I just returned from seeing a documentary on the Amish peoples. It was presented by the Portland Permaculture Meet-up Group. The film was quite interesting on many levels and inspired a lot of discussion, curiosity and questions.
Most of us realize that our modern way of life isn’t sustainable. It is destroying ecosystems around the globe and has cultivated a society that doesn’t support us on many levels. Humans are inherently tribal creatures, yet our modern way of life works counter to our having healthy families and communities as we chase economic opportunities around and spend our time engaged in jobs that have little or nothing to do with our local environment. Many of us feel disconnected, isolated, and insecure about our future. We feel alone to fend for ourselves. We don’t know our neighbors. We are facing global economic decline and the harsh realities of peak oil and global climate change. Everything about our way of life is dependent on systems out of our control and beyond our local environment. Our ancestors didn’t live this way and we know this isn’t going to work in the long-term. In response, many of us are looking for ways to build a more resilient way of life utilizing permaculture principles and harnessing the power of community.
The Amish in many ways have already accomplished what we are looking to build in our own communities. They have a way of life that recognizes the value of community. They consciously set aside many aspects of individualism for the benefit of the whole. They purposely look at the technology they use and ask the questions, “Is this technology serving the community in the long run?” and “Does this technology devalue the individual?” Efficiency and profit are not their goal. Holding their close-knit communities together is. They have built-in resilience due to a low technology lifestyle. No one has to worry about the basics of life (food and shelter) or about how their family will survive should something happen to them. These big worries that weigh on most of us are pretty much non-existent for them.
What ties the Amish community together is a very powerful and strict religious code. And here lies the aspect of their lifestyle that doesn’t work for most of us. We are not fundamentalist patriarchic Christians (and we don’t want to be – even if it would bring us a sustainable resilient lifestyle that brought us close to the land). Most of us wouldn’t want to live in a strict fundamentalist pagan community either. We value our self-expression.
In the discussion after the film, most people admired what the Amish have been able to build for themselves – beautiful farms, useful crafts and sustainable businesses. We admired their questioning new technologies instead of just blindly following the greater society. But we all had a hard time with strict religious doctrine running our life and being a prerequisite for living in a conscious community. With the Amish, if you don’t accept the strict religious doctrine, you are ousted from the community. Someone asked, “What else can hold a community together other than a belief system, whether religious or political?” My thoughts are these.
What can bind a community together is recognition (not a belief) of the sanctity of the local landscape (a.k.a. Nature). This to me is one of the three core principles of paganism.
How this recognition of sanctity can hold us is as follows; when one really engages with the landscape in a sacred manner, one realizes that we are not separated from the ecosystem. We are not masters of it. But rather, we are an essential and perfectly equal part of the whole. This is an animistic point of view. And this is radical thought for most Americans, in fact for most modern humans. Awakening to this realization changes everything. We know our place in the world and we find acceptance for and value the other souls in our landscape. This point of view being recognized and openly embraced by a community can build lasting ties.
Opposite this way of life is consumerism. We live a consumer lifestyle because we are thoroughly able to export the consequence of our choices. Garbage and pollution are sent elsewhere. Poison from manufacturing dumped into the environment happens in other countries. The suffering and exploitation of human resources is out of sight and out of mind. To me this is the exact opposite of paganism. Paganism is totally and thoroughly local spirituality. Paganism teaches engaging soul to soul with Nature exactly where we are at. Paganism is the practice of this kind of engagement. And when we do this, it radically influences our choices.
So as I explore how to build a better future, one that is sustainable with built-in resilience, I see Permaculture as a way forward. It is a systems approach to working with the landscape that is build on three fundamental ethical ideas, Earth care, People care, and Fair share (Fair share means sharing the abundance with all the souls in the landscape, human and non-human – everyone’s needs are met). Check out Permaculture on wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Permaculture. Permaculture teaches deep and sustained listening to the local ecology, one that respects and honors all the creatures in a place from the invisible bacteria deep in the soil to the tallest tree, to animals that dwell there to those that migrate through. To me, Permaculture is sort of the new Paganism as it is an expression of engagement to the immediate environment based on respect and equality and listening. It is a beautiful expression of the ideals we hold as pagan people – one that is completely tangible having nothing to do with mythology, religious doctrine or theology.
But permaculture isn’t enough to build interdependent sustainable human communities. Communities need more to bind them together than a systematic (although a brilliant one) approach to working with the landscape. They need a shared vision that speaks to the spiritual as well as physical needs. And that is where I think the true potential of paganism lies. As my teacher Bobcat told me many years ago when we first met, “Paganism was the first religion and it will be the last”. And I fundamentally believe this to be true. If we as humans fail to realize the sanctity of Nature on a deep level, we will not survive the radical change that is happening on the planet. Paganism offers us a vision of life immersed in the sacred, one that is built on experience, not doctrine. And this vision can carry us forward. With the pairing of Permaculture and Paganism, I see a way out of the current economic, ecological and social disaster that is our current paradigm of life.
I invite you all to join in the conversation about building a way of life for you, your family and your community that is truly sustainable and honors the landscape. It doesn’t matter whether you are a climate change denier or really believe that competitive capitalism is the best way for humans to build communities. I think we can all agree that our current way of life isn’t working for many of us. And I think we can all agree that destroying the environment for the economic prosperity of the few, isn’t ethical. So I invite you to think deeply about the kind of life you would like to live and discuss it with your friends and neighbors. Let’s ask the questions and begin to try to find ways to move forward, to build vibrant communities that offer a sustainable and honorable way of life.
I would love to hear your thoughts.
Blessings of the New Year,