May 28, 2011

A night in the forest at Windhorse Farm.

Jim & Margaret

My friends, Jim and Margaret Drescher, live at Windhorse Farm a working model of sustainable living that they co-created in perfect collaboration with nature.

Recently I spent three nights there, one of which was spent out in the forest under a bright (and cold!) full moon.

I am still contemplating all that I experienced there.

On my first visit to Windhorse farm, in 2002, I learned that the majority of the land was covered with old growth forest that had been sustainably harvested for 170 years.  When Jim and Margaret purchased the land they walked around with the previous owners. Behind the barn was a small pile of debris, Jim was curious about it and asked what it was. “That’s where they put things they didn’t need anymore” the former owner replied.  In the 150 years that the family had lived there that’s all the trash they had accumulated! The former owners gave Jim the following instruction as a sort of sustainability mantra, the pith instruction about how to live on the place, “if it comes from here it belongs here, if it don’t come from here you don’t need it”.  After the Drescher’s moved in they found boxes full of old worn out sox that had been carefully wrapped and stored for some useful purpose such as tying up staked tomatoes. Nothing wasted…

Nothing wasted

The ethic of “if it comes from here it belongs here” infuses every part of the operation of the farm. By-products of the forest such as outer bark and wood scraps from the sawmill are returned to the forest where they replicate the ecological function of fallen logs providing habitat for salamanders and insects, as well as a growing medium for lichens, moss and mushrooms.  “Dead wood is the life of the forest” says Jim.

Once on a walk with a representative of the Canadian Government and a representative from Irving Corporation the largest logging company in the Maritime Provinces, Jim gave the following explanation of sustainability. For both Windhorse Farm and Irving the board foot value of a tree is the same. However, Windhorse cuts a tree from their forest and kiln dries it in their own shop then they turn it into maple flooring or spruce sound boards for musical instruments for a much higher return. At the current rate of consumption the families that make their living from the forest at Windhorse can continue to do so indefinitely. The resource continues to remain in the community and the forest ecology remains intact. Whereas, in the case of forest clear-cutting the area is economically depleted for years to come and the forest ecology is devastated.

Garden gate

Margaret Drescher is skilled a horticulturist and garden designer. I recall that the first time I visited we ate entirely locally sourced food for lunch (much of it from the garden) off of Portmeirion plates which I considered to be the height of elegance. Margaret’s gardens are extensive and a number of greenhouses and coldframes have been added since my last visit. On April 17th the coldframes were full of vegetable seedlings and peas were growing in the garden already 6 inches tall. The gardens blend aesthetic and utilitarian elements beautifully, invoking a sense of magic.

On my recent trip I came as part of a small group connected with Shambhala, a meditation group founded by the late Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, of whom Jim and Margaret were both students. Our group came together to practice in the forest and to talk about the ways in which Shambhala might reframe the discussion about the world’s growing ecological crisis.

The sustainability movement is driven by a scientific and essentially materialistic approach that is not dissimilar from the conventional view of the world. In the discussion of sustainability there is a focus on conserving resources for future generations and minimizing environmental impacts which is of course very valuable. However, there is little discussion about relating to our own thoughts and how they actually shape the world that we experience, or to changing our relationship to the world vs. just building with different stuff.

Dead wood is the life of the forest

Shambhala on the other hand relates to magic (yes magic) in the sense that the ordinary phenomena that might happen, like hearing a bird call, can be messages from a much deeper reality. These little experiences demonstrate that it is possible to have direct communication with the world. They can actually wake us up to the present moment. Being present has tremendous magic and power in it and dare I say “joy” the most forbidden of fruits in a materialistic society. Joy equals satisfaction, delighting in things as they are, and that does not promote consumption of resources driven by endless wanting.

There is a lot of sadness in the environmental movement. I have experienced this quite a lot myself. It’s discouraging to try to protect something fragile, something beautiful, something that you love, only to see it destroyed. For this reason environmental stewardship can lead to despair, frustration and anger. Conventional approaches to protecting the environment sooner or later become filled with aggression. They create an “us and them“ dynamic that can become self-righteous, unrealistic and destructive to self and other.

From the Shambhala point of view everything has (and fundamentally is) “basic goodness”. To say that we ourselves, our experience , the world that we interact with and everything in it is basically good, basically pure, basically awake, is counter to virtually everything we’ve been told since the day we were born. So much so that even contemplating basic goodness is the most radical thing that we can do. If we’re all basically good then no one is at fault, no one’s to blame and we don’t have a story-line to fall back on. We have to relate to everything from a totally fresh perspective and whatever we do is up to us so there’s no possibility at all of an “excuse”.  From this perspective protecting the world is an expression of tremendous gentleness and appreciation not one of disgust or revulsion.

In order to make the shift to seeing basic goodness it is necessary to slow down, to shift our focus to our own experience and look at what our thoughts are projecting onto “reality”. Until we can do that there is little possibility that we will be able to create anything but confusion.  Slowing ourselves down is difficult work. It requires us to leave behind our habitual comfort and step out into the world but it’s also a delight.

Remember them while you're out there

And so, in search of realty, we spent our second night at Windhorse Farm out in the forest, each one of us alone. Before leaving for our overnight we sat in a circle around the fire. Each of us spoke about our intentions. I thought about my Native American friends and the way that they speak about their fasts in wild. White people often call it a “vision quest” like there is something to “get” but Indians usually just say that they are going out on the hill to pray for their family, their relations. I called to mind those for whom the simple act of living is a continual struggle and the ones who would be over-joyed if they could simply stand or walk. I asked everyone to remember such people while they were out there over night and that any discomfort that we might experience could somehow be for their benefit.

Then it was time to go and one by one, as we felt ready, we left the circle to find our own spot where we would sped the night. I found my spot not far from our camp in a soft bed of needles under a group of young pines. After setting up my bed I wanted to climb the hill where we all had practiced the werma sadhana earlier that day. I recalled the scene where we had sat in the morning sun at the top of the hill, wreathed in juniper smoke, I was reminded of the ancient kings of Ireland at Tara and of brave and noble warriors of the past. I wondered if there were other people in the world invoking magic on a high windy hilltop or were most people these days just indoors watching T.V.

Up the hill the forest receded. There in open meadow a dozen or more robins chirped and hopped about in their search of worms and insects. The sun slowly sank and moon rose. Birds of many kinds sang in the waning light. Far away on the river the cry of the loons echoed. Everything seemed so complete, so comfortably at home in their surroundings. “We have everything we need” I thought.

The night was cold and clear. I woke before sunrise and climbed the hill again. The robins were already at their work as I stood and watched the sunrise. Then I sat amidst the branches of an old and twisted apple tree. It was cold and a heavy frost lay on the ground. As I gazed softly at the ground I noticed something strange. Without looking directly at it I noticed a kind of shimmer on the ground. One area then another would shiver slightly. I watched for along time not sure if I was actually seeing this. Then I realized what I was seeing was the frost releasing one area then another. As the frost dissolved the grass would slightly rise. I would never have seen this if I had not had so much time to simply sit and watch. It was so subtle, almost imperceptible, and a perfect example of way that things change, one tiny bit at a time.

I was the last to return to our circle around the fire. It was just after 10:00 a.m. I went silently to my place and a bowl of warm soup was handed to me. I held my soup bowl in silence. I was reluctant to take the first bite. I knew that beyond the first bite was a second bite, then a shower and a change of clothes and ultimately a plane, voicemail, email, meetings and other details of my life. I held my soup bowl, it felt warm in my hands and I savored that long moment.

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