Archive for March, 2009

David Moore’s Garden Diary for late March

By David Moore

Flowering shrubs and perennial borders are a renewable resource — pleasure and beauty which are free after the first year. (Photos taken March 28, 2009.)

(To see a larger version of any of these photos, click on the thumbnail.)

The decline and fall of community radio

By David Parkinson

daffodils

"Fields of people; there's no such thing as a weed."

In a previous post, I tried to capture some of my thoughts about community development and how we are all in that business (whether we like it or not). And recent events are making me think more and more about the importance of local media in building a truly workable and democratic community.

It looks as though we are going to lose our community radio station, CJMP FM (also known as JUMP FM). The organization which holds the broadcasting license and which has housed the station since it went on the air in early 2003 has decided that it can no longer support the expense of running a radio station. So far this year there have been a few meetings and discussions aimed at finding a way to transfer the license to some new non-profit group, but unfortunately we have recently learned that the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) does not allow a community radio license to be transferred. The closest thing to transferring the license would be for the current license-holder to apply to have their license revoked while at the same time endorsing the license application put forward by some new non-profit group. It’s not clear to me that there is enough energy in the community to put together a new license application. So we might lose one possible outlet for the voice of the community. It’s a little bit like losing a species from the web of life.

I was involved in this radio station for a few months after I came to Powell River. I stopped being involved because I felt that the management of the radio station did not accommodate diversity of opinion and did not encourage direct community involvement. As far as I can tell, this radio station has struggled for a long time to find and keep volunteers, although there have been a few stalwart programmers producing some very good shows. It failed to bring in enough money from advertisers, partly because the signal does not reach the whole region and partly because no one knew who was listening and when.

The station is still broadcasting as I write this, although the programming is entirely automated. There are no more human voices coming across the local airwaves. For all we know, this is the end: one day soon, there will be nothing but static at 90.1 FM.

I’ve thought a lot about why this happened. Last week I attended a workshop in Vancouver about making community-development projects more sustainable. Kylie Hutchinson, who led this workshop, gave us a list of 34 factors promoting the sustainability of community initiatives. I won’t run through them all, but some of the ones which really stuck out for me were:

  • Program idea originates from the community: I don’t know enough about the prehistory of CJMP to be sure about this, but it’s my understanding that the application for a radio license did not come from a broad-based grassroots organizing effort. And if a project does not come from the community, then the sponsoring organization needs to work extra-hard to enlist and keep the support of the community once the project is up and running.
  • Strong and diverse forms of community participation and support: I am not aware of any focused effort to recruit more volunteers to the radio station in the two-and-a-half years since I have been in Powell River. Likewise, I don’t know of any funding drive or other effort to raise public awareness (except for a few ads and the publication of the broadcast schedule a few times). I believe that much more could have been done to give people in the community a feeling of commitment to the station.
  • Strong base of committed volunteers: There were some very committed volunteers. There could have been many more. But the organization hosting the radio station did not appear to have the capacity for recruiting, training, and supporting many volunteers. And so volunteers came and went, and in the end more went than came.
  • Diverse sources of funding: To the best of my knowledge, most of the funding came from advertisers and corporate sponsorships. There were relatively few listener members. Usually, listener members and their membership dollars are one of the main sources of funding for a community radio station.
  • Program mission aligns with host agency: I feel as though this is the foundation on which the success of an initiative rests. And in this case, the non-profit organization holding the broadcasting license and hosting the radio station has a mandate which is not about community radio. So there was always some tension between the central goals of the organization and the community’s desire to participate in community radio. And when push comes to shove, when there are only enough hours in the day and many projects to manage, it’s the ones which lie outside the primary mandate that will fall by the wayside.

It’s sad to lose an outlet for the creativity of the community. Maybe we’ll get some kind of eleventh-hour reprieve. But at the very least, we should be trying to learn from this situation and finding ways to create community projects with as high a chance of success as possible.

I believe that there can never be too many venues for the expression of different points of view. Here in Powell River we have one weekly newspaper, a few monthly arts, culture, or business publications, some newsletters of specialized interest, and that’s about it. There is not much local content on the radio and television stations we can pick up here. I felt that there were many things not being said in the existing local media, things which are important to me and maybe to other people. And so rather than complain about the shortcomings of the existing media, the logical thing to do is create more sources of information. It’s like complaining that your potato bed is producing only potatoes. Well, go plant some spinach or carrots or something! Don’t blame the potatoes; they’re just doing what they know, which is how to be potatoes.

Bottom line: we need more local media, and not just in written form. There are so many interesting things to hear, to hear about, and to see. We need videos and audio recordings, opportunities for storytelling and just talking. We need more people telling more stories, reporting on the world around them, saying what they need to say without fear of treading on toes. There is too much creativity being bottled up, and we need to let it go.

So, in the continuation of this article (next week, insha’allah), I’ll expand on this and lay out some of my thoughts about creating a more diverse and resilient local media scene. Until we meet again…

The pond

By Tom Read

Here's the pond as it looked yesterday  morning, under a cloudy sky. The water is about 15 feet deep and quite clear, even though it looks a little green in this photo. We're hoping to see a lot more insect and other pond life when the weather warms up in a few months.

Here's the pond as it looked yesterday morning, under a cloudy sky. The water is about 15 feet deep and quite clear, even though it looks a little green in this photo. We're hoping to see a lot more insect and other pond life when the weather warms up in a few months.

We live in a coastal rainforest region blessed with abundant fresh water. Texada Island alone has at least 19 lakes full of fish, frogs, fresh-water shrimp and many species of insects. This 100-square-mile island also enjoys several year-round creeks, including one that, at this time of year, noisily cascades past our house. Surrounded by such aquatic riches, why did Linda and I decide about a year ago to build a pond on our property?

Reason #1: to try an experiment in raising cutthroat trout, a native local species, and one of our favourite fish to eat. Neither of us is particularly skilled at catching fish in the wilds; we figured having the fish in a pond with an accessible walkway partially around it would tilt the odds in our favour. Our overall concept of a fish pond, however, is to make it as close to natural as possible, so we’re trying an ecological aquaculture approach.

Our friend and neighbor Sheldon, one of Texada’s foremost experts on local fish, has guided and helped us in this endeavour. Thanks to his knowledge, we have stocked the new spring-fed pond with small numbers of local insects, shrimp and other species that, as they multiply, should create an inviting environment for trout within a year or two.

We’ve also added a few buckets of crushed limestone and lots of Alder leaves to raise the water’s pH level and to provide food for the shrimp, respectively. Some local frogs have already invited themselves into the pond, a welcome sign of life in this new body of water. Aside from planting a little dwarf white clover on the walkway, we are letting nature take its course regarding plant life. Already, we see several native water plants taking hold around the pond’s edges.

Reason #2: even in a climate with an average of 39” a year of rainfall, it helps to have a backup source of water for emergencies. If we need to irrigate our still-expanding garden, we can gently tap the pond instead of relying solely on our shallow well.

Reason #3: the pond is beautiful and fascinating and if the weather gets really hot, it’s got deep, clear, cool water for swimming. This pond attracts bees, dragonflies, and birds, along with the aforementioned frogs, all of whom are fun to watch. Just gazing upon the pond at any time of year makes me feel good.

In sum, the pond adds resilience and joy to our lives as it merges with native fauna and flora. I think that’s plenty of justification for its existence here on our island of abundant forest and water.

–Tom

Texada and the urban poultry tipping point

By Tom Read

If you want fresh eggs, all you need is a few hens. But if you want to raise your own hens, then you'll need at least one rooster.  Here's a freshly-laid egg in one of the nest boxes in our chicken condo. The condo was designed to accommodate an ongoing flock.

If you want fresh eggs, all you need is a few hens. But if you want to raise your own hens, then you'll need at least one rooster. Here's a freshly-laid egg in one of the nest boxes in our chicken condo. The condo was designed to accommodate an ongoing flock.

If you’ve been paying attention you’ll recognize a new trend across North America and the UK: backyard chicken-keeping. We’ve kept chickens here at Slow Farm off and on since moving to Texada Island in 2000, but now it appears that people in cities are doing the same in ever-increasing numbers. Here’s a quote from a World Watch Institute report last October on what’s happening:

After the trend first gained popularity in London, England, with the invention of the “eglu” chicken house about ten years ago, large numbers of city dwellers began to raise chickens in the U.S. cities of Seattle and Portland, said Jac Smit, president of the Urban Agriculture Network. “It’s no longer something kinky or interesting,” Smit said. “The ‘chicken underground’ has really spread so widely and has so much support.”

Within the past five years, the trend has expanded to cities where raising hens was already legal, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago. “Chicken has become the symbol, a mascot even, of the local food movement,” said Owen Taylor of New York City, who knows of at least 30 community gardens that raise poultry, mostly for their eggs.

Well, the saving grace is that most city people probably won’t have roosters, which are not necessary for eggs. They won’t be raising chicks; they’ll just buy them mail-order. No roosters needed. And they’ll probably just kill young roosters and throw them in the trash, keeping only hens.

Although hens can certainly make a fair amount of noise themselves, most of it is during reasonable daytime hours. The cackling and cawing of a hen that just laid an egg is quite something to hear! Unlike our rooster, who seems to be inclined to crow anywhere from 4 a.m. on, the hens start clattering for breakfast about 8 am and do their egg-laying midday.

I think one of the interesting sidelights of the urban poultry trend is going to be what happens when people start letting old chickens go because they can’t bear to kill them. Same with young roosters – take them to your local park in the dead of night and release may be what happens. Should be interesting. Not to mention the manure disposal issue for folks who don’t have gardens. Chicky diapers? Coop-poop-scoopers? And chicken manure, though very rich in nutrients for a garden, can be smelly, especially in the heat of summer

Interestingly, I never realized that the rooster’s crow is more than just a single cock-a-doodle-do. He does that call over and over again, about 5 to 6 seconds between bursts, about 15 times in a row! And he may do it once a day, or six times a day, or not at all. I don’t know if other roosters are as noisy, since this is our first, but he better be making up for it by fertilizing those eggs. Anyway, we’re adapting — at 4:00 am a positive attitude and a pillow over one’s head really helps.

As for the urban chicken trend: I firmly support urban agriculture, including backyard poultry-keeping. Before the rise of industrial agri-food, city people routinely raised chickens, plus other farm animals. It’s great to see a revival of more food self-reliance in cities. I’m keeping an eye on the tipping point for this trend, when urban chickens will become “normal” in North America. But I wonder: will urbanites learn to live with the escapee rooster’s early-morning territorial call? I suppose it’s no worse than sirens at all hours of the day and night.

Maybe. Or perhaps we’ll see more city folk decide that, if they’re going to have to listen to crowing every morning, they might as well move to a place like Texada, where there’s plenty of room for other “rural” activities and creatures such as roosters.

The oft-repeated S-word can be cynical flim-flam

Malaspina Strait from Stillwater Bluffs, where forest meets seashore.

Malaspina Strait from Stillwater Bluffs, where forest meets seashore.

When a forest of say 75 acres is destroyed by clear-cut logging, eliminated are countless, perhaps thousands of birds, mammals and amphibians — from canopy-dwelling thrushes to tree frogs to bats and squirrels — and gone is the habitat that supported them. The sheer number of individual critters bumps up a few orders of magnitude when the insects, slugs, centipedes and spiders are counted. Then there are the micro-organisms in the millions, and billions of bacteria and similar life forms.

Now consider the plant life. Thousands of towering trees are executed and trucked far away to be converted to money and other useful things. Pulverized in this primary timber harvest are the epiphytic ferns, lichens, fungi and mosses which drape on, cling to and beautify the trees where they find moisture and sustenance for life. Ground down and ground up are the shrubs and berries of the under-storey and the wildflowers of the forest floor in their hundreds and hundreds of species. These plants of the forest have evolved by necessity to be shade-tolerant and moisture retentive.

British Columbia has the greatest diversity of plants in Canada. B.C. has up to 800 identifiable species of moss, alone. How many of them were growing in that 75 acre forest that is now the silenced and flattened landscape left behind by the BC loggers today? Could any but a very few survive the glaring sun and harsh exposure of an instant clear-cut? Nature will do her best to heal the wounds and restore a balance over years and years of time. But how many ‘crops’ can be harvested before a healthy forest cannot recover? How long can land subjected to take-it-all and no give-back endure the one sided equation? How can the destruction of an ecosystem be called sustainable forestry? Yet that’s what is claimed by the BC forest industry in the double-speak world we live in today.

It is time to put the term ‘sustainability’ in its proper context: buzzword of the decade. As such, it has a diminishing shelf life and one day it will be regarded as quaint and naive. Sustainability, as a concept, has caught the popular imagination, which is understandable, but it is a sort of inflated myth, destined to fall to earth as the uncertain future progresses. I’m not saying the notion is worthless; it’s just that a ‘sustainable’ plan of action or set of policies assumes a future level of stability or predictability that simply doesn’t exist. The skills most needed by an ever-changing society will be adaptability and a complex of survival strategies.

Block at a Glance

By Giovanni Spezzacatena

Community is a series of repeating elements, with differences.

Community is a series of repeating elements, with differences.

A look at Peter Block’s Community: The Structure of Belonging:

Overall Premise: Build the social fabric and transform the isolation within our community into connectedness and caring for the whole. Shift our conversations from the problems of the community to the possibility of community. Commit to create a future distinct from the past.

The Context for a Restorative Community: The existing community context is one that markets fear, assigns fault, and worships self-interest. This context supports the belief that the future will be improved with new laws, more oversight, and stronger leadership. The new context that restores community is one of possibility, generosity, and gifts, rather than one of fear, mistakes and self-interest. Citizens become powerful when they choose to shift the context within which they act in the world. Communities are human systems given form by conversations that build relatedness. The conversations that build relatedness are created through associational life, where citizens are unpaid and show up by choice, rather than in large systems where professionals are paid and show up by contractual agreement.

Audiophiles: here is a 15-minute audio excerpt from Block’s book., and a more substantial 1 hour interview (mind the interviewer).

Block’s book and interviews discuss many aspects of community and leadership that focus on “possibilities”: the possibility of sustainability, of a society that cares for itself and others, of full employment of people’s talents and skills, to create stronger communities.  One very practical focus is on how our meetings can be conducted to create meaningful outcomes. Some of these seem to make so much sense, that I have become really suspicious as to why meetings are generally not held this way. Then again — looking around at all sorts of disabling infrastructure we’ve built for ourselves on every level — it does seem that the ‘full-steam-ahead’ approach has been favored over thoughtful purposefulness.

So, here are some tips on meetings in very short form that I have gathered and paraphrased from Block’s book:

  • Level the playing field: avoid the stage/audience separation. Everyone on the same level, literally. Leaders cannot allow themselves to be part of an elite group: their job is to convene and engage the community. Elevating themselves as paternalistic forces for good does them and the community a disservice.
  • Meet in a room with windows and natural light (preferably on 2 sides), with a view, with plants (real or plastic), art on the walls, swivel chairs for all, and a round table (no more than 8 ft in diameter), or similar arrangement of chairs. Make sure people can be heard (use microphones if needed).
  • Even in a large group, have small meetings with 12 people or so in each group, producing a ‘network of networks’. This way, individuals feel they can have their say, and that what they say matters.
  • Each group is facilitated by a ‘leader’, but the leader is there to keep things on track and provide a literal and allegorical “space” and not to provide a vision or example. The leader provides the space and the good question.  No one knows what the other groups have as their question.
  • Late arrivals must be acknowledged, and early departures as well– departures are a loss to the group, and as such they have to be taken seriously. Ask all participants to not sneak out but to voice their reasons for leaving. Remove their empty chair once they are gone to reduce real underlying feelings of loss.
  • Have the members of these smaller groups introduce themselves, their gifts, and why they are there to do deal with a good question. The Good Question deals with possibility and gifts: what would we like to see/do and what can I give toward this goal in terms of my gifts & commitment?
  • Think of the gathering as a work of community art; ask at the beginning of the meeting if anyone would like to recite or share a song/ joke/ poem… If the meeting concludes with a ‘document’ that can be held up or preserved, even better.
  • Provide good food at your gatherings– sharing food is so primal, and actual food (i.e. raw fruit/vegetables, pure water, juice, as local as possible) as opposed to donuts and coffee sets up a crucial aspect of community gathering. Pot-lucks are great ideas, as long as nobody feels they are excluded if they can’t cook or afford to bring food.
  • Welcome the participants with a clear presentation of why you are all there: the possibility you wish to pursue.
  • The important thing is to not dwell on the problems of the community, but on the possibility of community. The idea here is that if the community is strong, this will in itself solve what seem to be the insurmountable problems of the community. This reminds me of the fact that only weak garden plants attract the attention of damaging bugs. The creation of community through each and every meeting/gathering/association is the ultimate goal. The community’s strength and vitality will attract only good things.
  • Leave room for dissent, and handle it carefully, but avoid trying to control the world. If a person has a problem with an issue, then that should be out in the open, and accepted. Saying no to a stance is as useful as commitment. Lip service is the opposite of commitment.
  • We have as a 21st century Western society, a sort of “Expertitis” (my pseudo-word): we give up our control to experts in whatever field (and usually from outside our community), to tell us what to do.  We outsource our problems and hope for ‘big daddy/mama’ to take care of them. When ‘big daddy/mama’ invariably fails, we think that changing government will fix that problem. How about if we change and develop a community that ‘big daddy/mama’ will support… and they will, too. because it makes them look good, and maybe because they also want to be part of a bigger movement.
  • Nurture compassion. A commitment to empathy is the only way community will heal itself and survive.

I think that the points above will help facilitate a gathering that goes somewhere valuable.

Why can’t every day be like Seedy Saturday?

By David Parkinson

Our fourth annual Seedy Saturday was a big success and everyone left feeling energized

Powell River's fourth annual Seedy Saturday was a big success and everyone left feeling energized and ready to get growing again.

… our strategies must be more like water itself, undermining everything that is fixed, hard and rigid with fluidity, constant movement and evolution. We are trying to build a politics of process, where the only certainty is doing what feels right at the right time and in the right place… When we are asked how are we going to build a new world, our answer is, ‘We don’t know, but let’s build it together.’
(John Jordan)

Experiments are only revealed in retrospect to be turning points.
(Clay Shirky)

These days we keep hearing about sustainability, although we don’t hear so much about what it really means. It has many definitions, but the main idea is that sustainability refers to the ability to keep doing what you’re doing indefinitely. For example, a sustainable agriculture will continue to produce high-quality foods without depleting the soil of nutrients or polluting the soil, water, or air with toxic chemicals. (A regenerative agriculture will go one step further and strengthen the ecosystems which support food production: it will build soil, replenish and protect fish streams, produce clean water as effluent, and so on. Let’s just say that this is not yet on the agenda.) And when we talk about becoming a sustainable region, we are talking about satisfying the needs of the creatures living here without impairing any of the natural systems which provide raw materials, enable processing and transportation, and otherwise support human and other needs. Sounds great, right? How can you argue against that?

Sustainability — however we define  it — is a noble goal, but there is another goal which I think is a precondition to creating and maintaining a sustainable city or region. That goal is resilience.

I find resilience especially interesting because it concerns the human side of the natural systems which serve our needs. Sustainability is largely about the non-human side: we talk about sustainable agriculture, a sustainable economy, and so on. Resilience has much more to do with the ability of humans, as individuals and in groups, to respond to changing conditions around them. For instance, we can think of someone as a resilient person; this means that she or he responds quickly and flexibly to challenges, is able to recover from setbacks, adapts to changing conditions, and so on. Likewise a resilient neighbourhood, city, community, or region.

We often talk about sustainability as though it is something that can be grafted onto current social conditions with only minor tinkering; if we could just do better at recycling, or switch to biofuels, or cut our energy usage, etc., we would be creating a more sustainable city or region (or world). Colour me politely skeptical. In my opinion, the challenges we face are too profound for small tweaks to make meaningful changes; this is why I believe that resilience is a better goal than sustainability. If you work towards genuine resilience — in individuals, in groups, and in the various social networks that comprise the local economy — you will create the conditions for true sustainability. Without working on the human level, you will always be mandating change from the top down and working against the grain.

And so here is where Seedy Saturday enters the picture. For anyone who doesn’t know about the local Seedy Saturday, it is an annual event organized by a committee of our local Farmers’ Institute. We just had the fourth one this past weekend, and it was a roaring success. I manned an information table throughout the day, and I got to talk to many of the people who came through. It’s a really energizing and fun event, and as far as I can tell everyone who walks out the door does so with a spring in the step, a smile on the face, and a pocketful of seeds. And why not? After all, it’s really a celebration of potential: seeds are nothing if not little miraculous bundles of new life in waiting, and here we are organizing a day to pay homage to that wonderful process that allows us to draw our sustenance from the earth. There is something deep and primal about Seedy Saturday.

In terms of its bang-per-buck ratio, Seedy Saturday is a brilliant operation. It costs very little to organize: a volunteer committee of six or so people meet six or seven times throughout the year for at most a couple hours per meeting; so there are perhaps 100 person-hours of meeting time, plus a certain amount of background organizing and planning throughout the year. On the day of the event, members of the Farmers’ Institute and people from the broader community volunteer their time to make the event a success. Admission is a mere dollar per person, which is just enough to recoup the cost of renting the hall and the other expenses. Seed packets are fifty cents. Admission provides access to many local experts, amateur and professional gardeners and farmers, community groups, as well as five workshops during the day. It really is a beautiful social event, and it produces enormous happiness with minimal labour.

What is one of the nicest aspects of Seedy Saturday is that it very directly produces resilience in the community. Individuals wishing to become better gardeners or more self-reliant in food production can come and learn more from their peers and from experts. The pool of knowledgeable and passionate food growers gets bigger and better connected every year. The number of people aware of the importance of saving seeds grows every year, as does the number of people actively growing plants for seed. Community groups form stronger ties to people and other groups. At the most basic level, the community gets to know itself better.

And all of this happens very organically: this is not one of those public meetings that people drag themselves to begrudgingly and full of trepidation. No one feels too shy to ask questions or offer an opinion. It’s like a party built around seeds and growing and food and hope. So it doesn’t feel like activism, or political engagement. But it produces a more active and engaged bunch of people. In effect, it builds resilience into the community by creating a corps of people who are informed and passionate about regional food security, the right to control our food supply, and the importance of self-reliance.

So, my question is this: how can we start to create more events and initiatives like Seedy Saturday? How can we find ways to get people more involved without making it look like work or duty or obligation? In the literacy work I do, we talk a lot about embedding literacy in people’s daily lives. People often don’t want to feel that they’re engaged in some kind of literacy activity (it sounds too much like school); but if you sneak the literacy bit into something that people really want to do on its own merits — like stand-up comedy, storytelling, or a poetry slam — then it’s much more effective and more likely to draw in all kinds of people. In a similar fashion, we need to create the conditions under which the community will become more resilient, individually and collectively, without people having to think about resilience. It should be organic, spontaneous, and answer to people’s real needs. We need to create more public spaces and conversations which are open-ended and free enough to let the community’s true spirit come through. It’s hard to know how to make that happen, but that is the work that will produce a resilient region. We need to stop steering the process so much and start giving people possibilities that allow them to determine the path forward.

I want to return to John Jordan’s comments quoted at the beginning. Here is how he finishes off his letter to Rebecca Solnit (emphasis mine):

Taking control of the future lies at the root of nearly every historical social change strategy, and yet we are building movements which believe that to ‘let go’ is the most powerful thing we can do — to let go, walk away from power and find freedom. Giving people back their creative agency, reactivating their potential for a direct intervention into the world is at the heart of the process. With agency and meaning reclaimed, perhaps it is possible to imagine tomorrow today and to be wary of desires that can only be fulfilled by the future. In that moment of creation, the need for certainty is subsumed by the joy of doing, and the doing is filled with meaning.


Post facto

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