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Our ancestors were sometimes more like we are than we could imagine

It seems fitting somehow, that the final and 100th post on this blog will be posted on Samhain.

As you may know I am in the  process of having my website updated. The old site was huge and sprawling. The new one will be easier to navigate and easier for me to manage.

Please go to my website and sign up on the right sidebar to be subscribed to future posts.

Eventually this site will be retired.

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Why Vote?

We’re getting close to voter registration deadlines here in the US for our November elections, and it’s time for my periodic voting rant.

Why vote, when politics are vile, the right wing is a pack of intransigent bullies and the politicians who call themselves progressive inevitably go belly-up and give in to them? Obama, the guy who stood for hope, turned out to be just another good-looking guy who let us down, and a true progressive like Bernie Sanders – I’m at an age where I go for older men! – probably doesn’t stand a chance.

Nonetheless, it is vitally important that you vote, and here’s three good reasons why: the practical, the political, and the spiritual.

Practically speaking, there is one arena where your vote absolutely makes an enormous difference—and that’s on local issues. Granted, national politics are enough to discourage anyone from getting out of bed, let alone dragging yourself down to the polling station. But locally, even a few votes can make a huge difference. In Sonoma County, where I live much of the time, elections for the Board of Supervisors are often decided by a handful of votes. And the Board of Supervisors controls vitally important decisions that impact land use, water use, development, whether there is habitat for salmon or money for firefighters – issues that directly affect our lives. Schoolboards, water boards, transport boards, police review boards might not seem terribly sexy, but the right wing climbed to power by taking over school boards. Water boards often determine whether a new area can become a huge real estate development or remains farmland. Transport boards can decide to run busses on biodiesel made from used restaurant grease. Police review boards can determine whether that sheriff who shot the unarmed Latino kid stays on the force. In San Francisco, our local politicians stopped an attempt to shut down our city college, the only path to higher education for many low-income students.

Hate fracking? One of the most successful strategies to stop it has been getting local towns to ban it. Care about climate change? Then care about local public transport, urban food growing, community gardens and farmers’ markets which are all subject to local regulation. Want to legally re-use your graywater? Want programs to teach inner-city youth to grow and eat healthy food? Want schools that teach critical thinking, that have programs for art and music, that have curriculums that reflect diversity? All of these issues come back to the local, where your vote does make a difference!

This summer I met a town councilor from Glastonbury, in England – the town that many believe was the site of ancient Avalon and is currently a haven for Goddess worshippers, New Age spiritual movements and music festivals. Fracking has now become a threat to ancient sacred landscape.  And in Glastonbury, a right-wing conservative was elected over a progressive environmentalist by one vote. One vote!

Okay, if that isn’t enough to persuade you, here’s a political argument for those of you who consider yourselves too revolutionary to engage in anything as reformist as voting:

That’s a position of pure privilege.

Why? Because the revolution may take a little while to get underway. I’ve been working on this one myself for close to half a century, and see how far we’ve gotten! In the meantime, all those reformist half-measures do have a huge impact on real peoples’ lives, often the people with the least resources and who are most impacted by policies. They might determine things like whether or not someone goes to jail for life for a petty drug offense, or spends years in solitary, or gets tried as an adult when they’re sixteen. Or whether a pregnant teen can get on food stamps, or get a safe, legal abortion, or get medical care if she keeps her child. They determine whether old people can keep the pensions they worked for or whether corporations pay taxes.

And no, they never work perfectly, or make the deep, structural changes we might like to see. But even incremental change can make the difference between life and death for someone.

And when the right wing is working so hard to keep the young, the poor, and the non-white from voting, why on earth would you want to help them?

And now, the spiritual reasons:

First, I vote to honor the ancestors. The women who campaigned for sixty years to get the right to vote. The civil rights marchers who put their lives on the line to open the vote to the people who were most disenfranchised. How could I possibly turn up my nose at the rights for which they worked so hard and sacrificed so much?

Ah, you say, but politics are so ugly, so nasty and conflictual and such a low vibration. Won’t I sully my spiritual purity and disturb my inner peace by getting involved?

If your inner peace has any depth to it, it will withstand a trip to the voting booth. True spirituality is not about some aseptic removal from the world, it’s about engagement with reality in all its forms. True compassion requires us to face what’s ugly and disturbing, not hide from it. Withdrawal is, again, a position of pure privilege. Privilege means advantages and power and choices that you haven’t earned, and exercising unearned power never earned anyone any karmic good points.

The farmer whose land is taken for a pipeline doesn’t have the luxury of denial. The community whose drinking water is toxic from a chemical spill is looking for a very practical form of purity. They need our solidarity, which is the wonderful use we can make of privilege – to put it to the service of making a more just world.

Finally, it’s a magical law that you don’t gain more power by disdaining the power you have. If we want to call in the great powers of creation, compassion and justice to transform our world, we must use whatever avenues are open to us, even if they seem weaker than we’d like. The trickle carves a path for the stream to flow, and the stream makes the way for the river.

So do a walking meditation, and walk on down to the voting booth. Make filling out your ballot an act of prayer, if you like.

Take that hour, or day out of your busy life and make your small voice heard as an act of magical, political will that can open the gates to a world where we all have bigger voices. When you go back to your meditation, or your anarchist collective, or your revolutionary praxis, or your simple struggle to pay the rent and put food on the table, the world will not have transformed overnight. The Great Turning won’t have turned. The Good Guys will not have completely triumphed over the Bad Guys.

But the world might just be a slight bit better than it would have been otherwise. And that small difference might be the divergence in the path that heads us away from destruction and onto the road to hope.


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Permaculture Solutions for Climate Change

With Arctic ice melting more rapidly than anyone predicted, glaciers disappearing, freak storms and the carbon in the atmosphere climbing rapidly, climate change is not something on the horizon, it’s here. In California, as we suffer through the worst drought in memory, it’s both inescapable and frightening. What will happen if the rains do not return this autumn, with our reservoirs low and our lands crying out for water? What will happen if this anomaly turns out to be the new normal?

A week from now, the UN Climate Summit in New York City will be greeted by the biggest climate change protest in history. I hope everyone who possibly can will be there. I’ll be on the West Coast, at the Women’s Permaculture Convergence which was planned months before the march was scheduled. But there, I will be part of a panel on Permaculture Solutions to Climate Change.

I teach permaculture, often with a grounding in spirit and a focus on organizing and activism, through our Earth Activist Trainings. I practice it on the ranch managed by Earth Activist Training teacher Charles Williams, and in urban settings in inner-city San Francisco. I’ve written about it and made a documentary together with director Donna Read Cooper. For me, it’s a great, practical balance to my work as a writer and a teacher of ritual and earth-based spirituality, and a hopeful counterweight to the activism that addresses the enormous problems we face. I especially appreciate permaculture’s focus on integrated solutions.

For there are solutions. And that’s vitally important to know. More and more, when I talk to people about this issue, I hear despair and hopelessness. “It’s too late.” “It’s too big.” “There’s nothing we can do.”

Hopelessness is profoundly disempowering, but it can also be anesthetizing. It generates apathy. If I can’t do anything, then I don’t have to do anything. I don’t have to take action or take risks. But if I feel a sense of hope, if I can see a pathway forward, then I might find myself tramping along a rocky road full of discomforts and dangers.

At the same time, I see hopelessness infecting some of the activists who are most dedicated and committed. The urgency of the issue can consume us and turn us into joyless, hectoring ascetics who writhe in guilt over every moment of pleasure and scold their fellows for every small indulgence. “How can you go shopping when your grandchildren will be roasting to death on a dying planet?” “Human beings are a blight on the planet, and everything we touch is doomed.”

We can’t mobilize people by telling them they are bad and wrong and the world would be better off without them. What we need is more like a Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland “Hey kids, we can put on a show in our own backyard!” moment of optimism. We need to believe that we can do something, and that each one of us has an important role to play in making the change. We need to trust that the process of transformation can be a joyful one that will lead us into a better world.

To make that shift, we need a vision of what that new world would look like and a set of strategies for getting there. The international permaculture movement offers both.

Permaculture Ethics

Permaculture is a system of ecological design, originated by two Australians, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, in the ‘seventies. It’s now a worldwide movement of practitioners, researchers and teachers who look to nature as a model that can show us how to meet human needs while regenerating the environment around us. The genius of permaculture lies, not in any single technique, but in looking at how multiple techniques can be woven together into systems that are more than the sum of their parts. It offers both practical tools and an ethical framework for change.

The major obstacles to addressing climate change are not technological or even ecological. They are political, moral, and spiritual, a set of beliefs and power structures that are driving the twin crises of environmental breakdown and social disintegration.

“Greed is good” has been the watchword since the Reagan era, and the exaltation of selfishness, individual and corporate, has led to political gridlock, crumbling infrastructures, environmental devastation, and the impoverishment of the 99% while the 1% concentrate wealth beyond the dreams of emperors. Climate change cannot be solved in this framework that honors the accumulation of wealth over all other values and exempts it from all responsibility.

To address climate change, we need a radically different ethic, one based on the values of caring, sharing, and mutual responsibility that are core values of almost all human societies and religions. We are not single, isolated actors, we are interdependent and to thrive, we must be accountable to the whole.

Indigenous cultures and those who live close to the earth have always known that we cannot take endlessly from a system without giving back. Philosophy and religion, both Eastern and Western, have preached compassion, fidelity, and told us to love our neighbors as ourselves – albeit that these virtues are often more preached than practiced.

Permaculture offers a simple, secular framework of ethics that can guide us: ‘Care for the earth’, ‘Care for the people’, and ‘Care for the Future’, which implies the imperatives to return surpluses into the system, limit consumption and take no more than your fair share.

We need a clear framework of values in order to confront the immense vested interests which both continue the damage and prevent us from employing the tools of regeneration. And we need to transform those ethics into policies and programs.

What would this look like in practice? Imagine a world in which permaculture’s three ethics were the basis of law and policy.

Care for the Earth:

Corporations and individuals would be required to insure that their enterprises were, at minimum, harmless to the community and the environment and sustainable – not using more resources than they replenish.

Even better, enterprises should aim to be regenerative – improving the health and biodiversity of the surrounding environment. Below I will discuss what some of those regenerative practices might be.

Resources would be directed into research and programs that would help the transition to a regenerative technology and economy. Imagine where solar technology might be right now if the billions that have gone into nuclear power had gone into research on renewables! Work that restores damaged ecosystems and heals toxicity would be valued and paid for and new jobs would be created.

Care for the People:

The mandated purpose of corporate and individual enterprises should be to meet human and environmental needs and desires while providing lives of prosperity and dignity for everyone involved.

Productive enterprises, from businesses to agriculture, would be rooted in local communities, serve them primarily and be accountable to them. No longer would they be free to roam the globe in search of the cheapest labor and most lax environmental and safety standards.

Technology and economy would shift away from their bias toward concentration of resources and power to wide distribution of resources and power. This might look like solar panels on every home instead of nukes, and financial policies that penalize instead of encouraging the hoarding of wealth.

Those who engage in work that helps people and the earth would be encouraged and rewarded, as opposed to our current system, in which anyone who aspires to be a teacher, a farmer, a healer or even a firefighter is penalized, while those who manipulate abstractions and exploit others are rewarded.

An immense amount of labor and brainpower will be needed to make the transition, and resources should flow into programs to educate young people for these challenges, provide jobs and financial support for making needed changes, and retrain workers in exploitative industries.

Care for the Future:

We would shift rapidly from a fossil fuel economy toward one based on renewable sources of energy.

We would stop exploiting resources that cannot be replaced, or limit their use and find ways to re-use and recycle them.

We would develop industrial ecologies, where the ‘wastes’ of one industry become the raw materials of another.

We would assure health care for all people and a free, quality education for all young people as a right. We would provide programs to re-educate and train older people, as well, to adapt their skills for new forms of work and to deepen their enjoyment of life.

We would pour resources into research and support for the transition to regenerative forms of agricultural and industrial production.

New businesses and enterprises would be judged not on their monetary return on investment but their EROEI: Energy Return on Energy Invested. For example, industrial agriculture, with its massive use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, heavy machinery and transport of products, uses 15 calories of fuel to produce one calorie of food. While it may be profitable financially to the big corporations that supply chemicals, pesticides and fuel, its EROEI is disastrous!


This is just the scaffolding of an ethical framework. Once we have such a framework in place, we can use it to test our decisions. Should we build a new nuclear power plant? Considering the incalculable amount of damage it might cause if something goes wrong, we’d stop right there. But we might also consider the lack of facilities for dealing with nuclear waste, the immense amount of energy needed to construct a plant—much of it in the energy needed to make concrete which has a huge carbon footprint, the centralization of power a nuke represents, and the limited number of jobs it produces. A better alternative might be to put those hundreds of millions of dollars into a mix of rooftop solar, wind generators, and research into new forms of solar energy that would not require rare earths or other nonrenewable materials to make them.

We can also test the nuances of our personal decisions. Should I put solar panels on my house, or use the money to replace my old, leaky windows? Most likely improving your windows and insulation will have a better EROEI and might support a local business. Should I eat meat? No, not if it’s factory-farmed somewhere thousands of miles away. Yes, if it’s local, grass-fed beef from a producer using regenerative holistic range management techniques. Should I fly across the country to comfort my dying mother? Yes. You’ll add to your carbon footprint, true, but you’ll be a better, more whole human being which may further the effectiveness of everything you do for the rest of your life.

Practical Solutions and Strategies:

Alternative Energy

The strategies and practices I will discuss below can augment the transition in our energy systems and technology, but they are no substitute for rapidly reducing our use of fossil fuels. We need to stop pumping fossil fuel carbon into the atmosphere and instead turn to safe, proven renewables. I have focused less on this because there is already so much written about it. Alternatives to fossil fuels exist, they are already viable and rapidly becoming less expensive. Germany—not the sunniest place on earth—now gets 30 to 50% of its electricity from solar panels!

The problems in making the shift are not technological—although with more resources put toward research and development even more efficient alternatives can be created. The obstacles are economic and political, and they must be addressed with political pressure to hold oil companies and polluters accountable, remove subsidies from the fossil fuel industry, and offer tax incentives, rebates, retraining and retooling and subsidies to further the shift.

Carbon Sequestration the Permaculture Way

We are already past what scientists believe is the tipping point, already seeing major changes in the ice, the oceans, the tundra. Is there any way we can turn it back and safely pull some of the excess carbon out of the atmosphere?

A permaculture approach would point us to four interconnected areas, all of which use nature’s own methods – plants! – to pull carbon out of the atmosphere and store it safely in soil, where it can heal and regenerate damaged systems.

Soil as a Carbon Sink

We all know that burning fossil fuels has overloaded the atmosphere with excess carbon. But much of that excess may also come from our agricultural practices. Healthy, fertile soil is full of humus – soil organic carbon. When the ground is tilled, or forests are clear-cut and the soil is exposed, that carbon oxidizes into the atmosphere. In other words, it meets air, joins up with the oxygen, and becomes carbon dioxide.

Looking on the bright side, this means that the soils of the world are carbon-hungry. If we fill that need, we can pull excess carbon out of the atmosphere in ways that are safe and have thousands of other benefits. Rebuilding damaged soil restores ecosystems, improves our food security, prevents erosion and restores compromised water cycles. Unlike untried massive geo-engineering schemes, it has no down side. It is exactly what we need to do, even if climate change were not a factor.

Soil as a Living System

Until the 1980s, scientists who studied soil looked mostly at its chemical composition. When researchers began investigating the biological life of the soil, they discovered a rich, interlocking ecosystem of bacteria, fungi, micro-organisms, micro-arthropods, worms and other animals who work together in symbiosis to produce soil health and fertility. Researchers such as Dr. Elaine Ingham have developed practices to support the soil food web. Paul Stamets has explored the powerful potential for fungi and mushrooms to break down toxins in soil and restore health and fertility.

A sane climate-change policy would support this research and more.

Compost and Compost Tea: Cities would separate organic matter from garbage and compost it – some already do. Composting clinics would be established where people could learn to compost their own food wastes. Composting would be taught in schools as one of the basic life skills, along with the three R’s. Compost tea brewers that create rich inoculants would

Vermiculture: Communities would establish worm banks to encourage vermiculture and compost tea brewers to create rich inoculants.

Mycelium banks would be created in every community to propagate local strains of beneficial fungi that could be used for food, medicine, to improve soil fertility and break down toxins.

Compost toilets and methane digestors would be legalized and subsidized, especially in rural areas, to deal with human and concentrated animal waste.

Biochar: Forest waste, and some urban waste streams such as cardboard and wood scraps, can produce biochar, charcoal made under special conditions that preserves much of the carbon in its source and turns it into rich habitat for micro-organims.   Biochar can be added to soil as an amendment that increases fertility, provides habitat for beneficial micro-organisms, and helps to hold water.

Cities could establish their own biochar kilns to process some of their waste streams. Rural areas could build kilns to handle the thinnings from forestry and some of the agricultural residue. The heat from the kilns could be used to heat buildings or water or to produce electricity.

Super-efficient biochar woodstoves can be used to cook food while producing biochar, and they could be distributed throughout the less-developed world to help conserve wood supplies while producing soil amendments. Albert Bates, in his book The Biochar Solution, explores these and many other exciting possibilities.

Trees and Forests

Preserve the Pristine: We would impose an absolute moratorium on the clear-cutting of old growth, including boreal, temperate and tropical rain forests, which are huge sinks for carbon and irreplaceable sources of biodiversity.

Sustainable forestry: We would shift away from ecologically damaging clearcuts to sustainable practices, selective harvesting, pruning, and thinning. We’d revive ancient techniques such as coppicing and pollarding, and find uses for poles and smaller timbers.

Reforestation: We would fund and encourage tree planting – not timber factory monocultures but diverse forest systems. Cities would plant street trees for shade, beauty and fruit, and might maintain community forests in outlying areas for recreation, wood, and ecosystem management. Marginal areas such as the Sahel in North Africa can use Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration to restore woodlands and provide forage and firewood.

Agroforestry: Food for humans can be grown in many ways that preserve and encourage forests. Row crops can be surrounded by hedgerows or interplanted with allees of useful trees. Food forests produce food, fodder, fiber, medicine and more in systems that mimic natural forests. ‘Fedges’ are food-producing hedges.   City parks could plant food forests that would provide opportunities for urban dwellers to forage and feast on nature’s bounty.



 We could phase out industrial agriculture and the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and shift to organic agriculture and regenerative growing techniques that preserve habitat and build soil. To make this change, we could give farmers and ranchers financial support and incentives.

Perennial Food Systems: Much of our agriculture is based on annuals, grains and vegetables that live for one season and need to be replanted. Instead, we could support the research and development of more perennial crops, that do not need constant replanting, and use the thousands of species available, from tree crops to berries to herbs, to establish perennial food systems.  Eric Toensmeier has a great resource for perennial plants on his website:

Low-till and no-till food growing systems: Systems exist for growing annuals in ways that involve minimal tilling. More research and support for farmers to adapt these techniques would aid in the shift away from erosive soil disturbance.

Local food systems: Cities could establish nearby agricultural zones, protecting prime farmland from development. Suburban lawns can be transformed to productive gardens or food forests. Farmers’ markets, Community Supported Agriculture partnerships where consumers link directly to farmers, market gardens, roof gardens, school garden programs and community gardens are all strategies to help shift food production back to local areas. The Local Food movement is already growing, and could be encouraged with tax benefits, grants and subsidies.



Grasslands co-evolved with grazers and predators, and need both for their health. Grasslands store fertility in the form of soil organic carbon, underground where it will not be released into the atmosphere by fire. They have the potential to be enormous carbon sinks by replenishing soil fertility, which will also heal erosion and restore damaged water cycles.

Where possible, we can restore predators and keystone species where possible—for example, bringing wolves back to Yellowstone regenerated the ecology of streams and forests by changing animal behavior.

Holistic range management, also called mob grazing is a powerful tool to reverse desertification. It was developed by Alan Savory who now directs the Savory Institute. Livestock is managed by grazing in bunches confined to small areas that move frequently, which mimics the way wild herds behave when predators are present. Grass is grazed down hard, the thatch is broken up and pounded into the soil and fertilized with the animals’ wastes – and then they move on and give the grass time to recover and regrow. With each grazing, the grasses shed roots underground which decay and build soil. Ranchers can run more livestock per acre than with conventional methods, while regenerating marginal land. See Alan Savory’s TED talk at:



Water is one of the key issues in a parched and overheating world. And water is a key necessity for life, for the growth of plants and the viability of soil life. Permaculture offers powerful tools for harvesting and conserving water and rehydrating the land.

Water as a human right: Water is necessary for life. Communities should be in control of their own water systems. Water should not be privatized or viewed as a source of profit. In a world where water is becoming ever more scarce and precious due to climate change, polluting water should be not be allowed. Industries that by their nature pollute water should be required to restore all water to drinking-water standards. Practices such as fracking which endanger underground aquifers should be banned.

Water as a right of nature: Not just humans depend on water. It’s the key driver of multiple ecosystems, of fisheries, wetlands, migratory birds, and all of life. Other creatures besides us also have a right to water, and safeguarding that right will, in the end, benefit us by fostering the survival of healthy ecosystems around us. Adopting water conservation methods and farming techniques which are not wasteful of water can allow us to maintain healthy river flows for fisheries and an adequate supply of water for all.

Water-harvesting earthworks: Swales – ditches with berms on contour – ponds, keyline systems which move water slowly across the landscape, mulch, and many more techniques exist which can slow, spread, and sink the water that falls on the land, infiltrating the soil, building water lenses and replenishing aquifers, and preventing erosion by capturing runoff.

Urban water harvesting: In urban areas, mini-swales, rain gardens, curb cuts and porous pavement can harvest rainfall and infiltrate excess into the land, reducing the need for watering and preventing the overload on sewers during storms.

Roof catchment: Roofs can be fitted with gutters to capture rainwater and direct it into storage tanks, making it available for gardens and other uses.

Graywater: Water from laundry, showers and sinks can be captured, filtered with simple systems and used to grow trees, shrubs, ornamentals and lawns.

Aquaponics: Greens and fish can be produced in systems that recirculate the water. The fish wastes fertilize the plants, the plants clean the water. These systems use 70-90 per cent less water than conventional farming and can produce large amounts of food in small spaces. In greenhouses, they can produce greens all winter in cold climates.

Laws, regulations and policies: In some places, rainwater catchment or graywater re-use are illegal. Laws and regulations need to be changed, and model codes developed that will be easy for regulators to adopt.


Making the Transition

Many of these solutions have something in common. They involve more thought, observation and labor than conventional practices. In a world in which unemployment is a huge problem, this could be a benefit. But in an economy set up to favor heavy inputs of energy rather than inputs of labor, it’s a drawback. To make the transition feasible and sustainable, we need a new form of economics.


Our current economy is designed to maximize profit and concentrate wealth in the hands of the few at the expense of the many and the planet. A sane economics would instead favor and reward those practices which lead to a healthy ecology and a thriving community.

That’s a huge transformation. Some steps along the way might be:

 Hold Corporations Accountable for the Damage: If I were to go into my neighbor’s house and slip poison into her dinner, I’d be a criminal. But if a corporation poisons the water, the soil, or the air, they are rarely penalized beyond at most a financial slap on the wrist. As a result, the environmental and human costs of their products and practices are not part of their accounting, they are ‘externalities’. And responsible corporations are penalized with higher costs of production than those borne by irresponsible companies.

Governments can change this by requiring financial and legal liability from corporations. The tar sands would shut down if the companies involved had to pay for the cancers downstream. No nukes could be built in the US if our government no longer provided insurance for the builders. Oil companies would soon go out of business if they had to pay for the Gulf Oil Spill or shoulder the real costs of broken pipelines and spills.

Government action: Governments, through taxes, grants and subsidies, can help us make the transition to a regenerative economy.

 Investors and funders: Private investors and funders, large and small, can put resources into programs and enterprises that help make these needed shifts.

Entrepreneurs: Inventive and energetic folks can start new businesses that follow the ethics and employ regenerative practices.

Consumers: We cannot shop our way out of climate change. The needed changes are too big, and the destruction is too vast, for us to simply buy green and assume that will be enough. But we can make choices to support local businesses and producers that care for the earth, the people and the future, and help keep their enterprises viable.


Hope and Action

 The earth, the people, and the future, are all at stake right now. The concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is directly related to the concentration of wealth and power here on earth, and we can easily feel overwhelmed by the task of transformation. We need both huge, systemic changes, and immediate small reforms, and both seem difficult to make.  But we have many solutions available to us, and many reasons to let hope galvanize us into positive action.

The solution to both our social and ecological solutions is the same: community. Restore the community of caring and sharing, understand that community means the interconnection of people with the environment and natural communities that sustain us, restore power and resources to communities, and trust in the resilience of the community of life. We have already altered the world, and it will never be the same again. But if we take action to stop the damage and employ the solutions, if we partner with nature and our great earth-healing allies, it can still be a beautiful, thriving, life-sustaining place for ourselves, for the life around us, and for future generations.


Starhawk teaches permaculture through Earth Activist Trainings. In the next year, we’ll have courses in Northern California, British Columbia, Western Massachusetts and Spain, and she’ll be coteaching a course in Belize. Check our website for information.

And please donate to our scholarship funds to support activists and Diversity Scholarships for people of color working in environmental and social justice. Help bring these tools to the people who most need them!

Starhawk’s complete schedule can be found on her website: Follow her on Facebook:

And Twitter: @Starhawk17


Posted in climate change, Earth Activist Training, permaculture, political activism, sustainability | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 15 Comments

Gaza Again

by Starhawk


Building with mud — as we’ve been doing in California for the last four days — is an ancient tradition in the Middle East. I’m told the people of Gaza revived some of their traditional natural building methods over the last few years after the Israeli military destroyed hundreds of homes and public buildings in the bombings and invasion of 2009 — and then embargoed rebuilding supplies. As we finish up our beautiful project, I’m thinking of them: the warm, welcoming people I met there almost ten years ago.

Now once again the Israeli military is bombarding the most densely populated region on earth. Already they have killed over 321 civilians, including dozens of innocent children who had no voice in the underlying politics ( And Israel is calling up its reserves, beginning a ground invasion.

The ostensible reason, the murder of three Israeli teens in the West Bank, is a horrible crime, and its perpetrators should be brought to justice. But arresting hundreds of Palestinians, assaulting the West Bank as Israel has done in the last weeks, and now bombing Gaza, wiping out whole families and indiscriminately murdering people who had no part in this crime — it’s compounding crime with mega-crime, murder with mass murder.

The real reason, the underlying politics: Hamas and Fatah recently made peace with each other, which is a step forward for Palestinians and therefore a perceived threat to the right-wing Israeli political interests. Here’s a bit of Palestinian politics 101: Hamas and Fatah are two factions, the two major political parties in Palestine. Fatah, the new face of the old Palestinian Liberation Front, was long headed by Arafat, who started off as Israel’s most-hated terrorist enemy but ended up being the one who signed the peace accords in Oslo back in the ‘90s that were supposed to usher in the two-state solution. Unfortunately, after the accords were signed, Israel continued to colonize the West Bank with illegal settlements — basically gated, heavily guarded Israeli enclaves built on land confiscated from Palestinians without compensation in territories that were supposed to be part of an eventual Palestinian state. They then surround those settlements with a network of private roads for Israelis only, military checkpoints, and heavy control that interferes with everything from access to farms, jobs, and education to emergency medical care.

Fatah runs the Palestinian Authority, the government of the West Bank, which often collaborates closely with Israeli authorities. They are the “peace” party, also noted for high levels of corruption.

Hamas are the hard-liners, the ones who say, “We want all the land back.” They have refused to recognize the Israeli state, tend to be more strictly Muslim, and they won the elections in Gaza, after the Israelis withdrew unilaterally in 2005. And if you’re wondering what the hell that means, here’s the short explanation. Picture Gaza: a tiny strip of desert, with Israel on two sides, Egypt on the other, the Mediterranean the fourth wall. Up until that time, the Israeli military directly controlled Gaza. Internal checkpoints meant you couldn’t go from Rafah, in the south, to Gaza City without risking hours or even days of delay when the checkpoints would suddenly close. A few hundred fanatic Israeli settlers had established strongholds in the center of Gaza, and in order to protect them the military made life hell for a million and a half Gazans. When I was there in 2003, the military were clearing a larger buffer zone with Egypt by bulldozing the homes of Gazans whose families had lived in that area from time immemorial — without compensation. Rachel Corrie was killed standing in front of a bulldozer to prevent it destroying a home. Israeli snipers regularly fired on the town, and tanks blew shell-holes into family homes.

In 2005, Ariel Sharon basically said, “We’re out of Gaza. Now we’ll control you from without, and we’ll abandon any responsibility for your lives or well-being.” They evacuated four small Israeli settlements, and proceeded to tighten the borders so that virtually no one could get in or out without their permission. Fishing boats are not allowed to go out to sea, students are not allowed to leave the country to study, the sick are not allowed out to seek medical care. Goods are strictly controlled, and not much is permitted either in or out, so Gaza’s economy was destroyed.

When the Israelis pulled out, Hamas and Fatah fought bitterly. Hamas ended up in control of Gaza. In response, the Israelis invaded Gaza in 2009, killing 1400 people and destroying hundreds of homes and public buildings. Then they tightened the blockade, allowing even fewer things in and increasing the poverty and misery in that crowded strip of desert land.

But a few weeks ago, Fatah and Hamas reached a peace accord between them. Clearly, this could be a good thing for Palestinians, offering a more united voice in negotiations, a softening to Hamas’ hard line, and possibly a counterbalance to the Palestinian Authority’s corruption and collaboration.

The murder of the three teens, who disappeared while hitchhiking in the West Bank, was apparently done by extremist fanatics who objected to the reconciliation and wanted to sabotage it. Their interests coincided with the Israeli extreme right who also wanted to sabotage the alliance, and proceeded to use the murders as a pretext for mass arrests and incursions in the West Bank and mass bombing and murder in Gaza.

Why do I bother giving you all this background?  Because most people in the US don’t know it, and conventional reporting on this issue is so bad and so biased that a 2004 study by the Media Group at Glasgow University found that many people were unsure who was invading whom, and some thought the Palestinians were refugees from Afghanistan! (

Diane Sawyer on ABC News actually misidentified pictures of Gazans under Israeli fire as Israelis under Palestinian fire (, possibly the most blatant example of the bias that always portrays Israelis as the victims of Palestinians, and ignores or discounts Palestinian suffering.

But the Palestinians are suffering, although they are an amazingly resilient people. Murder is a terrible crime, and the murder of the three teens is indefensible. But responding to murder by mass murder is also a terrible crime, illegal under international law, indefensible by any true standard of morality. The Israeli authorities must be held to account, and the blanket support by the US for the Israeli government’s campaign of terror must end.

What can we do? The most effective strategy so far in putting pressure on Israel to conform to international standards of law and justice has been the BDS movement: Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions. It is time to stop buying goods made in Israeli settlements, like the SodaStream products, or supporting corporations that supply the Israeli military in their illegal operations, like Caterpillar which makes the bulldozers that destroy homes. We can pressure our own institutions to divest from these corporations, as the Presbyterians recently did, and we can pressure our government to end its three billion dollars of yearly military aid. There are also many, many demonstrations we can join, letters to write–all the ways we can bring political pressure to bear.

Don’t be silenced by the shrill voices who shriek “Israel-hater” at every criticism. Holding Israel to internationally-recognized standards of law and justice is an act of respect.

As an American Jew born in 1951, I was raised to love a vision of an Israel founded as a refuge for victims of anti-Semitism, racism, and fascism, that stood for equality and intellectual freedom and mutual care.  Much later in life, I reluctantly came to see that shining ideal, like most ideals, was tarnished, founded on stolen land. But Israel’s current policies have eroded the best of everything it might have exemplified, and unleashed a really nasty fundamentalism, a racist, fanatic hatred of Palestinians and an intolerance of dissent that poisons life in Israel as well as Palestine. My Israeli friends are enduring twin fears right now: fear of the rockets coming their way from Gaza, albeit so far they have killed no one, and fear of the right-wing Israeli fanatics who recently savagely beat Israeli peace protestors in Tel Aviv–something your news media most likely did not report!

In any case, Israel is not a person one can either love or hate. Some of Israel’s policies I applaud; others I detest. There are many individual Israelis I love dearly, as I also dearly love many Palestinians. They are far more similar than they are different, right down to the astounding ability of grandmothers of both peoples to stuff you with much more food than you really want to eat, when they have food. I would like to see them all live in peace, and the best hope for that is for all of us to exert every pressure we can bring to bear on the Israeli government to step off the path of aggression and onto the path of negotiation and diplomacy.

Posted in Gaza, Palestine | 6 Comments

Earth Activist Training: January 2014


How do we bring the skills and tools of ecological design and permaculture into the communities that most need them?  That’s the question we ask ourselves at Earth Activist Training—then we do two basic things.  First, we support organizations within those communities that are already working on issues of social, environmental and food justice, sharing resources and building relationships.  Then, we go out and fundraise like hell to offer scholarships to our residential trainings to people from those communities.

EAt at Erik's

This last January was our second year of offering Diversity Scholarships, and thanks to the generous support we received from individual donors and from the Dougherty Foundation, we were able to offer ten full scholarships!  We also had another nine work traders, and all together we had an amazing course, rich, diverse, and fun!

EAT in themeadow

We’re also seeing the synergy of both our approaches, with students from last year volunteering with one another’s programs and supporting each others’ efforts.

Menhuam garden

And we’ve been mentoring two African American women to step into teaching and leadership roles in the permaculture movement.  Pandora Thomas is already an accomplished presenter, organizer, and teacher who works introducing concepts around sustainability in black colleges across the US and with the Green Life program for prisoners in San Quentin.  She founded the Black Permaculture Network last year to provide support for permaculturalists of color, and student taught both our Social Permaculture course and our Earth Activist Training.

Pandora teaching copy

Rushelle Frazier has worked with veterans, started her own permaculture farm and will be directing a community garden in Chatanooga.  She student taught at our Vermont Earth Activist Training, will apprentice teach again this summer at Prospect Rock Permaculture Center in Vermont, and is also a very fine poet!


So, enjoy the pictures!  I hope to write more about some of the excitement and challenges of facilitating diverse groups, and how we can effectively address issues of power and privilege in our movements.  But for now, I just want to express my deep gratitude for all of you who contributed to our campaign.  Your support means so much!  And your gifts have had a huge ripple effect!

EAT faces





Posted in Bayview Hunters Point, Earth Activist Training, gardens, permaculture, social justice, sustainability, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

International Permaculture Convergence 11 in Cuba!

rainforest copy

Cuba—in late November and early December I spent two weeks there to attend the International Permaculture Conference and Convergence and participate in the related tours.  The IPC meets roughly every two years.  In 2011 we were in Jordan, and the theme was drylands.  In 2013, Cuba was the choice because Cuba turned to urban agriculture and permaculture after the Soviet Union fell and it lost both its major source of petroleum and its major markets.  We gathered there to meet, to learn from other permaculturalists around the globe and to see some of the projects our Cuban friends have developed.

One of the beautiful old cars of Cuba!

One of the beautiful old cars of Cuba!

Cuba—for so long it’s been one of those places you can’t go to, not legally, not if you are a US Citizen.  But now the barriers have been loosened and you can go for educational or professional reasons.  Like many others from the Bay Area, I booked with Global Exchange and the Eco-Cuba network who arranged the flights, the paperwork, guides, busses, etc.  Without going into the boring details of the many travel glitches and logistical problems we encountered, let me just say that Global Exchange and Eco-Cuba Network folks were great.  They coped with a thousand problems, swung with the punches and took fabulous care of us under great difficulties!  I would highly recommend them if you are ever thinking of going on one of their Reality Tours to Cuba or elsewhere.

My ideas about Cuba were still stuck somewhere in the dusty images of earnest young radicals cutting cane on the Venceremos Brigade and beret-capped revolutionaries stalking through the jungle.  Somehow I had not quite grasped that we were going to a lush, gorgeous tropical island with fabulous beaches that had become a major tourist destination for the rest of the world.  Fortunately, I did pack a bathing suit!

beautiful Cuba

But for the first few days, I didn’t have much opportunity to use it.  We were in Havana, at a three-day conference packed with information and overwhelmed by more than 500 participants.

Some of the highlights:  hearing from the Cubans how they survived the ‘Special Period” after the Soviet Union fell by growing food in and around their cities and shifting to organic agriculture.  Meeting up with Robin Francis from Australia whose amazing permaculture site I’d visited ten years ago and hearing her present both the grim facts about climate change and the permaculture strategies.  Reconnecting with Robin Clayfield from Crystal Waters in Australia who led an interactive session on social permaculture.  Hearing Albert Bates from The Farm in Tennessee on biochar and Darren Dougherty’s presentation on keyline and grasslands.

And Cuba itself—vintage cars on the streets, waves spilling over the seafront walk on the Malecon, music everywhere.  Great bands in our hotel, a little salsa dancing while waiting to go out to dinner, heading down to the old town for Flamenco and walking through cobbled streets lined by balconied buildings like a bit of old Spain.

group and fruit copy

After three days indoors, we were eager for our daylong tour of urban agriculture sites in and around Havana.  We visited a working class neighborhood in the west where many people had developed small, urban permaculture gardens, ‘sistemas’, they call them, systems.  I’m not so familiar with the tropical plants myself but my strategy was to stick close to John Valenzuela of the Rare Fruit Growers who hails from the North Bay and knows everything!

John Valenzuela.

John Valenzuela.

Or if he doesn’t, Brock Dolman of the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center does.  And so does my dear friend Penny Livingstone-Stark of the Regenerative Design Institute.

Penny Livingston-Stark in her palm leaf hat!

Penny Livingston-Stark in her palm leaf hat!


Brock Dolman and John Valenzuela show a little leg!

Brock Dolman and John Valenzuela show a little leg!

We visited three small gardens in one of the suburbs of Havana.  I admired what Blanca had done in a small space while caring for a son with developmental problems.

Bianca's sistema.

Bianca’s sistema.

Bianca's little pond.

Bianca’s little pond.


Another ‘sistema’, called, “My Dream” in Spanish, combined a lush, tropical food forest with raised beds.  And finally we went to the home of the Sanchez family, who have turned their yard into a permaculture teaching site.


Banana trees and recycled hanging planters.

Banana trees and recycled hanging planters.

Mi sueno banana trees

Sanchez family copy


In the afternoon, we visited an agroponico, one of the urban farms where much of Cuba’s produce is grown.  In the nineties, they were producing something like 70% of their food in and around their cities.  But, as one of our guides admitted, they weren’t eating that much.  Now, alas, they are back to importing something like 60%, but the urban farms remain.


Beds of lettuce at the agroponico.

Beds of lettuce at the agroponico.

products of the agropnoico copy

And then we were on to the convergence, five more days of presentations, discussions, long talks in long lines waiting for food, interludes at the beach or the pool, and at night—dancing!  My high point of the trip:  Bianca told me I was a good dancer, and one of the Cuban men said I danced like a Cuban girl!

Bianca and me!

Bianca and me!


At the convergence: Robin Clayfield from Crystal Waters in Australia looking beautiful in blue!

At the convergence: Robin Clayfield from Crystal Waters in Australia looking beautiful in blue!

Yoga on the beach at the convergence.

Yoga on the beach at the convergence.

Pandora Thomas and I presented a session together on social permaculture and building diversity in the movement, which was well-received.

Pandora and coconuts

I also led a spiral dance, and immediately afterwards faced a line of Cuban women asking me for advice on how to energetically cleanse themselves and how to ground before sleeping.  One thing I loved in Cuba is that Santeria is accepted there as a religion—with more followers than Catholicism.  There’s a respect for spiritual and energetic forces that all the years of Communism hasn’t dented.

Santeria altar at the agroponico.

Santeria altar at the agroponico.

Then on to more tours.  Matanzas, where a permaculture food forest is planted to protect amazing, crystalline underground caves!  Sancti Spiritus, where Edith, one of the women I’d danced with, has turned a flower farm into a permaculture farm with the first earthen building in Cuba.  We saw another site where they are building a model house/classroom out of recycled materials, and a permaculture car wash.

Edith at the flower farm converted to a permaculture center.

Edith at the flower farm converted to a permaculture center.


Mandala garden at Edith's permaculture center.

Mandala garden at Edith’s permaculture center.


At the permaculture car wash, water is cleaned and recycled.

At the permaculture car wash, water is cleaned and recycled.

On our final day, we were taken high up into the tropical rainforest for a tour of a preserve that focuses on medicinal plants, and a lively herb walk.  At the end, a few of us shared a quiet, stolen moment in a cave where long ago slaves had hidded to celebrate their ceremonies.  We took a moment to honor their spirits, then hurried back along a beautiful path by the stream to get back to our busses.

Bromeliads in the rainforest--anti-inflammatory, and also burn fat!  Gotta get some!

Bromeliads in the rainforest–anti-inflammatory, and also burn fat! Gotta get some!

Bromeliads and orchids!

Bromeliads and orchids!


I’m going to try to find more time to write up some of my thoughts from the conference.  Overall, I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity to meet with so many amazing people from around the world, and to see the wonderful work Cuba has done with permaculture and with all the ways it takes care of its people.

Non-carbon transport!

Non-carbon transport!


Posted in gardens, permaculture, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

On Not Lighting a Solstice Bonfire

ocean edge, foam!! copy

Winter Solstice, the longest night and shortest day of the year.  The time of the year when darkness reigns and light seems a weak challenger.  When the sun appears to stand still, and time stops.  A time for letting go, for cleansing and release.

For decades now, the Reclaiming community of Pagans here in San Francisco has celebrated the Solstice at the beach, with a plunge into the ocean and a dance around the bonfire.  The shock of cold, the trail of gold on the water, the exhilaration, the wild wind all carry away the last scraps of meanness and whining and disappointment left from the year.  And the bonfire with its leaping flames offers warmth and light and community.

A simple ritual, its power carried by the elements themselves.  It doesn’t depend on profound thinking, or poetic trance, or eloquent words, which you can’t hear anyway at the beach.  Just the ocean, the fire, and the community.

But this year we won’t have a fire.  Some years ago, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area banned fires on the beach.  There were a number of reasons for this—trouble with litter and fires left untended and rowdy drunks, none of which applied to us.  But there were also other issues, some of them environmental.  After a big public outcry, they designated a small area at the north end of the beach, a good couple of miles from our more sheltered site, and the Burning Man artists created some special fire pits for it.  But that area is crowded, wide open to public view, and not so beautiful and sheltered as the area where we traditionally hold our ritual.  So for many years we simply ignored the ban.

Until this Summer Solstice, when we arrived to find the street lined with cop cars and the beach swarming with rangers armed with fire extinguishers.  There had long been a plan in place, if the fire was threatened, to defend it with civil disobedience.  But we’d had in mind a dignified blockade, leading perhaps to arrest where we could fight the matter in court as an issue of religious freedom.  We hadn’t pictured the sacred fire extinguished with chemicals, and the firemakers served with something more like a parking ticket.  In any case, after a discussion and a rough consensus, the group decided simply to forego the fire.

In retrospect, we should have gone to the GGNRA the next day and filed a protest, and begun our discussion then.  But being busy people with a lot going on in already crowded lives, and having six months before our next beach ritual, we pondered, and grumbled, and muttered, and it wasn’t until the fall that we got organized and held a meeting, and not until this last week that we actually met with the GGNRA.

And the result was—mixed.  On the positive side, we were assured that the GGNRA actually does respect our religious rights and is willing to work with us.  But the issue involving the fire is out of the hands of our local office.  For the beach is part of the snowy plover protection zone, one of only two places where they nest, and their protection is a matter of federal law.

Which leaves us in the position of asking for an exemption to an environmental law we actually support.  Civil disobedience did not seem like the appropriate move, here.  And so the discussion will go on—after Solstice, to determine what we do next summer, and next winter, and the summers and winters beyond.

And the issue has thrown me smack up against something I realize I have been trying to avoid, a deep and abiding sadness.  I think everyone who loves the earth must be feeling it, that sense of things slipping away, pulled by the tide out of our grasp and gone—places of great beauty, species of remarkable birds, rain patterns we can count on, the confidence that our children’s children will inherit a world in which they can thrive.   When we attune ourselves to what nature is saying, she’s shrieking in our ears that it is all spiraling out of control, too fast now to be easily stopped.  And all the big systems, the governments and international agencies that are supposed to kick in and shift our direction are themselves all spiraling out of control, like tops wobbling in a wild gyre, crashing hardest on those least able to construct bulwarks of money and power.

I’m an optimist by nature, and an activist by choice.  As long as I can still balance on creaky knees and draw a breath into wheezy lungs, I’ll keep on fighting the destruction and working for regeneration.

But on this Solstice when time stops, I have to stop, and draw a breath of the sea air, and face the possibility that we might lose.  All our efforts might not be enough.  Decisions made far away from us in inaccessible stratas of power steal away our future, and maybe we won’t be able to stop them.

It is everyone’s birthright, to plunge into the clean waves, to dance around a fire.

But  the waves aren’t clean. By next summer, or next winter, if not already, they may carry to our shores the radioactive poisons of Fukushima.  And the fire is banned.

Laws are blunt instruments, and I don’t for a moment believe that our bonfire on the beach would actually endanger a single snowy plover’s egg.  (For one thing, they don’t nest in the winter!)  But in this time of great extinction, I’ve got to throw my weight behind every effort at preservation, no matter how clumsy.

Yet I need this year’s cleansing.  I need the great elemental forces to wash through me and carry away some of this grief and renew my faith in life’s resilience.

So tonight I embrace the cold.  Call it in—cold is what we need, to cool the overheated earth, to bring back the rains.  I offer up the fire, to the snowy plover, to all the endangered species, to everything and everyone whose simple birthrights are stolen.

Let this be the Solstice magic.  Tides turn.  Miracles happen.

Out of darkness, light is born.

Posted in climate change, earth-based spirituality, Goddess, Paganism/earth-based spirituality | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Permaculture in Palestine


Happy to be in Palestine!

Happy to be in Palestine!

I’m shamefully behind on this blog, and my only real excuse is that I haven’t been just idling away my time watching old episodes of ER from the nineties, I’ve been writing.  A rewrite of the screenplay for The Fifth Sacred Thing—that took a big chunk of the summer!  And then I’ve finished a second draft of the sequel.  Don’t get too excited—there’s still a third and possibly fourth or fifth to come, but definitely Progress Has Been Made!

And a few other things—like putting together our new IndieGoGo campaign for Diversity Scholarships for our Earth Activist Training!  Check it out  and please share it with all your friends and social networks.  We need your help to bring the skills and tools of permaculture to the communities who most need them—and to do that, we’ve got to train people who come from those communities.

And speaking of Earth Activist Training, I taught two of them back-to-back,  one in Vermont, one in Palestine.  I’ve been wanting to blog about them both but I’ll settle this morning for uploading some of the pictures and experiences from Palestine.  Because tomorrow I’m off to Cuba for the International Permaculture Convergence and after that I’ll have a whole new set of adventures to blog about, I’m sure.


Our course!

Our course!

Teaching permaculture in Palestine has been a long-time dream of mine, and a few years ago I was scheduled to teach at the Marda Permaculture Farm with its founder, Murad Al-Khufash.  But on that trip, the Israelis, who control all the borders into Palestine, would not let me in because of my history of working with the International Solidarity Movement, which supports nonviolent resistance against the Occupation.

But two years ago, after the International Permaculture Convergence in Jordan, I did get in.  So I was hopeful (‘confident’ would be an overstatement) that I could get in again.  Jillian Hovey, an experienced permaculture teacher who works internationally, agreed to co-teach with me, and I was happy to know that someone was available who could anchor the course if I didn’t get across.

I left Jericho, Vermont and flew a convoluted route into Amman, came across the border from Jordan the next day and spent six hours sitting and waiting—just a little taste of what Palestinians go through all the time—but I had brought a very good book and eventually I got in!  Another bus ride to Jericho—making me one of probably very few people who have travelled directly from Jericho to Jericho, and a long taxi through the dry and stony hills of Judea, and I arrived in Marda.

Marda is a sweet village nestled in the arms of terraced olive groves and looking out over the valley to villages high in the hills beyond.  Ancient olives with thick, twisted trunks, centuries old, march along the stone-buttressed terraces, mile after mile of human-sculpted landscape.  It has one main street, a couple of shops, a mosque, and many solid, substantial houses built of stone or stone-faced concrete.  Young boys kick soccer balls down the street, old men sit and talk, women in long coats and headscarves walk gracefully erect, arm in arm, and everyone seems to know everyone else.  It seems prosperous, peaceful, timeless.

Stones, terraces, Ariel, Doad

But Marda lies just below Ariel, the fourth largest Israeli settlement, a gated community of more than 18,000 people.  You can hike uphill to the razor-wire topped fences that close off the area where Murad herded goats as a boy and played soccer.  From the village, you can ignore its presence—until you look up.  Then there it is, a line drawn on the skyline.

The course is held in a white house on the far end of the main street.  Like a lot of Palestinian houses, it’s all white concrete walls and synthetic stone floors, very clean and polished.  There’s a kitchen and a small living room area for eating and relaxing, a big bedroom for the women and another for the men, and a small room that Jillian and I share.  The classes are held on the roof, where they’ve set up a tent to shade us from the sun.


Jillian Hovey and students.

Jillian Hovey and students.

We have a small course of seven women and five men—two internationals and the rest are Palestinian.   Tobias who has been working with Jillian at Tamera Ecovillage in Portugal, grew up in Scotland.  The Palestinians are all young professionals.  We have agricultural engineers, two architects, a public health administrator, a nutritionist, and one of the organizers of the Slow Food movement in Palestine.  They are all very bright, knowledgeable, warm and friendly, and willing to help.  Murad’s wife cooks us a fantastic lunch every day, but the students prepare breakfast and a light dinner and share cleaning chores—both the women and the men!

I’m a bit worried, the first day, as to how our students will take to my teaching style, which involves a lot of games, jokes, sing-alongs, and the odd trance.  Our Earth Activist Trainings are rooted in earth-based spirituality, and I generally weave a lot of grounding and awareness techniques not to mention songs, drumming and a few guided visualizations into the mystical heart of soil fungi.  Murad is a devout Muslim, as are some of our students.  Among the women, only one wears the hijab, the head-scarf, but the some of the men are scrupulous in observing the daily prayer-times and the Friday visit to the mosque.

But I start by teaching some basic grounding and awareness techniques, and send everyone out to observe the nature around us for a short time.  And I’m pleased to discover how open everyone is to the exercise, and the depth and beauty of their observations.  So each morning I send them out to observe some new aspect of the natural world:  patterns, water flows, energy exchanges, etc.   And by a few days into,the course, we’ve translated  the “Earth my body” chant into Arabic!

"Earth My Body" in Arabic

“Earth My Body” in Arabic


Building an A-frame to find contour.

Building an A-frame to find contour.

In the afternoon, we walk down through the village to the permaculture demonstration farm Murad has established.  Again, I’m a bit worried about our engineers.  They speak the least English of any of our crew, so it’s hard for me to check in with them directly.  The farm has an abundance of young fruit trees, herbs and medicinal plants growing in profusion, but we’re between seasons for most vegetables and the summer beds are looking a little ragged.  Two of engineers, Ahmed and Hisham, make a beeline for one pomegranate that has some spots on the leaves.  They nod their heads and make knowing comments.

Meanwhile, Sultan, one of our architects, tells the group he doesn’t think the farm design embodies harmony.  It is true that Murad has taken to heart the permaculture principle that waste is a resource, and old tires figure heavily in the design.  He uses them to fence out the wild pigs that roam at large around the village.  The Israeli authorities won’t allow the villagers to trap or shoot them, and they ravage the gardens and cause erosion problems—just as they do in the Cazadero hills where my own land lies.  But a combination of old tires and barbed wire keeps them out.


Filling earth bags for natural building.

Filling earth bags for natural building.

I tell the group what I see in at the farm—the diversity of trees and food plants, designed so that if one crop doesn’t do well others will fill in.  The many levels of planting, from the upper-story trees to the smaller bushes, the low annuals and perennials, the ground covers—a classic forest garden.  The way Murad has integrated chickens who clean the ground when he lets them forage and live in a naturally-built cob chicken house.  I sense they are looking at the garden with new eyes.

My drum is an instant success.  It’s a doumbek, the traditional Middle-Eastern drum, and while I don’t speak much Arabic I do speak drum.  The rhythms I have learned back in California come from here and are completely familiar to our students.  Duja snatches the drum and begins to play—then hands it over to Sultan.  While we’re doing the supper dishes, someone puts on some Palestinian music and Hisham and Ahmed begin to dance the dabka, the traditional folk dance.  Hisham is a big bear of a man with a shy smile and Ahmed is muscular and hefty and befits a farmer, but when they dance they are light on their feet and graceful.  The women get up and I follow Lina’s steps to learn the dabka myself while Duja switches the music to Palestinian hip-hop.  We’re all laughing and dancing—and that sets the pattern for most of our free time.

Lena at a historic building.

Lena at a historic building.


There are many highlights of our time.  Sahar, also an architect, works for an organization called Riwaq that preserves historic Palestinian buildings.  She takes us to visit one of their projects in Marda, a centuries-old Ottoman castle that actually belongs to Murad’s family.  Half of it is in ruins, half of it is now inhabited by families who throng out into the courtyard and press fresh-picked almonds into our hands.  We prowl around the old stones and climb up to the top floor where a beautiful, arched room hints of the artistry and luxury of the rulers.  Riwaq is working to shore up the crumbling walls and secure the structure while respecting its integrity.  After our visit, we are offered tea at Murad’s family home, another ancient building where his twin brother and family now live with his mother.  We drink tea and eat cookies on a high terrace with a long view over the valley and the olive groves.  As long as we don’t look behind us, where Ariel looms overhead, we can bask in the peace of the sunset and believe that everything is fine.

We also hold an open day, and people come from all over the West Bank to listen to us talk about permaculture and hear lectures from some of the local experts on everything from Green building to beekeeping.  There is a growing green movement in Palestine, which draws from their strong cultural connection to the land.  They’ve been tending the land for thousands of years, using many practices we now adapt in permaculture, including the idea of an agriculture primarily based on tree crops: olives, almonds, figs.

Ariel looms above...

Ariel looms above…

And we discuss how to do permaculture under Occupation, when so much of what you might want to do is prohibited, when someone else controls your water supplies—and takes 80 per cent of the water to supply the illegal settlements—as well as your markets, your freedom to move and travel, your freedom to simply live as your ancestors have always lived.  This trip is so different for me—I’m not confronting soldiers or challenging check points or standing in front of tanks.  Nothing is being blown up around me, and no one is firing bullets into the walls at night while kids do their homework, like in Gaza when I was there.  Everything seems so normal, so relaxed.

Just don’t look up!

Because it’s always there, the Occupation.  In the cracks in the walls, where during heavy rains Ariel releases floods of raw sewage down on the village.   Many of the settlements neglected to build sewage treatment plants, and simply dump their wastes down on Palestinian fields.  It’s there in the stories the guys tell as we drink tea in the evening, laughing and joking about the times they’ve been arrested for nothing, about beatings and jail cells and standing outside while the Israeli soldiers blow your house up.

It’s there on our day off, when I hop on a Settler bus to Tel Aviv to go and visit my Israeli friends, so aware that my students, these intelligent, educated, warm and wonderful new friends, can’t come with me and simply go to the beach.

But it is good to see my friends, old friends from many years and new ones like Barak ben Hanan, an Israeli permaculturalist who gives us a tour of some of his projects in Tel Aviv, from a community garden to a roof garden on a school for severely disabled children with a very impressive system that recaptures water from the air conditioning system and uses it to grow plants.

Barak ben Hanan

Barak ben Hanan


Good will exists between Israeli and Palestinian permaculturalists, but the Occupation stands in the way of their ability to cooperate and work on common projects.  It throws up physical and legal barriers, but more than that, it creates barriers in the mind.  Contrary to the myths, Palestinians and Israelis get along quite well as people, or so I’ve found, when they share a common purpose or interests.  But the Occupation is always there, looming like Ariel just above your line of focus, an ache in the neck you hardly notice because it’s become part of you, that restriction of motion from not looking up.

I’m grateful for my time in Palestine, for the opportunity to teach there and to learn far more!  I hope to go back again, many times, and to continue supporting all those who care for the earth, the people and the future of the land.  Thanks to Murad for his vision and years of hard work, to Murad’s family for providing wonderful food and practical help on so many levels, to Lena who administered the course and to Jillian who co-taught with me.  And thanks to all of you who have helped in our various fundraising campaigns that make this work possible.

Marda course pic copy

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The Fifth Sacred Thing Movie: Update and New Video

Making a movie is a long, long process!  Often people who have followed our earlier successful Kickstarter campaign or who know we’ve been working on this project for a long time ask me, “When is it coming out?”  Well, we’re still a long way from that happy day—we’re in the slow, difficult process of development, which means creating concepts, getting the screenplay just right, and mostly, getting the investment and the financing!  But along the way, we’ve created a new video, to quickly explain the story to those who haven’t read the book, and to show off some of the art and music we’ve had created.

Pictures speak louder than words—so here it is:

(There’s a close-captioned version on the website for the hearing-impaired.)

Also on YouTube:

What it’s not: It’s not a trailer for the movie, in the sense that a trailer is a selection of scenes to build interest for a movie that’s already been made.  We haven’t made it yet—and when we do we still intend to make a live-action, feature film with real actors, not an animation.  But until we get the financing to shoot the film, we can’t put together scenes that don’t yet exist.  So we’ve exercised our creativity to show you a bit of our underlying concept, together with the art and music we have been able to create thanks to the amazing support we’ve already received.  So think of it more as a video calling card, something we can use to introduce the project to investors and potential collaborators.

Please take a look at it, and if you like it, please share it with your friends and your social networks.  You can give us your feedback by commenting here or on The Fifth Sacred Thing website.

Credits for the video:

I wrote the narration, the wonderful actress Olympia Dukakis speaks the narration.  Olympia has agreed to play Maya in the movie, too!

Philip Wood, our lead producer, created and edited the visuals and did the special effects.  The score was written by Joshua Penman of Akara, and mixed by Rena Jones.

The concept art was executed by our stellar crew of artists:  Andrew Jones, Jessica Perlstein, George “Geoglyphics” Atherton, Layil Umbralux and Mark Lakeman, Jen Zariat, and also features the original novel cover art by Keith Batcheller.

The video also features the mural “A New Dawn (Naya Bihana)” by Martin Travers, as well as a fantastic piece by muralist Juana Alicia.

We also thank Jay Rosenberg, Hayes Valley Farm, Double Rock Garden, Emerald City Garden, Food Not Bombs, Golden Rabbit Ranch, and The City & County of San Francisco for their contributions to the video.

If you want to help us with the movie, please Like us on Facebook and check our website regularly where we have lots of features and an ongoing blog about the production.  We are also happy to accept donations of any amount—the button is on the website.  If you are interested in participating more actively or in volunteering for one of our related projects, you can sign up on the website as well. Just pull down the Get Involved Menu and click on Participation Signup.

Yes, it’s a long haul, but we’re all feeling the growing momentum with the spring!  Thanks so much for the support you’ve all given us throughout the years,

In gratitude,


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Permaculture in Palestine

Marda Permaculture Farm

*(Unfortunately, we have had to postpone our course, but I will post the new dates here as soon as we have them!)

The olives are flowering on my land in California right now, just as they are in the olive groves of Palestine.  In a few weeks I’ll be heading there to coteach a permaculture course at the Marda Permaculture Farm on the West Bank, together with Klaudia van Gool from England and Murad Al-Khufash, who runs the demonstration farm and who is bringing the tools and insights of permaculture to Palestine.

Murad Al-Khufash

It’s so hard, when we look at that part of the world, to feel hope and optimism.   Maybe you, like me, sometimes feel overwhelmed and despairing. The structures of oppression seem so entrenched, the obstacles almost insurmountable.

Yet I always find hope in the resilient, creative spirit of the people there.

Permaculture offers a way to support their efforts at survival and regeneration.  It offers the skills and insights needed to create true abundance, to heal the land and provide healthy food and build the foundations for justice and peace.

Permaculture polyculture at Marda

If you’ve ever wondered what you can do, here’s an opportunity to contribute to healing and renewal in this troubled region.  We need your help for this course to go forward.

We need to raise five thousand dollars to support the costs of the course and to make it available for Palestinians who suffer many economic privations under the Occupation.  $400 will sponsor a scholarship for one Palestinian student.  Any donation of any amount will help us to make the course happen and help the Marda Permaculture Farm to carry on its ongoing, vitally important work.

Fruit trees are the backbone of a food forest!

The course is open to internationals, and if you have ever thought of taking a permaculture design course, this is a unique opportunity to connect across cultures and learn both ancient traditions and new approaches.  Below is information about the course.  The more internationals who join us, the more Palestinians we can serve.

But if you can give something, even little bits add up to a whole lot of hope!

Tax-deductible donations can be made through the Global Village Institute.

Donate online here:, project to be funded MUST be specified as “Marda Permaculture Farm”.  Or log in to PayPal and SEND the donation to Specify “Marda” in the comments field.

You can also donate by check.  Make the check out to Global Village Institute and be sure to earmark it “Marda Farm.”  Send it to:

Ecovillage Training Center

The Farm, 184 Schoolhouse Road, PO Box 90

Summertown, TN 38483-0090 US

I’m so grateful for the generosity of this community!  I know that I come to you a lot—but you always come through and because of you, Earth Activist Training and our sister organizations have been able to do amazing things, from diversifying our movement to allying with those who are doing cutting-edge work in hugely challenging situations!  I’m so proud and thankful to have you on our team!


Earth Activist Training

A garden in a dry land!

From Marda Permaculture Farm:

We are very excited to announce that our upcoming Permaculture Design Course will be taking place next May, 16th-30th , with the renowned international teacher and global justice activist Starhawk as well as the permaculture specialists Klaudia Van Gool and Murad Al Khufash.

Join us! Learn about Permaculture and traditional Palestinian farming whilst experiencing the culture, food, and traditions of beautiful Palestine.

Marda Permaculture Farm seeks to address critical issues in the Palestinian community like food security, health, self-reliance and community empowerment through reviving traditional agriculture and promoting a range of permaculture techniques that support chemical-free, diverse food production in balance with the cultural and biological landscape, while conserving and recycling water, energy, and other resources.

PDC to run 16th-30th May

  • Languages: English with Arabic translation
  • A fantastic opportunity to learn Permaculture Design at Marda’s demonstration site and to experience Palestinian culture at its richest.
  • Marda is an ancient, peaceful stone village nestled in the mountains one hour from Jerusalem and surrounded by olive groves.
  • The mild climate and rich soil support a great diversity of flora and fauna and being close to the soil here in the Holy Land is a life changing experience.
  • The course includes 14 nights board in a comfortable house (camping if you prefer) with internet, showers, washing machine etc..
  • Everyone is welcome to this 14 day event, please contact us to book and for help with travel advice.

For further information, please check:



Or send us an email at:

We look forward to having you with us, and share this fantastic experience together.

With our best regards,

Marda Permaculture Farm

Posted in Earth Activist Training, gardens, Palestine, permaculture, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments