Down on the Farm: Wild Strawberries and Global Swadeshi

It has taken me a while to allow my experiences and inspirations from this weekend at Factor E to gestate, to ferment into tangible thoughts that I can easily disseminate to readers. Being lucky enough to sit down with Brittany and Marcin and talk face to face about what people are dealing with in this world, what we can do, and putting plans into action that can move to empower us all to have more control over our lives, has been a remarkably rewarding experience. We jokingly talked about the concept of “sitting-on-ass” (a reference to the movie Idiocracy), and how helpless many of us tend to feel, sitting around on our computers using grid power, posting blogs about how we can change the world as we often actively and knowingly perpetuate the status quo to our own guilt and disdain. My fellow sustainability junkies and myself know this feeling all too well, yet getting off the grid, if only for days at a time, and more importantly living among those who live for Global Swadeshi is more than enough to convince me that what you and I work for is possible and that we really can do something about it.

So, before I get so much into what we talked about over the weekend, I’ll fill everyone in on what it was like to experience daily life on Factor E. I got in late at night, and thanks to the generosity of Mrs. Crowther was able to be guided to the farm (it’s a bit off the map, get directions when you go!). And just in the first night I was overwhelmed by what a different world I had been catapulted into: reading Ishmael (Daniel Quinn) by a compact flourescent bulb run on off-grid power, in a cordwood house, replenishing my thirst with barrel collected rainwater (the well is nearly done for the wary), and immediately I was engulfed with an abundance of generosity and hospitality by the folks there. Outside I smelled the fresh, cool night air, free of the stench of exhaust fumes and the noise of the city.

The next morning I awoke to the sound of roosters crowing and chicks tittering and goats braying (is that what its called?) and Brittany letting the ducks out of their nest. I enthusiastically took to the garden with her, pulling unwanted plants (notice how I didn’t call them “weeds”, more about wild plants later), and feeling much better than when I do the same at my landscaping job, where I work in sterile, chemicalized, “aesthetic” beds. From the garden, while I was there, we ate broccoli, green onions and perennial onions, garlic, and various other foods.

Brittany and I, the next day, would find ourselves going out to the reservoir (in biking distance!) and encountering an abundance of wild fruit… among the wild grape vines and flowering blackberry brambles, the wild strawberries were delicious and ripe for the picking (we would eventually make some yummy jam thats been a hit back here in Columbia).

While out there we discussed the concept (and reality) of wild food forests, and how many wild plants on the Panamerican continent there are that have been selected for over thousands and thousands of years by indigenous peoples, carefully and with a profound knowledge of the ecosystems and bioregion so nuanced that it would probably escape some plant biologists. This knowledge of wild plant propagation and food forest management had been passed down through multitudes of generations through folklore and through experience in the field. They had encouraged these plants to be self managed, adaptive, resilient and fruitful, and in such a manner as to prevent invasiveness. And, as she pointed out, on a higher level, these humans were entrenched in the environment, such that even the animals around them were selecting for these plants as well, and these plants evolved to spread their seeds through multitudinous means. The implications of this kind of resource management are huge and point to some of the fundamental underlying principles of permaculture. The potential for ecological sensibility, sustainability, and abundance is obvious. Not to dis more euro-traditional sustainable agriculturalists who use less biomimicry, and more row cropping techniques (though i suggest intercropping, agroforestry and wise encouragement of wild influence), as these techniques seem to work well enough. However, time will tell which techniques work better in different situations and for different uses, though I’ve got my wild berries bet on permaculture. The experience of wild food, for someone who was raised in a suburb in the ‘rustbelt’, is transcendental to say the least.

It is impressive what insight Brittany has been developing with her approach to flora and fauna, how she is learning by written knowledge and field experience how to break down many of the preconceptions western society has about food and medicine and the properties of life in this world. Oftentimes her perspective is similar to that of those we learned about in my Anthropology of Food class at the University of Akron, wherein the life that makes up the environment we live in becomes not something to exploit or harvest so much as something to be a part of, enmeshed in. Where we are to interact with it on a moment by moment basis, and what we put into our bodies transcends mere applications of nutrition and science but nourishes the mind, the body, the soul and becomes something to bring people together and connect us on the most nuanced levels to the world we are unavoidably a part of. Folk knowledge about wild food, wild medicinal plants and how to positively and sensibly interact with our environments is becoming resuscitated and reinvigorated, as food and other ecological crises mountingly face us in our day to day lives.

So, after pulling weeds in the garden and mulching some cabbage, we took to the well pipe. On the spot we made a robust, collaborative decision as far as the best engineering practice to encourage a well pipe with a lifetime design, based on immediately available materials. We used plastic pieces cut from a filter they had built before and that had not tested well to fix screens along four 10 foot sections of PVC pipe.

Though I had done similar kind of work before, doing it off the grid was a unique learning experience, and in retrospect the whole deal turned out to be an example of applied ‘participatory action research’. On the ground, those with a stake in the outcome the decision making process developed and implemented a design that best suited their needs, instead of being developed by some guy in a corporate office on a computer (though good things can be done that way as well). This seems to be a well rounded method for participatory open design of appropriate, liberatory technology. However, the problems caused by a “design for dumpster” well drilling rig they used resulted in problems with dropping that 6 inch pipe that we spent an entire afternoon putting together. They have since succeeded in dropping a 4 inch the full 80 feet. This is an important step in developing their infrastructure to be able to support more collaborators on the farm.

The next element to work on is to develop a more sustainable energy supply (instead of local waste veg oil) based on the PV cells donated by Ersol. You can read more below, but to update that post we will be soldering, assembling and encapsulating the panels in a few weeks based on our efforts and successes during this past weekend to research and develop a firm and robust action plan to ensure that the DIY approach will be successful and lead to panels that will have a long and fruitful life, considering the current capacity for fabrication work on the farm (no open-source, off grid solar encapsulation machines that I know of yet!). I and my friend Vince and hopefully others will venture out to take on this project while Marcin finishes the much anticipated LifeTrac (I helped him unpack an 800lb shipment of materials and parts into his new converted silo workshop). Once that and the panels are finished, they can use the tractor to run the CEB press mobile and use the energy to fabricate necessary parts and amenities for the new buildings and, in turn, support more folks. It is exciting to know that the co-laboratory is growing and that it is plausible that there will be as many as a dozen people living in a well established facility by this time next year, built brick by brick with CEBs and ingenuity. There is talk of a root cellar, full kitchen, fancy restroom facilities and a knowledge/resource library with a few computers, and smoke house for preserving widely available deer meat, among living accommodations and garden terraces.
Additionally, they have been in contact with some important folks in the free school movement, and the implications for the experimental blend of learning, living, research, design and application off the grid for the benefit of all is overwhelming to say the least. It amalgamates the ideas of Brazilian pedagogacist and political dissident Paulo Freire and the legendary social theorist and independent marxist Antonio Gramsci’s concept of the organic intellectual, combined with the general drive for liberated knowledge and participatory, grounded and practical learning (this is just my impression). This seems to be a just and sensible approach to educating ourselves and our progeny in the attempt to reach the goals of sustainability and resilience. In addition, to combine this movement with the appropriate technology movement seems to present a formidable partnership in the global struggle for self sufficiency and Swadeshi. The implications and readily possible results are enormous. Both movements have achieved so much already, and things are unmistakably in motion. As different active and concurrent fronts join forces and new approaches and concepts continue to emerge, develop and be applied, the possibilities for what we can create and live day to day will be endless. So for all of you who are out there sitting-on-ass, like I was only so long ago, its time to put our shoulders to the wheel and connect ideas and put them into action and live passionately for the future. Its high time we turn ourselves from passive consumers to active producers, from passive viewers to active participants, from those who abandonedly ride the increasingly volatile wave of change to those who harness it for the betterment of all. From farmers in India to factory workers in Malaysia to miners in Guyana to researchers, bloggers and activists in the privileged realm (not to leave out integral and citizen actors in the underprivileged realm), citizens of the world are crying out for change on all levels, and putting their inspirations, knowledge and ideas into action. It sure is a great time to be an ‘enlightened’ optimist, as those who are pessimistic about the future of humanity increasingly find themselves counterpointed by these concepts being put into action. So, let us achieve a world where the only times you hear the word ‘power’ are when talking about electrical things off-grid and empowerment (instead, participation, decision making, collaboration, etc.) , where the oppressed and the subaltern become mere historical anecdotes, examples of the injustice wrought by the disempowerment and malice of the past.
I can only look forward with ready hands and a reeling mind to further collaboration with Factor E and others in the broader global movement for Swadeshi. So much being done, so much to do, and the movement grows and grows. Abundance and Justice awaits.


  1. Ronny

    Beautiful post Richard.
    You brought some insights that are both interesting and inspiring.
    I wonder what kind of inner change you could have after living the “right” way for a more meaningful period.
    Much Love,

  2. richard

    Thanks Ronny. I wish I could stay out for longer periods of time, but usually a week is all I can do. There is talk of staying there after i graduate next spring, but my debt to the state educational system will be a factor. Weekends have still had a profound effect on me and a full week should have even more. I have a capacity to be filled with ideas quickly, and one weekend there was enough to get my mind reeling. As far as the wrong or “right” way, there is no argument here. Saying its the ‘right’ way is not so accurate as what is sensible and progressive. I still sit here with the guilt of being on grid, actually in an engineering library in which some very intelligent minds are molded into tools for the defense industry. The incongruency of my day-to-day life with my ideas in practice, where biking and composting and buying and eating local and gardening are the best I can currently do, is something that greatly bothers me. I do what I can, though, while I am stuck in this current living modality. I wish I could be like yourself or thousands of others in this country, living off grid and enjoying real freedom, but myself I am entangled in convoluted systems that are entangling so many others. It is important that people learn how to break free. I cannot drop out of school for so many reasons, and even after I graduate I will have at minimum 200 dollar monthly loan payments for at least 10 years, if not longer. It will take a wise and great leap to take care of all of this. Meanwhile, I will do what I can.

  3. Marcin

    What are your latest thoughts, Richard, on declaring bankruptcy as a remedy for the financial side of your ‘long walk to freedom’?

  4. richard

    not as easy as it seems. recently a bill was passed that limited our rights to bankruptcy. you should watch the documentary “in debt we trust”. it is exceptional. will figure it out. if i were to do it, i would have to be totally prepared and have everything lined up. grad school first. would have to be completely situated to get off the grid financially, legally, etc. not quite ready for that yet.