Skip to content

Earth Making

A few years ago, I had the great pleasure of enjoying a Gatsby-esque moment on a terrace of a luxury hotel in Tucson, Arizona. I was there attending a conference to initiate the new class of Udall Environmental Scholars. This was a gathering of amazing, high-powered young people, all committed to environmental causes. As a collegiate advisor to several Udall Scholars in my role at Virginia Tech’s Honors Program, I was there to support and encourage these young world changers.

In the saturated vermillion evening sunset, as the hallucinatory heat of the desert day gave way to free-flowing margaritas and free-flowing conversation, I struck up a pleasant conversation with an elder, a statesman of the convocation, an insider, a man who had been an adviser and counselor to presidents and statesmen. He steered me by the elbow and said: “You remind me of me, when I was young. Tell what kinds of things you are most proud of. Tell me what you have been doing.” All day, I had been in conference with people bearing the brunt of environmental degradation, wrestling with the complexities of environmental injustice, searching for answers to what might make a difference in these improbable times.

In the light and heat and drought of the desert air, I thought back to my green and wet Blue Ridge Mountain Highland home. And to the garden and orchard I had established and tended there for the past 15 years. I pondered his question for a while…and I said: “I have made and tended a garden on my farm and over the course of the past 15 years, I have probably grown an inch or so of earth and made the soil rich and brown and full of life, where it used to be red and hard-packed clay.” He looked at me, and with the practiced empathy of a seasoned politician, vaguely suggested a freshening of drinks, and disappeared into the crowd.

In the past two years, I have been discovering these guys, NCM_1384in my spring digging: They have never been here before. My garden is not especially wet or anything, and they are showing up now in my very low-till, no chemical garden. All over the world amphibian populations are in decline, or crashing. But maybe, just maybe, my decade.5 of care in this place, has invited them to come back.

I never got a chance to tell that guy that my other big accomplishment was encouraging amphibian populations to flourish in my verdant, food-abundant  garden. But if I had? He wouldn’t have been likely to have heard.

Let you who has ears to hear: Hear. Let you who has eyes to see: See.

Snow Frogs and the Ecozoic World


Who’s that in my headlights?

Last night, driving up my mile of dirt road driveway, in the dark, in the pounding cold rain, I realized what time it was. I realized with a start and a swerve, that it was the Spring Frog Rain. After an inch of rain, and two days of warming sandwiched in between weeks of unseasonable cold, all the wood frogs on my mountain realized it was time to meet up and boogie down. They were crazy-flopping around and I had to drive 4 mph to avoid squishing them. They are headed for a local water hole, which may even still be iced over. I sorted through my mental map of the landscape to try to place a nearby pond…I’ll have to look for it tomorrow. I come across the frogs in uneven concentrations across the length of the road; why the variation in their numbers? File that one away. Apparently, they are “explosive, short-term breeders,” the field biologists say, and the scene had some of the frenzied feel of the local human watering hole late on a weekend night. NCM_1259

I’ve been reading Thomas Berry recently. His work is beautiful. He says: “A renewal of life in some creative context requires that a new biological period come into being, a period when humans would dwell upon the Earth in a mutually enhancing manner.” He speaks of “the emergence of an Ecozoic Era, a time for healing the damage done to Earth and learning to live in harmony with it again. Drawing on the experience of Native Americans, he urges renewed understanding of the Great Story: the combined stories of community, Earth, and universe.”

I got out in the rain, and grabbed my phone and took a few pictures of the frogs NCM_1260improbably hopping into the remains of the last snow of the winter. I drove slowly the rest of the way home and went to bed.

The following day I thought more about the Frog Rains- there’s one in the fall too- and how they touch me and how the moment feels so very alive and well, sacred, to me. I never knew there was such a thing as a Frog Rain until a few years ago, but here at the farm, I’ve come to expect them twice a year. The day even has a particular kind of smell, a feel of emerging warmth to it, and a lot of rain. I wondered if I live long enough, would I be able to predict them a day or two in advance, like our ancestors assuredly could? I wondered if I paid close enough attention, for long enough, or taught my children to, or their children to, could I start to make accurate associations and predictions concerning other ecological events? Would the frogs tell me when the skunks give birth,  when the groundhogs emerge and when the oak trees will bloom? The study of these cycles is called phenology. I think committing to understanding these cycles is one of the most grounding and anxiety-revoking activities a person can do. Over time, it reminds us, in an embodied way, that we are part of the story, the story goes on, and the world and life, despite all its turmoil, is reliable. It goes on.

And what if, after watching for years, suddenly the frogs didn’t show up? Who would notice? Would you? How much has been lost that no one ever knew to pay attention to in the first place?  Amphib populations are in catastrophic decline across the planet. Who knows or cares?  For now, it feels good just to have noticed, to have been there, to have been present to their perennial return. To say “thank you” for it all, to be touched by it.

Berry says we will need Elders of our tribe to re-establish these understandings. I thought back on my experiences with some Native American traditions and recalled that some nations have 13 major ceremonies a year, and by some account, spend about half the year preparing, or being in, or coming out of ceremony. Many Americans don’t even take their two weeks of vacation a year. I’m not sure three months of Christmas shopping counts. We’ll change the oil in our car every four months, but let our own fluids and filters become so clogged and dirty we can’t even tell the difference anymore.

Often traditional ceremonial dates are not set by the western, Gregorian calendar, but by nature’s calendar, in all its eccentric variation. By things like the migrations of horny frogs. And the boundaries created by ceremonial space and consciousness often seem to reference and define multiple worlds, or levels of world, at the same time…this or that act has a spiritual significance but also seems to have a practical resonance and function in the everyday world as well. A sacred grove turns out to be a repository of the best genetics of trees, for example.

Maybe a frog inspired holyday keeps people out of their cars for a day or two? NCM_1261I wondered what would happen if everybody knew about such things. I found that some people do, and respond appropriately. But what if we took it to the next level, and became ecozoic (literally: “home/alive”) then all across the planet, waves of migrations of sassy frogs might be an incentive to stay off the roads, to stay home, to sit around a fire, to feast together, to reconnect, to allot some time to authentically be together and care for each other. Of course it’s inefficient. Exercise of our humanity is always inefficient. The observance of the day turns out to be a good excuse to be the best people we can be for each other, and for ourselves. And it keeps the frogs alive. Which might just, in the long run, help keep us alive.

Dreaming Spring from the Heart of Winter

Winter sunset with sundogs, at Turtle Crossing Farm.

Winter sunset with sundogs, at Turtle Crossing Farm.

Bringing wood down from the woodshed this morning I heard a few notes of Cardinal’s spring/mating song. He’s just tuning up or maybe just practicing or saying his piece. It’s not time yet. It’s been a few months, September maybe, since I’ve heard that simple melody, and now on a cold, rainy mid-winter day, that phrase ripples through me and assures me that indeed spring will come, and before too long. Too soon, even. At some point in life, we realize the seasons, including winter, process too quickly.

When I first learned to pay attention to such things, in my 30’s, I was shocked –shocked!- to discover that the early waves of spring start in January and February, indeed maybe I just today learned that they might start in December. The flower tips push out of the mulch bed and snow for weeks before they bloom. NCM_0052The tree buds begin to swell when the first warm days irrupt at the New Year. The smell of the soil starts to change. That one certain kind of rainstorm comes in February. There is the first thunder, sometimes over snow. The light comes back. The light comes back. The light always comes back.

Most people experience the emergence of spring as something that pops up over the course of a week or a few, in April (from l. abri- to open), but spring eases out of the folds of winter, bringing hope, being renewal for months before the flowers shout its arrival. The same kinds of fore/aft cross season integration occurs in all seasons of the year, indeed, in all seasons of life. When you learn to catch the subtle announcements of change that the world is sending us all the time, life takes on a steadier, more circular, longer-wave kind of form, less separate, more unified, more of-a-piece, more at peace.

But that cardinal song also reminded me of the way my love and I used to call to each other across the distance with a text or voice message with a Cardinal companion call: “Chip!” Cardinals strongly pair bond and keep in constant contact with their partner by intermittent calling, “chip” and responding, “chip.” And now she’s gone and I’m standing on a sere hillside in the fading sun and dreaming of the past and longing and the ways that hope and memory and sadness are sometimes all one thing. I go in and start the fire.

A bracing, deep winter gift from Gary Snyder:

For/From Lew

Lew Welch just turned up one day,
live as you and me. “Damn, Lew” I said,
“you didn’t shoot yourself after all.”
“Yes I did” he said,
and even then I felt the tingling down my back.
“Yes you did, too” I said—”I can feel it now.”
“Yeah” he said,
“There’s a basic fear between your world and
mine. I don’t know why.
What I came to say was,
teach the children about the cycles.
The life cycles. All other cycles.
That’s what it’s all about, and it’s all forgot.”

Trees, Heartwood and the Nature of Broken Hearts

Author’s note: All the tree pictures are high resolution. Click on them for more information.

Nature is a Mirror

“…landscape … furnishes us with the metaphors and symbols with which we pry into mystery…In approaching the land with an attitude of obligation, willing to observe courtesies difficult to articulate – perhaps only a gesture of the hands – one establishes a regard from which dignity can emerge. From that dignified relationship with the land, it is possible to imagine an extension of dignified relationships throughout one’s life.” – Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams

two heart with marks

The two hearts of the tree are circled in yellow. The heartwood area is the oldest, innermost part of the tree, lighter in color, surrounded by darker sapwood.

Yesterday, I was splitting wood, in anticipation of the oncoming cold of autumn, and beyond that, winter. The batch of wood I got from my neighbor is full of knots and hard to split this year and I have to use wedges and the sledge hammer to get into them. A clear piece of wood like this, without knots or cross grain, will take about 1-2 minutes to split into 8-10 pieces with a maul. Grain that is not straight, usually from an intervening branch, that crosses the main flow of the grain,  will not split cleanly with one or two strikes of the maul, like a stem with clear heartwood will, and requires steel wedges and a sledgehammer.


The two stems at the right of the log (at the base of the original tree) merged into one and continued to grow up and out. 

When I finally got this one opened into a sagittal section, which took probably 5 minutes and dozens of strikes with the wedges and maul, I noticed something that made me pause. I looked at the end cross section and saw that at some point the tree had had two stems, and they had somehow joined together and become one stem.

I sat down on my splitting block and put my head in my hands, took a deep breath, and thought back to the summer…

garlic wagon last text 07232014
“Goodbye Garlic”      I guess.

This July, I was struck with the most acute, traumatic emotional blow I have ever received from another person. On the phone, I confronted my partner with evidence that she was cheating on me. She was living a few hours away – we had been doing the long distance thing for a few months. It was her birthday, and I asked her to tell me the truth. She denied the affair and said she had to go just then and be with her family and we would talk tomorrow. The next day she texted me a picture of the wagon-full of garlic she had harvested earlier that day and told me she loved me. I never heard from her again. Total silence, no response to a dozen prompts by text or phone. It took me a couple days to figure out what had happened; not that I really understand, even now.

We used to sing that line together from the Avett Brother’s song “January Wedding: “True love is not the kind of thing you should turn down. Don’t ever turn it down.” Ours was most certainly a true love, one of the few great loves of my life, and maybe one day, I’ll tell that story, but I guess she turned it down. We also sang the other part of that same song to each other: “She knows which birds are singing, and the names of the trees where they’re performing,” because our relationship was deeply woven with a deep, quotidian immersion in nature. It seemed like we were doing pretty well, talking of children and marriage, although this year has been a very difficult time in both our lives. For a while I Googled her name to see if she had been killed in a car accident or something. Just a few weeks ago I heard second-hand from a mutual friend that she is indeed, still alive. I tried to feel happy about it.

The Nature of Connection

Somewhere, along the way, as a result of my observations as a tracker and a naturalist, and my exposure to some native, traditional ways of seeing the world, I picked up the idea and image that all living things are connected by energetic threads. It’s as simple as noticing the tree between your house and your mailbox everyday, perhaps for several years. What at first barely existed, after a time has become something you feel affection towards. Maybe your children climb it and it has become part of the lore and landscape of your family now. Maybe it has a name: “The Pirate Ship Tree.” In certain respects, you are bound to it.

If we can connect with trees and animals this way, all the more so may we connect with our own kind in bonds of love. Alex Grey  Alex_Grey-Kissing_largemakes this idea beautifully vivid in his work. So when we lose a long-term partner and love – any beloved one – because we have woven our lives together, bodily, emotionally, spiritually, in many senses, there is a kind of amputation that takes place, as if we had lost a limb or an organ. We bleed out, and the grief and pain we feel from the separation is an expression of that.

And is this isn’t just a touchy-feely metaphor. During a response to trauma, we literally lose billions of neural connections, in a process called apoptosis,apoptosis-4-panels but when acute, becomes a kind of necrosis. Dr. Mark Brady tells more of the neurological story of suffering and healing here, in his wonderful blog “Your Flowering Brain”. Science increasingly confirms that the flood of stress and pain hormones from loss can cause you to literally die of a broken heart.

When we’re bleeding out, we have to heal. And it’s hard work. I’ve been blessed with many tools for doing that work, and I’m going to be okay. But I’ve been working at it, because unresolved grief puts us at great risk for enduring the same suffering over and over again, and even inflicting it upon others, as something in us drives the self into situations to force us to deal with the root issues. There is enough novel suffering in the basic structure of life, that I’ll have to deal with, I’d rather not cycle through the same chapter of the story over and over again. But thanks.

I’ve learned that sometimes when nature gives you a metaphor or symbol to work with, it’s a good idea to take the time and energy to engage it. It’s less about finding a conclusive answer than turning it and working with it,  to “…have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves…”- Rilke

The Connection of Nature

One of the best tools for healing is nature connection. Meaningful engagement with nature can facilitate healing in many modes, but right now, I want to address just two of those patterns.

When we observe and participate, especially over long periods of time, How Things Work in nature, it tends to lend a solidity or equanimity to life. For lots of reasons. We go waaayyyy back with nature, as way back as there is a way back. There is an inherent solidity and elegance and rightness to natural design. Nature is reliable! The sun and moon rise and set as they are supposed to, the earth spins, the seasons come and go, the tides rise and fall, the leaves and the rains and the animals and birds all move as they are supposed to. Even in this era of extraordinary disruption things still basically work like they are supposed to, and when we come into an embodied experience of that, a kind of gnosis abides and that kind of knowing does much to ease anxiety.

Another route towards stability and repair of our psyches lies in the way that Nature, if we choose it as a fundamental nutrient in our information diet, provides us with templates, patterns and the raw material to use for creative acts, for inspiration, and for wisdom. This is what Barry Lopez is speaking of in the opening epigram: “…it furnishes us with the metaphors and symbols with which we pry into mystery…”

What had I noticed as I pried into the mystery of the tree, into the log, that brought me up short, heart pounding?

Remember the last time you stubbed your toe, and the sensitivity forced you to realize how constantly you use your toe? An emotional wound functions in the same hyper-sensitive way, calling attention to our heart, as memories of our loss intrusively flood back to mind. Dealing with perservating, intrusive thoughts is one of the significant challenges of a wound to the psyche. Often, I just breath them in, acknowledge them, hold them for a moment, realize the futility of holding and then let them go. Sometimes they asked to be worked with. And this was a moment that needed to be worked with.

From the look of the log, it appears that the two stems of this “two-hearted” tree grew along side each other, for just a little while, before they fused into a single tree, DSC05877where I assumed the growth of the grain would continue straight and uninterrupted, as it appears to. But as I found my way into the log, DSC05881with more wedge and sledge work, it stubbornly refused to give. I realized that the although the hearts had merged into a single bole, the cellular web of their merger still radiated throughout the grain of the tree, all the way to the very edge. DSC05889After the merger of the two stems, it appears that the grain runs true and straight and should be easily separated. But that wasn’t the case.

That union of the two, deep inside, and down, towards the root, now formed a “one” of a very different character and quality than a typical single stem tree. The “commitment” the two stems made to each other, continued to be manifest, imperceptible to the eye.


In a clear stem, these lines of grain would separate cleanly. In this tree, they are still woven together. They don’t want to let go.

They didn’t want to let go. So I wasn’t alone in that feeling, after losing love, after becoming separated. I don’t want to let go. It doesn’t mean that I can cling to it. I can’t and won’t. But it tells me that it isn’t wrong to have that feeling. That feeling has a place in the world. I can accept it. And then I can really let it go.

And then I stood up

and went back to splitting wood

with a wedge

and a sledgehammer.

It’s heavy work, but good.

“Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere, they’re in each other all along.” -Rumi

Workshop: Introduction to Understanding Bird Language

9:00am-12:00 noon, Saturday, September 6th.

Riverstone Organic Farm, Floyd County,Va, 

“A little bird told me…”


Who’s out there in the forest?



Based on the work of acclaimed naturalist and tracker Jon Young , this experiential workshop will introduce participants to learning the language of the birds and understanding what they are telling us about events on the landscape – and ourselves.

Activities and strategies to be shared:

  • Nature-based mindfulness techniques to reduce our impact on the land and sharpen our senses and perceptions
  • 5 voices of the birds
  • Bird behaviors
  • Interpretation of voice and behavior into stories of the landscape and its inhabitants
  • Mapping bird activity in the local ecology
  • Using bird language in “the real world”

We’ll introduce a simple, easy to use vocabulary that will allow each participant to learn and apply the techniques immediately. No prior birding experience is required, this is not an ID or song ID workshop, but birders are very welcome and will love this old wisdom!

$20/person, $30/couples or pairs, kids free. Recommended for children 12ish and up, and only if they are interested in nature and birds and have some patience. Some parts of the morning are active, but the center of the workshop is a bird sit, lasting 40-60 minutes. It’s not a good fit for little, restless people. Big, restless people we can deal with.

Bring: Appropriate clothing- we’ll be outside the entire time. Rain Gear. Stool or blanket to sit on in the woods, if needed. Snacks and water bottle. Pencil/pen and journal for notes.

Please pre-register with me, by September 5th, at 540-922-2175 or Feel free to contact me with any questions. Maximum of 16 participants. Rain or shine (unless it’s bucketing, I’ll notify you by 7:30am that morning if cancelled.)

About me:
Michael J. Blackwell has been a homestead farmer and home-schooling parent for many years. He’s a cook, animal tracker, naturalist, teacher, gardener, musician, holistic curriculum designer, artist, writer, mentor, storyteller, ceremonial leader, community builder, carpenter, orchardist, oft-befuddled father, and reluctant visionary and administrator. He has taught dogs, infants, toddlers, schoolchildren, adjudicated youth, teens, families, college students, factory workers, and elders, in many different subjects and contexts. He has an MA in Educational Psychology and has studied tracking, birds, nature and ecology for the past 20 years.

My full-of-naturey-goodness-Youtube page, including my recent TEDxVT talk on the power of tracking, awareness and attention.

My full of naturey-goodness-webpage, NaturalIntelligenceDesigns.

Vocation, Genius, Career and Calling.

The soul of work and the work of the soul.

What should you do with your life? What should you study in college? What job should you take? What career should you develop? How should you make a living?

These are perennial questions. And they are due for re-appraisal in light of the economic difficulties of the past few years (which I believe are really a harbinger of a fundamental restructuring in the United States’ economy and not a “simple” correction.) Lately, there has been increased scrutiny of the idea of “doing what you love,” which has been a staple of privileged, progressive college and career advice since at least the 1970’s when Joseph Campbell admonished his students to “follow their bliss.” More recently Steve Jobs famously said “Do what you love and love what you do.” (Apparently Campbell was chagrined at the hedonistcally inflected interpretation of “following your bliss,”–  it was the 70’s after all — and wished he had said, “Follow your blisters.”) (Wikipedia)

Earlier this year, Miya Tokumitsu wrote critically and compellingly, in Slate, of the way this paradigmatic approach to finding and choosing work can distort our notions of how we make a living, how we are compensated for our labor, how we envision — or ignore — inequality, and contribute to our willingness to be economically exploited. Her critique and ire, were refreshing, bracing even, but ultimately misguided.

If you’re not pissed, you’re not paying attention.

No doubt, as one surveys the current economy, if you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention. Decades of steady productivity increases have been answered with massive inequality, growing debt, stagnating or declining wages, and chronic under/unemployment. But Tokumitsu has confused domains. Because finding your calling (your “vocation”, from the Latin vocai) is a matter of soul. Making a living is a matter of economy and the political wills that shape it. That we may be exploited, or exploiters, if we do what we love is of course true, but that exploitation is not a function of our efforts — and it is a tremendous effort — to seek and find vocation,

Me, seeking and finding vocation.

but a function of our unwillingness to fight for a just economy. Indeed there is an argument that because finding a vocation reduces existential fear, doubt and anomie, we may become less inclined to exploit others in the pursuit of our desires.

It may be a measure of the health, vitality, human-ness of an economy that the greatest numbers of people possible can make a living at their vocation. But there is no guarantee in any time that ones deepest gifts are the things that provide them bread and shelter.

“Know first who you are, then adorn yourself accordingly.”  (Epictetus)

So, these are two things. One: Knowing first who you are, searching ones depths, in the context of the fate/circumstance of one’s life and obeying (obedience, from the Latin, oboedre to hear or listen intently) the answers that are found, and setting about doing what you must do. As Parker Palmer describes in my-singlemost-photocopied-and-distributed-by-hand-to-students article Now I Become Myself (must read!): “…vocation does not mean scrambling towards some prize just beyond my reach but accepting the treasure of the true self I already possess…The deepest vocational question is not “What should I do with my life?” It is the more elemental and demanding “Who am I? What is my nature?”

This is the original meaning of the word “genius” which the Romans used to describe an inner sacred guide that inheres in each person, and is not just the province of an elect, priveleged few. Every person has a genius and must meet it. The wisdom traditions assert that the failure to do so is among the greatest possible failures on this particular whirl of the Merry-Go-Round. In the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas (another bracing text), Jesus proclaims, “That which you have will save you if you bring it forth from yourselves. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”  Then Two: Adorn yourself accordingly…

I have counseled, advised and mentored hundreds of college students over the past 15 years. I have noticed a few changes in that time. I have always advised young people to figure out what they love and what their gifts and passions are. The real difference is that in the past, when the economy was more generous, I didn’t have to make such a fine point of helping them distinguish their vocation from their living. I had a talk that was reserved for artists and writers, that said: “Do this only if you must.” Now I give that talk to people thinking about teaching (for a couple reasons) and seeking any kind of advanced degree: Law, Medicine, PhDs in any field, and Vet School. The economy is not vibrant enough to support everybody who is studying these – and many other – things and young people need to know that. I still advise people to follow their calling because we must. And because if they do, in the words of Joseph Campbell again, “our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.” This rapture is almost entirely absent in people after the age of seven or so. It is a devastating cancer in our culture. This sense of harmonic resonance between the inner truth and the outer reality creates an alive, vibrant person. And that, is not only the best way to live life, but is among other things, a highly sought after and attractive quality that is highly correlated with success — and employment.

Finally, we must hope that some people whose gift is awakening an increasingly soporific, solipsistic populace will emerge shortly and begin to speak truth to power, because that is a conversation, a calling even, whose time is evermore overdue.

Did you unplug the toaster? The ONE thing you can’t forget to do this summer.

This story begins as I watch a father and his exuberant 4 year old kid head down a rocky trail towards their campsite at a local state park. The kid skips, hops and wobbles down the slight, but tricky, incline. I’m following about 20 feet behind. I hear the dad saying “Caleb, don’t do that,” but not very emphatically. The boy “doesn’t hear” and proceeds down the path until it intersects a broader, smooth, gravel trail. When dad hits that intersection, he calls the boy “Caleb, come back here.” The kid sheepishly returns and the dad directs his attention back up the trail he just came down and says “See how rocky that is? You CAN”T do that,” ignoring the fact that his kid just did that. The kid sagely mutters some version of an insincere “ok” (a habit that will serve him well in life) and takes off down the trail.

Parents (teachers, camp counselors, neighbors, aunts, uncles, grandparents, etc) in some ways, it’s easier than you think, and that’s because really, a lot of your job, is just to follow along: Hunting the ferocious crayfishLearn to notice and encourage your child’s natural attention patterns.

Same park, next day: A little troop of 7-8 year olds swims out to the island in the middle of the lake, attended by two young counselors. Eliot is in this group. We know his name right away because the counselors are saying it about twice a minute. Eliot is what you’d call a high-energy kid. He’s also very smart, verbal, curious and adventuresome. And because of this, Eliot is constantly on the wrong side of the law. There’s a really long, thick rope that goes from a tree on the island all the way back to the beach, holding swim buoys, maybe 70 yards or so. It’s very strong. It’s also just really cool and alluring. Eliot grabs it and starts to slam it down on the water, calling out “Look! I’m making waves!” The kids run over to see the awesome, and the counselors run over to yell at him to knock it off. But he’s not hurting anything. He’s not doing anything dangerous. There’s not even life guards to yell at him. He’s creating a situation that could invite learning and adventure. But a lot of the energy of the group goes into the dynamic of repressing Eliot and his waves.This is a scene played out millions of times a day across the country.

Later a friend and I build some cairns, about 30 feet upstream from a foot bridge on the way to the beach. We step back to admire our work and as families go by, basically every kid that crosses the bridge notices the stocks of rock right away, and ZERO parents do. DSC05202 About half of the kids demonstrate an intense desire to want to come down to the stream and start making their own piles of rocks, because making piles of rocks is epic. The typical parent response is at best; “Oh, yeah” and a brief glance up from their phone, and then proceeding to their intended destination. Not one grown up – keep in mind these are families on vacation, in a beautiful park, on a beautiful summer day- really affirms their kids’ awareness or curiosity, much less allows them to act upon it.

Do you know that feeling when you’ve been gunning down the highway for 3 or 4 hours at 75mph, and then you exit onto a smaller road, and all of sudden, there are flashing blue lights in your rearview mirror because you’re doing 75 in a 45?mirror lights That’s inertia: “the resistance of any physical object to any change in its state of motion, including changes to its speed and direction.”  (Wikipedia)

The pace of modern life creates a kind of literal physical inertia, which keeps our bodies in motion at a constant speed. We go on vacation but can’t slow down and forget to look up and around. This physical inertia is attended analogously, and more insidiously, by a mental and psychological inertia, whereby the scattered, fractured, insistent, goal-oriented attention patterns of our adult lives become internalized, and so that even when we enter in a new, relaxed environment, we can’t quite get there. This is toxic to some of life’s most beautiful things: play, curiosity, wonder, appreciation, gratitude, and even reverence.

Okay, one more: Last summer, sitting in a little alcove in my small Appalachian town, watching a strong late afternoon thunderstorm drench the streets and sidewalks with sheets of cascading rain, the smell of petrophenolic steam coming off the hot asphalt in little curled geists, enjoying the rapids forming in gutters, the road turned to river. A colleague, an important man, walks by, I almost don’t realize it’s him, until his son comes into view and dashes into the road, between the parked cars, to frolic in the rain and temporary cataracts. I’m so proud of my colleague, and maybe a little proud of myself, thinking I had gotten through, even to him, after all these years. I jump up and poke my head out to celebrate this moment of playful engagement with him, the kid, the rain, the road…and look up the side walk to see him 50 feet away, eyes cast down, walking in the rapid, distracted gait of one who lives in his head. The boy is joyfully splashing in the road in front of me. Finally, the man turns. He looks back and sees the boy. “Get out of the road. Come on!”

This summer, please don’t forget to Be There.

(PS: For another take on this most perennial of topics, see my TEDx talk: Forget What You Know.)

(PPS: If you liked this article and think someone else would, please scroll down and click one of the “Share” buttons. Thank you!”

The Yoga of Things and the Internet of Things

Why? O why do we believe so fervently that if the yoke of ordinary things is lifted from us, that then, and only then, we can then enter into the kingdom of heaven? Smart guy on NPR the other day talking about the advent of the Smart Houses and the S*M*R*Test thing of all: The Internet of Things: On a soon to come golden day, your alarm clock and your coffee maker will be friends and when you wake up, your alarm will Tweet your coffee pot to heat and pour the water (that you put there last night) through the ground coffee (that you put there last night). Your BaristaBot(tm) will create some creamy froth art and then use its onboard camera to Instagram a snap of you enjoying this delicious beverage, post that to its Facebook status update, where that picture will be auto-liked by all your friends’ BaristaBots(tm), thus effectively: changing the time of day in which you prepare your coffee from morning to evening, providing you with a cup of steaming hot joe a little before you are ready for it, and depriving you of some portion of the morning’s psychemotor activity that actually helps you wake up.

Why do we want to be relieved of the basic embodied activities of life? We know what the result is:

Does anyone really think that turning over all the functions of life and home to the cloud and the net and their corporate hortators will make life better? All those glitches and bugs and viruses and incompatibilities on your laptop and phone can soon be inextricably interwoven through every material aspect of your life.remotes in a basket And what is the shape of our inner life, if its form tends to arise from the structure and nature of the outer? Is it any wonder that a pervasive emergent property of modern life is the “system crash?”

brazil wires


One day, a really smart technology company will transcend the child’s dream of making work go away, and start designing tools that ask a little more of us- a GPS app that helps us turn on our interior compass, field guide type species ID apps that teach us to see better, calendar and to-do apps that support and encourage cognitive function by offering opportunities for learning and some appropriate resistance.

“Yoga” means “yoke” and speaks to a seamless joining of the mind and body, but it also bespeaks the everyday discipline of harnessing ourselves, as Marge Piercy says, like an ox to the cart of life.

Americans think we have to go somewhere and buy something for a thing to even be a thing! But there is a yoga of the everyday world, a yoga of sweeping the floor, listening to the morning birdsong, kneading the bread, hoeing the weeds, weeding the database, scooping baby up into her sling, offering solace to a friend, looking your love in the eye- and yes; making the coffee. As Jack Kornfield says: “After the ecstasy, the laundry.”

There is no where you can look that you can not find this “Yoga of Things.” It doesn’t need to be bought or sold or controlled by anybody else but you. We have this one life, so far as we know, here on this embodied earth. Why are we so eager to give it away, to be done with it, to pay even, for some one to take it away, until realizing too late, that it is what we have?

I’ll leave the last word to Marge Piercy, and the last stanza of  “To Be of Use”.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

Okay, see ya round, I gotta put out the laundry;)laundry boy

Blog Tour: On writing and a writing community

Kindred spirit Cheryl Pallant invited me to reflect some on my writing and it seemed a fortutitous time to do that as I am struggling to figure out how I want to make my way in the world right now…and even if I am somewhat bitter about writing, it occurs to me that being forced to wrestle with these ideas to create a work, is, as usual, helpful. gah.

1) What am I working on?

I am trying to help the world become eco-zooic rather than ecocidal, by changing the psychelogos of modern people.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

A few years back, I was the guest chef for an evening at a large residence hall where I worked at the local Very Big U. I was cooking 7 gallons of African groundnut stew with the student Soup Knight crew for Friday Soup Night. The stew was funky and delicious, as it has peanuts, yams, tomatoes, peppers, apple juice, cumin, coriander, some hot pepper, onions and garlic. At the end of the meal, a student I had taught in several classes, said: “Mr. Blackwell, this stew is kind of like you. It has a bunch of stuff in it that doesn’t seem like it goes together, but once you get into it, it’s really interesting and…it really works.” I think and hope my writing is like me, and my cooking: eclectic, quirky, smart, deeply human, integrative, nourishing, intellectual, yet grounded, perhaps even visionary in its own humble way.

3) Why do I write what I do?

I used to think I was a writer or that I cared about writing, maybe a lot, and now I’m not so sure…I feel best in my garden or in the forest or making music or food with friends and family. If I want to share the story of that with people, to encourage them to do such things – and I do – I have found it much more useful to lend the strength of relationship, of faces, bodies, of movement, of the real music of the embodied voice, the sparkle of the affectionate eye, to that endeavor. I tire of working so hard to offer what poet Jack Gilbert called “lost vocabularies” to people. What change have these dry scattered bones of written words ever made?

Well, okay, to be sure, they have made some changes; I know other words have changed my life, many a time. But everything has already been written, we know what we need to know. So much noise, so little signal. Much sound and fury, signifying nothing. It’s a not a problem of information, but implementation. Can writing do that? Maybe…Years ago, when I was a lad, I sent a letter (remember them?) to my one of my writing heroes, Barry Lopez. I asked how one was to both live and write? It seemed that living an interesting life would take a lot of energy and time just in itself. He wrote back (remember that?) and said, “Yes. Live first, and you’ll know if you need to write.” I increasingly value the living…(and maybe hold out some secret hope for regenerative power of poetry!)

4) How does my writing process work?

I should just write everyday, but I don’t. I procrastinate for hours, it’s painful like dental work. I have too much “work in progress”- shit I don’t finish. Blech.

I’m inviting some writing friends to the Blog Tour:

The Great Re-Wiring: Augmented reality and the fragmented self.

Pretest: What color is a Yield sign? If you answered: “yellow and black,” you need to read this post. If you answered: “red and white” you definitely need to read this post. yieldylwred

“When I was a kid…”

   People my age – we’re that weird 40-something in between baby boomers and genX-ers – have watched the revolution in computing intelligence unfold in real-time.  We had the first computer labs in public school, but learned to type on electric typewriters.  We think there should be two spaces after periods.  The standout software development of my high school computer class was a primitive screen saver that drew monochromatic line segments in random, rapid succession, as it emitted a fart noise (go on, you know you must sample the glory that is an acoustic fart library) at every direction change. We saw Star Wars as kids in the theater and were blown away by flying bits of colored light and the fact you couldn’t see the strings holding the space ships up. We saw Pong turn into Space Invaders turn into Zelda turn into Myst turn into Warcraft.

vid game collage

   My freshman class at university was the first required to purchase a computer, which at 40 lbs or so was actually billed as “portable,” meaning you didn’t need a forklift to move it from place to place, although having a friend with a truck didn’t hurt.  Fortunately, it didn’t have a hard drive, so you could move the 17 for realz floppy disks it took to load and save a word processing document in a beer case-sized cardboard box.

5155 ibm

We *still* managed to kill thousands of hours playing orange video golf on a 5″ screen.

    Twenty short years later, there is no reality that can’t be readily virtualified, fully transcribed onto the screen and made intravenously or osmotically available 25-7.  The screens have become pervasive and inter-connected, and the digital tracks stored and harvested from every interaction. The advances that used to seem far off, that might someday come, these things have now come, and arrive faster and faster each year.  Five years ago things like self driving cars, ubiquitous video chat, 3-D printers, seemed like things that would happen someday…20 or 30 years. But now, they are here. Computers, and the data they move, are flying our planes, placing our stock orders, becoming our doctors, decoding our genome, finding our mates, becoming our friends and mates, and as they become smaller, becoming mated to our bodies, sometimes painfully.  warped hands

   Wearable computing is just a few years from full adaptation and implantation into the body, will become commonplace just a few years after that. Add in genetic manipulation, grow-able technology, nano-technology … augmented reality is now. The line between the body, the machine and the network is blurring and that process will only intensify and accelerate for the foreseeable future.  They are becoming us, and we, them.

 It’s not reactionary or alarmist to note that the basic nature or quality of our humanity is changing. Rather, we are changing it. It’s not really debatable.  Change how an organism takes in information and change the information “diet”: this is how organisms change.

dad killing babies brain with video game

The Great Re-Wiring. Some of us are doing a better job at this than others.

  Rather than fighting about whether we’re changing, it’s a much more interesting question to notice and ask whether the changes are ones that we want and intend. Just as in all previous personal and cultural (the two arise co-dependently) developmental inflection points: the transitions from hunter-gathering culture to agriculture, from agriculture to industrialization, from industrialization to informationization, we are radically and rapidly undertaking the next Great Re-Wiring.

   It’s hard to notice, easy to overlook, because cultural sea changes, (well, all sea-changes for that matter) are pervasive and saturative, but lack salience and are thus hard to perceive. And there is always a landscape amnesia effect at play, as well, i.e., we “forget” what we haven’t experienced. Do you miss the passenger pigeons? Didn’t think so. How then are we able to notice and evaluate changes in the cognitive landscape and how they might be changing us?

Next up: Augmented reality is now, but the fragmented self is forever…

Ceremony Matters

The Official Blog of the Celebrant Foundation and Institute


A blog about religion, science, and philosophy

Residence on Earth

A Sustainability Blog

%d bloggers like this: