Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Book Announcement: Communities that Abide

Over the past few months I've been living in a place that agrees with me in a lot of ways. I like the fact that pets and children here roam free. The dogs roam about in playful packs, and temporarily attach themselves to humans they like. The cats stand their ground against dogs, and bring presents of dead animals to humans they like. There are even some wild horses that graze in the jungle during the day and go to the beach in the evenings, to be petted by tourists. The children quickly develop an ecosystem of their own, and look out for each other, with random adults providing whatever parenting might be required from time to time. Indoor cats, dogs on leashes and “helicopter” parenting are unheard of here. I also like how schedules here are for buses, while people do what they like when they like, depending on the general mood and the weather (which fluctuates between pretty nice and extremely nice). Having such great neighbors does a good deal to heal one's soul.

One group of neighbors I have particularly come to enjoy is a large colony of Montezuma Oropendola, which is a sort of large, tropical, yellow-tailed blackbird. They are colony breeders, and there was a colony of well over 50 individuals nesting in a dead tree pretty much right in my backyard. I tend to spend a lot of time hammering on a laptop, and so having a view like that on which I could rest my eyes periodically was most welcome. The Oropendola are good-sized birds—the size of the average chicken—but much better flyers. They weave huge sock-like nests out of long strands of grass in which they sleep and rear their chicks. They are gregarious and talkative bordering on raucous, and some people don't like their endless chatter punctuated by loud yodeling, but I got to like them.

After a while spent watching them, I realized that most of the yodels have to do with security and air traffic control. The Oropendola tend to claim an exclusive right over a given large tree, where they post a sentry. They are peaceful (I am yet to see a squabble) but they are so well organized that other birds, from eagles and vultures to the various tiny ones, tend to avoid them.) The sentry's job is to check everyone in and out of that tree (although when the sentry is left alone guarding a tree, smaller bird species are welcome to visit). Most of the flights are straight line courses between trees, where they are bid adieu in one tree and greeted in another, using two distinctive series of squawks from the sentries.

These birds are late sleepers, hiding in their nests until broad daylight, whereas other birds wake up and sing at first light. Dusk is their favorite time of day; this is when they all congregate and socialize, and mate. They mate in mid-air, like eagles and vultures, but unlike these, they don't just grab onto each other and plummet but do a maneuver reminiscent of pairs figure skating.

* * *

For about a year now, I've been working on an e-book on resilient communities: Communities that Abide. I certainly have collected enough material for one, but until now I have lacked the impetus to put it all together. When I write, I often look for a picture on which to anchor the words. (My wife thinks that this is childish, but it works for me.) And this Oropendola colony seemed like the perfect subject for cover art for a book about resilient communities. Here they were, thriving in a dead tree, just like we are attempting to thrive, while still tied to a civilization that is nearing collapse due to resource depletion, rapid climate change and the suicidal stupidity of those who are running the show.

I took a number of pictures of this tree, during different times of day, until I got the one I wanted: the tree is deserted, with the entire colony out foraging for fruit and insects, except for the ever-present sentinel. And then, one rainy morning a few days after I took this picture there was the roar of a chainsaw, and then a loud crash. I came out to look, and the dead tree was missing. Instead, there was a large number of Oropendola up in the sky, circling around the spot where their tree had stood in uncharacteristic silence. The object lesson of the Oropendola just became a bit more poignant: this is what collapse looks like.

I soon found out that the tree's roots were on an adjoining property, and that the owner of that property killed the tree by pouring a foundation slab over the roots and then, once it was dead and declared a hazard, hired some locals to cut it down. That person also owns a gift shop, and Oropendola nests sell for $75 apiece. The chainsaw gang charged her $300; there were about 50 nests. I saw them sitting in a wheelbarrow and stole one. The object lesson of the Oropendola became even more poignant: what destroyed their habitat was the profit motive.

The birds circled about for an hour, and then regrouped. They posted sentries on the neighboring tall trees, and spent a few hours drilling: flying back and forth between trees single-file and having the sentries check them out and in again, as before. A day later they started collecting grass for new nests. (They first assemble a giant stockpile of long strands of grass in the crook of a tree, and then start weaving.) Three days later, they didn't seem any less happy than before the calamity, and a lot louder (apparently, there was a lot for them to discuss).

The object lesson of the Oropendola is now complete. We are nesting in a dead tree. The tree was killed by somebody else's profit motive. Our communities will abide because 1. we are self-sufficient, 2. we have the ability to self-organize and recover in the face of calamity, and 3. we are not tied to any one place but are mobile.

I expect the book will take another month or more to put together. It will include chapters from several other authors: Albert Bates, Ray Jason and Jason Heppenstall have all agreed to contribute. If you would like to contribute a chapter as well, please let me know.


Josh said...

Hi Dmitry - thanks for this blog and your other written projects!

Perhaps a candidate case study for your "Communities that Abide" would be the ethnic Karen hill tribe of eastern Burma. The Karen have been embroiled in the world's longest running civil war with the Burmese military dictatorship since the early 1960s. For decades, their villages have been burned; their property and land confiscated; their community members and families beaten, tortured, and killed; their women, young girls and boys raped; their activists and politicians have been imprisoned, interrogated and tortured; they have been taken into forced labor growing food for the Burmese military, building roads and pipelines, serving as porters for military equipment, and as human mine-sweepers.

In short, they as a people have been subjected to all manner of thinkable, and unthinkable, human rights abuses. They have lived lives of astonishing insecurity, often having to flee into the jungle with little but what they can carry and hide there for weeks or sometimes months at a time while being pursued - hunted link animals - by the Burmese military. A best-case scenario for many displaced Karen people is to escape to Thailand, where they depend upon rations for survival in a refugee camp, or take their chances in myriad forms of undocumented labor where they are exposed to constant threats of exploitation, trafficking, and being forcibly re-patriated to Burma (which nearly guarantees imprisonment, torture, and execution.)

And yet they abide, and even thrive, according to my (albeit limited) experience living and working among them. I am an environmental chemist by training, and for the past several years I have worked with Karen communities on small projects in water and sanitation. I have observed a richness of character among them that I mostly find absent in the US, and which may help to explain their resilience in the face of decades of genocidal policies by the Burmese military.

Please let me know if you are interested to discuss further, and keep up the great blogging!


Unknown said...

Good to see a picture of your family too.

Thanks for your informative writing.

Judy said...

You wrote that beautifully. I really felt bad for the birds, and despise our profit driven destruction. Yet you have portrayed so brilliantly your 3 points for communities that abide. I am glad you have found somewhere with the space and inspiration to observe such details in nature.

AA said...

Will you not bother publishing the book in printed form?

Silent Otto said...

Gday D ,

Oropendola will be around long after the profit motive as we presently understand it has ceased to function. I understand things that flew tended to be the surviivors of the asteroid impact that killed the dinosaurs ....hmmm
I am fairly loved up in my present little rural community in Auatralia , but the turd in the punchbowl around here is that this entire please is slowly heating up like an oven , and so we are having to reimagine our place 5 degrees hotter , fifty percent drier with terrifying fire seasons . At the moment we are all studiously building friendships and resilience , but to me it is starting to feel like we are the Okies from " Grapes of Wrath" , who just cant bear to leave Granma buried in the backyard for a new life in California , and so we stay to long , like the people on the Ritanic who kept eating and drinking while refusing to believe the ship is going down , this sentiment is rife down under at the moment . To mitigate these threats , our PM today announced he is bringing back Knighthoods and Dameships for high achieving Auatralians , which seems rather silly on the surface , but is actually also quite silly diown below . Oh well , perhaps i will one day get to be a member of "The Bunyip Aristocracy " , before our ship goes down !

Spirited Raven said...

Dmitri, I've been following your writings for several years now. In that time I've come to enjoy the unique intellect that is you. Today's brief entry, weaving the durable character of your bird neighbors into a metaphor of what we face as communities of people, seems to me a culmination of what it is that you bring to us in way of perception, warning and understanding.

I had the chance to meet and hear you speak at last May's Age of Limits get-together. Interestingly, any brief opportunity then to know you personally seemed to be met by a man who is not entirely comfortable with the odd social encounter and superficial pleasantries. I ultimately concluded that it's part of the character of a man who has a great deal of ideas and information writhing about in his mind that hasn't the time or inclination to be bothered with the hellos and how do you do's. Then again, you could have been in just as bad a mood as the rest of us due to the unseasonably cold temperatures!

Sticking with the former conclusion arrived at for your reticence to engage in hollow banter, I've decided that your analysis of the world's goings-on both large and small seem to peg you as a very important systems thinker who is serving a very real service to a sliver of humanity: 'wake up, be adaptive and get along with one another - or perish; but p.s. I've neither the time nor the inclination to chat about the weather with you. Sincerely, Dmitri Orlov'

You're as honest, intelligent and unveneered (is that a word?) as they come and that's what makes you a gem in my book.

I welcome the chance to read the new book. I trust you'll continue to let the writhing thoughts spill out from you mind.

Warm regards, Peter Arena

Patrick said...

Hello, Dmitry. I envy your sailing down to Costa Rica. I have a friend who moved there and I've visited him twice—but have only seen the central and western parts of the country.

Your story reminded me a little of the screech owls in our neighborhood. A pair was nesting in a nearby hollow oak, which, although still alive and massive, was blown over in one of those extreme summer storms which may unfortunately become more common. Together with others, the owls do a good job keeping down all the smaller rodents (once the young start hunting for themselves to help out). Last fall, my daughter and I built and hung a nesting box, and were delighted to see owls move in this month. Can't do that with an entire tree, for the orependola, though. And no one is going to do that for humans.

The idea of nomadism is an interesting counterpoint to the desirability of becoming rooted and intimate with a place, as suggested by such people as Gary Snyder. The idea, as I understand it, is that if people get to know and love the place they live in, understand it not just in terms of streets and city borders, but also geology and watersheds, etc., they are more likely to defend and preserve it. History has shown that hasn't worked out so well, I suppose, except in the cases of nationalism and the inevitable wars that result—definitely not what Snyder had in mind.

Always good to read the intelligent essays and comments here.

Jayhawk said...

"3. we are not tied to any one place but are mobile."

Except that, having destroyed planet Earth, there is nowhere else for us to go; as nowhere that we can reach.

BonRobi said...

What a great time to be out of the USSA: how envious the frayed nerves, nuke suitcase carriers must be in DC and what a luscious alternative to a Boston winter. My wife and I are also spending a south of the border winter and have been struck by the in-the-moment mentality of the locals and their overall polite dispositions and openly friendly attitudes overall. We get the feeling these folks will adapt well once the global economic hammer comes down. If I may humbly suggest: try surfing while down here..... it will change your life. Not that you seem to need a change anyway as you sound like you have a pleasant lifestyle nailed but it will just send it right over the top. One more saltily lovely skill in the watermans tool chest. Pura Vida!!!

Anonymous said...

Excellent, I've been hoping you would write this since Age of Limits last year.

Richard Larson said...

A happy ending!

Unknown said...

Visited Yakutia 2 years ago, stayed a night in a village ~700km w of Yakutsk and was impressed with their apparent self sufficiency in such an environment (not one I am accustomed to, so remarkable to my eyes). The thought occurred more than once that this place might survive just about any calamity and hardly notice the goings on in the rest of the world. Telephone and internet, some petrol products of course, but we shared a feast that owed very little to imported ingredients - the cognac I suppose...

Ien in the Kootenays said...

I am looking forward to reading it. And, I would love a companion book written by a modern woman, and/or gay people. I am not looking for a dogmatic PC agenda, just for some acknowledgment that the price of social cohesion can be high and is paid too often by women. There is much to think about here. Maybe a chapter on the Haudenosaunee? They have some interesting arrangements.

Bogatyr said...

This might be of interest: Against the tide: Raising your children on a sailing boat has its dangers, but seafaring parents claim the benefits are vast