Archive for March, 2011

Spirit and perseverance

By David Parkinson

Big enough for anything.

Sense must distinguish between what is impossible, and what is merely difficult; and spirit and perseverance will get the better of the latter.
(Lord Chesterfield)

Today spring is tightly coiled, soon to unleash its potential energy in the form of sunshine, warm breezes, longer days, gentler rains, and the unmistakable sense of being on the upward trajectory. Out of winter’s inward-looking retreat to darkness; out into days when indoor and outdoor clothing are the same; when the evenings decline slowly at a shallow angle into the twilight and then into a clear-skied cool evening. Today the bees are buzzing around the apricot blossoms, a perfect sign of hope.

With another successful Seedy Saturday behind us, the season of plentiful food is slowly stirring itself into action again. This is the time of year when the immobility of the cold months of short days stretches into a keen sense of possibility: we make grandiose plans to take advantage of the longer warmer days, and we promise ourselves not to let a precious moment go to waste. (Of course we will waste many moments, precious and otherwise.)

This year, more than ever I suppose, many of us in this region will be talking about the need to be better prepared against the certainty of rising food prices and the possibility of shortages and disruptions in our food supply. We are that much further out on a thin extremity of the supply chain, all the more exposed to the cascading effects of hiccups up the line; and more people all the time are becoming aware of the consequences of this precarious position, even if they might not understand their causes.

The big question is this: if the food supply chain continues to weaken, how self-sufficient can we become? This difficult question is followed by a few which are equally hard to deal with: how can we increase our self-sufficiency as quickly as possible? what happens if our ability to increase local production, processing, and distribution is outstripped by events beyond our control? when is the need for action going to hit the mainstream and become a topic of common concern?

Many of the people I spend most of my time in contact with are aware of the degree to which our regional food supply falls short of demand, and of the unbelievably huge campaign that lies ahead of us. By anyone’s accounting, it’s daunting in the extreme and involves education, money, changes in our attitudes towards worthwhile work and in our conception of what our communities are, what they mean to us, and how we choose to contribute to them.

To me, the most important questions are the how questions; specifically how the unfolding of events is going to lead to changes in these social arrangements. Many people I encounter agree that we all need to work together to rebuild our regional food economy so that it can support the population living here, or at the very least not fall so spectacularly short of doing so; but there is no consensus on how to get going. The number of problems to solve, challenges to overcome, and predicaments to learn to work around is huge, and our resources are as nothing.

The most natural outcome of this type of situation is for everyone to work individually on some aspect of the complex of challenges — it’s hard to say how each person chooses where to dig in: some do what they’re already good at; some go with inclination and a desire to learn new things; some run the numbers and choose what seems like the most efficient places to work; most could probably never explain their ways of responding to what might be only half-formed needs and wants. The upside of individual action is that the feedback loop between input and output is tight and fast; it’s easier to see the sequence leading from work to results, to fine-tune that sequence and create variations on it. It takes some faith to go from working alone, with complete control, to having to accommodate others’ needs and wants.

Another challenge here is that the people who are the most engaged individually are the ones who are too busy for much time spent trying to organize collective activities. They’re also the ones less likely to see the need for it, because they themselves are further ahead in ability to provide for their own needs in case things get weirder. All the while, as more people discover the urge to become more individually resilient within a community of mutual dependence and cooperation, they have to pretty much make their own way and learn on their own. To some extent, this is a good thing, since it encourages discipline and hard work, mental and physical. It’s a bad thing to the extent that it discourages those with less persistence and wastes time forcing them to solve well-known problems and learn workarounds to familiar predicaments.

I’m thinking a lot about this, because it’s so fundamental to everything else we might accomplish, together or separately. Without developing better techniques for pooling our work and distributing the results in a way which is fair and decent, our already small and marginal efforts to build alternatives will be further diminished.

It’s going to be difficult to find creative ways to increase the amount of cooperation and sharing of resources, time, labour, knowledge, expertise, and experience. If there is a theme tying this blog together, that’s it: more than anything else, I’m struggling to distinguish what is impossible, and what is merely difficult and then hoping to find the spirit and perseverance to make headway on the difficult work. The lucky thing is that there is an increasing interest around here in exploring collective styles of work, with a base of some very impressive and experienced individuals who have developed their skills and knowledge in areas which will be vital to the community. We need to continue experimenting in the hopes that we’ll wander into new arrangements that make sense.

Little things that keep us together

By David Parkinson

Apricot, the first fruit tree to blossom in our yard.

In last week’s post I wittered vaguely on about the parallels between linguistic and cultural acquisition, considering the ways in which the patterns we acquire as children for understanding and creating our relationships with other people might be just as hard to shift in later life as the patterns we acquire for understanding and creating linguistic structures. I’m not familiar with any of the academic work in this area (although I know that there is some), so my speculations might be wildly off-base. (So what.) It’s easy to imagine that our cultural beliefs and behaviours are as much a mixture of innate species-specific predispositions with plenty of room for variation as are our linguistic behaviours. And although researchers disagree on the particular mix of nature and nurture, very few deny that both play some role in linguistics. It makes sense that the same deal applies in the acquisition and deployment of cultural knowledge.

Cultures, and the patterns of behaviours & beliefs that instantiate them, evolve as languages do: partly in order to stay viable in the circumstances of the real world and partly in order to find some kind of internal equilibrium. A shift in the role of one element or class of elements — the use of the past tense marker in language, or the perceived border between work and play in culture — might slowly set in motion a series of adjustments, the creation of new elements and the disappearance of old ones, new relations among this ever-changing constellation of rules, similarities, differences, tensions, and affiliations that make up the unimaginably complex system. And like any complex system, the outcomes are unpredictable and may hinge on unimaginably tiny events or patterns of behaviour which feed back into the system. For example, the belief that economic measures are the final arbiters or worth in human affairs is one that seems to have emerged in the late Renaissance along with a cluster of other beliefs, slowly gained ground over pre-economic visions of value, and created the conditions for greater freedom and individualism, which in turn strengthened the economics-centred view of humanity. We might be at an extreme point of this long arc, when the beliefs and behaviours remain but the real benefits are contracting to a vanishingly small number of high-status individuals. It’s not clear what new forms of social organization, if any, will come along soon to repair the gap between aspiration and reality. But the notion that individualistic striving is the only way to a happy life might be disappearing out the rear-view mirror, while countless tiny feckless experiments fail on the way to small successes which provide the launching-pad for better experiments, bigger successes, and on and on. All we need to do is stay awake, tune out the dumb rubbish, and plod on. Sounds easy, but isn’t.

We have no individual control over linguistic change. Generations of schoolteachers and self-appointed scolds like William Safire have done nothing to stanch the flow of split infinitives, “her and I”, and other frowned-on constructions. We may have more control over cultural change, but only at the cost of programs of social retraining involving massive doses of top-down propaganda necessarily benefiting the ones at the top sending it downward. We grow up speaking our culture as native speakers, so for us the cultural equivalents of the bizarre inexplicable linguistic patterns — let’s say, the idea that it’s more important for everyone to have a car than a close friend — don’t strike us as remotely odd… until we come into contact with another culture that organizes those elements differently.

We’re in the position of the speakers of the deadly language: not sure how to begin creating the rules of a new culture; worse, not even aware that such a thing is possible. All we know — and even then the message is slow to spread and vigorously resisted — is that our culture is causing harm. We might look to indigenous cultures for help finding the ways out of this predicament, as Wade Davis argues in The Wayfinders. We might hope that retreat and retrenchment will give us the space to build new and better cultural patterns, as seems to be the idea behind a variety of movements like eco-villages, anti-civ, peak-oil doomerism, and the new tribalism proposed by Daniel Quinn and others. We might argue that only actively working for the destruction of the present system will open up new possibilities.

The troublesome fact remains that culture cannot safely be created out of deliberate large-scale human intention; the only way to begin is to change the beliefs and the behaviours that result from and reflect those beliefs, in order that a coherent culture will ultimately emerge as those beliefs and behaviours pass from generations onward, evolve to adapt to changes in external circumstances and to competing cultural patterns, spawn new micro-cultures, and develop an internal complexity rich enough to freely generate new beliefs, behaviours, and adaptive strategies. And we can introduce only small changes, only in small doses. Maybe the only safe way to proceed is to use ourselves as guinea pigs. The trick is finding enough other guinea pigs on the same experimental cultural brew to see what happens when you combine forces and start to alchemize wayward individuals with weird ideas into a coherent cluster from which something cultural might emerge.

I’m lucky enough to have landed in a corner of the world which provides the right conditions for proper bottom-up random directionless experimentation; an isolated place with a relatively low cost of living, stunning natural beauty providing a sense of natural wealth and generosity, and a long history of self-reliance and regional coherence. Plenty of freaks. It ain’t paradise, but it has the makings of a good place to fail enough times to find the occasional success. And there are plenty more places like this hidden in plain sight, where the new trajectories are being brewed up and tested. Find the nearest one to you. Move there. Contribute.

Together we will nurture the small and embarrassing virtues, in defiance of a culture which makes us all slaves to bad ideas. We will work on projects which are small, non-economic, ill-fitting, sketchy, temporary; which don’t scale and won’t work elsewhere; which have no obvious hooks for monetization; which give us no faith in a better future but only (only!) make today more bearable. Nothing we do will catch  the attention of those who care most deeply about defending this culture’s values. Let them keep scanning the wrong horizons. And if we do enough pointless ignorant laughable things, someday we will be the tide that smooths the sands and shifts the pebbles on the beach. No great thing, but always rocking and swaying the small things of the world. That is not enough — never enough — but it will have to be enough.

The point is not the grammar, it’s the feeling

By David Parkinson

The element of style.

Every week, more or less, I tutor a young person whose first language is not English. This activity is tightly connected to the time of my arrival in Powell River, since one of the very first things I did when we got here was start attending the training sessions for the Volunteer Adult Literacy Tutoring program that Malaspina University-College (now Vancouver Island University) offered, and continues to offer, every year. I think the first training session was the night we arrived in town, tired, bedraggled, and unsure what we had gotten ourselves into; so it was a good thing to have something to do once a week that got me out of the house and meeting people in my new hometown.

I have a background in linguistics, and spent some time in grad school teaching and tutoring students whose first language was not English; sometimes English was not their second or even third language. And although the adult tutoring program was oriented towards basic literacy tutoring and away from English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) tutoring, my main interest was in helping people learn another language and integrate themselves into a new culture, one of choice — or if not choice, then necessity, or maybe accidental outcome.

There are real differences between the typical adult literacy learner and the ESL learner; the former is often dealing with feelings of shame and inadequacy for failing to have mastered what comes so easily to so many others; whereas the latter is typically someone who is highly motivated to learn a new language so as to better fit into the surrounding culture, find better work, take part in conversations, read newspapers, follow television, and so on. The ESL learner is obviously proficient in speaking and understanding his or her first language, and is very often literate in that language. For this learner there is no shame in not speaking or understanding the dominant language of a new home. It’s simply another hurdle which the learner must jump in order to be successful.

There is a huge amount of research into the differences between the acquisition of one’s first language(s) and the acquisition of any subsequent languages, especially those to which we are exposed in school or as adolescents or adults. The languages which surround us and form the background of our young lives slowly and gradually drift up in our consciousnesses like snow swirling through the cracks in a wall: you can’t keep them out. The child’s mind is always at work, finding patterns and regularities, knitting stray ends into a seamless fabric, chopping a continuous sound signal into sentences, phrases, chunks, words, and down to the smallest units of linguistic value. After late childhood or early adolescence our ability to effortlessly acquire a new language mysteriously drops off. What was instinctual and thoughtless becomes hard work.

It’s astonishing when you know enough about linguistic structure to understand what it takes to go from no language to full linguistic capacity in only a few short years. In fact, our only chance to appreciate how miraculous language acquisition is comes when we try to learn another one, which usually means not through total immersion in the language but rather at the blunt end of grammar rules, the rote learning of rules and their exceptions, and the horrible grind of learning one word at a time, usually outside of a meaningful context.

Many of us who grew up in Canada, a country with official bilingualism, will know something of the pain of struggling to learn a new language on the basis of infrequent exposure, questionable motivation, and often lacklustre pedagogy. After about nine years of good grades in French classes in elementary and secondary school, I landed in Ottawa and then Montréal to find that I knew almost nothing: my comprehension was terrible and my ability to speak even worse. But I was motivated to improve, and did so by working and studying in French, ending up pretty close to bilingual.

This week my student and I were working on clauses (main, subordinate, coordinated, and relative) with a brief foray into the tangled nightmare of the English verb system with all its irregularities and inscrutable tenses, aspects, moods, and voices. Believe me when I say that our mere ability to talk to each other about events or states in the past, present, or future — whether they are completed, ongoing, repetitive, or continuous — whether they are actual, desired, or only possible — all hangs together by virtue of a system of interacting patterns of verb endings, syntactic constructions, and intonations that would blow our minds if we had to learn them from scratch instead of slowly imbibing them in immersion, over long years of readjustment that slowly fix in place a complex system of mental constructs robust enough to handle new forms and creatively generate variations on patterns. It’s a miracle we all take for granted.

Imagine if second-language acquisition were not merely a matter of successful integration into one’s new surroundings but a matter of survival. Imagine that we are the only tribe on our island and that our first language, the only one we know, has characteristics that actively harm us. Everytime we use the subjunctive form of a verb, a child dies. Everytime we coordinate two sentences to make a bigger one, a fight breaks out. Everytime we adverbially modify an adjective, someone breaks into uncontrollable tears and eventually goes catatonic. We need to change our language, but where to begin? How can we create a whole new language out of the air? We can’t know exactly which features of the current one are responsible for its ill effects; and anyway how does one work out the complete structure of an invented language not based on an existing one? We have no models around us from which to work here on the island. Meanwhile children, hearing this dangerous language spoken around them, grow up speaking it, dooming themselves and others to its ill effects.

What occurred to  me, as I reflected on all this after a long session with the clauses, irregular verbs, tenses, and aspects, is that our cultural patterns are very much like linguistic ones. As young children we imbibe the beliefs and behaviours that our native culture treat as timeless truths, and once we are fluent in the rules of this culture we find it hard to acquire new cultural norms. Even a growing sense that our culture has gone off the rails might not be able to change these patterns quickly enough. For next week’s post I’ll keep going with these reflections, maybe draw a provisional conclusion or two. Maybe not.

Post facto

March 2011
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