Saturday, December 3, 2016

Saving the Planet Kung Fu Part 2: Systems Theory Basics

This is the second part of a three part series explaining the basics of Living Systems Theory and its importance for creating a sustainable world. 

The Fireworks Galaxy

In the first part of this series, Saving the Planet Kung Fu Part 1: Let’s Paradigm! I discussed the impact of our mechanical worldview, and the impact it has had on us and our planet, and our need for a new model of the world.

With an understanding of the basics of Living Systems Theory (LST), we can begin to see the world in a very new way. Living Systems Theory is a new paradigm and is like a lens or tool you can use to see the world. Fundamentally LST is a model, and it is a very useful one as long as we don’t forget that it too is a model. Issues arise when we mistake our models for the vast complexity and richness of reality. Remember the wise professor, “All models are wrong! Some are just more useful than others.”

For centuries we have been obsessed with parts and objects, yet we’ve ignored the organization of and the relationships between those objects and parts. We’ve obsessed over entropy, the tendency of order to descend into chaos, yet we’ve completely missed that there are also self-organizing principles in the universe through which order appears out of chaos. Life itself is an example of order forming out of chaos. How else did a highly organized molecule like DNA, or for that matter a living cell form out of random disorganized primordial goo, without an under lying pattern, or force, which caused some  organization out of disorder (chaos) to take place? The evolution of life on earth and of the universe itself has been from chaos to complexity and order. Atoms formed, gasses condensed into stars, planets formed out of disorganized gas clouds, galaxies formed, and so on.

Looking at parts can be useful, but you will only get one type of information. In other words, our current mechanical model is only concerned with the goal, while systems theory is focused upon the process needed to reach the goal. Examining relationships between objects and how they are organized completes, or at least expands, the model of our world. Living systems are much more accurately modeled using systems modeling, rather than mechanical models because mechanical models tend to be too simplistic; living systems such as biological and ecological systems are far more complex, dynamic, and interconnected than we previously thought and yet we continue to use mechanical models to track living systems and to model reality.

Systems theory creates a model of the world based upon observing how systems are organized and the relationships between systems through negative and positive feedback loops, nested networks of smaller systems within larger ones, leverage points, structural couplings, bifurcation points, evolution (system change/adaptation/learning), and energy/information flow. A living system exhibits characteristics such as autopoesis (meaning self-making, self-maintaining, self-replicating; which, is something your car can’t do), as well as, learning and adaptability to changing conditions. This is a bit technical, but stay with me and I’ll do my best to explain these key principles to you.

Negative feedback loops resist change- they function to keep a system the same (maintain a pattern or the ‘ideal’) despite outside pressure and influence. A simple negative feedback system would be the thermostat in your house which attempts to keep a constant (ideal) temperature inside your house while conditions fluctuate outside. A positive feedback loop amplifies change exponentially each time around the loop and will keep growing until an outside influence stops the amplification. An example of this is the feedback between a microphone and speaker. It will keep getting stronger until you either move the microphone away (essentially breaking the feedback circuit) or the speakers blow up.

Basically, complex systems are made up of many negative and positive feedback loops interlocking and balancing each other out. For example, a living cell regulates its internal environment with its external environment through feedback in order to maintain its specific pattern of organization; the cell ideally maintains a state of balance (the technical term is homeostasis). Therefore, a cell would be a system maintaining a specific organizational pattern and is a model of a negative feedback loop. If the external environment changes in a way that prevents this pattern of organization to persist—a new pattern must be adopted or the cell will die. The point of choosing between reorganization or ‘death’ is known as a bifurcation point and these points are preceded with increasing bouts of instability or ‘chaos’ as the system tries to stay the same despite the increasing pressure to change (like bailing a sinking ship). A leverage point is like a point in the system or a way to introduce change; a new way to organize.  It is literally ‘where can I apply pressure to create change with the least resistance?’

It is easy to picture a single cell existing within a static environment acting on the cell and creating the pressure to change. However, there isn’t just one cell, and one static external background environment. This single cell is affected by all of the other cells making up its external environment, and that cell is simultaneously affecting all the other cells in its environment. The activities, actions, and behaviors of each cell are feedback for every other cell. Every cell is creating its environment co-creatively, in relation to the other cells in the system. It is a constant dance of input and output, growth and change, stability and balance. This is true at every level, from the cell, to organs, to our bodies, to our families and small groups, to societies, ecosystems, and our planet and beyond. Instead of discrete parts composing a whole, we have smaller wholes making larger wholes; a nested network of systems within systems.

 As mentioned before, systems function through positive and negative feedback loops and we see this in the functioning of ecosystems and in our bodies. Feedback is important because it is information which ensures the system is working the way it is intended to; it is imperative, to the survival of the system, that there is a free flow of this information throughout the system. Imagine trying to ride your bike with a blindfold on… It is also important that a system is able to get accurate information. A system will freeze and fail if it receives conflicting information. For instance, if I was trying to go to LA from San Francisco, I would consult a map and read the road signs to ensure I was on the right road and going in the right direction. If I am hostile to feedback, or if I just ignore it altogether, I very easily could find myself at the Canadian border, arriving at the ocean, or end up driving right through LA toward the Mexican border without realizing I had passed my intended destination.

Our cells ignore feedback at their (and our) peril. A cancer cell is a cell that no longer accepts feedback from the cells around it, in particular contact inhibition; where a healthy cell will stop dividing once it makes contact with the cells surrounding it. A system which ignores feedback risks catastrophic damage not only to itself, but to the larger systems it is linked to, which can result in one system failing after the other—a cascade failure. A cancer cell is deadly to itself and to the entire body. When a person dies it can have devastating effects on a family, particularly if that person was the primary financial supporter. That single cancer cell run amok could have farther effects, though most likely not catastrophic, throughout the network of systems linked to larger systems depending on who that person was and what purpose or function they served in society; such as, if they were the president of the United States. The effects become less catastrophic further out because the larger system has fail-safes, redundancies (back-ups), buffers, and multiple connections to other and larger systems—structural couplings. For instance, there is more than one person who can be president or the family can receive assistance from the surrounding community (and the more friends they have, the more connections in the larger community; that is the more structural couplings, then the more ‘resilient’ they are).

However, this is not to minimize the value of the lost person—the system still suffers. A person is a unique expression and is not the same as a cog in a wheel or an easily replaced part. The system will never be the same again; however, the system as a whole will persist and still thrive. We are all immensely important… and at the same time we are not! This is how the larger system of Life continues to persist even in the face of death and change. New cells take the place of old cells as they die so we may persist; until one day we don’t. Cancer is a good example of how one single cell can wreak havoc when it no longer responds to feedback. It is critical for systems to know what is going on, to understand its effects so it can adjust and adapt in order to maintain homeostasis within and without.

In my next post in this series, Saving the Planet Kung-Fu Part 3: Epiphenomenal, we will take things to the next level!


Arntz, William, Betsy Chase, and Mark Vicente. (2005). What the Bleep Do We Know? Discovering the Endless Possibilities for Altering Your Everyday Reality. Health Communications, Inc: Deerfield Beach, Florida.

Bell, M.M. (2004). An Invitation to Environmental Sociology, 2nd Edition.  Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.

Berman, Morris. (1981). The Reenchantment of the World. Cornell University Press: Ithaca and London.

Capra, Fritjof. (1996). The Web of Life: A new Scientific Understanding of Living Systems. Anchor Books: New York.

Kauffman, Draper L. Jr. (1980). Systems One: An Introduction to Systems Thinking. Future Systems, Inc.

Sahtouris, Elisabet. (2000). Earth Dance: Living Systems in Evolution. iUniversity Press: San Jose

Senge, Peter et. al. (2010). The Necessary Revolution: Working Together to Create a Sustainable World. New York: Broadway Books.

Senge, Peter et. al. (2004). Presence: Human Purpose and the Field of the Future. Society for Organizational Learning/Currency Doubleday: New York.

Swimme, Brian and Thomas Berry. (1992). The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era, A Celebration of the Unfolding of the Cosmos. Harper San Francisco.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Who We Need to Be

Now I know there isn’t any more time to mess around. Now, more than ever, I will have to walk my talk.

Poster from WWII

How do we create change?

I think it is evident, given our 2016 presidential election; people are hungry for change and are willing to pursue any means possible to shake our current power systems to the very core. Yes we need change; but, I am concerned because if the changes are too drastic and create too much instability and chaos within the system, the result could be catastrophic collapse—and that isn’t good for anyone, people or planet. I would rather not see the world burn. I don’t want to see more water polluted, more people harmed, more forests clear-cut, and more oil spilled. Yes, I am angry and, yes, I am ready to fight; but, not in the way you may think. I will not scream violent rhetoric or even act aggressively against the powers that be. Our actions need to be surgical and precise; finding points of leverage which will facilitate change throughout the system. In this way we can resist and we will quietly gain ground and then we will thrive.

We have made some progress and gained new rights, but the grasp on this progress and on these rights is tenuous at best. It should be clear just how easily we could lose all of this hard-won ground. 

For all of our efforts, the forests are still being clear-cut, greenhouse gasses are still accumulating at an alarming rate, and so many species are going extinct. The wealth gap is ever increasing and people are still going hungry and droughts are a wreaking havoc. People are in danger because of their race, religion, and/or sexual orientation. All of our efforts just haven’t been enough and rather than create change, we are instead banging up against profound apathy; burning out in the process. Our protests, actions, and alarm calls have gotten the ball rolling, but they have only worked on the surface. We have not created true, systemic change. Too many people still believe we don’t have to fundamentally change the way we live and relate to the world, that we can still have our proverbial cake and eat it too… It’s time for us to go deeper with our actions if we want to create real and lasting change.

The change we need must begin beneath the surface and out of reach of the dominant system in ways it won’t recognize as a threat. On the surface it can look like nothing is happening. People will conclude that our prayers and meditations ‘do nothing’ and they won’t stop us. Look at those silly people doing those silly things! Meanwhile, under their noses, the most profound work is happening. This is what is meant by the crazy wisdom of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. On the surface our actions seem crazy, but below the surface there is deep wisdom, an alchemy transforming one system into another and changing one world into something completely new.

Now I know there isn’t any more time to mess around. Now, more than ever, I will have to walk my talk. Against racism? Then I’d better be and act against racism. Want to protect mother earth? Then I had better be for the earth and act to protect mother earth. For every person and cause we must fight to protect, I must back it up with my action. No more just thinking positive thoughts; but also saying positive words and doing positive actions. I think more than ever we need to find new ways to be the change we want to see in the world. If I transform myself (if you transform yourself), then I transform the world (you transform the world). Where does the courage to resist come from? All change begins inside of us. We can slam our heads against the wall trying to force outer change or we can transform ourselves. We are part of this system—if we change, so does the entire system, deeply.

According to The World Café, revolutions begin with conversations. Let’s start some conversations and figure out together everyday solutions and ways to support each other. Recognize that what you do in yoga class on the mat and the meditations you do on your cushion (or other practices) can reverberate throughout your life and out into the world. If we want peace in the world we must demonstrate peace within. If I want to see the world I want created, I need to represent that world. I need to be that world. Can we find concrete ways to demonstrate our relationship with and love for the earth? Can we begin meditating in public spaces as a form of demonstration of the world we wish to create? Can we create art in poems and prose to change hearts and minds? Can we examine our everyday lives and find spaces where we can create the world we wish to see? Can we be the world we wish to create? One thing is certain; we will need a shared vision for inspiration.

Let’s get the conversations started… I’ll meet you for coffee or tea.


Briskin, Alan et. al. (2009). The Power of Collective Wisdom and the Trap of Collective Folly. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Brown, Juanita and David Isaacs. (2005). The World Café: Shaping Our Futures Through Conversations That Matter. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Macy, Joanna and Chris Johnstone. (2012). Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re In Without Going Crazy. Novato, California: New World Library.

Macy, Joanna and Molly Brown. (2014). Coming Back to Life. New Society Publishers.

Senge, Peter et. al. (2010). The Necessary Revolution: Working Together to Create a Sustainable World. New York: Broadway Books.

Trungpa, Chogyam. (1991). Crazy Wisdom. Boston: Shambhala.

Wheatley, Margaret J. (2002). Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc. 

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Saving the World Kung-Fu, Part One: Let's Paradigm!

This is the first part of a three part series explaining the basics of Living Systems Theory and its importance for creating a sustainable world. 

     How many times have you thought of your body as a machine? When you think of the workings of your brain, do you imagine a computer? Do you think the universe is a great big mechanical clock?
Thinking like this is what defines our machine age spanning from the age of reason and the enlightenment of the 1700’s to today. Our worldview (or paradigm) has been shaped by the ideas of dualism, reductionism, and materialism creating an explanation of our reality as a vast machine. If we could figure out the rules and laws which govern this machine we could do anything! Yet the deeper we’ve gone down into the inner workings of the machine and its parts, the more we realize reality is far more chaotic and complex than any mechanical clock-works. More and more anomalies appear as the universe-as-a-machine model breaks apart with quantum mechanics, cybernetics, and Gaia Theory. As a result, using a mechanical model to explain the nature of the universe doesn’t seem to work very well anymore.   
     A wise professor once told me, “All models are wrong! Some are just more useful than others...” If the quantum and ecological world is teaching us anything, it is that we can never fully capture or grasp the entirety of this thing we call ‘reality.’

     So, let’s ask. How useful has our machine worldview been for us? From a social justice, environmental, and spiritual perspective what have been the benefits…and the costs? If it could, would a forest say our worldview is working for it? We have created a society that thinks only in straight lines with an economy which functions as if we still think the planet is flat and goes on forever with unlimited resources. The machine worldview has allowed us to create and do amazing things and advance in incredible ways, but we’ve been ignoring half of reality and externalizing anomalies; meaning, the mechanical model works really well at explaining reality if we ignore most of it. But most of us never go very deeply into the true nature of reality. We skim along the surface of our everyday lives, unaware of the vastness below. We still keep trying to ram this square mechanical peg into a round ‘whole.’

     So why should we care? Why is this important? How does this save the planet and what is so great about going deeper anyway?

     We must look deeper at our hidden assumptions about reality because any benefits we’ve received from our current model, whether technological, medical, or otherwise will be cancelled out by the collapse of our biosphere. Our worldview creates our world by telling us what is real, what is possible, who and what we are, and how we are supposed to function in the world. Our worldview is our model of reality composed of the very basic stories and ideas we have about how reality works; which we assume to be true. Since these ideas are taken for granted we barely notice our worldview until someone else’s worldview bumps into ours. I study and love anthropology because when two cultures with two different worldviews clash, sparks fly. Sadly with most people these sparks can quickly become wildfires as they try to prove which worldview is the right one—which version of reality is really real. But if you are curious enough and look deeper, you can begin to see where things aren’t as solid as we thought they were. You can begin to see what’s been made up by us collectively and how we’ve become the servants and cogs of an idea. Anthropology forces us to look deeper into the web of culture and its ideas we take for granted every day. This is why I like to call anthropology 101 ‘shock and awe.’

     Our current model isn’t working for us or for our planet. We are experiencing ecological destruction, social injustice, and an impoverishment of the spirit. We are so disconnected from everyone and everything—including our own bodies, hearts, and minds. Somehow we have fallen under a spell—we are entranced by a worldview which dominates the Western world and is rapidly squelching all others. It affects you whether you subscribe to it or not.
But there is good news! We made this all up together and together we can change it and create something new.  This all starts with changing how we see the world and what we think is possible by creating a new worldview which we can use to create a new model of reality. And once you are able to see the model and the system with its pattern of organization, you can manipulate it effectively. 

     There is more good news! You can see the new worldview and model that is already beginning to emerge right within this old one. Welcome to the new model of Living Systems Theory, which I will discuss in my next blog, Saving the Planet Kung Fu Part 2: SystemsTheory Basics.

Sources and Further Reading:

Arntz, William, Betsy Chase, and Mark Vicente. (2005). What the Bleep Do We Know? Discovering the Endless Possibilities for Altering Your Everyday Reality. Health Communications, Inc: Deerfield Beach, Florida.

Bell, M.M. (2004). An Invitation to Environmental Sociology, 2nd Edition.  Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.

Berman, Morris. (1981). The Reenchantment of the World. Cornell University Press: Ithaca and London.

Capra, Fritjof. (1996). The Web of Life: A new Scientific Understanding of Living Systems. Anchor Books: New York.

Kauffman, Draper L. Jr. (1980). Systems One: An Introduction to Systems Thinking. Future Systems, Inc.

Sahtouris, Elisabet. (2000). Earth Dance: Living Systems in Evolution. iUniversity Press: San Jose

Senge, Peter et. al. (2010). The Necessary Revolution: Working Together to Create a Sustainable World. New York: Broadway Books.

Senge, Peter et. al. (2004). Presence: Human Purpose and the Field of the Future. Society for Organizational Learning/Currency Doubleday: New York.

Swimme, Brian and Thomas Berry. (1992). The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era, A Celebration of the Unfolding of the Cosmos. Harper San Francisco.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

A Complicated Solution to a Simple Problem: The Assumption of the Promise of Technology

Our technology won’t be able to help us solve our environmental problems until it is based upon a thinking rooted in deep systemic change and a relationship with the earth.

     “What do you think of indoor farms?” the students in my high school garden club asked me. We were outside in the garden cleaning out what was left of the spring season and preparing to plant the summer crops. I took a deep breath to organize my thoughts. I had recently watched a video on Facebook touting the marvelous indoor garden in the middle of a grocery store inGermany. It gushed over the ability of employees to monitor soil moisture and light via an app on their phones! “Or,” I thought, “They could monitor these things with their brain and eyeballs…” I wondered, if the greatest advantage was how close and; therefore, fresh the food would be, then why not grow the food on the roof top? There would be all of the benefits of a green roof and the sun is free. “I would hate to see their electric bill. “ I said to the students.

     I then saw another video on Facebook extolling the virtues of a robotic garden tender; its greatest asset being you can grow your own food without ever having to touch your garden. So once again, what are the true costs here? Power? Materials? A lost opportunity? My heart breaks at the thought of so many lonely gardens! Our gardens thrive depending on our relationship with it and a garden knows when it is loved and appreciated. Besides, we need to touch soil. Touching soil and tending a garden has been shown to relieve depression and anxiety. We need to be around plants. We need sunshine too. We don’t exist in isolation. We are a part of this web of life on this planet and we need to cultivate a deeper relationship with our planet if we are to solve the problems we face today.

Now, I am not against technology per se and I am not suggesting we should never farm in this way. There is much that is wonderful and useful about technology and some places in the world experience winter. However, I am cautioning against the assumption that more technology is always the solution, the best solution, or the only solution because, frankly, this isn’t necessarily true. We are so busy trying to create technology to solve our problems, such as pollution and environmental destruction, created by the technology we have invented (coal burning electrical plants and cars, for example) we don’t consider that maybe more technology isn’t the answer. Typically, the gains in sustainability we experience with new technology are actually overshadowed as we increase production, consumption, and consider the true costs of creating these sustainable technologies in the first place. So what are we to do? If technology isn’t the solution, what is?

     Einstein is purported to have said, “Problems cannot be solved with the same thinking that created them.”  Our problem isn’t our lack of technology—our problem is with our paradigm (an untested assumption taken for granted as truth) and until we fix our paradigm, our technological ‘solutions’ will never help us create a sustainable society. Modern society takes technology for granted, assuming without question it is better and will make our lives easier; however, research conducted by anthropologists have called this assumption into question by showing that modern day hunter-gather societies have far more leisure time than their counter parts in the developed world. Particularly here in the modern west, we assume our technology is beneficial for humanity, but this isn’t necessarily true when you actually consider all of humanity. Someone recently told me they believe humanity has benefited from smart phones and the internet (these are things I really like), but they forgot about the vast number of humans in the third world, and here, who don’t have smart phones or the internet! We must also take into consideration the lives of those who manufacture our smart phones and computers… are they really benefiting? If you were a factory worker in China, would you really say you were benefiting? What about the toxins people are regularly exposed to in order to ‘recycle’ our old electronics? What about the damage done to mine materials? If your land is contaminated, air polluted, and water poisoned, have you really benefited? If you are stuck in a cycle of modern slavery manufacturing phones or stuck on the consumerist treadmill of consumption in order to afford your technology, are you really benefiting?

     Considering all of this, what is the cost of soil and water and sunlight compared to the building, machinery, and specially designed ‘to mimic the sun’ light bulbs (I look out of my window toward the sun in utter confusion… we need to mimic the sun?) and all of the electricity needed? As I said before, our technological solutions tend to create whole new problems and unintended consequences. Plants grown under strictly controlled, sterile, and artificial conditions tend to be extremely susceptible to contamination from algae or fungus or whatever. I know this all too well from my time running experiments with lab grown moss as an undergraduate at UNLV. The lab bred plants just couldn’t handle life. This is what tends to happen when living things are grown in isolation under tight control as if they were merely machines.

     This unwavering faith in technology is why we choose shallow solutions like developing hybrid or electric cars instead of solving the problem with behavior change toward public transit, bicycles, or walkability. A shallow solution is bulldozing the desert to build ‘solar farms’ (which preserves corporate utility dominance) instead of putting solar panels on people’s rooftops. These shallow solutions give the appearance of creating a greener world while allowing people to go about their business as usual. The deeper solutions would break this pattern of ‘business as usual’ comfort and require a completely different way of living and relating to each other and the other living beings with whom we share this planet.

     It seems the idea behind indoor farming is we don’t need the sun and we don’t need soil or bacteria or mycorrhizae because we have liquid nutrient solution! We don’t need to interact with plants or their communities to understand their needs because we have an app to tell us what they need! It seems like a step to further remove us and isolate us from the natural world and this has been the source of our environmental problems in the first place. Technology won’t save us, a relationship with the planet will save us and indoor gardens and farms are taking us in the wrong direction with this relationship.  We believe we can improve upon nature and grow more food in a lab setting. This is a very mechanical way of thinking… again, the plants are seen as little machines and they just need the right parts… However, plants (and people) thrive in community! Living things are not machines; they are living systems and function within systems (such as ecosystems). In a living systems perspective, relationships between objects/things are emphasized and the flow of energy and information is important. It is the relationships which make a thriving garden or society! When plants are growing in healthy soil they aren’t just growing in a nutrient rich substrate, they are growing, communicating, and participating in a rich living community!

     If we truly want to save this planet, if we really want to create a sustainable society as human beings on this planet, then we need to create a better relationship with our planet. Our technology won’t help us do this until we change the way we think about and relate to all of the other living things on this planet. Our paradigm needs to reflect respect, symbiosis, and community! 

Resources and Further Reading:

AJ Plus. (2016, July 29). Robot Grows Veggies. AJ Plus Facebook Page. [Web Video]. Retrieved from:

Bell, M.M. (2004). An Invitation to Environmental Sociology, 2nd Edition.  Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.

Brende, Eric. (2005). Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology. Harper Perennial. Link to information on the book:

Kamenetz, Anya. (2013, July 29). A Day in the Life of An iPhone Factory Worker. Fast Company: 3 Minute Read, Technology. [Web Article]. Retrieved from:

Kauffman, Draper, Jr. (1980). Systems 1: An Introduction to Systems Thinking. Future Systems, Inc.

Kiss the Ground. (2016, May 31). Why Soil Matters. Kiss the Ground Facebook Page. [Web Video]. Retrieved from:

Markham, Derek. (2016, March 23). This Berlin Supermarket has a verticle micro-farm inside it. Treehugger. [Web Video]. Retrieved from: 

Dr. Miller, Daphne. (2016). The Curious Case of the Antidepressant, Anti-anxiety Backyard Garden. Yes! Magazine, Winter. [Article]. Available online at:

Putnam, Robert. (2000). Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Ryan, John C. and Allan Thein Durning. (1997). Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everyday Things. Northwest Environmental Watch. Link to more information on the book:

Spradley, James P. and David W. McCurdy. (1990). The Hunters: Scarce Resources in the Kalahari. Conformity and Conflict: Readings in Cultural Anthropology, 7th Edition. Glenview, Illinois: Scott, Foresman and Company. 

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The Beauty of a Little Bit of Chaos

"If these gardens on the edge of the harshness of this desert are teaching me anything it is that life doesn’t flourish under strict order and control. Life is not pristine perfection. Life is a little bit ‘messy’!"

A community garden in Ballard, Seattle, WA in July.

     I happened upon a small community garden nestled in the middle of Ballard and marveled at the brilliant blue flax flowers, vibrant nasturtiums, and young zucchinis peeking out from under deep green leaves. I gazed at the small apple tree winding itself around and through a fence at the garden’s entrance. The mulch was soft under my feet, so different from the crunch of the dusty gravel usually under my feet in my gardens in Las Vegas. The air was so full of moisture and the soft filtered sunlight had a quality of making all of the colors brighter, while the intense sun of the Mojave Desert tends to bleach and wash things out.

     The contrast is sharp between the effortlessly verdant community gardens of Seattle and the rugged defiance of my gardens in Las Vegas, NV. The nasturtiums I planted here in the Mojave scorched months ago. The work of an Urban Farmer Desert Rat is not an easy one. In the intense heat of the summer it is certainly no joke! The plants and the people must be of a tougher and harder variety. When I see my gardens in all of their comparative lushness in the middle of July I am convinced a miracle has happened. It seems so magical to plant a seed, watch over it, and then be rewarded with beautiful tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, cucumbers, zucchini, and so, so much more! The green spiny leaves with the brown edges represent a battle being won, a fight for life on the edge. 

A school garden in Las Vegas in the middle of July.

     I am amazed I can grow food in such an extreme place. The Mojave is the driest desert in North America and Las Vegas is only a stone’s throw away from Death Valley. We only get 4 inches of rainfall a year. Our summer temperatures easily reach 116 degrees F in the shade. Our UV indexes are in the extreme category and, yet, in the winter we will have days below freezing and every once in a while snow will fall on the valley floor. This is a desert that will not suffer fools; human, plant, or otherwise!

     To garden or farm in this desert, ideas about the perfect, beautiful garden must change… these gardens and small farms are rough around the edges and their keepers have dirt under their fingernails! We rain sunblock laced sweat onto the soil! My gardens are the one place I let go of control and perfection because I know in order to get the best production I have to let the plant be a plant and do what it needs to do. I am not in charge here! I let the plant do its thing and I just give it the support and help it needs. If I want cucumbers I had better be willing to let it spread out to its heart's content. Attempts to maintain strict control will give you a smaller yield and could stress the plant; attracting disease and pests. Zucchini doesn’t care about the borders of a raised bed and will happily sprawl over the edge, but the reward is usually more zucchini than you know what to do with! Small cherry tomatoes grow best here and being indeterminate they will happily sprawl and grow and cover the ground. I have seen many attempts to cage and corral these beasts; resulting in huge plant towers and then crushed cages and broken stakes. The exposed fruits are scorched by the sun, eaten by the birds, and the leaves crisped. The thing about these tomatoes is if you let them spread out, they will create new roots along their stems which make it easier to transport water and nutrients throughout the plant; resulting in more tomatoes. The leaves will shade and hide the fruits from predators. It may seem messier, but the plant is healthier!

     So many people have images in their heads of immaculate, controlled, orderly gardens but I am learning that a slightly messy vegetable garden is a very productive garden. The plants, the soil, and the entire garden ecosystem benefits from this slight wildness and little bit of chaos. It reminds me of how much people love pristine mountain lakes not realizing they are dead lakes… while a thriving, living, and biodiverse lake is a messy and sometimes scummy lake. If these gardens on the edge of the harshness of this desert are teaching me anything it is that life doesn’t flourish under strict order and control. Life is not pristine perfection. Life is a little bit ‘messy’!

     We need to recognize as a society that our attempts to control nature and make her perfect are not in the best interests of life on this planet. We need to realize that the controlled gardening of our grandparents isn’t necessarily the best way to grow food. In fact, many of our agricultural practices and traditions, particularly in the west, haven’t been developed with the goal of using the same piece of land for thousands of years. Our model has been to use up and area and then move on to the next. Our goal has been to dominate and control our plants instead of working with and helping our plants flourish.

     Our climate is becoming more extreme and we need to experiment and try new things with the aim of sustainability and growing food on a piece of land for the next thousand years. We need to re-evaluate our ideas of perfection and messy. We need to learn to let our plants be plants and do what they do best. 

     We need to see the beauty in a little bit of chaos.

Sources and Further Reading:

Macy, Joanna and Molly Brown. (2014). Coming Back to Life. New Society Publishers: Gabriola Island, BC Canada.
Pollan, Michael. (2006). The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. The Penguin Press: New York.
Pollan, Michael. (1991). Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education. Grove Press: New York.