Permaculture Love Story: A Dung Beetle's Perspective
Updated: Oct 10, 2019
Cara Judea Alhadeff, PhD www.carajudea.com www.zazudreams.com
In search of a home that could support my ardent values for my son’s education, Zazu and I had been living in off-grid intentional communities from California to New York. Even among purportedly radical subcultures, we primarily found bubbles of parents and activists who profess indigenous-wisdom, yet who are unconsciously entrenched in materialist convenience-culture.
I was ready to build a new life, and then I met Rob…
Zazu and I were living at EcoVillage Ithaca. I had learned of Rob’s work as a bat scientist and biodiversity-advocate ecologist and invited him to be one of the speakers on my panel about scientists who use storytelling as a way to catalyze action for social change—the theme of my book, Zazu Dreams: Between the Scarab and the Dung Beetle, A Cautionary Fable for the Anthropocene Era (Eifrig Publishing, 2017). Among his cuddly bats and our seemingly “too radical” shared ideals about the world we want our children to grow up in, Rob and I recognized home in one another—we fell in love. But, we would have to wait to build our lives together. He was deeply rooted in Michigan with Georgia and Madison (his daughters), his career, and Mac (his rescued golden-doodle, bat-care service dog); and, Zazu and I already had plans to move to Wild Sage cohousing community back in my hometown of Boulder, Colorado—a continuation of my research on alternatives to normative, waste-generating economies. It had been 30 years since I lived in Boulder, and now found its pretense of environmental consciousness—challenged by every two-Prius family driving along mini-freeways that had once been walkable roads.
Living this duplicity was compounded by the ache of being in love and so far away. Zazu and I left our beloved Rocky Mountains and moved to our new family in Pontiac, near Detroit.
In exchange for free rent, we committed to a work-trade rebuilding an historic house up for demolition. This 100-year-old structure, along with many of its neighbors, was officially identified as part of the “blight” epidemic sweeping Detroit. You know the scene: abandoned houses with missing siding and crumbling brick; blown out doors, boarded up windows—neither preventing squatters— people and wildlife (including woodchucks—I never imagined woodchucks roaming the streets of Detroit!); buckling roofs, caved-in porches, missing gutters, peeling paint and insulation; glass shards, tires, beer cans, feces, and other debris littering front yards and driveways; empty shells obscured by overgrown brush and neglect. It turns out that locally there are 50,000 (some estimate twice that) abandoned houses afflicted with blight. If a structure fits the city’s assessment of abandonment and worthlessness, blight is considered the next step before it is slated for demolition.
Zazu and I now straddled two extremes—moving from Boulder to Pontiac—from “Zero Waste” to zero pretense; the outdoor(sy) capital of the world to the car capital of the world. Back in Boulder, almost every weekend Zazu and I would go to events—advertised as “Zero Waste” festivals. These music, art, ethnic-specific, and “eco-friendly” festivals left in their wake shocking quantities of trash. Then in Pontiac, adults and kids would carelessly drop their empty Doritos bag or JOLT can on the sidewalk as they walked along. There was no environmentally-conscious masquerade. I felt relief; they seemed unaware of the greenwashing game, instead simply governed by the lure of convenience-monoculture. We had escaped the hypocrisy of Boulder’s eco-capitalism.
NOT APPROVED Lot #PB180025, Final/Temporary Final
We worked hard to complete the house by winter. We maintained our eco-ethics as much as we could as we addressed our landlord’s demands still using conventional building methods—2’x4’s, drywall, plywood, plumbing, wiring, spray insulation, construction adhesive, toxic finishes and paints, plastic electrical outlets—plastic everything. We played by the city’s rules, but still received “Not Approved.”
The feeling was mutual. I pulled Zazu out of school after only two weeks; I wasn’t able to navigate the punitive school procedures, candy rewards if the kids didn’t beat each other up, video-teaching, few windows, meager recess, below-poverty government assisted free “food,” and barely any material taught because the kids spent most of their time in line waiting for others to pay attention. Far from the primitive skills, outdoor adventure programs, and forest schools, this was Zazu’s first experience with public education.
I would have thought that the Pontiac school, ironically named after Walt Whitman, would have been an extreme opposite from the progressive one in Boulder—the only “nature” school I could find in all of the Boulder/Denver area. But, both were actually a distorted mirror reflecting the same untenable addictions—everyone driving cars, relying on disposables, dividing our natural world from the education of children and adults.
And so our search continued.
ON THE MARGIN OF THE MARGINS
I have always chosen to live my ethics to the utmost. During my book launch for Viscous Expectations: Justice, Vulnerability, The Ob-scene, author Jill Nagle, introduced me by stating, “the care and intention with which you make your life choices...these aren’t just ideals... you are a living example.” I had been raising my toddler Zazu and living/teaching these ideals on my own—not only without a community, but in spite of every parenting norm, economic transaction, professional opportunity. While living on EcoVillages across the world, I found that my lifestyle, my passions and desires, were on the margins of the margins.
Much of the Skoolie (school bus) Conversion Movement and the Tiny Home Movement take buying new for granted—overconsumption and manufactured consent still reign. As we move through another year in which climate chaos becomes ever more threatening and ecofriendly companies and products flood the marketplace, we are seeing that terms like “repurposing” are becoming trendy, even commonplace. However, I am finding in this corporate-capitalist framework many who are repurposing clothes, tools, furniture, etc. are actually buying new products in order to help make the old new again. This is a contradiction I find hard to metabolize. Following my book on social ecology, I focused my writing and teaching on what I call Petroleum Parenting (the decisions many U.S. parents make that overwhelmingly contribute to both environmental destruction and body-phobic institutional practices).
One antidote is permaculture: the practice of self-regulation, observation, flexibility, adaptation, establishing feedback structures, responding creatively to change, using the fertile edge, integrating diversity rather than segregating difference, focusing on slow and small solutions—the root-system of an embodied democracy. My commitment to leading a social permaculture life rooted in radical democracy, a proactive world of relational thinking and a deep desire to ask questions and take nothing for granted, led me to love.
Rob and I had so much to learn, and so much to share. Our entire home building process was an unraveling of the unfamiliar. In the body-consciousness workshops I taught so long ago as an Iyengar yoga teacher in San Francisco, I had explored the idea of commitment as jumping into the unknown. We were committed! We knew almost nothing about building, but knew we needed to live differently. Both of us in our late 40s, we had our previous professional worlds: Rob as the co-founder and executive director of his 25-year-old bat conservation non-profit, and myself as a cultural studies and philosophy university professor and museum fine-art photographer. We were determined to live up to the origin of the word home: “eco”—build a home less compromised by the scarcity-dogma of colonialism and free-market capitalism that drive fossil fuel and too often, renewable energy-addicted lifestyles.
BUILD: Dung Beetles to the Rescue
We bought a retired school bus. We shared our dreams of living in a tiny home that we would make ourselves. Michigan was having February weather in November. Outside our temporary conventional home rescued from city demolition, in less than 20 degree weather, Rob, Zazu, and I took 30 days to transform the Community School Corporation bus into our new cozy LoveBus—saving it from its fate of being stripped, sold, and crushed. We felt like dung beetles that use others’ waste to build their home and feed their family, or like sea slugs that eat debris off the ocean floor. We were doing our ecosystem an indispensible service. Like the humpback whale character in Zazu Dreams reminds us: “When humans throw things away, they’ve got to understand that there is no ‘away!’ Instead, we all must learn from waste-consuming creatures that co-exist with their environments.”
And, Endnote 248: “Thriving in waste, while worshipped by all ancient civilizations, the dung scarab beetle represents the both/and, the la’am (simultaneously yes and no in Hebrew and Arabic), the balance of contradictions. It represents life itself: hieroglyphic inscriptions from ancient Egypt designate the scarab with the syllable kheperi, ‘to be,’ ‘to exist.’ It is also associated with birth: in some South American Indian tribes a dung beetle called Aksak is said to have modeled the first man and woman from clay. Interfacing biology with anthropology, our story offers possibilities of cultivating life from death, birth from waste.”
The only day we rested during that 30-day blast was when all three of us got a severe case of the stomach-flu. Even between rushing past one another on the way to the bathroom, we still dreamed about design-integration as an aesthetic and spiritual challenge, still explored possibilities of building beauty from waste, maintaining and sharing our joyful values in the midst of ever-present and increasingly-approaching climate chaos.
The grandest material object I have ever owned is my bicycle—(well, also my 2 ¼ Rollei and Hasselblad cameras)—not a home, not a car, not even a credit card or smartphone. Instead of being entrenched in the corporatist paradigm of you need or want? Buy it online, or jump in your car and buy it at Joanne Fabrics, Home Depot, or Lowe’s, Rob, Zazu, and I revive the discarded. Brainstorming with our family offers an ongoing unfolding of unexpected solutions—a social-permaculture perspective in which we think beyond the habitual; we creatively rearrange to function anew.
It turned out that building our LoveBus was the perfect homeschool opportunity for Zazu. His participation was invaluable; how he learned was central to both our home and Zazu’s psyche and body awareness. Through reading, writing, math, science, art, we asked how we can take a social-permaculture approach that encourages real Zero Waste in which all by-products are reintegrated into use-systems? We explored what it is like to live within a human-scale economy, how to question, think relationally, research ideas and problem-solve using unusual challenges—not having electricity in our home, or how to incorporate weather extremes.
Because of some roof and window leaks, we decided a temporary solution during our conversion was to cover the entire bus with one of our rescued highway billboards. Once the bus was covered with the tarp, the now pitch-black, bitter, winter air felt even icier. We continued to build using solar lamps or lights with rechargeable batteries—always aware of the geopolitical impact of our choices. It felt like a hefty accomplishment to keep these 15’x45’ plastic tarps advertising café lattés, back-to-school clothes, worker-injury claims, etc. out of landfill. (Of course, the ideal is for the rest of the U.S. to join the states that ban billboards: Vermont, Maine, Hawaii, Alaska.) The irony is how difficult it was to get hold of the used billboards from the advertising agencies. When one of them did finally respond, their rep unwittingly provided another perverse twist in the story of salvaged materials. He explained that the EPA doesn’t permit reuse of these massive quantities of plastic because apparently those who take the billboards don’t recycle the plastic after they use it.
CONSCIOUS CONCEPTION: Home is a Verb
I had met Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson, Arun Gandhi, at Peaceweavers while Zazu and I were living at EcoVillage Ithaca. (Arun was one of the peace activists who endorsed Zazu Dreams). His book, Be The Change: A Grandfather Gandhi’s Story, tells how Gandhi taught him as a young boy the connection between non-violence and not wasting—even a worn-away pencil stub. His story is about recognizing and nurturing the sacred in everyday objects. This awareness—so beautiful and simple—had been the foundation of how I had lived since leaving home as a teenager to live on communes and organic farms in Europe and North Africa. Now, I had the chance to live Gandhi’s philosophy in the physical creation of our home.
How we build our home is a direct commitment to local and global non-violence. Every day we ask how can we teach and embody the intricacies of the social scientific concepts of true cost, life-cycle analysis, cradle-to-grave, and embodied energy (designating both the local and global cycles of extraction > transportation > manufacture > assembly > production > installation > representation > distribution > consumption > disassembly/deconstruction > disposal/decomposition/containment)? The embodied energy of each object and the space we create by combining them is a deliberate non-violent act. Reusing embodied energy not only saves both energy and capital costs, it is spiritually intelligent. Nothing is taken-for-granted, we consider the objects and the space they share sacred. “Too few designers ask, as poet and farmer Wendell Berry has, ‘What does this place require us to do? What will it allow us to do? What will it help us to do?’ Berry also said, ‘What I stand for is what I stand on’—reminding us that land must be measured not just in acres and dollars but in love and respect” (Hawken, 86). Similarly, how we build on that land and how we inhabit those buildings must be measured in love and respect.
When we get clearly present with the space and objects around us, we witness what is already here, how it can be used in surprising ways. Like the physicist and cosmologist, Stephen Hawking’s idea, everything we need to know is already within us just waiting to be realized, Leah Sha’rabi, the Jewish mystic, declared that “Everything you see has a spark of holiness in it that is waiting to rise up. It wants to be free, like a person in prison who longs to be rescued” (Firestone, 180). Rescuing an everyday object means that we release its inherent dignity. Although not directly identifying with Hinduism or even the Kabbalah, Sha’rabi believed that everything has a soul, every object is sacred, the most menial tasks are sacred.
Building our LoveBus is such a commitment. It is rooted in the Jewish philosophy of gilgulim, to reanimate or reincarnate; a process of bringing new life to that which was considered dead—or landfill. Trash, an object no longer valued thus deemed as waste, is rooted in Western concepts of progress and development. When we rethink basic assumptions that perpetuate the fact that over “40 percent of the content of American landfills is construction waste” (Hawken, 100), we can “reimagine development as a tool for restoring nature and communities” (109). In contrast with the misconception that something/anything can no longer be useful, can no longer be used to build or be built upon, the continual renewal of gilgulim invites a revival, a renewal, a form of rescue paralleling the First Law of Thermodynamics: the total amount of energy can never be altered, that energy can never be created or destroyed, instead it transforms—unbuilds and rebuilds. Ours, like the focus of Native American Pueblo architecture, is to “build a structure the earth could embrace” (Kingslover, 211). Compelled by biophilic, earth-based motivations we seek an exchange, a reciprocal relationship with the environments around us—local and beyond. Learning from cross-cultural indigenous wisdoms, Rob and I choose to live and breathe the First Law of Thermodynamics.
I am reminded of buen vivir (good life), the Spanish translation of the Quechua Sumak Kausay. U.S. normative standard-of-living, the American Dream, presumes that the “good life” implies having more than we need. This Western idea of prosperity is rooted in “enforced consumption” (Ivan Illich)—a technocratic model of property ownership. “Private property” attempts to fix home as a static unity, stripped of relationality and only available to those who are deemed entitled to it. In contrast, “Buen Vivir is not geared toward “having more” and does not see accumulation and growth, but rather a state of equilibrium [between humans and nature alike] as its goal” (Cheyfitz, 412). In our process of building our home we have aligned ourselves with the science of dynamism-energetics of the mid-nineteenth century. We have found that home is a dynamic and diverse process, a continual unfolding to be rebuilt each moment in relation to our needs, desires, values. Home is an action, a reflection of a constellation of our belief systems. Home is a living organism with a metabolism that continually transforms energy.
We feel in our bodies and in our relationship that we build our capacity for love as we build our home. On a daily basis, Rob and I rescue each other from a society suffocating on its own sense of entitlement—the paradigm of accumulation and individualism. We rescue each other as we build our hearts; supporting one another as a form of devotion to a shared ideal. Rabbi Tirzah Firestone explores this kind of spiritual intelligence, this deep mindfulness, as a form of devotion. I see this devotion to repurposing, to building an architectural and infrastructural support system for renewal as shared biophilia, love of life.
Rob and I integrate the utilitarian with the sacred. Our actions model how to live differently. Two proverbs come to mind—the first is from my family of origin’s hybrid language, Ladino: Lo ke se aprendre en la kuna sien anios dura (What you learn in the cradle lasts a hundred years); and, the second from a Ghanian Asante proverb: The Ruin of a Nation Begins in the Home of Its People. Both share the idea that change, positive and negative, begins in the family, at home. Through our daily choices that directly educate Zazu, we build a different kind of present and future that resonates with geologian, Thomas Berry’s concept of the Ecozoic. The Ecozoic Era is one in which humans share a mutually beneficial relationships with the world around them; intellectually, structurally, and spiritually, we integrate with our natural environment, rather than compete with it. This integration reflects the Jewish tenets: tikkun olam, repair of the world, and Bal taschit, do not destroy or waste. We build tikkun by living our shared ideals. Rob and I believe one reason we came together is so that we can grow together and beyond ourselves in order to make a difference in the world: “In order to be fed, we must feed the world around us” (Firestone, 187).
We rescued the bus, and it rescued us. Not an anonymous object that we walk into and out of without consciousness, a house is a home providing a place for giving and receiving. This reciprocal refuge is a place in space that reflects essentially who we are—echoing ubuntu, the Xhosa people of South Africa’s word meaning, “I am because you are,” and the Mayan en lak ech, “you are the other me.”
How we build our home using only repurposed materials and equipment parallels how we build our sense of belonging and can be a demonstration of our deepest sense of self and our deepest sense of community. How we perceive our choices can determine how we rebuild democracy—instead of playing off guilt, we build on love—radical love. The word radical comes from the Latin for “root.” When we embrace the sacred possibilities of mutual accountability we can begin to uproot our materialist society, eventually rebuilding in its place a “Living Democracy” (Frances Moore Lappé) that aligns our values with the natural world. This kind of social permaculture reflects values in Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism—all of which offer both individual and social behavioral ideals for which to strive to live an ethical life—that really is Love.
We succeeded in our social-permaculture commitment to only use reclaimed materials, down to the last screw—everything before it was headed to landfill (including our bus itself): used wood (prying up hardwood floors, 100 year-old lathe from our previous blighted home, and all the other decorative and functional wood throughout our tiny home), plastics (recouping old billboards to use as moisture barriers), metals (sifting/consolidating scrap, reusing the screws, wiring, and brackets from the bus itself), insulation (non-toxic foams and wools), granite counters, cooktop, and a variety of demolition/construction products. Additionally, we’ve found used oil lamps, wood-burning stove, and solar panels (only for our used DC fridge, otherwise no other electricity).
It was time to move our LoveBus to our new home, so we filled up on biodiesel (yet again conflicted by its band-aid and monoculture implications) and drove to an EcoVillage near Asheville, North Carolina.
TIMBERRRR! Stump, timber, wood, lumber, stick…
It happened before I could realize what was going on. The “final cut” was made. In both fast and slow motion, the 90+ foot eastern white pine tree was about to hit the ground. And it did. Gripping nausea overcame me. I am told pine trees don’t live long, but I still feel tormented by the very privilege of such ability to choose life and death. Just as I was struck by the odd intersections between Pontiac and Boulder, I am struck by how similar building practices in mainstream society intersect with those in so many alternative communities. Although we left Michigan and the history of its decimated state tree, the eastern white pine, how much fundamentally had changed? In the1800s “The Big Cut” had ravaged forests. At the end of the century so much eastern white pine was cut that if it were placed end to end it would have made a path from Michigan to the moon. From pre-industrialization 200 years ago to today at an EcoVillage, we are again confronted with the indifference and unaccountability of the Anthropocene—humans’ unspoken, ever-present sense of entitlement manifesting in the belief that humans have sovereignty over nature.
I am fully willing to recognize my ignorance about proper forestry management, but even felling local trees, not buying one’s building lumber from big-box stores, still feels like an insidious result of the Anthropocene. Yes, it is better than going to Home Depot, etcetera to buy lumber transported from afar, but how necessary is it to begin with? “Buildings, however much we take them for granted, are where Americans spend about 90 percent of their time. They use one-third of our total energy and two-thirds of our electricity. Their construction consumes one-fourth of all wood harvested; 3 billion tons of raw materials are used annually to construct buildings worldwide” (Hawken, 85).
In an attempt to rebuild a sense of balance, Rob and I used every branch we could from those felled trees for our neighbor’s new house. We used them for the solar panels bracing structure on the bus roof, the potty frame and walls, water hydrant, garden, inside the LoveBus for shelves and hooks. After the cinderblocks shattered, and our home slipped three feet (Rob was still underneath!, propping it up with the jack), we finally listened to my intuition to use parts of the felled tree for leveling. Instead of the cinderblocks, we were able to level the LoveBus using several large pine stumps.
I just finished burying Mac’s poop. As I write, an iridescent deep-green dung beetle is climbing over dried leaves and twigs beneath my legs. It tries to make its way up the dead tree (so full of life!) where I am perched with my solar-charged (haha!) laptop. It tumbles and climbs up again. Even though I can’t see the scarab right now, I feel we are encouraging each other to keep searching, supporting one another as we continuously rebuild our little worlds. Suddenly, a second dung beetle swoops down, honing in on Mac’s buried treasure—its new home. The first scarab resurfaces and changes direction. True love.
Cara Judea Alhadeff, Zazu Dreams: Between the Scarab and the Dung Beetle, A Cautionary Fable for the Anthropocene Era. EifrigPublishing, Berlin: 2017.
Eric Cheyfitz, Age of Disinformation: The Collapse of Liberal Democracy in the United States. Routledge, New York: 2017.
Rabbi Tirzah Firestone, The Receiving: Reclaiming Jewish Women’s Wisdom. HarperCollins, San Francisco: 2003.
Barbara Kinsglover, Animal Dreams, HarperCollins, New York: 1990.
Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, L. Hunter Lovins, Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution. Little Brown and Company, Boston: 1999.