Dave Pollard's environmental philosophy, creative works, business papers and essays.
In search of a better way to live and make a living, and a better understanding of how the world really works.



March 22, 2014

Several Short Sentences About… Jellyfish

Filed under: Our Culture / Ourselves — Dave Pollard @ 00:11

Mitchell-kanashkevich-jellyfish

there are things
     down
          there
               still
                    coming
                              ashore
     – loren eiseley

~~~~~

  1. The jellyfish is one of the simplest creatures that has ever existed.
  2. It is the oldest living animal species that has more than one organ.
  3. It has no brain.
  4. It has no central nervous system.
  5. It has no spinal column or bones of any sort.
  6. It has no heart.
  7. It has no blood.
  8. It has no circulatory system.
  9. It has no respiratory system.
  10. Despite all of the above, it is not simple.
  11. The jellyfish is, in fact, staggeringly complex.
  12. Despite centuries of study, very little is known about these creatures. We basically have no idea how they do almost anything, because just about everything about them is different from other complex creatures, and remains mostly a mystery to scientists.
  13. The jellyfish is not, even vaguely, a fish.
  14. It has brain cells, dispersed throughout its body and tied into to a neural network that communicates information neuron-to-neuron, not through a centralized system. So it is, essentially, intelligent everywhere, and cannot ‘die’ (or be rendered ‘unconscious’) through injury.
  15. It has thrived for 650 million years.
  16. There are over 10,000 enormously diverse jellyfish species, some of them microscopic, some of them with ‘bells’ over a meter across and tentacles over 100 feet long, and weighing up to a quarter of a ton.
  17. Some species have 24 eyes, which enable them to see 360-degrees in three dimensions, though only 2 of its eyes, apparently, can see in colour.
  18. It can fire venom through millions of tiny barbs fired through tiny tubes on its tentacles, in some species enough to paralyze or kill a human adult.
  19. Before it fires venom, it analyzes the chemistry of what it is touching to ensure it is either food or threatening (and hence worth immobilizing), but even taking time for this analysis it still fires at a speed 10 times faster than a car air-bag inflates in an accident, and faster than a bullet, and at a pressure of up to 2,000 psi, enough to penetrate deep into the skin of most creatures it encounters.
  20. The tentacles of a jellyfish can continue to detect threats or food, and to fire venom accordingly, long after the tentacle is separated from the ‘rest’ of the jellyfish.
  21. It reproduces both sexually and asexually, through a wide variety of ways, including (usually daily) spawning, splitting (division into two creatures), self-cloning, and ‘budding’ (producing new organisms on various parts of its body).
  22. Some species can revert from adults back to immature polyp form when threatened, and then ‘re-grow’ into ‘adults’, over and over, and are hence theoretically immortal.
  23. Jellyfish polyps can remain dormant for years, if the environment is not ideal, before starting to grow and reproduce.
  24. Most jellyfish ‘die’ by wearing out and decomposing, usually within a year of maturation, or by being eaten by creatures who have a natural immunity to their toxin.
  25. Korean robots have been developed to ‘kill’ large blooms of unwanted jellyfish (they have been clogging and shutting down the cooling systems of nuclear reactors, coal-fired power plants and desalination plants, and destroying oceanic salmon farms) by shredding them, but biologists think this will actually increase populations because “when you cut open jellies, you get artificial fertilization — that’s how aquarists get eggs and sperm from species that are difficult to spawn; all those embryos will then metamorphose into polyps which can live for years and clone themselves”.
  26. Jellyfish move with an efficiency (energy produced / energy used ratio) 50% greater than any other sea creature. We’re not at all sure how they do that.
  27. Some species are bioluminescent — they can create their own light to hunt in darkness.
  28. Some large-mass jellyfish live at ocean depths greater than most other creatures can tolerate. Biologists are just beginning to discover the nature of these even-stranger species. A deep dive off Chile last year unearthed a huge never-before-seen jellyfish with multiple solid ‘legs’ and ‘feet’ that was able to self-propel at astonishing speed in any direction and turn on a dime; photographed but uncaptured, its constitution and lineage remain a complete mystery.
  29. The collective biomass of jellyfish is so large that their vertical daily and tidal migrations are believed to affect ocean food systems and indirectly even ocean currents (they compete for food with krill, whose global biomass is second only to bacteria, and greater than that of humans)
  30. Jellyfish, at various stages of development, often form ‘colonies’ that manifest behaviours that resemble those of a single ‘creature’ more than those of a collective. If they are sharing intelligence between bodies exactly as they share them within a ‘single’ body, where exactly does one creature end and the next begin? The Portuguese Man-o’-War, a dangerous jellyfish-like ‘entity’ almost as ancient as the jellyfish, is in fact not a creature at all, but a collective of four specialized types of polyp (whose functions are, respectively, mobility, reproduction, digestion and defence) which have evolved together and now cannot survive independently. [And some octopi, which are immune to the Man-o’-War toxin, carry torn off Man-o'-War tentacles as weapons to use against other prey.]

So here we humans are, clumsy, fragile, watery bags of bones and organs, neophytes in this world of unfathomable ancient complexity. Still drawn to the ocean, from where we came. Only recently did we come ashore. Who can guess what might emerge after we’re gone. And when it does, whatever it is, it will probably have to continue to deal with jellyfish.

photo by Mitchell Kaneshkevich

March 8, 2014

The Qualities of a Great Story

Filed under: Our Culture / Ourselves,Working Smarter — Dave Pollard @ 21:02

sncap2Lest my readers conclude, as a result of yesterday’s article, that I’m down on stories, let me say again: I love stories, and find them useful for learning and imagining, and also very entertaining. So today I’d like to summarize the qualities that I think the great stories I’ve read all have.

This will probably be an unorthodox list: I’m not talking about ‘elements’ of a story here, and in fact I don’t believe there are any essential ‘elements’ of a great story. I’ve read great stories that have no well-developed characters, let alone sympathetic protagonists (some mystery stories come to mind). I’ve read great stories that have no discernible plot, at least in the traditional sense of a beginning, a conflict, a resolution and a conclusion. I’ve read great stories that have no drama or struggle or tension (such as comedies, unless you really bend the meaning of the word ‘tension’). Some of my favourite stories defy traditional narrative structures, which I find tedious, constraining and unimaginative (thanks to Bob Lasiewicz for this intriguing link).

So what do I think are the qualities of a great story?

I’d start with TS Eliot’s two qualities of great poetry, which I think apply equally to stories. In his essay The Social Function of Poetry he wrote:

Poetry has to give pleasure… [and] the communication of some new experience, or some fresh understanding of the familiar, or the expression of something we have experienced but have no words for, which enlarges our consciousness or refines our sensibility… We all understand I think both the kind of pleasure that poetry can give and the kind of difference, beyond the pleasure, which it makes to our lives. Without producing these two effects it is simply not poetry.

So (1) it gives pleasure and (2) it provides some fresh understanding; it connects with us emotionally and intellectually. Eliot has written that he thinks the best way to make the emotional connection is through imagery that reliably evokes a particular feeling (joy, or wonder, or grief, or laughter, or pathos for example). My favourite story writer Frederick Barthelme also writes, in his 39 Steps for Writers, about the importance of imagery: “Don’t let too many paragraphs go by without sensory information, something that can be felt, smelt, touched, tasted. Two or three paragraphs is too many”. This sensory information roots the story, gives it a sense of place, whether familiar or strange.

While I think all Frederick’s “steps” are useful, steps 21-22 are the ones I would nominate as the third essential quality of a great story:

If you write a sentence that isn’t poignant, touching, funny, intriguing, inviting, etc., take it out before you finish the work. Don’t just leave it there. Don’t let anyone see it. To repeat, there is no place for rubbish & slop in the highly modern world of today’s fiction. Every sentence must pay, must somehow thrill. Every one.

Quality (3) then is every sentence must pay.

Quality (4) is that it takes a camera or “theatre” view. That is, it relates what the camera “sees” and “hears” through action and dialogue, not a bunch of back-and-forth “he thought… she felt”. It lets the action and conversation tell the story and convey the ideas and thoughts and feelings of the characters. I’m ambivalent about first-person narratives — stories that relate what happens or happened to one person from behind her/his eyes or inside her/his head. Even Shakespeare used “asides” and monologues to convey important thoughts or feelings of characters that could not be brought out naturally in action or dialogue. But great stories, IMO, use these devices sparingly.

Quality (5) is that it respects the audience’s intelligence. That means no manipulation of the audience’s feelings or thoughts by painting a simplistic, black-and-white picture of a situation or character. That means no deus ex machina. That means no helpless creatures injured or killed for no reason just to stir up audience emotions. That means the story has to be coherent. That means it requires the audience to think, to pay attention to what’s happening, to read between the lines.

Quality (6) is that it leaves space for the audience. It omits enough detail (without omitting anything essential) that the listener or reader (or even viewer) can fill in some of the details from their own experience or imagination and become part of the story, make it their own.

Quality (7) is that it must be in some way really imaginative, clever, or novel. The writer has to reach down and come up with something that tickles, that the reader would never have thought of, that’s a total surprise, astonishment, wonder. Something that makes you say “wow”. I don’t understand the appeal of many series, sequels and trilogies (though there are exceptions). I appreciate that we can come to love characters and settings and that their familiarity is heart-warming, but unless every ‘episode’ includes something totally new, something that astonishes, really shines, I think it’s lazy, mediocre writing. And there is so much of that, in this age of imaginative poverty.

That’s it. Just seven qualities. Fewer than one in a thousand stories, in my view, has them. There are other nice-to-have qualities, but those are the essential ones.

Of course, all of this is just my opinion. Many, even most of the very popular stories I’ve read do not have these qualities and I can’t even finish them, and many of the most beloved stories in the English language are, I think, dreadful, absolute dreck. These are the seven qualities I aspire to when I write stories now, and I’m going to be writing a lot of them this year.

Image from Sports Night, written by Aaron Sorkin

March 7, 2014

The Trouble With Stories

Filed under: Our Culture / Ourselves — Dave Pollard @ 19:47

image from Justin Bale’s OWS archive 

 We hold stories dear to our heart. Some even believe “stories are all we are“. I love stories. I’ve encouraged groups doing strategic planning — looking for the best way forward — to start with ‘future state’ stories that describe a day in their lives once the group’s goals have been achieved. I’ve learned that telling stories is the best way to hold an audience and help them remember your message. And that they’re subversive — you can get people to think about a point of view they would normally balk about considering by couching it in a story. And that if a story is sufficiently compelling, it really doesn’t even matter if it’s true. We want to believe. Make-believe. Make us believe by telling us a story.

So what’s with the title of this article? What could I possibly have against stories?

The trouble with stories is that they make us believe what’s not true.

I wrote a rant against stories five years ago, in which I said:

Stories are addictive. They oversimplify complexity to the point we become complacent, that we think we know what is really happening and that all the alternatives have been identified and considered. Stories are sedative: We tell our children “bedtime stories” to lull them to sleep. Stories are manipulative, readily subject to spin, especially on complex subjects about which there can never be absolute or certain knowledge. And they are subject to censorship and the crime of non-reporting, which the mainstream media do constantly. Stories give us false hope. Many live their lives dreaming of what might be instead of realizing what is. Stories lead us to live inside our heads instead of in the real world. Stories are excuses for inaction: When we get worked up about a story, we can mistake that for actually doing something about it. And stories are only stories. The true horrors are not just stories. Just as a map is not the territory, a story is not the thing that the story is about.

At that time, I also described two “laws” of human cognition and behaviour that, I said, conspire to make stories so powerful, and so dangerous:

  • Daniel Dennett‘s Law of Needy Readers: On any important topic, we tend to have a rough idea of what we believe to be true, and when an author writes the words we want to read, we tend to fall for it, no matter how shoddy the arguments.
  • George Lakoff’s Law of Frames: Frames trump facts. All of our concepts are organized into conceptual structures called “frames” (which may include images and metaphors) and all words are defined relative to those frames. Conventional frames are pretty much fixed in the neural structures of our brains. In order for a fact to be comprehended, it must fit the relevant frames. If the facts contradict the frames, the frames, being fixed in the brain, will be kept and the facts ignored.

That article was criticized by those who thought stories to be so essential to human nature, that to argue against their use was to deny who we really are. At that time my principal argument against stories was that we substitute reading them and telling them for meaningful action to deal with the real issues the stories are about. And we do. But since then I’ve become more sanguine about what we can really do about these issues. My further study of complexity has led me to believe that it’s too late to change the massive, global, evolved systems that are destroying our world, if it were ever possible at all.

So my problem with stories, now, is not that they’re unactionable, but that they’re untrue, and our belief in them as being true causes us to behave in dysfunctional ways.

Most of the harm of stories stems from their deliberate (and necessary, for brevity) simplification (sometimes to an extreme degree) of a complex situation, a situation rooted in complex systems. Here’s what I’ve learned about complex systems:

  • They are not changed by heroic action; nor are they controlled by a conspiracy of ‘evil’ people. They are the way they are for a reason, and they have evolved over a period of time, due to the combined influence of a nearly infinite number of people, actions and variables, to be the way they are. Because they contain a mix of reinforcing and balancing feedback loops, they tend to remain in stasis and resist change, but no one is in control of them.
  • Likewise, complex systems cannot simply be replaced by better-designed systems, despite what Bucky Fuller said. Systems evolve and systems collapse, and when they collapse new systems (possibly but not likely ‘better’) replace them, piecemeal, one step at a time. There is no ‘progress’, there is just evolution, punctured equilibrium, with stasis then shift then a rebalancing and a new stasis, and, unless the system is tiny and local and autonomous, no one is in control of it, no one ‘designs’ it. Around and around, that’s the way things go in evolution. Trial and error, a slightly better fit for an ever-changing situation. Not a better system, just a slightly better fit for the situation as it has evolved.
  • The ‘interventions’ in large complex systems that do work — in fact, without them, many complex systems would collapse much more quickly — are workarounds. All large corporations and other bureaucracies accomplish most of what they do by virtue of workarounds instituted by people on the front lines — workarounds that often circumvent and even violate official ‘policy’ but are the only way to get what is needed actually done. The heads of the smartest large organizations realize this and don’t try to stifle workarounds, and may even quietly reward them.

Stories, in short, are fictions, deceptions, simplifications, inventions. They are propaganda, even though they may be well-intentioned. They are not true. They may be useful, for teaching, for persuading, for brainwashing. But they are not true. The truth is complex, and no story can tell it.

The stories in your daily news, the biographies you read, the ‘self-help’ books with stories of transformation, the case studies you take up in business school, the myths and fables you grew up with, the war stories, success stories, creation stories, the epic novels and plays and films of all genres, and even documentaries — all stories, convenient, arousing, manipulating, entertaining, distorting, oversimplifying fictions, packaged and sold to us avid (or reluctant) consumers. We want to believe it’s simple, that it can be fully understood, that there’s a simple answer, and we loathe complexity because it won’t give us simple ‘truths’. But if it’s about organisms or people or societies or ecologies, or even scientific phenomena (all complex systems), it’s never simple.

Look at the elements of archetypal stories: They have a sympathetic protagonist, a struggle against a heinous unredeemable enemy (which may be human, or not, and may be metaphorical, or even within the protagonist), a ‘turning point’, and a resolution, redemption, or salvation — a great and victorious change. None of these things is real — reality is always far more complex than this. Consider the situation in Syria, for example. Who are the good guys and who are the bad guys and how should we intervene? Think you know? Not so fast. Here’s just a teaser (courtesy of the Vlog brothers) on how complex the situation there really is, and there is no intervention that is likely to help the situation more than it worsens it. (In fact, it’s even more complex than the Vlog brothers portray it.) And the situation in Ukraine is even more complex than that.

Let’s consider some of the stories that progressives love to tell: Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” story. The invention of the Internet. The abolition of slavery and forced segregation. The defeat of Nazism and the fall of  the Soviet (and other tyrannical) empires. The extension of rights to women, gays and minorities. The ending of the Vietnam War. We tell these stories, with the best of intentions, as if they were true.

But as tempting as it may be to see a powerful cause-and-effect in a few actions by one or a few people, the sheer complexity of these systems is such that change, which in history books is written by the victors who always overstate their successes and omit their failures, occurs slowly and unpredictably as the result of a million factors, most of them uncontrollable. Social change occurs when the majority are fed up with the status quo. Each new generation is less attached to that status quo, and hence more open to changes, some of which are for the better, and some of which are for the worse. And all inventions are built, as they say, on the shoulders of giants. The Internet was inevitable once certain prerequisite technologies had been invented or evolved (many of which were invented for completely unrelated reasons), and it was impossible without those prerequisites. A number of those prerequisite technologies were, no doubt, invented for military ends.

Of course, you can change people’s minds about issues you care about (most effectively by telling them stories). But often they will change them back again. As Dennett and Lakoff say, changing the worldview that underlies someone’s beliefs is something very different. It’s a slow and unreliable process. And even then there’s the additional step of actually getting them to act on that changed worldview. And that action, if it happens, is only one a million variables affecting the system, most of which have evolved to keep the system in stasis as long as possible.

We want to believe that individual conviction and effort can make a difference. And of course, at the local level it can. But trying to change large, complex systems quickly (in less than a generation) is like trying to get the waves of the sea to part. And even when these systems collapse, as all systems do, we can’t expect to be able to impose, on any significant scale, a new ideal ‘designed’ system on the ensuing chaos that will work. Lenin tried that.

Instead, what we can do is find workarounds that make things at the immediate level where we do have some control, work a bit better. And if we build strong connections and a sense of local community, we can co-develop and share those workarounds for the benefit of others. Then, as the current economic and political systems continue to collapse, we will have the rudiments of new systems that can gradually replace them. This is already happening in different ways in many places.

And we can, instead of trying to change teetering, large, complex systems, adapt to the realities of these systems by learning new competencies and capacities that will enable us to thrive as these systems collapse, to starve them to the extent they’re destructive, and to stay out of their way.

And, instead of dwelling on the stories we tell about the past and the future, and about ourselves and the world, we can simply be present, attentive to what is and can be done, right here, right now.

This is how wild creatures deal with complex systems (such as their ecosystems, and human systems that intervene in their habitat). They work around, they adapt, they learn, and they live in the moment. They have no need for stories.

Such mundane, local work is not, of course, the stuff of great stories. There are no heroes, no enemies vanquished, no great victories after epic struggle, no dramatic turning points, no great redemption or salvation. There are no inspiring leaders, taking us valiantly forward. There is no great change. No ‘progress’.

I love stories. They’re a great way to remember things, and to learn simple things, and to imagine possibilities, and to entertain each other. But we should be careful not to believe them, not to base our beliefs or actions on them, and not to hope (or fear) they will ‘come true’. They aren’t true. Not any of them.

February 28, 2014

In Awe of the Possibility

Filed under: Our Culture / Ourselves — Dave Pollard @ 19:13

Kalalau-beach-waves-scott-hanft

image by Scott Hanft

Our industrial civilization has created a scarcity of everything, and not just of ‘consumables’: We’ve also, at least in our minds, created a scarcity of relationship (too many ‘Facebook’ friends and not enough real ones), trust, collaboration, time, and even love. Love, we are told, comes once in a lifetime, it’s personal, it’s hard work, and, of course, you can only really love one person at a time. No surprise there’s so much jealousy and loneliness in our world.

I asked a friend of mine the other day what kind of loving relationships she has now, and what she is now looking for. I knew she’d recently broken up with her boyfriend and that the breakup was difficult for her. I also know she has a very strong and deep network of friends.

Her response surprised me. She said (I’m paraphrasing):

I have a lot of friends who I care deeply about, and they sustain me. What I seek is a monogamous and deeply spiritual connection, a ‘oneness’ with someone based on mutual devotion and worship of each other. I want all that, and I’m convinced it’s out there. Until I find that, I’m perfectly content to live, and be, ‘alone’.

Devotion. Worship. That seemed an almost antiquated view of love, particularly for a woman. Is such love possible without ‘losing’ yourself, without enslaving yourself, I wondered.

But as I spoke with her, I realized that she is speaking from a worldview in which there is an unlimited abundance of love in the world, and that it’s possible to love, and to give, without in any way diminishing yourself or your love for and of others. In fact such love could be the ultimate form of self-realization.

Her spirituality is very personal, but it is rooted in Eastern spiritual principles that see all life on Earth as connected and as one, and which see love as the purpose, the driver, for everything in life. In this view love isn’t just an emotion, a feeling one has for someone or something. It is the essence of life, and exists beyond the physical plane. Life’s purpose is not to understand, or procreate, or provide some kind of legacy; it’s to love everyone and everything, to transcend the limitations of our bodies and our thoughts and our feelings.

I’ve written occasionally about brief glimpses of this kind of transcendence, this kind of presence where there are no boundaries, there is no time, there is no suffering, there is no ‘I’ or ‘other’. Where ‘I’ simply disappear into the wholeness of everything.

A year ago, in an article on my ‘presence’ practice, I wrote about this as a possible ultimate outcome of such a practice:

How do I imagine, in my moments of inquiry and contemplation, my normal state of living if I were able to awaken, connect, and realize who/what I (and the unity of which I am inextricably a part) really am, every moment?

I imagine myself in a state that is at once very relaxed and very aware. A state where my intellect is largely at rest (and damn, it needs a rest!) and where my emotions are calm, even, compassionate, and playful — not “under control” but just at peace. A state where my senses and instinct come to the fore, with my senses acute, noticing, connected, taking in, feeling-at-one-with, enjoying, and my instincts are ‘directing’ ‘me’, gently, letting go, letting things come, just being present, being generous, ‘touching’ appropriately when that ‘touch’ would be helpful.

No longer my ‘self’.

I imagine myself being just a part, flying, floating. Green and blue and white, flowing and glowing.

Softening. Getting lighter.

Vanishing.

I think this is what my friend means as the place from which to enter into a love that is mutual devotion and worship. That love for ‘one other’ is not something apart from the love of everyone or everything, it builds upon the foundation of that love of everyone and everything. Only once she is herself in that state of ‘being’ –self-less, light, peaceful and connected, and can recognize and see this ‘other’ in the same state, can they together begin to create this even more intense love and devotion to and worship of each other, because that devotion is not exclusionary of the rest of existence, it is a deeper expression of that love for the rest of existence.

It hurts my head thinking about this, and our language is utterly inadequate to express these concepts. The words have been mostly co-opted by new age opportunists who prey on our anxiousness to proclaim this a state that is rare and exclusive and painless and above the masses and available if only you’ll buy their book and take their courses.

But what my friend says makes sense, not in the intellectual ‘sense’ of the word but in the sensuous ‘sense’, the intuitive ‘sense’. When she said it, it was as if I had a sudden glimpse of something so far beyond what I usually think and feel that I was briefly in awe, not of her, but of the possibility she was describing.

I realized that she brings this ‘sense’-ability to everything she does. Her work, which is extraordinary, is a form of devotion, love, worship of those she works with and for. And that love is unlimited, energizing not exhausting. And it is only possible from that state of presence and acceptance that she has practiced her whole life, and continues to practice. So now she hopes (without actually ‘hoping’) that she will find ‘an other’ who shares that, with whom she can build that next level of love and devotion and worship, to love even more. Or rather, she hopes that it will find her.

I hope it happens for her.

So back to my ‘presence’ practice, as discouraging and unproductive as it seems to be. If I am going to truly be of use to the world, in what’s left of my life, I need to be able to transcend (move past or around, nothing ‘mystical’ here) my own anxieties, my grief, my impatience, my mind’s false ‘sense’ of reality. To transcend them not by ‘detaching’ from my feelings, and others’, but by seeing them as just what they are — feelings, conceptions, reactions, inventions that are understandable and worthy of empathy, but not really ‘real’. And to do all this not in order to ‘better’ my ‘self’ but to get beyond my ‘self’ (my fictitious but demanding and preoccupying ego) and its limitations. To love more. To float, to fly, to vanish. To be a part.

How much might we love, and how much might we be able to give, if we could just get past this complex and intricate prison of scarcity and limits that our minds (in their terrible and misguided attempt to make ‘sense’ of us and who ‘we’ are) have locked us into.

So hard. Maybe not going to happen, at least to me. But still, I am, sometimes, in awe of the possibility.

February 26, 2014

Theo’s History of the 19th Century

Filed under: Creative Works — Dave Pollard @ 15:33

This is a fictional excerpt from the diary of my great great grandfather Theo Pollard, “written” in 1899. I’ve actually read his 1899 diary, but it contains little but reports from the newspaper and information about family visits and his tailoring clients. But if he were to write a history of his family and neighbours, I’d like to believe this is what he’d write. The facts cited in this story are accurate; the opinions are merely my speculation.          

_______________________________ 

I’m Adolphus Theodore Pollard, a tailor in the city of Toronto. Everyone calls me Theo. It’s the close of the 19th century, and I’m 64. This is a brief history of my family and my people, the brave settlers — First Nations and European — who came to Toronto Township as farmers, fishers and hunter-gatherers, looking to carve a life together out of the wilderness in this new frontier. While this history focuses on my family members, it is, I think, pretty typical of the families of our time.

My grandfather was Joshua Pollard Sr, who in 1792, at the age of 20, migrated to the newly formed Province of Upper Canada from Billerica, Massachusetts, and then, in 1807, at the age of 35, took his 26-year-old wife Mary Ann Weitzel and his two young children John (age 6) and Betsy (age 2) from Saltfleet on the West of Lake Ontario to Toronto Township, Peel County (not to be confused with the City of Toronto, which was then called York, which is further east).

1. “Proving Up” and Starting a Family

Dundas St 1790s(image: depiction of the clearing of Dundas Street, Toronto Township, to open the way for settlers, 1796)

Earlier in 1807 Joshua Sr had applied for a grant under a new provision made principally for United Empire Loyalists which allotted 200 acres of property (mostly in areas yet to be surveyed) to disgruntled Americans willing to turn their backs on the newly independent United States and pledge an oath to the British Empire and its then-monarch the mad King George III. My grandparents then spent a year or so squatting with other immigrants awaiting survey completion at the foot of Bay St in the village of York with their two children. Their third child, James, born that year, died before his 1st birthday.

Between 1807 and 1812 about fifty families were granted 200-acre plots of land in the Township, recently purchased from the Mississauga First Nation. The grants were made on condition they were “proved up” within two years of the date of the grant. “Proving up” entailed meeting minimum requirements to prove intent to live there: building a home (my grandfather’s wood frame and log house was 38’ x 26’, twice the minimum required size), fencing and clearing more than five acres of the heavily-forested property (with densely-packed trees often over 150’ high), digging a well, and clearing the road in front of the property sufficient for safe passage by horse-drawn carriages. With the reciprocal help of several of his new neighbours, including my wife’s grandfather, Henry Shook, my grandfather received his certificate in 1810. “Proving up” was all done without artificial light, motorized tools or electricity, and wood was the only source of heat. That’s still largely the case on the farms, though here in Toronto we now have the new electric lights and a coal gas boiler that provides heat for our radiators and hot water to our bathroom and kitchen.

In 1808, Joshua Sr had applied for and received a licence for an “inn and ale-house” on his property (the first between York – now Toronto, and Wentworth – now Hamilton), which is why he had built such a large home. Their 988 sf home would soon house a dozen family members (a normal size family for that time and place), visiting preachers, travelers and mail deliverymen, and a bar.

Six of the ten children born to my grandparents once they’d settled in Toronto Township, between 1808 and 1822, would live into old age, as would Joshua Sr himself (at age 77). My grandmother would not be so fortunate – she died in 1823, at age 42, leaving her husband to look after their ten remaining children ranging in age from 10 months to 22 years. John, the eldest and the only child over 18, died just three weeks later. There was an epidemic of yellow fever across North America at that time and I’m told that was their cause of death. There was also a one in eight chance that a woman in those times of very large families would die from complications of pregnancy or childbirth. My grandfather promptly re-married, but had no children with his second (or third) wife.

While historians tend to focus on the “loyalists” who objected to war with Britain in 1776, most of the first American settlers in Upper Canada who arrived, later, in the 1790s, were, my father told me, not particularly pro-British. At the time, the economy of the Northern American States was chronically struggling. Large family sizes made it increasingly difficult for the new mostly-farmer American nation to continue to offer sufficient land to its young men for the prevailing subsistence agriculture. The cities, teeming with desperate, unemployed immigrants, were violent, exploitative, unpleasant places to live. In 1792 the Northern American States were in the grip of an economic recession brought about by counterfeiting, and the resultant distrust of currency seized up commerce and trade. It would soon be followed by the panic of 1797, caused by the insolvency of the Bank of England, which collapsed land prices and led to many bankruptcies and foreclosures.

And, while most of those from Massachusetts had recently fought fiercely for independence from Britain, by the 1790s they were free-traders, seeking peaceful relations with Britain so that their manufactured goods and resources could be shipped to new markets. In 1807 the Americans introduced an embargo prohibiting ships from its ports from entering foreign ports. Jefferson’s Embargo Act was intended to force the warring British and French to stop interfering with American shipping by cutting off supplies to both sides, but its main effects it seems were to bring about the Depression of 1807, and to help fan the animosity that led to the War of 1812.

So it is likely that immigrants like my grandparents were economic opportunists more than ideological British Empire patriots. The offer of so much free or nearly-free land, far from the desperation of New England’s struggling farms and cities and political turmoil, would have been hard to resist.

They were enabled as well by the frenzy of private turnpike (toll road) building that began in America in 1790 and lasted until the onset of war in 1812. It would not have been that hard to travel by horse-drawn wagon or coach from Boston to Albany and then to Niagara (then the site of government of Upper Canada), and thence petition for land deeper in the new territories.

Bradley House

The Bradleys’ house, as it looked in the 1830s

In the early 19th century farms were subsistence – little trade was done with other regions or even neighbours, other than in the sawmills, grist mills and blacksmiths’. Wheat, barley, oats, peas, corn, potatoes, carrots, beans, squash, pumpkins and hay were the main crops, though fruits, nuts and berries were also grown. Chickens, sheep, cows, pigs and goats were raised for food, and horses and oxen for labour. Fishing in the river was prohibited by the terms of First Nation treaties, which preserved for them the areas on either side of major rivers, though these laws were seemingly breached, and trade with the First Nations (in this area, the Mississauga tribe) was common. And of course, alcohol was a major beverage and escape of the times, though coffee, tea and chocolate were surprisingly available even then to most. Settlers brought their own seeds, and acquired farm animals, tools and fabric in the port at York (some tools were even provided free by the government to new settlers). Everything else was made or grown locally.

From my father’s stories, I’d guess that life in those times was as hard, violent, and repressed as it is today in these dark days at century’s close. Short growing seasons, long, cold winters, relatively poor soils, endemic alcoholism, political instability, a lack of education, and  combination of political and religious patriarchy most likely meant that much of each day was spent at work, at school or home-schooling (elementary grades only), and in prayer. It is probable that, as with some like the Amish even now, children in those times were routinely beaten and otherwise cowed, sexual abuse of women and children was tolerated and not spoken about, and abuse of animals was common.

Things for the powerless haven’t improved much nearly a century later: the occupation of adult young men and women living at home in rural areas is still listed as “farmer’s son” and “none” respectively in the census, reflecting the perennially low status of unmarried women. Young women in those days were married off quickly – usually between age 18 and 23 – and immediately began having families of 6-17 children (my own family of seven children is considered, these days, rather large). Divorce was of course not available to either gender.

Early marriage and large families were to some extent a necessity of pioneer life. Children were needed to help work the farm and do the considerable work in the house – food preparation from scratch, gardening, tending the animals, making soap and candles, making and mending clothes, teaching younger family members, looking after the sick, the very young, and the very old. And they were needed to support parents in their old age. There was an enormous amount of work to do, far more than any single person of either gender could manage, or any couple with a small family.

Failing to find a spouse when you were young, then, meant you became a burden on your parents or siblings, since you had to live with them and, if they died, probably find somewhere else to live. Although some marriages were arranged, in accordance with the culture of the parents’ families, there was considerable urgency to make it happen for both genders of young adults, even without parental pressure. And there is evidence that both young men and young women were looking for partners of character (hard-working, competent, healthy, perseverant, kind, not prone to alcohol addicition), for the long, hard life together ahead, so that physical appearance seems genuinely not to have been a factor in partner choice at all, for either gender.

That had not really changed by the time I married Hannah in 1863 (she married me, a homely and scrawny tailor, after all). My four eldest children all lived and married during the years of the two-decade Long Depression we’ve just seen the end of, so their pressure to marry has been dictated to some extent by “two can live as cheaply as one”, and their families thus far have been half the size of mine, and they seem content with, or resigned to, the city life they’ve all chosen.

2. First Nations Neighbours 

The Mississauga First Nation ceded parts of what became known as Toronto Township to the British for loyalist settlement purposes, in exchange for cash, at the turn of the 19th century, and at that time they retained exclusive hunting and fishing rights along the area’s rivers. An additional purchase by the British in 1818 added more settlements in the north part of the Township, and soon after that the Mississaugas sold off their remaining lands (for a pittance: I hope that one day they will receive a settlement to address the inadequacy of what they received then) and in 1847 they moved west to a part of the Six Nations reserve, where their descendants remain today.

anishinabe story

Parts of the Anishinabe story mural telling the story of the Anishinabe Nation, the migration of the Mississaugas to the Credit River, and the prophecies for the future, at an elementary school in Hagersville, Ontario

The Mississaugas are part of the Anishinabe Nation, and they migrated south in the 17th century from the north shore of Lake Huron to the Golden Horseshoe area. Their traditional way of life was to hunt and fish and grow fruits and vegetable crops in the summer, and then move inland in the winter, living mainly off what was preserved of their summer harvest. They traded with the French fur traders (the Credit River in the area is named for the credit the fur traders gave them).

During the War of 1812 the Mississaugas fought bravely alongside the new settlers for the British against the Americans, whose policy of systematic genocide would soon produce the Removal of Indians Act, calling for the total expulsion of all First Nations people in America to areas west of the Mississippi River.

Evidence is that relations between the Mississaugas and new settlers in Toronto Township were relatively good during the early part of the century. It appears the Mississaugas taught the European and American newcomers crop rotation, corn/squash/beans (“three sisters”) polyculture, indigenous medicine using local plants and herbs, tapping maple trees, hunting and foraging native edibles, snowshoe and canoe-making. It’s not clear the Mississaugas got much if anything in return. An early historian says my grandfather, whose land directly abutted the Credit River fishing and hunting grounds of the Mississaugas, died “beloved of the Red Man”. The new settlers certainly were indebted to them, though there is no official record of significant interaction with them.

In the latter part of this century, a huge European influx of refugees fleeing from political oppression and famine, deforesting most of the area, and the proliferation of mills along the rivers, damaging fish stocks, essentially drove the Mississaugas out of the region entirely. In the process, their numbers were ravaged by diseases contracted from the newcomers, possibly reducing their total population by 90% or more.  Like many First Nations peoples, they now live in small, impoverished areas totally inadequate to the pursuit of their traditional way of life.

3. War and Politics 

The War of 1812, a spillover of the long ongoing war between Britain and France, brought the first wave of immigration to Upper Canada to a halt.

There were four causes of the war:

  • a series of trade restrictions introduced by Britain to impede American trade with France, a country with which Britain was at war (the Americans contested these restrictions as illegal under international law);
  • the impressment and forced recruitment of American seamen into the Royal Navy (since there were no formal American citizenship papers in those days, the British deemed anyone born in Britain to be subject to British military draft);
  • the British military support for American First Nations peoples who were offering armed resistance to the expansion of the American frontier to the Northwest; and
  • a desire on the part of some in the United States to annex Canada.

Upper Canada was somewhat removed from the key actions in these disputes, but the war threatened the sovereignty and security of Upper Canada, and access to needed goods from Britain and other colonies, so it is not surprising that many of Toronto Township’s newest settlers were prepared to fight for the British. Nor is it surprising that the Mississauga First Nations joined them.

In 1812 there were only about 400 settlers in all of Toronto Township; almost all of the approximately 100 able-bodied (i.e. aged from about 17-55) men from the Township served in the war, mostly as unpaid Privates with the all-volunteer Flank Companies, and with little or no training. My grandfather, then 40 years of age, enlisted early and fought for the duration of the war, notably at the battle of Queenston Heights, alongside many of his neighbours.

The war was all-consuming, essentially bringing economic activity in the area to a halt. From the lakefront at Lake Ontario, the families that were left behind could witness the fires of the 1813 fall of York to the American invaders. The Americans looted and set most public buildings ablaze. Most spectacularly, settlers for miles around could witness the burning of ships under construction by the retreating Upper Canada forces and the blowing up of their sizeable weapons and ammunition magazine, to prevent them falling into American hands. The magazine explosion was so violent it purportedly killed 1/6 of the invading American forces. The fall of York was followed soon after by the fall of Niagara.

After that, however, it became a war of attrition, with neither side winning battles consistently, and troops on both sides withdrawing, exhausted, to preserve numbers for whatever battle came next. Americans in the New England states, furthermore, had no interest in this war, which disrupted their vital port trade; there was even a move by New England states to secede from the new American nation in protest over this needless war. As for the British and French, they did not consider the North American arena to be essential to their European (Napoleonic) wars, and while the British did burn the American White House and Capitol in Washington in 1814, along with many public buildings, it did not stay to occupy it, not considering it a strategic asset. By then popular support for “Madison’s War” had vanished, and both sides quickly agreed to an armistice in 1814, the Treaty of Ghent, with all pre-war borders and agreements restored. Britain was flush from its victory over Napoleon at the time, and war-weary, especially after its debacle at the Battle of New Orleans.

Although many Upper Canada loyalists were technically fighting the country they were born in, and where most of their families still lived, the war was perpetrated largely by Southern State interests, and it is unlikely many of the American troops were from the New England states which most of the loyalists had left.

The war united English, French and First Nations people of what would later become the Dominion of Canada, in their animosity towards the American invaders, and instigated a distrust of Americans by Canadians that arguably continues to this day.

The next political battle facing the region came in 1837, with the parallel Upper Canada and Lower Canada (Quebec) rebellions. The rebellions were grassroots public uprisings of self-styled ‘Reformers’ against conservative corporate cliques that ran blatantly undemocratic governments in both provinces. These ‘family compacts’ owned and ran the banks, offered special legal protections and monopoly grants to their extremely rich members, fixed elections, made it easier for landlords and creditors to sue struggling farmers, and used the provinces’ military forces to brutally subdue democratic opposition. In that respect the ‘compacts’ bear a close resemblance to the current crony capitalist federal governments of Canada and America – owned lock stock and barrel by the robber barons.

In 1836 the collapse of the similarly-corrupt American banking system had reverberated into Canada, where a massive crop failure added to the worst economic depression in the provinces’ history. The Bank of Upper Canada filed for bankruptcy in 1837 but was rescued by the government of the day at taxpayers’ expense; needless to say, the farmers and the poor received no such rescue.

The Reformers were a disorganized and inarticulate group, led in Upper Canada by William Lyon Mackenzie. The York ‘rebellion’ of 1837 was quickly squelched, and my father, Joshua Pollard Jr, then 24 years old, was one of a contingent that, over three days, snuck Mackenzie out to the west end of the town and hence to his father’s house in Toronto Township, as a result of which he escaped arrest and possible hanging for treason (there was a £1,000 reward for his capture and a significant pursuit force), and fled from there to America.

In 1839 the new Governor General Durham wrote a report on the rebellions recommending the union of the two provinces into a single dominion (ironically, for the purposes of trying to integrate French Lower Canada into a single British nation to extinguish the French culture, and at the same time extinguish the Upper Canada compact’s ruinous debt by accessing Lower Canada’s financial surplus). The Dominion, he proposed, would be run by an elected, responsible, representative government.

The British accepted the union but rejected responsible government. Durham’s report was repudiated by exiled Lower Canada Rebellion leader Papineau, and for the next quarter century attempts at reform continued, finally succeeding when the then-parliament of the united Province of Canada met with the parliaments of the Maritime colonies and agreed on principles of confederation as the Dominion of Canada, which Queen Victoria agreed to three years later, in 1867. I remember the headlines of that day with great pride.

Aside from the short-lived and unsuccessful Fenian Raids of 1866-70, life in Toronto Township has been peaceful for most of the latter part of the century. The rights struggle has moved to Canada’s Western territories, where the new Canadian government has ruthlessly repressed First Nation independence movements. The principal violence plaguing the people of Eastern Canada in this part of the century has been internal ethnic violence, mostly between Catholics and Protestants (and, most bitterly, between the ‘Green’ and ‘Orange’ Irish immigrants), between the English and Irish (the English call the Irish part of Toronto, where, in their view disgracefully, vegetables rather than lawns grow in the front yards, “Cabbagetown”), and between European and Asian immigrants (the latter, desperate enough to work for very low wages and do very dangerous work, are considered threats to the jobs and wages of the former).

Political activity in the 19th century both in Toronto Township and here in the City has centred mainly around meetings in the churches, schools and taverns, often organized and publicized by the area’s newspapers. Next to farming, millwork, and transportation (“teamsters” of horse-drawn wagons), printing of newspapers and ‘broadsheets’ has become one of the biggest employers in Upper Canada in the latter part of the century. Several of the Pollards (including my son Oliver) have come to make their living in the printing business, and seem born to do this work.

Most of our newspapers continue to be politically strident weekly “gazettes” that are more like personal diaries (written often in the first person) than contemporary international newspapers. Initially, our newspapers were largely subsidized government organs, but by the middle of the century printing had became cheap enough to enable an independent press. News from overseas remains slow in coming (and often, and ironically during the War of 1812, dependent on reports in the American papers), so the papers until recently mainly focused on local news, announcements, advertisements and events. The York Gazette was particularly targeted by the invading American troops, and when its offices were burned it did not resume publishing until 1817.

The early papers generally demonized the Americans as vain and dishonorable (some Canadian papers still do), and were essential to recruitment for the War of 1812. The war began a shift in many newspapers’ stance towards Britain from one of adulation to one of criticism (initially for its lack of attention to defending its Canadian colonies, and then, as the century wore on, for its support for the much-loathed family compacts and its resistance to democratic reforms). Mackenzie used his newspaper to win election as Mayor of Toronto (as York had been renamed in 1834) and later to push for the constitutional reforms that were finally realized in 1867.

In the process, the newspapers captured the first sense of what it means to be Canadian, apart from a loyal subject of the mother country. A study of our early newspapers lists the emerging qualities of Canadians, our first non-indigenous national identity myth, as: gallant (now termed as “polite” and still, to many the defining quality of Canadians vis-à-vis Americans), united by adversity (and pretty much unnationalistic in its absence), constantly struggling with natural and imposed hardships (what one writer has termed “the Canadian survival narrative”), and, perhaps surprisingly, exclusionary (of francophones, women, lower classes and First Nations). While the papers lauded the contribution of its First Nations peoples to the War of 1812 effort, once the war was over, the promises that had been made to the First Nations were ignored by both politicians and the press, and almost none of those promises were kept. Discrimination and prejudice by race, class and gender have remained prevalent and accepted in Upper Canada throughout the century.

The Pollards, like many of their neighbours, were Reformers, advocates for responsible, representative government, the abolition of slavery, “free” (paid for by taxes) schools, and separation of church and state. There were about 300 slaves in Upper Canada in the late 18th to early 19th century, most of them “legally” (per the Imperial Act of 1790) brought in by loyalists to do domestic, farm, and artisanal work. The Slave Act of 1793 attempted to end slavery in Upper Canada through attrition: it legislated that no new slaves could be brought into Upper Canada, and although it stipulated that slaves already in the province would remain enslaved until death, children born to female slaves were to be freed at age 25.  Slavery was abolished (throughout the British Empire) in 1833.

Between 1830 and 1865, at least 30,000 American slaves escaped to the Canadian provinces via the Underground Railway, many of them coming to Upper Canada. They settled, mostly, in settlements specifically established for them by or with assistance from the governments and churches of the time, and in the larger towns near the border. Even though slavery in the northern American states was illegal for much of this period, those born as slaves in the southern states did not become free by moving to the northern states, whose laws did not apply to them, and they were often pursued by bounty hunters; that’s why so many chose to move to Canada.

It’s hard to say how many of the escapees settled in Toronto Township, since there was so much European immigration and expansion of land grants during this time, and the grants and censuses don’t identify racial origins. But I do recall that that most of the Township’s members supported and encouraged the Underground Railway and the exodus, since many of us are ourselves from refugee families.

4. Work and the Economy

Economic recessions (often called ‘panics’) and depressions have been common throughout the late 18th and 19th centuries; indeed, the economy has been in recession or depression more often than it has not. Here are the major ones to date, with the primary causes in brackets:

  • 1789-1793 Recession (counterfeiting)
  • 1796-1799 Recession (land speculation, bank insolvency)
  • 1802-1804 Recession (end of war, piracy)
  • 1807-1810 Depression (trade embargoes)
  • 1815-1821 Depression (bank collapses, inflation, high unemployment, market collapses)
  • 1822-1826 Recession (market crash)
  • 1828-1829 Recession (trade embargo)
  • 1833-1838 Depression (bank failures, cotton market collapse)
  • 1839-1843 Depression (debt defaults, chronic deflation)
  • 1847-1848 Recession (British financial crisis)
  • 1853-1854 Recession (high inflation)
  • 1857-1858 Recession (insurance failures, railroad stock price collapse)
  • 1865-1867 Recession (end of war, chronic deflation)
  • 1873-1896 Depression (the “Long Depression”: bank failures, commodity price collapse, chronic deflation, stock market collapse)

Farming in the early part of the century in Toronto Township was, as was mentioned earlier, subsistence, with crops sufficient to provide nutrition for each family and salting, pickling and cold storage to last out the winters. Chickens, sheep, cows, pigs and goats were raised for food, and horses and oxen for labour (horses for human transportation and ploughing, and oxen for stump-removal, dragging timber and operating the sawmills and grist mills).

A growing local population, and the advent of the railway, presented the opportunity to switch to more ‘monoculture’ farming and sell the surplus to provide cash for other purchases that would supposedly allow farmers to live a more affluent and less laborious life. That was the promise, but thanks to the constant economic recessions and depressions, each of which seemingly brought a collapse in farm prices, the abandonment of subsistence agriculture in favour of monocropping and brisk trade has turned out to make farm life more risky, and more exhausting, for most, and no more affluent.

Tor Twp 1859

SW Toronto Township in 1859 (Tremaine’s Map). Joshua Pollard Sr’s original 1807 200-acre land grant outlined in red. Its base spanned 4 lots (1 mi), and it was one division (1.25 mi) long. Until the 1830s, all the lands 1 mile either side of the Credit River were reserved for the Mississauga First Nation. 

My grandfather applied for an “inn and ale-house” licence when he first moved to the Township, probably with the plan of supplementing his income, especially during the winter months when the farm was dormant, and hedging against bad crop years. It was a good plan, but it wouldn’t be long before Toronto Township had dozens of taverns competing for the drinking-men’s dollar. The combination of too much supply and opposition to the drunkenness and family breakdown that often accompanied the proliferation of taverns, probably made the venture unprofitable, though I recall it continued for more than a half-century.

In 1850, my grandfather died, and the Pollard homestead passed to my father, Joshua Pollard Jr, then 37 years of age (though Joshua Sr’s widow and 3rd wife, then 60, was “provided for” in his will). My father was married to Mariah Hill, a neighbour (most of the first several dozen families to settle in Toronto Township are related by one intermarriage or another, due to low mobility and large family size). At the time of my grandfather’s death, my parents had eight children, aged 1 to 16; I was the second-born and eldest son, then age 14.

joshua jr

Joshua Pollard Jr and Mariah Hill, c. 1860

The 1861 agricultural census shows the following crops grown on our homestead’s 80 cultivated acres that year: 18a (300bu) of fall wheat, 6a (120bu) of spring wheat, 3a (100bu) of barley, 4a (100bu) of peas, 6a (100bu) of oats, 2a (50bu) of indian corn, 1a (50bu) of potatoes, 6a of pasture, 3a of orchards, and, grown on the remaining land, 50bu of carrots, 2bu of beans, and 25T of hay (for some reason, squash was not included in the census). Our neighbours also grew rye, buckwheat, turnips, beets, hops and clover. An additional 40a was woodlands. Our homestead had 2 horses, 3 dairy and 3 beef cattle, 9 sheep, 4 hogs, a buggy wagon and various saddlery, a lumber sleigh, a grain sleigh, a tanning mill (a horse-powered device, for grinding bark for use in tanning hides) and straw-cutting equipment, and the usual farm implements of the day: plough, spade, hoe, fork, sickle, hook, cradle, roller, flail and rake.

29_horseplow(image: horse-drawn shovel-plough, c.1850s)

By this time there were sawmills and grist mills nearby, and in 1854 my father built a second house on the homestead, where we then lived. Some of the farm produce was being sold at the Howes and Pollard Grocery Store and Bootmakers (co-owned by my brother Erastus and brother-in-law Joseph), and the Great Western Railway had begun regular steam train operations in 1855, with a station at Clarkson’s, our neighbours, providing access to markets outside the Township for the grains, dairy products and fruits produced on the homestead. So economic life necessarily became more complex, as subsistence farming became less and less viable for families that wanted to buy the increasingly expensive fabrics, tools and other advantages of modern life that had to be imported.

My father ran the farm for 23 more years until 1873 when, at age 60, he turned it over to my brother, Richard Pollard. My father had done his stint: He’d converted the farm and orchard to viable commercial businesses, won many awards at regional agricultural fairs, directed the local cemetery, and the first school in the area, served 10 years as the area’s postmaster, several years as justice of the peace, and acted as agent for the insurance company offering fire and other insurance policies to our neighbours. He’d just been appointed magistrate for the region. He’d live on the homestead another eight years until his death in 1882.

In 1873, my youngest brother Richard was just 24 years of age and a newlywed. He would rename the homestead operations Maplegrove Farm. As the oldest son I had rights to claim the homestead, but I had the ‘travel bug’ and spent my youth seeing the world. Richard always wanted to be a farmer. His other older brothers made way, starting the great exodus to the cities: Erastus became a merchant in Oakville, James became an engineer and Stephen a physician, both in Toronto. When I settled down at last I too moved to Toronto, and have made my living as a tailor. It was left to Richard to run the farm with my father.

Unfortunately for my brother, from 1873 until just three years ago, all of North America has suffered through the longest and deepest economic depression in our history. The Industrial Revolution may brought staggering wealth to a small elite and to the middle class in some cities, but for farmers, the working class, small towns and immigrants it has brought incredible hardship, and with it, political strife. The Gilded Age robber barons have used their new-found wealth and power to brutally suppress unionization efforts, buy elections and corrupt politicians, and deregulate controls over their monopolistic practices and anti-democratic activities. The widening chasm between rich and poor has led to an explosion of homeless and destitute families, increases in the use of child labour, brutal working hours and conditions for the working class, and the unwinding of equal rights in the American South with the reintroduction of forced segregation and the suppression of minority voting rights.

It has been indeed a dark time for our nation and our people. Let us hope the 20th century, with its new technologies, offers us some respite.

i feed you all

1875 agricultural newspaper cartoon protests the wealth and arrogance of the urban robber barons and their political and legal allies

My brother Richard, the third generation to farm the Pollard homestead in Toronto Township, finally gave up and sold the homestead to the Shooks, our neighbours, just a few years ago in 1891, for a very small sum, since farmers everywhere were suffering from the Long Depression. Like many of our family members and neighbours, he too has moved to Toronto and, now in his 40s, has begun working as a motorman and conductor for the city railway (which has just been converted from horse-drawn to electric-powered trams – the electricity is created from our new coal-fired plants). Some of Richard’s children and our cousins also work for the railways, which are, alas, still unaffordable for the poor.

While the bicycle has finally (in the past five years) been engineered to be safe and efficient (I can’t understand why it took so long), it has really never caught on as an effective means of transportation for the poor and working class in Canada. Now that it’s become affordable to most citizens, the new passion for the automobile has begun, and our new road networks seem to be being developed with the automobile driver’s needs in mind, not those of the cyclist. In Europe, by contrast, I understand the bicycle is playing a major role in the emancipation of women, finally allowing them a means of traveling alone to places beyond normal walking distance.

Some of my nieces and nephews are worked in the growing but low-paying garment industry of Toronto, or in factories producing a growing range of industrial products. Hired domestic work, and dangerous work (mining especially), continues to be mostly done by newer immigrants from poorer European countries and from Asia.

child labour 1880(image: urban child labourers    c. 1880)

The world has been much changed by the advent of the age of mechanization, the engine, and coal. Recently, in 1885, so much of our planet’s forests had been harvested, including over 90% of the primeval forest in Toronto Township and the rest of Peel County, that of necessity coal surpassed wood as the world’s, and the Province’s, top energy resource. We are stripping the world of its forests, the canopies beneath which all other life lives, until there is nothing left but sticks, and I fear we may do the same with coal, which also, when used to excess, hurts our lungs and poisons our air. What will we do when we run out of coal?

This new Gilded Age of robber barons, and the resulting gulf between rich and poor, has ushered in a huge shift of people, wealth and influence from country to city. It is a replaying of the struggle over inequality of the era of the family compacts a half century earlier. When will we learn that every time there is a jump in inequality of wealth, income and opportunity, every time we allow the economic dominance of corporations and the idle rich and crony capitalism, and see as a consequence the disappearance of the middle class, the result is suffering, violence and war? When will we learn the lessons of history?

5. Home Life: Education, Religion, Play, and Community

Even at the start of the 19th century, there was strong support for elementary (up to sixth grade) community education, and in Toronto Township the first school, called simply the Red Schoolhouse, was established in 1816, with my grandfather as one of the founding trustees (my father also served as Director). Land for the Schoolhouse and Meeting House was leased from the neighbours across the Middle Road from our homestead. Tuition was provided in the form of firewood to heat the school. Schooling beyond 6th grade was rare in those days, and considered unnecessary for the life of a farmer or farmer’s wife. It was a simple and spare life, but it was sufficient, and remarkably egalitarian.

Prior to the 1850s, church ministers would do a weekly or fortnightly circuit of the entire area from Toronto Township to Wellington, staying at designated homes after each service. The largest service in the area, on Sunday mornings, was a multi-denominational one at the Red Schoolhouse, and the Schoolhouse served as a major social meeting place as well (the ministers of the time brought news from other families on their route). Four churches were built in the area around mid-century, when I was a young adult, but even after that the Red Schoolhouse continued to serve as a major multi-denominational church, and was sufficiently popular that it subsidized some other area Methodist churches until very recently. It was there, and from the people of our community, that I learned everything I know of value.

1897 Pollard-Shook family photo

The Pollard and neighbouring Shook families two years ago in 1897, taken on the Pollard homestead now owned by the Shooks. That’s me, Theo Pollard (standing third from right) and my wife Hannah Shook (seated, second from right). Many of the trousers, jackets and frocks are my handiwork.

Schoolchildren for much of the century were expected to observe the work activities of their older siblings, but not work until they had completed grade 6, after which they were assigned household and light farm duties such as feeding the chickens. Around age 17, they took on full household and farm duties, with the young men assigned the heavy work and the young women the jobs requiring more coordination. The oldest son in each family (I am a rare exception) was generally expected to work there for life, and inherit the farm on his father’s death; the young women and the younger males were expected to marry, move out and start their own families by their mid-twenties.

With the shift of life from the country to the city, much has changed, but not, I’m afraid, for the better. Education is now compulsory to grade 6 (age 12) but the growing disparity between rich and poor has meant that many boys of age 12 and many girls of age 14 (and even younger, in defiance of the law) are now working making textiles, and in the mills and mines, which is much more severe and dangerous work than that their country counterparts did a few decades earlier on the farms. Laws to prohibit child labour have failed, largely due to deference to rich corporate interests but also because desperate working class parents say they need the children’s income to feed their families.

In my grandfather’s time, outside of church services, social activities included occasional dances, essential to enabling young men and women to find marriage partners, and visits, often to exchange goods and services, that, because of the distances involved (often on foot, occasionally on horseback), frequently involved overnight stays. Such visits were quaintly called “tarrying”.

Now, in the city, the pace of life does not accommodate much “tarrying”, and, while working hours remain long (sixty hours a week is not unusual), the drudgery and unhealthiness of the work many do is not good for the body or soul. Sixty hours of work outdoors on a farm is wearying but uplifting – you see the results and they are yours. But sixty hours in a crowded, enclosed, polluted factory or coal mine in labour for someone else, where you see none of the final products of your work, is a prescription for madness.

On the farm, in the old days, children’s play often revolved around mimicking the activities of adults. Some children played “school”, with the older children taking the role of teachers; others, like my siblings and me (described by neighbouring parents in their diaries as “gayer” than our peers), preferred to play “going to a dance”. By contrast today, there seems no time for child’s play anymore, and what there is seems prescribed and constrained by rules and regulations, and leaves nothing to the child’s imagination.

One thing that hasn’t changed is the seeming randomness of the diseases that take our loved ones. My brother Stephen the physician tells me that about half of the settlers in the early 19th century died from tuberculosis, pneumonia, influenza, other infectious diseases or bacterial infections of the digestive system. About one in four children died young, one in eight women died of complications of pregnancy or childbirth, and not a few died of farm accidents or complications thereof. But for those who avoided these, life expectancy was remarkably long – most often into their 80s or even 90s.

And nearly a century later we remain victim to these terrible diseases and ‘complications’, none the wiser for all we have learned about them, and only the frequency of infant and childbirth deaths has declined. For those who live to adulthood, the same proportion live to their 80s as did so a century earlier.

209 Brock Av

Grey building is 209 Brock St, Toronto — my home.

I try to avoid nostalgia, but when Hannah and I sit and talk in the evenings, it’s often to remember the incredible sense of community we had eighty or even fifty years ago, and how much of that seems to have been lost. We were just a couple of dozen families, farmers all, struggling together in a beautiful but challenging place we had all chosen to move to. Even now, a century later, the same names appear on the maps of Toronto Township, names of people we worked and played with and loved – the Shooks, the Oliphants, the Westervelts, the Merigolds, the Hammonds, the Adamsons, the Greeniaus’, the Hemphills, the Oughtreds, the Harris’, the Clarksons, the Camerons. And, in my father’s and grandfather’s generation, before we drove them all away, our Mississauga First Nations families as well.

We knew, and still know, all these families. We proved up our land together, built houses together, created schools together, poughed fields together, fought together, prayed together, rebuilt together after disasters, mourned and buried our dead together. As children we played together, as did our parents when they were children. In many cases we married each other. We loved each other as much as we loved the members of our own blood families.

How have we lost that sense of community? I think it’s the economy that’s mainly the cause, an economy that once was based in sufficiency and cooperation but now is based in greed and waste and efficiency and destruction and violence and separation from the land. Where did we go wrong?

Three of our children live in cities far away – too far to travel. We can’t blame them – there’s no living to be made in farming anymore, or in tailoring for that matter. Oliver has moved to Winnipeg, hoping to make his fortune in printing and publishing. His sister Mary moved there too. Frank is a barber, still in Toronto, but he’s actually made his wealth as a bookie – preying, I think, on the desperate hopes of the poor. Clara’s in Montreal, a stenographer with a small baby.

I used to think it was our manifest destiny to prosper through hard work, and that that destiny was open to all. But now I’m not so sure. All the suffering, the cruelty, the wars that seem to get ever more violent and global, the mental distress, the abuse of women and children! How can I believe in the myth of ‘progress’ – that the world is generally getting better, and that with hard work and devotion our life and our descendants’ will be ever more so?

Perhaps, instead, the world is prescribed, fated. Perhaps whatever will be is God’s will and not to be questioned or complained about – or predicted or planned for. I think we all live lives of considerable self-sacrifice, but it isn’t for our children or out of some belief it is our duty to God or nation. It is, rather, the only life we know, and now, I fear, the only one we can imagine.

I hope some day one of my descendants writes the story of the Pollards and their communities in the 20th century, and that it’s a more peaceful, prosperous and joyful story than this one. One in which we rediscover the land and with it our connection to all people and all the beasts of the earth. And one in which a sharing and equal community once again is the font of our lives, our purpose, our compass. And that this abundance we have (though unfairly shared) – all this! – is, at last, sufficient.

February 24, 2014

The Horses’ Bodies

Filed under: Creative Works — Dave Pollard @ 01:15

wild horses chernobyl
image: wild horses reintroduced to Chernobyl

I watch the horses’ bodies.

They convey so clearly their feelings, their intent,
their cautions to each other.
So much more than I, they are their bodies, at one with them, present in them always.

What they can say with a gentle movement of the head,
or a sound as quiet and subtle as a whisper,
a ripple of muscle, a stamp or shuffle of the feet, a swish of the tail —
everything a relaying of the messages their bodies send them:
what’s happening inside, and between the members of their band,
and elsewhere, nearby, in their place.

Like what their stomach thought of that particular patch of grass they ate, and of last night’s hay,
and the water, a little more acidic than it used to be.

Or what their comrades think of this place
where they’ve been brought, what they think of its comforts,
whether they think of it as home,
and how they do or do not miss, or do not know,
that feeling of wild freedom.

Or what they think of the new stablemate, or the new barn,
or the newborn one — how healthy she is, how coordinated,
how articulate she is about herself,
how much she has to learn.

Or what the birds’ songs and calls (or their absences) are telling them,
and what the wind says about what is coming:
what weather, what joys, what dangers.

Or whether they’re at peace, in that endless timeless place
where the creatures that are still connected to the earth live,
in the stress-free moments when they can.

Or what the earth and the sun and the moon, and the leaves,
wet with rain or dew or frost, are saying.

Things that all the world can hear, except, it seems, for me.

.     .     .     .     .

My massage therapist’s fingers glide up and down my body,
eased by the warm oil, in the warm dark room, with the soft music.
With her hands she connects parts of me together, like a surgeon,
that I had not realized were pieces of a whole:
my kneebone, thigh muscles, breastbone, rippling together:
I am astonished to feel myself as one.

As she caresses my arms, my hands involuntarily curl to return her touch,
but they cannot reach, and they do not know what to do
with such a vast and mysterious canvas as a body.

Later, in my sleep, I return her gift with my fingers, my tongue,
but even this intense focus on body, this ecstacy, is not present,
it’s disconnected, it’s about my head not her body,
not a gift in kind at all.

And when I ride her, my hands holding tight around her shoulders,
we are not two bodies moving as one; rather
she is flying through the forest, panting and gasping
with each movement, soaring forward, reaching,
touching everything, laughing, snorting,
while I am merely trying to hold on.

.     .     .     .     .

My knowledge of my body is like my doctor’s,
limited to numbers on charts
(on days its suffering can no longer be ignored).
I read the numbers and tell my body: “Try this”.
It shakes in despair at my ignorance.

.     .     .     .     .

I imagine that I am a horse.

Nostrils flaring, ears alert and attuned to the sound of a distant train whistle, body quivering slightly
in the cool morning breeze.

I feel the sunrise, first through a transient warming of the atmosphere in which I am enveloped,
then as a barely perceptible increase in ambient light levels,
and then the explosion of direct sunlight,
screaming across the horizon.

I smell the approach of this other horse, before I hear her;
I don’t need to turn my head to acknowledge her — my smell does that, the pace of my breath,
the movement of muscles visible on my back and flanks.

She tells me, without words, that she still grieves the loss of her sibling, taken away without reason,
and that she is restless for the Spring.

I convey to her the weariness in my old bones, and she empathizes, with a nuzzle,
her breath a balm.

And then, as we walk, we share our memories, and dreams:
Of running, wild, across the heath, along the mountain trail.
Of that creek with the icy water, in the sunshine at dusk,
the sky purple and gold.
Of the little human girl who was too afraid to enjoy riding,
as desperately as she wanted to, and how we made her laugh,
and how she cried when she was led away.
Of the recent storm, and how it called to us.
Of the magic and fearsomeness of fire.

.     .     .     .     .

My friend Tali has been walking and running with me,
wild, naked, effortlessly, in the forest, pretending we are horses.
She has been around horses all her life.
What’s most important, she tells me,
in building a relationship with a horse,
is simply this: Allow them to choose.
“They know that the best way for them to learn
is by making their own choices, trial and error,
not by being told or coerced or even shown what to do.
That includes learning how to relate to you.”

We are watching the horses, and the wild deer
that come each evening to share their grass and water.
It occurs to me the horses are wise, and that Tali’s rule
would serve us well in establishing our relationships with others:
Allow our children to choose, and our potential partners in life and work,
and our community mates. Allow them all to choose.
The invitation, its gracefulness, its generosity,
its particularity, is all. Then just wait, and see, and trust
that the response will be the right one,
will match the chemistry of the situation.
Will make “sense”.
I bow to Tali, as a horse bows.

.     .     .     .     .

The next day I watch the tiny, graceful swallows:
aerial daredevils, so adapted to living in midair
that they can eat their fill without landing.

I would like to learn to live in midair: It seems to me
in this time that is both too early and too late
living in midair is the best way to be.
The horses, however, do not agree.

So now I watch the swallows’ bodies:
a different sort of grace,
a different way of knowing and being and communicating.
A different sense of connection and part-hood.

A different embodiment of
horse sense.

February 9, 2014

How Our Narratives Inform Our Hopes for Change

Filed under: Our Culture / Ourselves — Dave Pollard @ 19:07

Dust-storm-Texas-1935

dust storm, texas 1935; image from wikipedia

When co-founder of the Permaculture Movement David Holmgren recently suggested it might be better for the world if we were to try to precipitate global economic collapse in order to mitigate runaway climate change, he received a harsh response from Transition Movement founder Rob Hopkins, and somewhat more sympathetic responses from Dmitry Orlov and Nicole Foss. The second article (due out next month) in my series for Shift Magazine will talk more about this, but in the meantime I wanted to recommend to you Agency on Demand, a fascinating take on this debate, written by Eric Lindberg.

Eric’s point is that the markedly different positions staked out by well-meaning, informed people on this issue stem from their different worldviews — the way they see our human culture operating and functioning, how they perceive the world really works. What underlies those worldviews, he says, are our narratives, our stories of how we believe humans got here, and how humans think and act, individually and collectively, which is largely a conflation of our own personal stories and the stories of others we have chosen to read and integrate with our own.

A critical factor differentiating these diverse worldviews and narratives, Eric argues, is our perception of human agency — what humans are capable of doing, individually and collectively, when they share a worldview and when they do not. The more I study history, and the more I learn about complex systems and their intractability, the more I am coming to share Eric’s view that our agency is limited, and that our propensity for beating each other up for our different ideas and proposals for coping with emerging system crises and collapses, stems from an exaggerated sense of our own agency.

My friend Paul Heft wrote a good synopsis and reflection on what Eric has said, to some of his Transition colleagues, and he’s given me permission to publish it here.

Paul’s post:

Erik Lindberg’s essay on analyzing collapse narratives is insightful. Basically he’s questioning, do the assumptions behind our narratives still seem sensible, or are they merely comforting myths? Can people really make history the way we hope, especially given what we know now? Are we the conscious ones, or are we still deluded? Are we ready to give up our beliefs and move toward reality, or is that too uncomfortable?

I count myself as a radical, because for decades I have believed that the problems of the world are system problems–they’re not just isolated events, the consequence of particular circumstances or the decisions of particular people–and therefore the solutions require radical changes to the systems (economics, politics, etc.) by which we live. But radical changes to existing systems are difficult, they are constantly resisted by the existing institutions, by the powerful people that benefit most from the status quo, and by the masses of people who fear they will lose something if the systems in which they are embedded were to be altered. As Lindberg points out, the radical changes of the past, the political or economic “revolutions” or wars, have failed or have spawned terrible regimes or have had devastating unintended consequences.

Lindberg’s “Liberal” histories have a long tradition of rationalizing negative consequences, so that in hindsight we can claim to see continual progress with a few unfortunate episodes thrown in for color. It’s a very handy point of view for the ruling elites, but I don’t buy it. Lindberg rightly points out how many critics of the status quo, such as myself, are left feeling powerless to make the radical changes we feel are necessary, because we don’t see a path without the possibility of even greater harm; and I would add that we’re dispirited (for various reasons) by non-radical campaigns such as those the environmental movement and the Democrats conduct.

Lindberg states that the Transition Movement holds a kind of belief in the inevitability of radical change due to the inevitable decline of oil and other fossil fuels. The belief is that “people will find the joys of community and simple purposeful living far more compelling than the collapsing and increasingly alienating industrial structure of society,” so they will be eager to give up on the existing economic and political system.

Clearly [Lindberg] no longer has faith in “this sort of historical necessity” of a positive “revolution”. He sees the peak oil problem being too easily ignored; the energy descent it forces is too gradual, while the economy continues to support rather high prices for oil. My belief is that the rising cost of production of oil (and liquid fuels in general) definitely constrains the global economy, but not enough to force it to crash or to change its basic mechanisms. For decades there will be plenty of money to be made (by the wealthy) by keeping the economy running in its profit-generating mode, though we might be stuck in a perpetual depression. What Transition sees as opportunity “to build a better alternative,” most of the world will see as the opportunity for a higher standard of living slipping away. Lindberg doubts the chances “for a small and relatively obscure movement to gain widespread support and rework the wants, wishes, and expectations of the industrialized world, especially when the vested interests that control most media and spend trillions of dollars a year on advertisements will do everything in their power to stop it in its tracks.”

Lindberg sketches out how increasing numbers of people who are aware of the predicaments and injustices of the world feel themselves forced into a radical dilemma. They see the dangers threatened by climate change increasing in the direction of gross habitat destruction and even, possibly, the extinction of humanity (and perhaps most other species we are familiar with). They see that political leaders are unable to deal “rationally” with climate change and peak oil–all decisions are economic decisions and money is the only measure of value, preserving the economic system in its present form is the top priority, their charter to maintain the near term profits of the wealthy overshadows the “greatest good”–in every powerful nation, of every political stripe. They are beginning to see that the worldwide capitalist economic system is prepared to grind every bit of value out of the earth and our labors, regardless of the effects on habitats or on human welfare, for the sake of continuing to accumulate wealth and maintaining the powers that be. The great machine will grind on, more slowly or more quickly, and will brook no opposition. States are expanding their powers to control their populations, knowing that some resistance is inevitable. The quest for power, and the money to exercise that power, takes precedence over all other considerations. If revolution is needed, is that even possible?

At this point, many people in the Transition Movement might object that I ought to have a better attitude. In Lindberg’s terms, they argue that “a free and independent people must learn how to impose limits on their freedom and power” in a “possible triumph of free will”. We must choose to believe that people around the world can influence their leaders (cf. 350.org’s efforts) to lead us in sacrifices to halt climate change and deal with peak oil better–even though the politicians are paid by the wealthy to keep the economic engine grinding away. My own opinion is that this is a pipe dream, a delusion. A similar, common response is a call for faith, a belief in miracles (delivered by technology, or evolution, or movements, or whatever) as against cynicism: Yes, the situation looks grim, no solution is simple, maybe none is obvious, but if we give up then of course the results will be bad. This isn’t Lindberg’s attitude, and it’s not mine, I’m too much a believer in a “reality” that we need to discover by questioning, not just letting our desires lead us. But if you can develop this faith, this better attitude, you can continue campaigning, with hope, for many more years.

David Holmgren suggested a different way for us to radically influence the economic system: to bypass the leaders and the political process, and instead undermine the economy by stepping out of it. (Some localization efforts are a way to step out of the global economy, one consequence often being to reduce the contribution to its destructive activity.) He hopes that if enough of us around the world turn our backs on the global economy, it will crash (since it is presently built on a fragile foundation of enormous debt); the economic engine will grind to a halt and thus habitat destruction and greenhouse gas emissions will reduce tremendously.

Lindberg, despite his article’s title, doesn’t address this particular strategy much except as an example of the radical, morally ambiguous choices we are starting to feel forced to make. It’s unclear how practical Holmgren’s suggestion is. Would an economic crash really stop the global economic engine, or just interrupt it briefly? What would the state’s response be? Would Transition’s localization efforts be villified and even legally limited? How great would the suffering, and thus the backlash, be in the developed nations and the rest of the world? Might an economic crash–for any reason–usher in a fascistic political system and large scale war as it did in Europe during the Great Depression?

Lindberg warns that we “may have a series of unbearable decisions in the days and years ahead.” The collapse we foresee includes “predictable violence.” Our own planned actions will have results that are “neither controllable nor predictable.” Even nonradical actions, such as “just planting trees” or “building community”, are decisions not to engage in radical actions such as resistance to the system; such negative decisions will have unpredictable consequences too–Chris Hedges, for example, warns that impending fascism must be opposed. I don’t think Lindberg argues for no action, I think he is asking us to check reality and realize the dilemmas we face.

In the course of making such “unbearable decisions”, what delusions are we ready to give up?

    • Do we need to believe that the economics of oil production will be the key driver in changing our economy and how we live?
    • Do we need to believe that climate change can be stopped through political action?
    • Do we need to believe in “the responsibilities of a citizen of a democratic society”?
    • Do we need to believe that we can foresee the effects of our action or inaction, that we are confidently working for good and avoiding harm?
    • Do we need to believe that the “bad guys” are the reason for the world not working as we desire?
    • Do we need to believe that we are doing God’s work, or that humanity has a purpose as a species, or that Nature has a plan or key role for us?
    • Do we need to believe that our activities now are building the better future we are desperately trying to imagine?
    • Do we have faith in capitalism to “green itself” and make a better world, or do we demand that others have faith that undermining capitalism will make enough room for us to make a better world?
    • Do we need to believe that consciousness is evolving so that there is a growing proportion of people who are as aware as we are?
    • Do we need to believe that we understand people’s motivations?
    • Do we need to believe in rational decision making?
    • Do we need to believe that mass movements are necessary? that individual virtue is necessary? that our own contribution is important?
    • Do we need to invent a new narrative that clarifies how we fit into the great sweep of history, that explains how we contribute to progress?

Questioning these things makes us anxious; we have grown up believing that we should be able to figure everything out, that there are right and wrong answers, that the world can be understood and explained (often according to rules and mechanisms), that reasonable people can come to agreement.

When Lindberg concludes that “Moral philosophy and deep spirituality may be our solace and salvation,” I think he is implying the need to step back and seek a larger perspective. Of course that just leads to more questions, but perhaps less anxiety, as we learn to take these things less personally: who are “we” that feel responsible for the world? Can the world get along without me? Who demands that my decisions be correct? Can I be open to others’ ideas, without judging them or myself as right or wrong? Do I need to feel in control of my future, or the world’s future?

Certainly I am anxious about the world and my role in it. Sometimes I’m sad or angry. Sometimes I’m depressed, feeling utterly small and powerless. Increasingly I’m able to accept the world, even though it will never fit with my ideals; it’s not an object made to my measure. Blaming myself or others doesn’t seem helpful. I practice meditation, hoping that I can avoid the domination of thought and learn to honor feeling, as a path to better knowing reality and realizing what actions to take.

.     .     .     .     .

I don’t have a lot to add to what Paul has said, since his worldview and mine are pretty congruent. Eric urges in his conclusion “Let us be patient and tolerant with ourselves and each other.” That’s hard to do as we grow more and more alarmed about out future and our apparent inability not only to control it, but even to agree on what tactics and strategies are most appropriate to cope with what is coming. The Map above, from my post last spring, shows some of the worldviews of different groups in the 21st century, and what they each “need to believe”.

A number of my collapsnik friends  believe that brutal fascism is inevitably what happens when those with wealth and power are threatened, as they certainly are by the global economic collapse we will surely face whether we try to precipitate it or not. So, they say, if some of us try to precipitate it sooner, we might end up being the scapegoats for its occurrence. Depending on your worldview, your narrative, and your sense of the potential for human agency, it may or may not be worth doing anyway.

My worldview, perhaps naively, is that economic collapse will sap the ability of the rich and powerful to bring to bear armies, militias, legal and media stormtroopers to try to hold off collapse or control the rest of the populace. And, also perhaps naively, I believe that in times of mutual struggle and despair most people can and do care about and look after each other, and that hence Mad Max collapse scenarios are highly unlikely. Perhaps that is just something I “need to believe”, and I am constantly re-examining it.

What is at the heart of many worldviews is a “need to believe” both in human agency, and in a better future. In the bullet points above, Paul might seem to be questioning this need to believe, but he’s actually saying, I think, that we would be well-advised to become aware of what is our own “need to believe”, and what is the “need to believe” of other informed and caring people, and how those different “needs” reflect different narratives of the human story (and of our own personal story), and different senses of human agency. And then to appreciate and respect those differences, rather than arguing about (or trying to change) them.

My worldview, narrative and sense of human agency have evolved greatly over the past decade, and continue to do so. But, as Beth Patterson pointed out in a comment on my last post, a shift from a salvationist to a collapsnik position may only be possible after a deep and painful process of dealing with the overwhelming grief that is often a prerequisite of such an acknowledgement of inevitable loss. We have to allow that process of our fellow caring, anxious human colleagues, and give them time until they are ready to ask themselves and listen to challenging truths, and until they have at least begun to process the commensurate grieving.

I believe that collapse (economic collapse, runaway climate change, and perhaps energy/resource exhaustion as well) is coming or cannot be averted, and that it will be unpleasant for most. But these days I am beginning to see collapse as a natural and inevitable process that will lead, in time, to a new equilibrium of life-on-Earth, with the much-smaller human population becoming, as it was for its first million years on the planet, a small and incidental player in the panorama of life on Earth, living joyfully in places we are naturally adapted to live.

For now, at least, that’s what I need to believe.

February 1, 2014

more than just scars

Filed under: Creative Works — Dave Pollard @ 23:11

(image from a post by Nick Smith, believed to be from the collection of John Wareham, artist’s name unknown)

the research done with feral children shows
our neural pathways form
in line with what we need to learn,
and once we’re adolescents, then these paths are set
and can no longer change.

so if we fail to learn at least one abstract language
when we’re young, then once we’re ten
we can no longer do so:
all our paths are now in use for more essential purposes
(like instinct, the alertness to non-verbal cues, perhaps
the deeper meaning of caress, and hug).

but what if it’s the same for learning presence?
what if all those fears and unmet needs of early youth
informed us that we can’t afford to just let go,
not even for one moment?
what if our detachment, now, is in our bones
and in our bodies’ messageways so deep,
and so essentially a part of us
we cannot now escape it, or unlearn it anymore?

and what if modern humans now are wired
for chronic stress, a lifelong fate
of raw, inflamed response
to all the hurts and empty spaces, childhood scars
and pain and fears we’ve never learned to tame,
bequeathing incapacity, for life,
for true connection or authentic self?

if so these masks we wear, these sad personas
all the same, like everybody-else,
are truly prisons we cannot escape,

and sadder yet, we’ve raised our own young feral ones
to carry on our sentence, just like us
aware enough to know just what we’ve lost
but nevermore the means to find it.

January 30, 2014

Relearning to Love the Wild

Filed under: Preparing for Civilization's End — Dave Pollard @ 00:26

crow

photo, and photoshopping, by the author

Seattle’s Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s book Crow Planet is a description of the experiences and feelings she brings to her work as an “urban naturalist”, someone who studies and appreciates nature (“the more-than-human world”) from within the city. Crows feature in it prominently, in part because crows, like humans, have been so successful at adapting to different environments because of their intelligence that they have damaged the ecological diversity almost everywhere they live — and they live everywhere humans do. And in part because, as Lyanda says, “everyone has a crow story”.

But ultimately the book is not about crows, and it takes some wild (but always interesting) tangents from the subject of its title. It’s really about our connection with the more-than-human world (that term is not meant to deprecate humans, but to include them). She starts with this proposition and question:

There is a way to face the current ecological crisis with our eyes open, with stringent scientific knowledge, with honest sorrow over the state of life on Earth, with spiritual insight and with practical commitment… Our actions can arise from a state of rootedness, connectedness, creativity and delight. But how are we to attain such intimacy, living at a remove from “nature”, as most of us do, in our urban and suburban homes?

She then tries to answer that question by telling her own naturalist stories, as an award-winning nature writer and lifelong ornithologist. These stories inevitably include her young, curious and sensitive daughter, and it is the daughter’s reaction that brings us face to face with our own disconnection with the wild — creatures and places that are untouched, undomesticated and undamaged by civilization, and our own, buried, untamed selves. She claims that anyone can relearn to love the wild through the practice of naturalism — elements of that practice include: thoughtful study, learning to identify wild creatures, patience and perseverance, a respect for wildness, attention, purposeful witnessing, developing a personal focus, diligent note-taking (and/or sketching), and allowing time for solitary naturalist activities. She writes:

Attempting to read crow lives attunes my eyes to this quieter, penciled world — its stories, its struggle, its needs. It inspires me to watch for the next layer, and then the next. In our urban watching, we learn to remain alert to the presence of the wild on Earth, to grow an awareness that is an essential counterbalance to the isolating loss of wild knowledge [and connection] that urban and suburban living so typically brings.

As a lifelong birdwatcher and studier of bird behaviour, I can see her point, but while I agree that such a practice is rewarding and enriching (and entirely possible in the city), I’m not sure it’s enough to enable many to relearn to love the wild. Lyanda clearly is a biophile, but my sense is that many people, deprived of contact with nature in childhood, grow up never appreciating what they’re missing.

Beyond that, I think there are many others who, because of either early childhood stress or chronic stress in their lives, are so ‘disconnected’ from themselves and the world they live in, that they can’t really offer the authentic attention to the more-than-human world (or even, in many cases, the human, civilized world) needed to appreciate it, connect with it, and heal with that connection. There is a theory (called the Attention Restoration Theory) that postulates that we are capable of two kinds of attention: Directed attention (focused, intellectual attention) and “Effortless” attention (unfocused, appreciative, holistic attention), with the former dominant in indoor activities and the latter prevalent outdoors. (Interestingly, this theory is consistent with my theory that we experience two types of “presence”, intense intellectual “clock time” presence and instinctual, relaxed “now time” presence.) Attention Restoration Theory holds that the former is exhausting and can lead quickly to “directed attention fatigue”, while the latter is restorative, allowing us to regenerate our capacity for genuine attention. My guess would be that the absence of contact with wild creatures and places, and/or high levels of stress that cause us to disconnect from the human and more-than-human world, can make both genuine attention (presence) and biophilia unattainable for many people.

Gabor Maté has worked with severely addicted, chronically ill, damaged and dysfunctional people in the poorest areas of Vancouver, Canada, and his theory is that essentially all of these people (and most of the rest of us) are suffering, to a greater or lesser extent, from a lifelong disconnection or “detachment” from our authentic selves and from others and the world in which we live, brought on by a lack of secure attachment to our parents or caregivers as very young children (due to trauma, loss, neglect etc.) or other severe early stress, and that consequently most of our chronic illnesses (physical and emotional) are attributable to understandable but ultimately damaging coping mechanisms we have put in place to protect ourselves from this absence of secure attachment and the loss of our sense of authentic (i.e. in touch with itself and aware of its own needs), empowered, self.

This theory seems quite credible, especially when you listen to the stories of those suffering most in our modern society. But it raises a couple of questions that I haven’t heard answered satisfactorily:

  1. If malaises like the many autoimmune diseases, autism, ADHD, and addiction are responses, coping mechanisms for dealing with severe stress, trauma and neglect, why has it taken so many generations for these diseases to become epidemic? Surely the children who grew up in the Great Depression or daily wartime bombing during the World Wars faced more stress, and their parents (many of whom were absent for long periods contributing to the war effort or working multiple jobs during the Depression) surely were less able to provide secure attachment than today’s parents. My understanding is that “spare the rod, spoil the child” abuse, and exiling children to boarding schools, among other parental cruelties, were more common then than now.
  2. And why, if stress, trauma, loss and neglect underlie these chronic diseases and dissociative conditions, do women generally seem better able to connect with each other, with their own authentic selves, and with the more-than-human world, than men? Everything I have learned suggests to me that young girls are much more likely to be traumatized in the home than young boys.

In my own case, my mother was traumatized by an abusive father (I found this out much later in my life), and so, while she was very attentive when we children were young (to the point of self-sacrifice), she found her life increasingly hard to cope with as she got older, and left us to our own devices while she fought the noonday demon of depression. She died young, at 59, of cancer. My father was just a typically (for the era) busy man, working long hours and weekends to make a living and support his family; he was around when he could be, and did take us to his office on weekends (a printing company, in the age of “hot type”, which I found fascinating), and on fishing and sightseeing trips in the summer. He died in 2010, of Alzheimer’s complications, at 85.

My early (pre-school) childhood was pretty idyllic — it was my school life (lying and sadistic teachers, cruel and manipulative schoolmates, and horrifically bad curricula and teaching), and later work life (hard, thankless, terrifying, exhausting, disempowering, incompetent, and sometimes abusive) that traumatized and disconnected me. My parents did their best to help me manage it, at least in early grades, but they were busy and could not possibly know how my sensitive soul was suffering; nor could I articulate it well. Combine that with a poor diet as a teenager and young adult, and the consumption of high doses of oral tetracycline for many years (the preferred treatment for severe acne in those days), and it’s no surprise that I dealt with depression much of my life and have more recently suffered from ulcerative colitis. Small wonder it hasn’t been much worse. That’s perhaps thanks to good genes, caring, attentive parents in early childhood, and recently, healthy changes to my lifestyle.

But I am still fear-driven, and still disconnected. Disconnected from my (amazing) instincts and my emotions, from my body’s messages and wisdom, from other people (I’m wary of most people, borderline misanthropic), and from the more-than-human world (I love nature, conceptually, but given how much opportunity I have now, and have had, to do so, I spend surprisingly little time immersed in it, and am in many ways afraid of it). I’m learning to enjoy, in moderation, walks in the woods and the rain, spending days outside (but close to the comforts of home), and visits to safe, warm, tropical places. I’m practicing meditation more often, though I’m not sure of what it’s doing for me. And of course, I love watching birds, photographing them, learning about them, hearing stories about them, and imagining what it would be like to fly (while stepping out on the balconies of high-rises makes me queasy, even as I am enticed by them).

And although I’m capable of exceptional focus and accomplishment during some periods of directed-attention “clock time” presence (you know, those moments when you feel, and others tell you, you are “really on”), my moments of effortless-attention “now time” presence are still, sadly, rare, and far from effortless, and they’re usually indoors and at night (listening to music, or sparked by candlelight, firelight, or the light of a warm body). I want to relearn to love the wild, and I certainly talk a good story about it, but it still seems far away, so impossible I feel I should let go of it and turn my attention to more attainable wants.

Living on an island, with forest and ocean all around me, I can no longer claim to be “removed” from nature. But still, it is as if nature, most of the time, is something in another dimension, and as much as I long to embrace it, to be a part of it, achieving that desire eludes me, and I know that is because of what is going on, and not going on, inside me. And I despair that that will ever change. Knowing why I am disconnected does not bring connection. And knowing that this amazing passage from the conclusion of Crow Planet is true, and wonderful, does not enable me to really feel it, or to follow its advice:

I wonder, what does it mean to have no hope when there is a radiant, Earth-loving child singing in your bathroom, and a broken-legged bird that has learned to fly in your tree? Still, it seems that the best prospect for a flourishing, ecologically vibrant, evolutionarily rich Earth would be a massive, brutal overturning of the human population followed by several millennia of planetary recovery. Surely this doesn’t count as hope. But here we are, intricate human animals capable of feeling despair over the state of the Earth, and simultaneously, joy in its unfolding wildness, no matter how hampered.

What are we to do with such a confounding vision? The choices appear to be few. We can deny it, ignore it, go insane with its weight, structure it into a stony ethos with which we can beat ourselves and our friends to death — or we can live well in its light.

I doubt that I’m the only one struggling to figure out, especially now, how to live well in its light. Crow Planet is a heart-warming, entertaining and illuminating book. If it’s a true story, I envy the author for the connection she’s found, or perhaps always had. For some of us, perhaps most of us, such connection is and may remain, elusive, even impossible, no matter how much we long for it and how much our weary brains say “Yes!”.

Now I’m going outside to sit, with a cup of tea and a cushion and a notebook, and watch the crows, and see if they will tell me what no human can.

January 29, 2014

Food Security

Filed under: Preparing for Civilization's End — Dave Pollard @ 00:12

forest garden

 

image from the book Creating a Forest Garden by Martin Crawford

I was recently invited to an Open Space event hosted by the Bowen (Island) Agricultural Alliance (BAA!) and facilitated by my friend Chris Corrigan. It was a small group — about two dozen — but most of the people there were farmers. With my Transition-based knowledge of permaculture and food security, it was a humbling and eye-opening experience. This is what I learned:

  1. The Possibility of Local Food Security: I’ve been told that, since we live on a volcanic island, the soils here are pretty poor, except in the valleys, which are, paradoxically, mostly shady because of the shadow of our three dominant mountains (and hence get little sun). I’d also heard numbers thrown around (most recently 15-20%) about the amount of our daily caloric input that we could maximally get from growing our own foods, and how much land (numbers varying from 1 acre — 4000 m2 — per 2.5 person household to 1 hectare — 10000 m2 — per person) is needed to meet 100% of caloric needs sustainably. Bowen has about 5 million m2 of potentially arable area (about 10% of our total land area), so by that measure we would be able to feed between 500 and 3000 people (current population: 3800) self-sufficiently, even if we could in fact grow what we need all year round. No wonder, then, that First Nations peoples who lived in the area for millennia had no permanent settlement on Bowen — the island was a fishing and hunting ground only.

    What the local farmers told me, however, is that some Bowen Islanders are already living more-or-less entirely on what they grow and raise themselves (they do buy things from off-island, but that’s a matter of variety and taste preference rather than necessity). They also told me that with appropriate rotation and interplanting, it’s possible to fully feed 200 people with a single acre of well-nourished land. By that measure Bowen’s 1250 acres of potentially arable land could theoretically feed up to 1/4 million people! While that’s probably an ideal exaggeration, they persuaded me that Bowen’s 3800 people, and perhaps several times more, could comfortably grow and raise everything we need to provide a nutritious and comfortable diet year-round — even off-grid without artificial fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation and other technologies. That includes organic meats from humanely-raised, grass-fed cows, sheep, and goats, as well as llamas, chickens and ducks (for the non-vegans, of course). It also includes an amazing variety of herbs and other nutrients.

  2. But We’d Have to Farm and Eat Very Differently: There is of course a “but” to the above statement, and it is this: Sustainable food security would and will require us to grow and raise different foods than what we do now, and to eat different foods and prepare them differently from what we do now. We’d have to forego the exotic favourites, the out-of-season produce, and the packaged and processed foods that now dominate our diets, and get used to shifting our diets with the seasons and learning to like (and prepare in more varied ways) foods that grow here naturally (you, know “Give me spots on apples, but leave me the birds and the bees, please”). For a bread-loving vegan like me, that would be a challenge (though, I was told, a local vegan diet would be possible).

    We’ll have to re-master the art of preserving (canning, cold cellars etc.) as well.This also doesn’t mean everyone grows everything they need on their own acreage. To get requisite variety in our diets, we’ll have to network with other growers, form producer/worker/customer co-ops, focus on growing a few things well and abundantly, and trade with others in a 100km radius (or whatever energy collapse defines as a reasonable trading area) from where we live.

    The key, I was told, was a lesson learned during the Great Depression: Today our food choices are driven by our wants, not our (bodies’ real) needs, and to make this transition, we’ll all have to become more aware of the latter, and change that behaviour. We will only do that, on any scale, when we have no other choice. But it’s never too early to start thinking, planning, and shifting.I’ve pledged to learn about exactly what can be grown locally, in each season, here, and to start shifting my diet towards such foods, and away from foods that, once the Western US drought becomes permanent and California can’t even meet its own food needs, we will have to do without.

  3. There Are Two Competing Models of Permaculture: As an idealist, I love reading about “edible food forests” and places where, with a few decades of careful intervention and “aided succession”, a forest garden now provides locals with everything they need to eat with no further intervention (no fertilizers, pesticides, watering or even weeding) — even in areas that are now deserts. But, I was told, such places require a huge investment in time, energy, and patience, without being prematurely harvested, and even then can, depending on location, only support a relatively small number of people without becoming depleted.

    The more practical model of permaculture will require more, not less, work than current gardening, and just as much skill and knowledge. But it will allow a larger number of people to be supported per acre, and will allow its tenders to be better able to adapt what’s grown in each area to a rapidly-changing climate. And, eventually, it can be fully sustainable without the need for chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Sounds like a lot of work. But I appreciate some people love doing this, so I will have to make sure that I have locally useful (non-permaculture) skills and knowledge I can trade for the fruits of (mostly) their labour.

  4. The Importance of Demonstration: Show, don’t tell. That’s been good teaching, persuading and learning advice for everything I’ve studied, and it’s especially true for food security. A local family that lives in a food- and energy-self-sufficient way, comfortably (if not by any means effortlessly), is more useful to shift people’s thinking about what is needed and what is possible, than a thousand books on permaculture and a thousand exhortations on the need for transition. We need to find the local models and reward them for opening their homes and farms for others to visit. They, not the politicians or lawyers or consultants, are tomorrow’s leaders.
  5. From Water Scarcity to Water Storage: Bowen Island is temperate rainforest. We get a lot of rain and have a lot of groundwater. But the groundwater can only go so far, and the summers here are dry, with high forest fire dangers. The problem is we take our water for granted, while letting most of it run down our lovely mountains into the sea. Nothing, not even solar power, could be more beneficial to local self-sufficiency and resilience than to have every Bowen home capturing and storing rainwater. Ask the Australians — they know.
  6. The Role of Community Gardens: Most Western communities, like ours, are obsessed with private property and ownership and suffer from the Tragedy of the Commons. Yet we’ve shown, with many of our local resources (like our library) and co-ops (like our Gallery) that vibrant, visible, community-owned resources in which people take pride, can not only provide goods and services much more effectively than for-profit enterprises, they can provide the essential meeting-places at which real community-building takes place. We need model community gardens, visible to everyone in the community (in our case, down by the ferry terminal), where people can go to see what’s possible, to learn, and to co-create community in our collective interest. Even though some people think gardens are ugly. That may mean we have to volunteer to do more than our share for a while, and to clean up the well-meaning but negligent messes of some community members until we reach a critical mass of collaboration so the garden looks well-kept and productive (if not beautiful). Until people point it out with pride to our visitors and say: “Look, we did that!”
  7. Start With the Women and Children: The kinds of changes that are needed to transition us to food security, I was told, can probably only happen if we start by enabling the women in the community (who generally are more grounded, more practical, and more knowledgeable and appreciative of working in the soil) to show the way. And by encouraging young people (our local school has a community garden, run by the students, who even offer seeds at our annual seed-swap) to show us they care, and they’re up for it.
  8. Spreading the Knowledge: A lot of people, I was told, even lifelong Bowen Islanders, are simply not aware of the local food choices available right here. We (Bowen in Transition) are working on a Green Guide that will not only list sustainable goods and services, but also contain forums and libraries of knowledge on sustainable living where people can learn about food security and how to address it locally, practically, and even joyfully. At least one local restaurant offers “evening tables” regularly — buffets featuring all-local foods and information on them. Our local newspaper is considering running a regular column on sustainable living. And local permaculture experts and ecologists are offering courses, walks and tours where we can learn about local geology, flora and fauna, edible mushrooms, and wildcrafting.
  9. Trees as Renewable Resources: “Did you know”, I was told, “that at the turn of the 20th century, as a result of massive logging for fuel, timber, paper and fuel, Bowen Island was almost treeless?” I was speechless. Although I know there are only a handful of true “old growth” trees on the island, I live beside a large area of Crown forest that looks as wild as anything I’ve ever seen. This is because, I learned, these “second growth” areas were “next up” to be logged when a collapsing economy and the replacement of wood by oil as the essential energy resource of North America spared them.

    This area of seeming wilderness is all the result of just over a century’s respite from the axes and saws that denuded my lovely island. The lesson? “Don’t fret about the need to cut some trees for food security and wind energy projects. They’ll grow back just fine.”

    I guess. Learning of how the oceans and streams teemed with an abundance of fish in the eons before human settlement, and noticing how few birds I see in the lush forests beside my house that I now see with different eyes, I wonder about what we’ve lost, and its cost.But this was a day for learning, for setting aside my ideals and dreams of a world long before or long after our species’ dreadful reign, a world without the terrible knowledge of humans, and thinking about what is possible now. I thank Bowen’s farmers and permaculturalists, people (mostly women now) who know what they’re talking about when it comes to food security, for setting me straight.

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