These are the final three letters I wrote when participating in a bioregional seminar in the late 1980s. The first two letters, with a fuller introduction, can be found here.
Letter 3: February 1989
I stayed up late last night, trying unsuccessfully to find a theme for this month’s letter. As I finally went to bed, I asked my dreams for help. But this morning I was unable to recall even a single dream. Joyce, however, who was consciously unaware that I had been puzzling over this letter, awoke with a surprisingly relevant dream. It almost seems as though the dream I needed had come through her.
In the dream world Joyce is attending a workshop on environmental issues. Many of the other participants are castigating the government and/or the big corporations for their unresponsiveness to the critical problems facing the planet. Joyce is moved to say that we have no right to demand significant changes from anyone “out there” if we are unwilling to make comparable changes in our own lives.
“The changes we must turn to first are personal changes,” she says passionately. “And they have to be radical.”
Using herself as an example, she lists the dramatic ways that her life has changed over the past 15 years – giving up electricity, running water, and television; drastically reducing her level of income; trading in her personal car for a community vehicle; and learning to rely on home-grown food, home health care, and home education.
She’s not trying to brag or to set up the Light Morning lifestyle as a model for others to follow, because each person’s circumstances are unique. But it is her intent to be edgy and abrasive. She concludes by actively challenging those at the workshop to examine their own lives. Are they willing to make the same sacrifices they want Dow Chemical or the House of Representatives to make?
“Does your desire for change,” she concludes, “run deeper than recycling aluminum cans or sending $25 to the Sierra Club? That can be a worthy goal for some people. But not for us. We must entertain the possibility of making inconvenient and even impossible changes; changes sufficiently radical to transform our lives!”
In her waking life, Joyce dislikes speaking before groups; and she only rarely gets riled. Edgy and abrasive are two of the last words I would use to describe her. Yet in the dream she is outspoken and provocative, seized by a sudden recognition of the magnitude of the challenges we face as a species.
Joyce takes the dream figuratively. She sees the hesitant workshop participants as subliminal aspects of herself. But this way of assimilating a dream can make it more threatening.
“In the dream,” she tells me, “I know that even though we have already made radical lifestyle changes, still further octaves of change await us. It’s an ongoing process. No one can afford to become complacent.”
Although Joyce’s dream is mostly symbolic and personal, I also see it as an uncanny answer to my unspoken need for clarity while trying to write this letter last night. That’s why I’m choosing to share it with you.
The crocuses and daffodils in our front yard join me in wishing you an enjoyable and transformative Spring.
Letter 4: April 1989
As we near the conclusion of this seminar, Joyce’s dream prompts me to share some bioregional growing edges. What follows are several of my outward lifestyle concerns. In the final round of our rich correspondence with one another I will try to convey the more difficult inward challenges.
Transportation. We have no car. Instead, we pay a friend mileage for the occasional use of his car. Due to the high financial and environmental cost of driving, we keep asking ourselves, “Is this trip really necessary?” Deeper issues simmer just below the surface: the need for freedom, mobility, and independence. A car can all too easily serve as a surrogate for these more primal needs.
Fuel. We cook our meals and heat our shelters with wood. We’re off-grid and use photovoltaics for electricity. This helps to lessen our contribution to high-power lines, acid rain, and nuclear waste. Yet smoke from wood stoves can be a significant pollutant. And the new DC gadgetry is sure alluring. Current challenges include keeping a rein on how many amps we use; burning only dry, well-aged wood; improving our insulation; and incorporating passive solar technology as a supplemental heat source.
Entertainment. We have no TV and seldom make the long trip to town for entertainment. The alternatives, while rich and traditional, are slow to develop: storytelling, dream-sharing, massage, homemade music, the almost lost art of conversation, and visiting neighbors.
Income. We minimize our need for income to lessen our dependence on the cash economy. This allows us to turn to one another and to the Earth in order to meet our needs more directly. Learning to further simplify our lives and generating a small but adequate income at home are what we’re currently working toward.
Parenting. This is such an illuminating struggle. We constantly wrestle with the tendency to try to control our children in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Our sweet children bring the challenge home.
Waste. We have no indoor plumbing, but haven’t yet converted our outhouses to solar composters. Our kitchen waste gets composted and we do other recycling, but need to do more. The county landfill is filling up and the alternatives aren’t appealing. Composting is also sacramental: an outward and visible sign of an inward and enduring process. How do we transmute not only our physical but also our mental/emotional waste and excrement into nutrients?
Education. As Lauren approaches traditional school age, the question of home education looms large. Many of the values, objectives, and root assumptions of public education feel deeply inappropriate. Yet the time, energy, clarity, and empathy that are needed for home education is daunting. Below the many problems, however, I sense a wonderful opportunity.
Health. This one can get scary at times. Dicey decisions to forego immunizations and medical insurance come up against a case of whooping cough and the appearance of a breast lump. Basically – and while trying to claim the dream – we mistrust orthodox medicine’s divorce of the human body from the human heart and soul, and its subsequent preoccupation with treating symptoms. Adopting a healthy lifestyle, exploring the healing virtues of local plants, and listening to the quiet wisdom of the body as it speaks through our intuitions and dreams offers a more indigenous if not anxiety-free alternative.
Food. Our communal diet is vegetarian and we grow close to 50% of the food we consume. The desire to make our diet even more home-grown comes from health considerations; from the ethical uneasiness of being tied to modern agricultural practices; and from wanting a more direct connection with the Earth. Our resistance comes from the appalling amount of time and energy it takes to grow our own food; from our conditioned appetites; and from the misuse of food as a surrogate for affection. Living in community makes the issues more complex. But it also makes the goal more attainable.
Now it’s time to plant carrots and potatoes. Warm Spring greetings to you all.
Letter 5: June 1989
The outward growing edges I shared in our last round of letters are important, but not truly radical. To be radical means to get down to the roots of a problem. Questions about food, transportation, and waste are more like the limbs and branches of a tree. There is, of course, a symbiotic relationship between the roots and branches of a tree. But even when a tree is cut down, if its deep roots are still intact, they will often send up new saplings and another tree will soon take its place.
Moving down through the tangled roots of the suicidal disregard that most humans have for the well-being of their planet, I come upon an unsettling question. It concerns my ability – or rather my inability – to trust.
In August of 1986, I traveled to Lake Michigan to attend the second North American Bioregional Congress. This was unusual, for I hadn’t attended any kind of conference for at least ten years. When I first considered going, a familiar voice told me that it was a crazy idea.
“There’s no money to pay for it,” said my inner skeptic. “There’s no way to get there. And you’re not that interested in the programs that will be offered.”
But a quieter voice kept encouraging me to go.
So I went.
* * *
Arriving at dusk, I pitch my small tent in the woods near the lake where I can listen to the soft lap of the waves on the shoreline. Drifting toward sleep, I still don’t know why I’ve come but I’m feeling good about being here. Just before dawn, however, I am seized by a oddly terrifying dream.
I’m in a small, dark room. It’s dimly lit by a tin candle lantern that hangs from a short cord fastened to the center of the low ceiling. As the candle lantern slowly turns, the intricate patterns incised into the tin cast flickering shadows across the four walls of the room. It’s a mesmerizing mosaic of eerie dark shapes and muted light. And somehow it’s deeply threatening.
All at once I become highly agitated and afraid. My stomach knots up. For I suddenly understand the real source of this weird phantasmagoria. It isn’t coming from the rotating candle lantern; it’s coming from me. What I’m actually seeing is the secret life of my shadowy unknown self projected onto the screen-like walls of this dark room. The sight so terrifies me that I throw up. Then I jolt myself awake to escape the nightmare.
The dream is disturbing to say the least. So I get dressed, straighten up the gear in my tent, and walk down to the shoreline. Lake Michigan’s dawn-blue waters reach all the way to the horizon. The first day of NABC II is about to begin.
Then I hear words. They seem to come from some deep down place.
“You are trying to control your life because you don’t trust it.”
The words elicit a visceral awareness that I also try to control the Earth. For it, too, is untrustworthy; it’s not a reliably safe place. A further insight suggests that I likewise mistrust and attempt to control those who live somewhat closer to the Earth: women, children, indigenous people, people of color.
Quickly taking a pencil and a small notebook from my pocket, I start to jot down the words and insights before I lose them. But instead of writing “You are trying to control your life because you don’t trust it,” I inadvertently write “You are trying to control your life because you don’t trust in.”
The startling Freudian slip implies that just as I don’t trust life and don’t trust the Earth, I also don’t trust – and therefore try to control – my own innerness, even while seeming to honor it through such practices as meditation and working with my dreams.
So the hidden fear and control of the inner by someone who meditates is comparable to the subliminal sexism and racism of someone who overtly supports the struggles of women and minorities while covertly clinging to the underlying attitudes that perpetuate repression. Or like someone whose strong bioregional efforts may mask a hidden but crippling mistrust of the Earth they’re trying to save.
“What a way to begin a bioregional congress!” I muse, still gazing out across the placid waters of the great lake.
* * *
Now nearly two years have passed since I woke myself out of that nightmare on the opening day of NABC II. But sitting safely here at Light Morning, writing this last letter for our bioregional seminar, I am still wrestling with that thorny question about my seeming inability to trust.
Who is it that doesn’t trust life? That doesn’t trust the Earth?
My body seems to trust. Snakes and squirrels and baby skunks trust. Most young children trust. Yet some more recent portion of myself – call it the ego, or the personality, or the surface self – apparently believes that life and the Earth can’t be trusted.
How can that be?! How could I have lost my early childhood acquiescence to life, my easy acceptance of grace, when the seamless robe within which the many know themselves to be one is so present, such a given?
It doesn’t feel like I’ve sinned, or have made some terrible mistake, or that I’ve somehow fallen from grace. It feels more like I have stepped away from grace for a time. And now, having pretended to ignore it for so long, I can only very occasionally tune in to its numinosity and beauty.
The consequences of having lost this palpable sense of oneness include the exploitation of other people and species; chronic compulsive consumption; the demeaning of dreams, impulses, and emotions; and the stifling of breath and sensuality. Not to mention a hidden but gut-wrenching fear of the unknown.
Despite these tap roots of alienation and mistrust, though, there may still grow a noble tree. There may yet be a reconciliation with all those we have feared and abused. There may still come a restoration of grace.
Children pass through the awkward and often turbulent stresses of adolescence. And clusters of green grapes ripen only slowly on the vine. So it would be misleading to gauge the temper of the child, or the sweetness of the fruit, if such a judgment were to be made prematurely. In a similar way, it may be premature to judge our species.