Sustainability Talk

“Welcome to your classroom at Neadatagi House,” said Charley, favorite red teacup in hand as the newly arrived Portland State University Locus students settled on comfy frayed couches and floor cushions. “I’m Director of Cedar ReSources, the local sustainability organizing hub. Just so you know, ‘Neadatagi’ means ‘cedar,’ a tree that was a mainstay of the native peoples of the area. Caliente here is a living, breathing sustainability and permaculture pro…. And my daughter.” Cali took a bow. She sported her usual beret, a red one today that clashed delightfully with her reddish hair. She had left the baby with Carlos.

“What you’re looking at here in our two villages and outlying areas is a broad picture of how a community can learn to take care of itself, no matter what the outside economy is doing. Some of us actually settled here with this vision in mind. My wife and I, for instance, were inspired in part by Portland’s Rain Magazine and the posters they did in the ‘70’s of integrated neighborhoods and communities, both urban and rural.”

“Like the one we have on our wall,” pointed out Michael, his portly form contrasting with Charley’s lithe skinny one. He was practically jumping up and down with his enjoyment of this next stage of his own dream coming alive.

“Yes, that’s one of them,” Charlie grinned. “I love the feeling of slowly but surely making those pictures come true. The dream took a leap when the Logan family transformed their land into a sustainable forestry trust in the early 1980’s. Gordon and Owen and their father who has since died. Their children, Robin and her cousin Obie are now involved. I understand you are going to visit them soon so I won’t go into any detail.”

“So thirty-some years ago,” said Satish, a small, dark skinned young man from India.

“Then in the mid 90’s there were two serious floods – 100 year floods, so-called because they supposedly only happen every hundred years. We’ve had a third one since. At the time of the first our area was completely cut off for several days by landslides and flooded or caved in roads on each of the five ways out of here. Other times big windstorms knocked out power, phone and cell phones for almost a week.”

“I was a kid during those storms,” Michael remembered. “My family was glad we had a wood stove so we could still cook.”

“In many ways it wasn’t that dire that first flood. We all managed. Even the babies who were due waited another week.” Caliente and her dad exchanged glances recalling the family drama of her and her twin’s birth. “But it was a wake up call – and a big goose for putting more of our ideals into practice. What if it had been a major earthquake and its tsunami that affected the whole region? Not only would we be cut off, we would be a very low priority on anyone’s list for digging out if presumably the devastation included Portland and Seattle. What did we have in place if the situation lasted months? It’s one thing to think of the immediate emergency. It’s another to respond after the lives have been saved. And yet another to imagine being self-sufficient if lines of communication and supply (particularly of gas and food) are cut off indefinitely.”

“How did you proceed?” asked Michael.

“We did a number of things over the next few years. Molly Burns and my wife Ursula set up ReBound. We knew it was time to develop the deeper ethic of reuse. We only sort of got it at the time what a community-building mechanism ReBound would be and how it would create such an ethic of the exchange of material goods. I assume you’ll be visiting there soon.”

“Molly and Gabe are giving us an official tour tomorrow. Satish and Zydeco here start work there in the next few days.”

“We also began to get serious about growing our own food and herbal medicines. Community gardens. Farmers markets.” Charley took a sip from his tea. “After we started the Conservancy Trust on an old dairy farm, its barnyard and orchards became the Locavore Center to teach about gardening and research what can grow in the area and what we need to trade for and stock up on. Wheat, beans, coffee.”

“Corn.”

“Chocolate.”

“Almonds.”

“At Benden Farm we’re experimenting with various beans,” interjected Cali, “and olives because cooking and lamp oil is an issue. I wonder half seriously about setting up trade agreements with places in Eastern Oregon if things really broke down. Our crab for Mosier’s grain, for instance.”

“Could be an important link,” said her father. “We also began preserving agricultural lands. Some area growers, including Cali here, now lease land is owned by the Conservancy Trust.”

“The trust totally made it possible for Carlos and I to survive economically,” said Cali gratefully.

“New systems and institutions are important, but community relationships are even more so. It is the connections among us that will keep us safe and secure when things are tough. Thus some activist growers joined the local Grange to cross boundaries with the older farming generation. Plus their building is a good community resource to keep available.”

“We started a Grower’s Guild,” added Caliente as her dad took a sip from his teacup, “so those of us doing permaculture can network and learn from each other. We’re all feeling our way. How does one grow in ways that enhance the earth and its creatures? So much knowledge and skills were lost in just a few generations. We’re learning about seaweed and local plants both for food and other uses. Nettles, for instance, can be used for cordage – rope. So could hemp if we were allowed to grow it legally.”

Everyone laughed.

“We’re proud of our young people taking up this challenge of dancing with adaptability. You folks included,” said Charley. “Maybe this was covered in your class work, but besides sustaining ourselves in the pressure of emergencies, we must also consider the long-term health of the community so we can surf economic cycles. Believe it or not, a high is as hard on us as a low – land prices skyrocket to make housing an even bigger issue for the working people. Luxury stores start to dominate. With our reuse and simple living ethic, we knew we didn’t want to be dependent on chi-chi boutiques. We enjoy the restaurant options of a resort community, but we want those to support local growers.

“Food marketing must have paid off,” said Zydeco, his dark dreads bobbing in his enthusiasm. “I’ve noticed restaurants advertise local produce and meat.”

“We’re proud of that. Have you noticed what else we did?”

“A lot of spas and massage therapists here?” offered Mariposa.

“Right. We figured we’d be better off selling services than importing geegaws. To be known as a re-creation, re-generation, re-storative place. Enter the Healing Arts Guild.”

“Also a shitload of reuse stores and places highlighting recycle art. Did ReBound have an effect on that?” Zydeco was looking forward to his stint at the community’s reuse hub.

“You betcha and our craft stores tend to buy locally or are at least fair trade from elsewhere. The Green Fund helps start-ups and our Local Investment Guild matches up people taking savings out of the stock market to put into local ventures.”

“We’ve all learned how shaky the ‘normal’ financial world can be in the last couple of years,” interjected Michael.

“Absolutely,” responded Charlie. “Why invest your money in faraway corporations with questionable values or even in so-called progressive mutual funds, if you can help forward movement in your own community?”

“Talk about relationship building.”

“Can you give us examples?”

“Buying the River Valley Phone Company when owner Nathan Green died and his family wanted to cash out. We put together three partners, two local and one weekend resident.”

“Quite a coup!”

“Co-op, actually,” Charley grinned. “And its profits go into the Green Fund. Other investment ventures include small elder care houses and affordable rental housing. A retiring carpenter got a loan to go into lawnmower repair at ReBound. Another loan got the Nekelew Hostel going where I hear a few of you are living this fall. Even some of the Conservancy Trust lands have been purchased through investment loans. If you are interested, we could do a whole session on how that all works. The head of the Credit Union would come, I’m sure, and the attorneys and CPA’s who do major share of the Investment Guild’s transactions and paperwork. Michael’s former classmate, Molly’s son, Ethan Burns, is part of that crew even though he lives in Portland.”

“I was thinking to wait for the business students joining us after the winter holidays,” responded Michael. “And let’s take a break right now.

 

Cali sat on the toilet breathing deeply as she thought back on the early days of what her dad was describing. She remembered the visioning murals that her mom and Pia had organized. People at community events one summer had been invited to paint their ideas for the future on aerial views rendered on large plywood panels by some of her artist friends. Little Otter Logan had done a sweetly crude drawing of a fairy house she wanted to build in the forest. Arlo had painted a jitney on the road. Her own depiction of a dream farm had actually come true though not in the place she imagined. How much had they influenced the manifestation of all this? How much had magic been a part of it? Oops, she’d better not dally. Someone else probably needed to pee.

 

“You make it all sound easy, which I’m sure on a day to day basis it hasn’t been. What opposition has there been?” asked an earnest looking young woman when they were all settled again. “Surely not everyone has been okay with what you guys have been up to.”

“We have longstanding adversaries for sure,” said Charley. “They disagree fundamentally with our vision for this place. They think fancy housing helps the community more than conservancy land, not realizing how much the latter raises adjacent property values. But the depth and passion of their opposition goes deeper than that and can get ugly. We represent a threat to the status quo of money valued for itself as a measure of success. In its most crass form it’s about greed and competition. They can’t stand our values of cooperation and sharing. Is it guilt that makes them go after us so fiercely? In denial that anyone could be so foolish as to take seriously values like consensus building and lack of hierarchy. Or, worse, that it could work. That we’re happy.”

“Can you give us examples?”

“I try not to think about them too much cuz I don’t want to give them energy…. The developer who slips in and buys land we have our eye on. Our battle over the Elk Ridge neighborhood. Some city officials were hostile and, at times, downright adversarial. They had trouble groking the need for affordable housing, preferring this to be a place for the rich to vacation and retire in. They stirred up a lot of NIMBY reactions.”

“Nimby?”

“Not In My Back Yard. Visions of meth addicts danced in their heads. They forget that working folks who make the wheels go round can’t afford to be here when land values are high – police, teachers, nurses, carpenters, not to mention waiters and cleaning people. Sometimes out-of-town hirees turn down good jobs at the clinic, schools or the city because they can’t find housing they can afford anywhere up and down the coast.”

“Finding places for students to stay is a challenge,” said Michael.

“Not surprised,” said Charley.

“Some go after us almost on principle,” said Cali. “If we’re for it, they’d better be against it.”

“Of course, in a way they’re right,” said Michael. “You do things differently. Goats and chickens in the middle of town. I’ll bet you drum outside sometimes.” Everybody laughed ruefully.

“’Times are a changin.’ They better get used to it,” said a young man in blonde dreads and raggedy overalls.

“Easy to say but this is a small town and we’ve worked hard to stay connected with all our neighbors. Even the most skeptical and cantankerous are pleased to share a jam recipe or appreciate help with a tree down across the driveway,” said Charley.

“Have people run for public office? Seems like a way to assert power locally.”

“A few, though not enough yet to attain critical mass. Much can be accomplished that way. Personally, I’m better at working outside the system without official support or the constraints that go along with that. But I admire folks who can deal with the bureaucratic sides of things – planning commissions, city councils, county budget committees.”

“The Watershed Council is an awesome cross section,” offered Cali. “Funded by the state, they’re mandated to include the timber industry, local governments and environmentalists. Of course, they’re often hampered by disagreements so there are certain issues they just don’t touch. Still, over the long haul they’ve created useful partnerships that serve all sides. They’ve become real people to each other.”

“We’ve talked about the value of humanizing one’s demons,” said Michael.

“Good,” responded Charley. “You see, we have to work with local governments, et al. because we’re looking to be more than a wholesome tribe underneath the dominant culture. We could’ve gone up into the hills and established a commune. Instead, we’re working for structural change from within. We want to become the power structure from the bottom up. One committee, one group, one idea, one project and event at a time. We bring others of our ilk into the organizations and slowly they come under new values. In a small town there are always vacancies and a need for people to serve. I’m particularly trying to encourage more young people to get involved. It’s great when retirees from the city pitch in but they have a tendency move back when their health becomes compromised or they miss their grandkids or whatever. It’s especially heartening to us when people sign on who have a real stake in the long term here.”

“It’s time for lunch. Thanks, Charley and Cali. This has been inspirational.” Michael made the first move towards winding up the discussion.

“We are so glad you guys are here,” said Cali. “Many hands make light work, as my mom always says. Obviously we’re secretly hoping you fall in love with the place and stay!”

“Even if you move on,” said Charley, “we’re happy to have you spreading the word and starting things up elsewhere. You can reverse our adage and begin to ‘think locally and act globally.’ Ripples on a pond. Don’t forget to check out Lindsey’s and Crystal’s energy efficient buildings and their retrofit of the old school that is the community center in Nekelew. They’ve even hooked up the fitness machines to generators and help heat the pool that way.”

“Bravo!” Everyone clapped.