One night, during my first extended visit to Oglala Lakota Cultural and Economic Revitalization Initiative, an 8000 acre ranch at Pine Ridge Lakota reservation, I was sitting near my tent under a billion stars thinking, “It’s so quiet.” And it wasn’t just that I couldn’t hear cars or other city noises. The emotional agitation of millions of humans was resoundingly absent. And perhaps more importantly, my own agitation was absent. There was “nothing to do” but sit there and feel the earth on my feet and just be. This was not a normal state for an activist-type from Los Angeles.
As I continued to experience this state, I realized that the average lifestyle in urban areas could be described as “frantic” or “dispersed” at times. Fast paced living is not necessarily a bad thing. A lot of stuff gets done in big cities. A lot of adventure and cultural interchange and art and other interesting interactions happen. But living in Los Angeles for 25 years had resulted in me keeping pace with the city, going here and there, and doing this or that, while rarely asking, “Why?”
As I sat there with my bare feet on the earth, feeling the wind on me and the distance of the hills and Big Sky above me, there was enough quiet, space, and time to ask “Why?” and actually listen to the answer.
And I realized that all of the opportunities and wonderful people and things to do and progress to keep up with and places to be in Los Angeles were creating a sense of agitation in me, a feeling of missing something no matter how much I drove around going to this or that event or gathering.
This incident and a number of others sent me down the road of asking questions on a much deeper level than I had for a while. Why did I want the things I wanted? Where did my attitudes about certain subjects come from? Why do we as a culture do things the way we do? What are the most important things I could do with my life?
I deepened my capacity to question any reason I had for doing anything (a skill set that can be learned and developed) and I reveled in this questioning. This led to a deep examination of values and attitudes which can get pretty uncomfortable but was ultimately hugely rewarding. Sometimes, we don’t want to ask the question because maybe we don’t want to hear the answer. It can get complicated! But that almost always happens because we left that question unanswered and unexamined for a really long time already.
In some cultures, there are passages and cultural structures that support this process, such as Vision Quest. In Western culture, there is a growing acceptance and proliferation of organizations and support structures that help people through this process. My garden is a good place for me to ask the deeper questions, or just be.
In my role as a permaculture designer, I’ve thought a lot about this ability to question. Because when you are designing whole systems, you can and should feel free to question any aspect of that system. Often, the key question might be, “Is this the best way to do this?” Sometimes, a “why” question can help answer that. “Why is it being done this way?” “Because it’s always been done this way as long as we can remember and it appears to be working, so it must be the best way” is a very common answer whether talking about monocrop corn fields or economic systems. And of course, that is never actually true. It wasn’t always done that way, and it is rarely the “best” way to do it. (In permaculture, we define “best” as maximum sustainable contribution to the well being of people, planet and our future).
When you ask the “why” question, one place it might take you is to how other cultures do things or how things were done at different times throughout history. This is the way many permaculturists have rediscovered “lost technology.” An example of this is the paint/stain on 900 year old Viking churches in Sweden, which has no toxic ingredients and has lasted hundreds of years. Asking “Why is that paint lasting so long?” led green architect Anders Nyquist to a chemical analysis of it and development of his own version.
Another example is the brilliant swidden agriculture of the tropics, which produced abundant food sustainably in small spaces with minimal care for many hundreds of years and is still being successfully used by indigenous people in many regions of the world. When originally studying this system, anthropologists thought it was the practice of a primitive, unintelligent society that destructively and randomly burned holes in the jungle to farm for a few years only. In fact, it was a highly complex, sophisticated, integrated system that worked in close cooperation with the natural succession stages of the jungle to produce high yields of highly diverse and useful crops in a way that maintained ecosystem health. These native people understood things about ecosystem management, maintaining fertility, biodiversity and more, that scientists are just now discovering in the 21rst century. It took anthropologists many decades to recognize the value of this brilliant system, because they didn’t ask “Why?” And even when they did ask, they didn’t keep asking, so it took them literally decades to understand the entire system even though they had it right in front of their faces. So it isn’t enough to ask once. You have to keep asking, and go deeper. Because it almost always goes pretty darn deep.
The moral of this story, if you haven’t guessed, is: “Ask why.”
“And keep asking.”
And then, once you have some real answers and insight, do some brilliant design work.
And then, ask “Why?” :-)