Painted shelves

Photo and Paint by Margy Dowzer–her caption: “paint drying, painter tired”

Margy took this photo–can you see her in the window?  She painted the inside of the shelves.  Even with zero VOC paint, I have trouble with the fumes, but she does a little better, so she’s been tackling the insides of closets and cupboards as we try to finish getting the house ready for our move in one week. The day after this photo, she was utterly exhausted and had to crash for the day.  But we each are doing what we can to move this process forward.  I love our partnership!



Some hard realities are emerging in our pursuit of the house with the beautiful back yard. It has been a whirlwind of activity for acting on due diligence for the purchase and sale. We’ve had a home inspection, and a solar evaluation. We’ve discovered a few moderate-sized challenges–we’ll have to replace the roof before we can install solar panels.  We’ll have to prune a large tree whose branches hang over the roof.

But perhaps the worst came yesterday, when our realtor called to say that in looking closer at the deed and the page on which it was registered, it appeared that not all the land that seemed to belong to this property actually belongs to it.  There is a Portland Water District parcel that runs next to the land, and it takes up part of the space that was being occupied by the current owners.

We feel angry and betrayed that the sellers never disclosed this information.  In the listing photos and in the placement of some children’s playground equipment, we were led to believe that this property went up to the neighbor’s fence.  But in reality the larger part of the side yard belongs to the PWD.  I remembered that there had been the remnants of a little fence from the front corner of the house over to the neighbor’s fence that had been removed except for the posts.  We are guessing that the realtor suggested they take down the fence because it wasn’t legal, but who knows?

We went to the property today to do some of our own measurements, to see where the boundaries really are, and to try to decide if, with this new information, we still want to choose this property.  We really don’t like the underhanded aspects of real estate–the attempts get the best deal you can, even if you play dirty.  Our own values say, be honest, let it be fair to all involved. We are so glad our realtor shares those values, and also that he is so conscientious and went the extra mile to discover these discrepancies.

Red boundary flag, photo by Margy Dowzer

Our red boundary flag

When we did the rough measurements we discovered that the actual front boundary of the property stops about even with the side of the house, and then slants back to the left, away from the house, directly through the play equipment. The big tree, and the neighbors fence too, by the way, are all on PWD land.  We spent a long time in the yard, trying to sort out our feelings about it all.  We still need some more information from the water district. It seems that all the neighborhood properties are currently encroaching on their land.  There is a 20-inch, 101-year-old water main that runs on their land, fortunately toward the other side of it. But will they be tearing it all up to replace or repair in the next twenty or thirty years?

What we’ve learned in this process is that the privacy of this back yard is vulnerable. Along with this water district land, there is a paper road that is undeveloped at the back of the land, that may never be developed, or will it?  On the plus side, all of it expands the sense of space that one feels there.  But on the other hand, will there be future changes over which we have no control? We’ll try to get more information on Monday. We have until Tuesday to withdraw.  But for now, we are still feeling a connection to the land, even tender toward its neglected needs.  In the undeveloped areas off the back edges, there are invasive vines and bittersweet.  One of the values of permaculture is to bring healing to the land. We feel good about that. Please send us prayers for clarity, and the revealing of important truths.

All this is PWD owned land.

All this is PWD owned land.  Photos by Margy Dowzer.

The Search for Greener Housing, Part Three

House Search #1 DSC09847Following our dream of finding greener and accessible housing, we have now looked at six houses. The first was in a great location (halfway between the houses of two friends!) and had an amazingly private back yard, despite being right in town, though it was hard to get to the yard from the house. It had an almost south facing roof, but narrow hallways, and we couldn’t imagine how we could make it accessible without major reconstruction. Plus, there was a tenant in the basement who had lived there over 25 years, and the house wouldn’t have worked for us without the basement space. Bad karma?

The second house had such great character–it was a house we would love to live in. There were blueberries and raspberries in the yard, which we were told we could pick, and so we did. House Search 2 DSC09736There were gardens and a hoop house for extending the growing season. Lots of windows, sunny, and though it was a bit out of town, it was close to a lake, which was a nice bonus. There was not quite as much work to make it accessible, (though still some) but it was a very old house, and there was water along the edges of the basement–along with a mildew smell. And because of the unique shape of the house, it might be hard to insulate and put up solar. Regretfully, we decided it was too much to take on.

The third house had a great open living/dining/kitchen area, a lovely back deck, and also a great yard–though the very back of it fronted onto an in-use railroad track. It looked like we could put solar on the garage. But the bedrooms were dark and felt small, and there were two very tiny bathrooms that would have to be remodeled into one. We talked about whether we could put in more windows. Also there were a lot of steps to the front door.

The fourth house was on a busy street, too small, and not really worth looking at.

The fifth house was fully accessible! It had a lovely open kitchen/living area, a great deck, and nice bedrooms and bathroom. BUT–it was larger than our current house, and so that didn’t fit our goal of downsizing and having fewer expenses. They said it had been insulated, but it had used quite a bit more gallons of oil over the season than where we are now. However, it was great to see what someone else had done for accessibility and beauty.

The sixth house inspired a long conversation with our green-building savvy real estate agent. (That was one of our practical steps–to find an environmentally experienced agent!) The house was in great shape, with a lovely living room with a fireplace, a big mud room, two nice sized bedrooms on the first floor and extra finished space in the basement. It had a one car garage that probably could have been expanded to two ($), we’d need to remodel the bathroom for access, widen a doorway–and once again, it was an odd-shaped roof, so solar might be more expensive. Plus it had these great old cast iron radiators along the baseboards, but if we went electric they would all have to come out with much ado. And even with a lot of work, we probably couldn’t get to zero-carbon in this house, would have to keep using oil.

Our agent suggested that with all of these houses we’d seen so far, we were trying to squeeze ourselves into a house that wasn’t really quite right for what we wanted. Each one would require a lot of renovations in addition to solar and air-source heat pumps and insulation. It is an emotional up and down–excitement over houses that seem worth seeing, and in some ways are so close to what we want, or have such nice qualities, but then the disappoint that they don’t quite work. AND tomorrow could mean another house comes on the market that could be just right.

The Search for Greener Housing, Part Two

After deciding it is the right time to start searching for a more ecologically friendly house, my partner and I sit down together and make a list of what we hope for in a home.

  • One-level living that can be made wheelchair accessible (because my partner can’t do a lot of steps, and we have friends who use wheelchairs, and universal design makes sense for a house we want to get older in.)
  • South facing roof that is solar energy suitable
  • Able to be retrofitted with more insulation and air-source heat pumps
  • Location closer to Portland and public transportation, near some sort of village center
  • Quiet street
  • An area safe for lesbians and people of color
  • Privacy in the back yard
  • About a quarter-acre lot, smaller than where we are now, but still room for permaculture gardening. Some parts shady with trees, some parts sunny, and flat enough for easy access. We want to get rid of lawn to mow, and have other kinds of plantings instead.
  • And, perhaps counter to our village center idea, a location close to woods and critters?
  • About 1200 square feet of house (this number to be adapted as we actually look at houses and see what the spaces feel like.)
  • Two bedrooms plus some office space and guest space
  • Living area that can hold ten people or so for gathering together
  • Some extra space, like a basement
  • Wood floors or equivalent–no carpet, no mold, no smokers. (We have allergies. If there is carpet, plan to replace with wood floors.)
  • Big windows, lots of light
  • Two-car garage (because of Maine winters, and for now we need two cars)
  • Laundry on first floor
  • Mudroom area
  • Fireplace or wood stove, more for the feeling of a hearth than for heat
  • Deck
  • No vinyl siding (That stuff is really bad for the environment! Watch the documentary Blue Vinyl!)
  • Electric appliances

Okay, that’s our list, that’s our desire. And of course, we want a sound, well-built house that will last. The other part of the equation is that we want the price to be enough less than our current house so we can afford to do the retrofits and add solar energy without taking on more debt. Our goal is to own it debt-free before we come to retirement, and to have the ongoing taxes and utilities and maintenance costs affordable to us on a low retirement income.

There is a strange magic to finding a new home. There are practical steps we need to take, but then, it all depends on what is out there. And what will emerge in the next day or week or month. I have moved dozens of times in my life, and it always brings up a lot of anxiety for me. Will we find a home that works for us? Will we recognize it when we see it? What is essential on our list, and where can we compromise? It took us four months to find our current home when we moved here to Maine. Will it take that long for this process? If we find a house we like, will we be able to bid for it successfully? My partner has her own list of fears.

In this magic of finding a new home, we are placing our desires up against our fears. That is why it feels important to me to name our very specific desires for a new home, and also to acknowledge and honor our fears. I know that magic works that way. But there is another deeper movement going on as well. It comes to mind again as I look at houses-for-sale online. In the listings, they don’t mention the orientation of the house, so I try to figure it out by looking closely at the maps. It is discouraging how few houses have a south-facing roof.

Then I remember that we are trying to do something new with this move–we are trying to re-orient our home environment into harmony with all life on earth. The current built environment is oriented around cheap oil and other fossil fuels. It can’t last. We are trying to take our own small steps closer to a whole new way of living that is about beauty and sustainability and a future for the generations yet to be born. There is a great Earth energy that is beneath our feet guiding our way down this path.

It says to me, “Remember to embrace the process. Enjoy the whole journey, right now! You don’t have to wait until everything is ‘settled.’ Keep taking small steps until you are ready to leap. Until the time comes when it is clear. You do not have to rush. Keep holding hands with the ones you love.”

Photo by Margy Dowzer

Photo by Margy Dowzer

How Mushrooms Can Help Us Save the World, Part Two

Photo by Margy Dowzer

Photo by Margy Dowzer

Paul Stamets, in Mycelium Running, How Mushrooms Can Help Us Save the World, talks about the Gaia hypothesis, which suggests “that the planet’s biosphere intelligently piloted its course to sustain and breed new life.” He goes on to say:

I see mycelium as the living network that manifests the natural intelligence imagined by Gaia theorists. The mycelium is an exposed sentient membrane, aware and responsive to changes in its environment. As hikers, deer or insects walk across these sensitive filamentous nets, they leave impressions, and mycelia sense and respond to these movements. A complex and resourceful structure for sharing information, mycelium can adapt and evolve through the ever-changing forces of nature.

In other words, he proposes that there is a vast intelligent aware network in the ground beneath our feet.

It makes me wonder, what is intelligence? Human beings consider ourselves to be the most intelligent species on earth. Our intelligence has given us the power to build nuclear weapons that can destroy life on earth. But we haven’t yet been able to figure out how to avoid war and oppression.

Stamets believes that the mycelium operates at a level of complexity that exceeds the computational powers of our most advanced supercomputers. He sees the mycelium as the earth’s natural Internet.

Traditional Mexican shamans and curanderas use certain mushrooms that create visions and healing. Stamets says that psychoactive mushrooms can cause such affects on the human mind because of the chemicals that we share in common.

On a very practical level, it has been discovered that mycelial mats have the capacity to break down petroleum products into harmless components; they can also clean up nerve gas agents, dioxin, plastics, and radioactive cesium. Paul Stamets believes that mycelia not only have “the ability to protect the environment but the intelligence to do it on purpose.” 

In my faith community we speak about respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. Mycelial networks are a visceral manifestation of that web, and we can see and measure their beneficial support for plant life, and for our lives. Scientists like Stamets imagine that if we partner with mycelia, we would be able to greatly accelerate our work to repair the damage we have done to our environment. And that gives me hope for our future.

With these mysterious mycelial allies just beneath my feet, I had the courage to write that sermon about nuclear weapons, and their haunting mushroom clouds of death. And each time I remember this old and vast elemental wisdom, I feel less fear. I feel more clearly that I am part of a larger network of beings who are contributing to the health and wholeness of the planet. As we reach out to the beautiful web of all beings, those beings are also reaching out to us.

How Mushrooms Can Help Us Save the World, Part One

Let me tell you a story. In our congregation we have an auction every other year and one of the things auctioned off is a chance to request a sermon topic. One year the member who won that auction item requested that I talk about nuclear weapons. Well, sure, I said… and then I put the suggestion in my sermon topic folder. Each month as I chose sermon topics for the next month, I would see it there, but I wasn’t sure yet what I would do with it. What could I say about nuclear weapons?

I was reminded of the old story about President Calvin Coolidge. One Sunday, with his wife sick, he went to church alone. Upon his return she asked, “What did the pastor talk about?” Coolidge said, “Sin.” “And what did the minister say about sin?” “He was against it.” Well that’s about what I had for nuclear weapons: I was against them.

For me, a worship service is meant to be about hope. And nuclear weapons are one of the most terrifying dangers that we face in our world. The mushroom cloud image of the atomic bomb represents the potential destruction of most life on earth. So I have to admit, I didn’t feel like researching how bad things were, what new weapons were being created, or who might try to use them. And most of all, I wasn’t sure what I could say next. I never want to send people home from worship with more fear or despair than they came in with. So the topic sat in my folder, and I occasionally added an article or resource to the file; but each month, I’d say, I’ll do that one later.

How do we face the biggest dangers that threaten our world? What gives us courage and hope? Several months later, I came upon an article about mushrooms. It was an interview with Paul Stamets, about How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World.

I have to admit that I had never been a big fan of mushrooms. I tolerated their presence on pizza and in casserole dishes. I had never experimented with the psychedelic varieties back in college. A while ago, Margy started taking photos of mushrooms, as they popped up in our back yard, and that helped me to appreciate their strange and diverse beauty. But I had no idea.

I had no idea that mushrooms were the fruit of the mycelium, a vast underground network of fungal fibers that can stretch for miles. I had no idea that those fibers form one entity called a mycelial mat. I had no idea that a mycelial mat in eastern Oregon was considered by scientists to be the largest organism in the world. It covers twenty-two hundred acres and is more than two thousand years old.

I had no idea that mycelial networks regulate the nutrients of plant life in the forest, transferring sugars from tree species that have enough to other tree species that need more to survive. And most of all, I had no idea that mycelial networks communicate. To do this they use methods similar to those found in the nerve fibers in our own brains; they use some of the very same neurotransmitters that allow us to think.

Photo by Margy Dowzer

Photo by Margy Dowzer

If we wake up to the earth, we must listen to all her stories

All places and all beings of the earth are sacred. It is dangerous to designate some places sacred when all are sacred. Such compromises imply that there is a hierarchy of value, with some places and some living beings not as important as others. No part of the earth is expendable; the earth is a whole that cannot be fragmented…
Leslie Marmon Silko

Winter Path DSC01793When I was in theological school, we spoke of the sacred texts in which people find revelation of divinity. To be open to the sacredness of earth, is to let the earth be our text: let the earth be the revelation for the presence of divinity. The earth can be teacher, the earth can be sacrament, the earth can be worship, the earth can be Goddess.

But if we wake up to the earth, we must listen to all her stories. If we live in the Americas, we must pay attention to a story of brokenness in each place because of the theft of the land from the Indigenous peoples who belong here. If we are seeking to restore our connection to the land, we must reckon with that brokenness. All of us are a part of the brokenness.

Lakota writer Luther Standing Bear said, “Men must be born and reborn to belong. Their bodies must be formed of the dust of their forefathers’ bones.” To be indigenous is to belong to a particular place, through that interweaving of dust and food and knowledge which accumulates over centuries. When I lived in Jamaica Plain, I used to walk in Forest Hills Cemetery. None of my ancestors were buried there. No familiar ghosts recognized me or called my name. I was not indigenous to that place, nor to any of the places I have lived.

I learned more about what it might mean to be indigenous to a place through the marvelous novel, Solar Storms, by Chickasaw writer Linda Hogan. Her main character, Angel, is a young woman who had been separated from the Native community of her birth, and raised in foster care after being abused by her mentally ill mother. When Angel returns with her relatives to their ancestral lands, something happens for her.

A part of me remembered this world… it seemed to embody us. We were shaped out of this land by the hands of gods. Or maybe it was that we embodied the land. And in some way I could not yet comprehend, it also embodied my mother, both of them stripped and torn…. My heart and the beat of the land, the land I should have come from, were becoming the same thing.

In the novel, Angel’s family has returned to their homeland in the north of Canada because it is being threatened with hydro-electric development. This is no pristine wilderness or unspoiled scenery to which she is responding. The land is under assault, and they feel a responsibility to fight for its protection. She speaks of how the bonds between the land and the people had been broken by the developments of many years. The elder Tulik tells Angel, “Here a person is only strong when they feel the land. Until then a person is not a human being.”

Another member of her family was a woman named Bush who was Chickasaw from Oklahoma and had become part of the family through marriage. She had also come to help in the struggle. Angel talks about how it was different for Bush. The land in the far north loved Bush, “but it did not tell her the things it told the rest of us. It kept secrets from her.” Here was another Native American, yet she was not indigenous to that particular land. Through this story I began to better understand how loving the earth was not just about loving the planet, but about loving a particular river, a particular valley or hill or peninsula.

Quote from Leslie Marmon Silko is from Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit.
Luther Standing Bear was quoted by Vine Deloria quote in God Is Red.

Ecological Connection and the Wall of Grief

Jon Young, founder of the Wilderness Awareness School, teaches young people the skills of wildlife tracking and plant identification, fostering an ecological connection to nature. Many skills and techniques are easy to learn, and there is a deepening sense of wonder and gratitude that grows along with their skills. But when the youth reach a certain stage in their learning, they hit what he calls the “wall of grief,” an experience of being overwhelmed with sorrow at the loss and degradation of the natural world around us. That grief is the most difficult challenge the young people face in all of the school’s programs.

Live-video-of-BP-oil-spil-004I felt such a wall of grief, during the spring and summer of 2010 watching millions of gallons of oil pouring into the Gulf of Mexico from the broken BP oil well. It seemed as if the earth itself was bleeding from this gaping human-made wound deep below the waters of the sea.

I believe that our spiritual growth depends on deepening our connection to the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part. The natural world is vital to our spiritual journey. We might say that the earth is our Bible, our Quran, our sacred revelation, and our paradise. We echo this principle in the mission statement of my own congregation, when we say, simply, that we walk with care on this earth.

But there are times when that careful walk awakens deep sorrow and anguish. We know so much more than human beings have known before. We know what is happening all over the globe. We see the melting of ancient glaciers, as the climate heats up from greenhouse gases. We know there is a vast soup of plastic refuse possibly twice the size of the continental United States floating in the Pacific Ocean. We know that the topsoil in which our food grows is being depleted, and the rain forests which renew the world’s oxygen are being cut down. We know that increasing numbers of species are threatened with extinction. We know that there are nuclear stockpiles that could destroy most life on earth many times over.

We know so much more than human beings have known before, but we don’t know the solutions to these problems that threaten our future. And that is a wall of grief that can stop us in our tracks as we seek to walk with care on this earth. How do we live with the painful questions that do not yet have answers?  

I learned the story of the Wall of Grief in Starhawk, The Earth Path

Trying to Find an Ecological Water Heater

When we awaken to a vision of living in harmony with the earth and other beings, we enter an in-between place, a place of increasing awareness of the brokenness of our world today. Our social and economic system was built upon exploitation of the earth for resources, and the options we have as individuals are limited because of that.

During one spring, Margy and I noticed that our hot water wouldn’t get hot anymore. We put up with lukewarm showers while we were trying to sort out what to do. We are always trying to make our home more easy on the environment, so we took time to research a lot of options.

Our hot water came from a coil in our boiler, and we were told that it would be quite expensive to clean out the coil, using lots of nasty chemicals. Did we need a new boiler? At that time, a very state-of-the art efficient new boiler would cost $11,000 to install. A boiler that used wood pellets instead of oil—even better—would cost $22,000, including an automatic pellet feeder. Well, we didn’t have enough money for either of those options, and our current boiler had some years left in it. Solar hot water is also expensive, and we don’t have a south facing roof, and we have a lot of trees. One company recommended heat exchange water heaters—they were about $3000 to install.

Water Heater DSC01555I also researched more traditional hot water heaters—we don’t have natural gas where we live, so that wasn’t an option. I lined up all the brands and all their energy efficiency. But I found that the ones that were the most energy efficient cost a whole more, for the tiniest fraction of greater efficiency. I did a whole lot of work on it, but eventually, we chose a standard electric hot water heater installed for about $1000. The good news is that we can shut off our boiler during the summer months, since it won’t be needed to heat water. And we have hot showers again. The bad news is that our electric bill will go up about $50 a month. So all in all, we might be using more energy than before.

I share this story because I felt so sad after our experience, so disappointed and angry that there weren’t good ecological solutions. Despite our values and idealism about how we want to live on the earth, despite how much time we put into research, it wasn’t possible to find workable and affordable choices. The options we have as families depend on what our society chooses do with its resources.

Turning Toward Partnership

A revolution is underway because people are realizing that our needs can be met without destroying our world. … Future generations, if there is a livable world for them, will look back at the epochal transition we are making to a life-sustaining society. And they may well call this the time of the Great Turning.   Joanna Macy


Planting the Seeds

Photo by Margy Dowzer

Joanna Macy believes that the essential adventure of our time is the shift from our industrial growth society to a life-sustaining civilization. She calls it the Great Turning. She says that “the ecological and social crises we face are inflamed by an economic system dependent on accelerating growth,” on “how fast materials can be extracted from Earth and turned into consumer products, weapons, and waste.” Based on this analysis, the mainstream arguments about how to revive the economy and the financial markets miss the point. Rather, the trouble in the markets is linked to a deeper trouble—a whole economic system based ultimately on the destruction of our environment.

In 2006, David Korten published a book, called The Great Turning, to further reflect on this transition that Macy had articulated. He describes our work in this time as a shift from the ways of Empire to the ways of Earth Community. He warns that even if we fail to change our ways, the world will change. But it will be known as the Great Unraveling, because “profligate consumption [will lead] to an accelerating wave of collapsing environmental systems, violent competition for what remain[s] of the planet’s resources, a dramatic dieback of the human population, and a fragmentation of those who remain into warring fiefdoms ruled by ruthless local lords.”

The other possibility, the Great Turning, involves unlearning the practices of empire, of systems based on hierarchy, competition, and domination, and adopting systems that support Earth Community: “a life-centered, egalitarian, sustainable way of ordering human society based on democratic principles of partnership.” If we recognize that we are all connected to each other and to the earth, we must embrace this sustainable, partnership path.