Change the World by Changing Yourself
Seeking the Path of Practical Ecology
“Live light upon the Earth,
If you would not be earthbound.”
— Shining Bear
I was only a teenager, but I could never get it out of my mind: “How should we be living our lives? Is there not more to life than seeking money, possessions, and pleasure?” These questions, and their countless variations, were the driving force that led me on my path of botany, ecology, indigenous skills, and spiritual evolution.
Back in the early ‘70s, there was the beginning of a heightened ecological awareness, but you were still a “kook” if you expressed an interest in practical survival, and if you expressed concern about the growing ecological crisis.
A lot has happened in 30 years. Things have gotten worse. “Great interest” and “good intentions” of the 1970s did not succeed in materially improve our overall trends in the United States. Our rapid population growth, both from within and without, has only exacerbated the situation.
I spent the last 30 years attempting to learn and to apply the “little things” that I can do, and that anyone can do, to choose to be a part of the solution. It is the way that I maintain hope, and that I can find a way to mentally rise above what seems a hopeless situation.
Besides learning many of the elements of what anyone can do, even if you’re in the cities, I realized that there is no “enemy” out there. The “enemy” is always within. It is my own proclivity to laziness, to choosing the path of least resistance, to choosing something based solely on economics. Though I have not always succeeded, I have attempted to take the time to determine why we’ve even here on this earth for a few score years before we die. It certainly cannot be solely to accumulate a good portfolio.
My pursuit of “what to do?” initially led me to study botany. In botany, and specifically in discovering how indigenous peoples used their floral friends, I realized that food and medicine were richly abundant on this earth. While modern agriculture continues to travel down the high-tech path of genetically modified foods, the most nutritious plants on the earth are still wild plants, plants such as dandelion, purslane, curly dock and other so-called “weeds” that are found in urban areas throughout the world.
Dandelion – richer in beta-carotene than carrots. Purslane, the richest plant source of Omega-3 fatty acids. Curly dock, one of the richest sources of vitamin A. These wild plants, and hundreds more, I have used and taught to thousands of students over the past 3 decades. Acorns still abound, and it is a fascinating path of discovery to collect the acorns and process them in the traditions of the Old Ways. In our urban areas, we can find lambs quarter, a spinach relative that is arguably nature’s best mineral tablet. We find abundant carob trees planted as ornamentals, and these are edible right off the tree, with three times as much calcium as the same amount of milk. Chickweed is a common weed of lawns, rich in vitamin C and a delicious salad plant.
And get this – because chickweed has the audacity to grow on lawns, there is a poison you can buy in most nurseries that promises to kill all the chickweed on your lawn, as well as dozens of other so-called weeds, which are actually good foods and good herbs.
Why a Lawn?
Why, why, why? It is apparently because “we” believe that there is some socially redeeming value in lawns. We have never cared for lawns, and have always used that space to create compost, and raise such plants as fruit trees, roses, lavender, and edible groundcovers such as nasturtiums, mints, and tradescantia. This is one of the “little ways” we choose to not contribute to the waste of water and fuel that goes into the care and maintenance of lawns. It is one of our little ways in which we can take charge and be a part of the solution.
And we have spoken up when other neighbors cut their “weeds” down to the bare soil. This is as foolhardy as a lawn, even worse, for it dries the soil, reduces the amount of moisture that that soil can release into the local atmosphere, and contributes to desertification.
Once you learn about the uses of plants, you become a confirmed ecologist. You will not want to pull “weeds” pointlessly, and you would not scrape plants down to the bare soil, as so many of the so-called “gardeners” do with their weed-whackers.
It is difficult enough to create a beautiful area where there was once a pointless lawn. It is more difficult to convince others, since most in today’s mindset will not only ridicule you, but will find ways to fight you, legally or otherwise.
It is wise to find ways to become a part of the solution, and it is also wise to go forward with eyes open, to avoid unnecessary battles. It is wiser to convince your neighbors to the vast practicality of what you do, rather than have to fight your neighbors when they suggest your “overgrown lawn” is lowering their property values.
One person may not be able to change the world, but each of us can change ourselves. By studying plants, and learning their value, I have begun to see how botany is related to the health of the soil, and how the health of the soil is related to the network of animal life on that land, and this has led me to see how the health of the wild animals directly affects my health and well-being. This is a science, not a “New Age” word game, and the application of practical urban ecology should be approached as a hard science, where you can observe positive results, and where you can repeat those results if you follow the same procedures.
I pursue both wilderness and urban survival skills. On most weekends, I conduct field trips where our students learn about using wild plants. We collect woods, and we make fire without matches as people in the past have done for millennia. We teach our students to find natural fibres and make such things as twine, baskets, sandals. We build shelters from branches and leaves. It has become relatively easy to be safe and sound in the wilderness using what nature has provided. But most of us live in the city most of the time.
So we teach and practice urban skills too. Urban skills include such things as making compost, finding ways to recycle just about everything, growing fruits and vegetables, and having battery-operated or hand-powered devices where possible. We have solar heated water, and a small solar electrical system. We would never just toss kitchen scraps into the city trash container, nor would we mindless “pull weeds.” Kitchen scraps make good soil, and any wild plants that must be pulled get eaten by us, or the animals.
A side benefit of practicing urban ecology is that you’re a little more prepared if there’s ever a major earthquake or a blackout. But that shouldn’t be your overriding impetus for pursuing practical survival. You should pursue it because it’s the right thing to do.
We have a friend who always carries a cloth napkin of his own when at restaurants. He doesn’t want to participate in the extra paper waste that goes into the napkins. He has even collected other people’s napkins (unused) and took them home to use in various recycling projects. I once told him that the trees still get cut, and that the restaurants still use and discard massive amounts of paper. He reminded me that he wasn’t trying to change the world. He was only trying to do the right thing in his little sphere of influence. “And at least the paper I take isn’t going into a landfill,” he told me.
Yes, little things, but little things add up. We carry our used dish water outside and we pour it onto our plants. Of course, this means we must buy safe detergents. All things are related.
We are often confronted with the challenge that things are just too bad, “we don’t want to think about it, and besides, we’re not the problem. What we do is just a small insignificant part of the trash problem.” But don’t millions of people make that same excuse?
I hold that view that even if I cannot change the world, I should still make the right choice in those cases where I have choice. To take the path of making wise use of resources is often difficult and often inconvenient. If “karma” has any meaning, then even if I cannot change the world, I do affect my own destiny by how I make my personal choices that pertain to all the resources that I come into contact in my daily life.
I urge us all to work together to find the little ways in which we can change the world by changing ourselves. It is the right thing to do.