Power, Leverage, Will

Text from a speech at Seattle University, 2018.

We live in an age of planetary civil war. We inhabit a deeply damaged landscape and exhibit a fractured psyche to match. We’ve broken a covenant with life. We wage war on the planet itself and on each other.

We must renew the covenant. But how? The word covenant stems from a Latin verb meaning to come together. Within the problem, we find the solution. We must come together in connectivity, interdependence, and solidarity if we are to choose life.

I turn to the words of John Berger for inspiration. He wrote, “The fact that the world’s tyrants are ex-territorial explains the extent of their overseeing power. Yet it also indicates a coming weakness. They operate in cyberspace and they lodge in guarded condominiums. They have no knowledge of the surrounding earth. Furthermore, they dismiss such knowledge as superficial, not profound. Only extracted resources count. They cannot listen to the earth. On the ground they are blind. In the local, they are lost. Effective acts of sustained resistance will be embedded in the local, near and far.”

The problem contains the solution. Local action circumvents global power by being rooted in place. We seize their weakness as our leverage point. We have freedom to move on the ground, and, therefore, we must know our community intimately. We must live rooted in the health of the land. Nature, culture, and health are interdependent. We will not have healthy communities in an unhealthy ecosystem. Art plays a vital role in revealing these connections, in imagining new ways of life, and inspiring us to act.

Five years ago, I began an experiment to unite art, ecology, and gift giving. I call it hypha, inspired by underground fungal networks. A network’s strength lies in decentralization and sharing. With hypha, I collaborate with friends to propagate plants, make art, and give it all away to strangers. A gift inspires reciprocity; it’s an offering that grows in abundance only if it is kept in motion. I consider knowledge a gift to be shared.

For example, the Pacific Northwest shares many natural gifts with us; this place abounds with medicinal plants. If I share a plant and my knowledge of its use and propagation with you, while adding art that celebrates this plant’s specialness, I believe that you will care for this plant and share it further. With each gift, hypha plants a seed of empowerment to explore and protect our local ecosystem while connecting you to others doing the same.

This may seem a small thing, but the implications and possibilities are profound. In a few short years, I have given thousands of plants to hundreds of people while talking about art, gifts, and sharing knowledge. All around Seattle, I’ve met committed, passionate people working to support their communities. Networked together, we can work collectively to confront and circumvent global power structures that destroy our communities for corporate profit.

Analyzing political movements, Jonathan Smucker wrote, “[To demand] something from the powerful- [to make] them do something- requires a political force behind it. We have to take responsibility to construct such a force. Otherwise we are just shouting at the wind. Our problem is one of power, leverage, and will.”

I take these words to heart and contemplate each problem. Power, Leverage, Will.

Through art we search for knowledge. Art inspires people to feel and to act; art cultivates our will. Local action is our leverage point. Locally, our actions have the greatest potential for success. Individually, we have little power against global systems. Collective action provides a stronger and more effective strategy for change.

I believe art and collective, local action provide meaningful, strategic resistance to global power. I also believe we can move beyond resistance to repair our broken communities and renew our covenant with life. To do this, we must ask what, “what can we offer and how can we show up for one another?” I ask you to gather your gifts and share them with others. We need each and every one of you.



The One Day Cob House

On May 9, 2014, a group of roughly 60 people gathered in Reno, Nevada, to build a cob house in one day. To our knowledge it hadn't been done before. Barnraisings, yes, but a cob cabin? Cob is known and often celebrated as a slow process. It's labor intensive, and speed varies with materials used and limiting factors such as the weather. Taking one's time is enjoyable and meditative, providing space for thoughtfulness and creativity. But not this time! This was a speed community building project, drawing enthusiastic participants from around the country.

The weekend was hosted by Be the Change Project in Reno and led by builders from House Alive and Be the Change, the latter being an inspiring group of people living off the grid on an urban homestead, devoted to living an ethical life based on principles of nonviolence, service, sharing, unjobbing, unschooling, and gifting. They are a hub for the redistribution of food, used goods, and anything they can remove from the urban waste stream. I've had the good fortune to visit the homestead twice and have been blown away each time by the swirl of activity that surrounds their space and the level of community sharing that occurs on any given day. These wonderful people are great reminders that our time is our own and it is also our greatest gift, to be savoured and shared with others.

Below is a video of the event made by Kim Doyel and following that a slideshow of some photos we shot during that memorable weekend.

Video of Reno One Day Cob Build by Kim Doyel

A Gift

“A gift is a thing we do not get by our own efforts. We cannot buy it; we cannot acquire it through an act of will. It is bestowed upon us. A gift that cannot be given away ceases to be a gift. The spirit of a gift is kept alive by its constant donation.”
        ~ Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World

A central theme of Hypha is the gift. To my mind, art, knowledge, and the abundance of nature are gifts. Our capitalist society, however, is predicated on scarcity and profit. Have we lost track of the generous spirit of gift giving when our culture views everything solely through a lens of economic gain?


There are other ways of living, to be sure. I've drawn inspiration from the reverence of First Fruit ceremonies. Historically, cultures all over the world celebrated the first harvests of corn, berries, salmon, deer, and bear, among others, with a ceremony of sharing the harvest among the people of the tribe and making an offering back to the earth, often in the form of gifts to the gods or a shaman, or alternatively, in the form of saving plant seeds or returning bones to the sea. Some Pacific Northwest tribes return the first salmon bones to the sea so the fish can return home and begin the cycle again, ensuring future abundant harvests. The salmon is seen as a gift, with part of it eaten and part given back to the earth.

Lewis Hyde comments in The Gift, “the myth declares that the objects of the ritual will remain plentiful because they are treated as gifts... The first salmon ceremony establishes a gift relationship with nature, a formal give and take that acknowledges our participation in, and dependence upon, natural increase. And where we have established such a relationship we tend to respond to nature as a part of ourselves, not as a stranger or alien available for exploitation. Gift exchange brings with it, therefore, a built-in check upon the destruction of its objects; with it we will not destroy nature's renewable wealth except where we also consciously destroy ourselves.”

Hypha is my response to our culture's desecration of the earth. I assert that plants and knowledge should be received and given as gifts and that art and storytelling can be employed as pathways to reconnect and repair our relationship with the earth. We are not separate from nature. We are unconsciously destroying ourselves as we plunder the earth for financial profit.



What happens if we reintroduce the concept of the gift, an offering that grows in abundance only if it is kept in motion? (I realize fully there are societies that still retain this way of thinking, so I am speaking of the dominant culture here.) Hypha is an offering to the land and community that sustains me; it's a love song to Seattle.

I'd love nothing more than to stimulate a conversation in my urban environment, my adopted home and a place I dearly love, about reverence, gratitude, and other ways of living.

 Future posts will examine these ideas further.