Lessons from Doris

As I write this, I’m sitting in a coworking space in Christchurch, New Zealand. I’ve been in the country for the last three weeks on yet another fact/failure-finding mission (maybe my last for a little while). The lessons I’ve been gathering are just now starting to land, to settle in me. And I’ve had what feels like the biggest revelation of all, the thing that ties these ideas together, the last loop of yarn that finishes this quilt.

A week ago Drew and I were in a little beach town in the North Island called Paekakariki having a lovely chat with an even lovelier person, a permaculture designer named Doris Zuur. She’d just made some bread and coffee and we were talking about a workshop she’d held the other day at her home. She’d invited a few folks over for breakfast (more bread and coffee) and was giving everyone a crash course in permaculture design. As Adam Brock puts it in his book, Change Here Now: Permaculture Solutions for Personal and Community Transformation,

“permaculture is, at its core, about meeting human needs while restoring ecosystem health.” It “attempts to weave together fields as diverse as ecology, geology, history, and indigenous practices into a comprehensive framework for figuring out how humans can live indefinitely on this planet.”

What permaculture does is observe the natural world, how it grows and adapts to change, and provides 12 basic principles for design based on the wisdom of the earth and indigenous peoples. They are:

  1. Observe and Interact
  2. Catch and Store Energy
  3. Obtain a yield
  4. Apply Self Regulation and Accept Feedback
  5. Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services
  6. Produce No Waste
  7. Design From Patterns to Details
  8. Integrate Rather Than Segregate
  9. Use Small and Slow Solutions
  10. Use and Value Diversity
  11. Use Edges and Value the Marginal
  12. Creatively Use and Respond to Change

Maybe you see where this is going. One can easily apply these principles to other systems besides backyard gardens. And for me — a design thinking practitioner interested in building a system that not only undermines the current crumbling one I live in, but also provides a new methodology for co-creation based on natural principles — the lens of permaculture feels like the exact right lens for my own work.

I begin to digest this and suddenly I feel like I’ve been hit on the head, like the floor fell out from underneath my feet, like I’ve been bushwacking my way through the forest only to find that the well-trodden path home has been five steps to the left of me the whole time.

If Standing Rock is the perspective and Sagrada Familia is the result, then permaculture is the reason why it works. It’s the earth’s natural design that’s worth studying. It’s so obvious. After all, it’s been doing research and development for 4.5 billion years.

How it applies to our work

I help make a lot of things for a lot of people and groups doing good work. And I’m really over making disposable things, digital or not. They feel stuck in the reactionary cycle of short term return, even if they are for a good cause. It’s why our co-op focuses on and defaults to using open source technologies, projects that are structurally designed to be co-created and iterated on over a long period of time. The approach means that the solution is inherently more sustainable. It’s why I’m about to make a big transition away from graphic design and into culture shift work. I’m ready to work slowly and mindfully on my own little piece of my community’s Sagrada Familia.

And maybe, just maybe, if I’ve applied the lessons learned from permaculture, my labor can contribute to meaningful change that my descendants will see…in seven generations.