Reclaiming the Commons for the Common Good (New Society Publishers, 2014) is both Heather Menzies’ memoir and a manifesto for the revival of traditional common land practices as a way of preserving our connection to the earth and to each other. The commons ethos of empathy and mutual respect, Menzies argues, is necessary for the common good and for the environment as a whole. The following excerpt comes from Chapter 13, “Capacity Building #2 — Healing, Habitats, and Reconnecting with Nature.”
What I’ve learned about environment astounds me. It’s not something out there; it’s here and all around me. We each live in our own microenvironment, our own personal habitat. We also co-create this; all organisms do, according to developmental geneticist Richard Lewontin. As he put it in Biology as Ideology, “there is no ‘environment’ in some independent and abstract sense. Just as there is no organism without an environment, there is no environment without an organism. Organisms don’t experience environments. They create them.” Birds do this by collecting twigs, bits of plastic and mud to build a nest, and people do it through material things like clothes and furniture and immaterial things like daily habits and practices. Teenagers can create at least something of a personal habitat when they withdraw behind hoodies or unconventional clothes, body piercings and makeup, keeping sound buds in their ears, eyes and fingers on their digital devices.
A Cultural Nature Deficit Disorder
The human microenvironment is perhaps the most important to understand considering that 90% of human brain circuitry is wired after birth — with early life experience causing some neurons and synapses to grow and others not. This is a new understanding, even a new paradigm, in neuroscience. It replaces the old deterministic view that genes controlled brain development completely with a view suggesting that genes only set out possibilities. How these possibilities or potentials are expressed largely depends on the environment within which a child grows up, an environment that parents, teachers and other caregivers help to coproduce. Given this, one thing is also clear: if we are to have any hope of renewing a consciousness of ourselves as commoners, together-as-one with the Earth and with each other in community, the cultivation of early childhood connections is crucial.
And right now this isn’t happening, according to Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods. Most North American children these days are being raised in cities or massive subdivisions far from the chance not just to connect with nature but to enter some kind of meaningful relationship with the elements of it they find there: shrubs and trees, frogs in a creek. They need to be involved, he argued, exploring and making themselves familiar with some local bit of forest, meadow or marsh, quoting Frank Wilson, a professor of neurology at Stanford University School of Medicine. Wilson studied the coevolution of the hominid hand and brain, concluding that each helped the other to evolve. “We’ve been sold a bill of goods — especially parents — about how valuable computer-based experience is,” Wilson wrote in The Hand. “We are creatures identified by what we do with our hands.” But instead of children climbing trees and mucking about, Louv found in his research, they are at best merely spectators in nature. Between 1997 and 2003, there was a 50% decline in the proportion of American children aged 9 to 12 who engage in outdoor activities like hiking, gardening, fishing or beach play. There’s also been a huge drop in the numbers of families going to nature and wilderness parks. Another study found that children’s free play time had dropped by 9 hours a week over the past 25 years. As well, Louv wrote, children are growing up no longer connecting food in the supermarket with its origins in the soil, another telling symptom. All in all, he wrote, childhood has become denatured, and the consequences are troubling. Not only does Louv embrace the biophilia theory of Harvard scientist Edward O. Wilson who argued that humans have an innate affinity for the natural world, and need that connection to feel whole. Louv endorsed Theodore Roszak’s interpretation of the American Psychiatric Association’s understanding of “separation anxiety disorder” as including the natural as well as social environment. “[N]o separation is more pervasive in this Age of Anxiety than our disconnection from the natural world,” Roszak wrote. Louv coined the phrase nature deficit disorder to summarize research documenting the costs of this disconnect, this “alienation from nature” as he put it. The costs include attention difficulties, diminished use of the senses and higher rates of physical and emotional illness.
Louv quoted medical researchers in Seattle who found that by 3 months of age, some 40% of kids were regularly watching TV, DVDs or other videos. In my own book No Time, I cited statistics on ADD and quoted various sources including Gabor Maté who linked this both to too much early immersion in a quick-click, flitting-image media environment and to not enough grounding in attuned, mutually attentive relationships. I excavated the meaning of the word “attention,” derived from Latin words ad and tendere, meaning “to reach toward.” In other words, attention is an act of seeking and sustaining connection. I also tracked down the Canadian woman, Virginia Douglas, who’d first identified the phenomenon known as ADD associated with kids having problems at school. ADD is characterized by fragmented, disorganized behavior linked to an underlying problem of short, flitting attention, an inability to stay focused and sustain concentrated attention. It’s really a “self-regulatory disorder,” Virginia Douglas told me.
The Need for a Connection to the Earth
In Alone Together, Sherry Turkle talked about “‘post-familial families’” whose members are “each in their own rooms, each on a networked computer or mobile device.” Speaking of the parents who have co-created this habitat for their children, she reported that “as we, ourselves enchanted, turned away from them to lose ourselves in our e-mail, we did not sufficiently teach the importance of empathy and attention to what is real.” Turkle expressed concerns about not only the online world of hyperactivity but its increasing population by sociable robots that replace real-life friends and confidantes. “Overwhelmed, we have been drawn to connections that seem low risk and always at hand: Facebook friends, avatars, IRC chat partners.” In a footnote, Turkle mentioned a study that documented a steady decline (between 1985 and 2004) in the number of people with whom Americans can discuss matters important to them, with the number of people who reported having no one to confide in more than doubling to 25%. This study supports other studies chronicling the rise of isolation and depression among young people. Turkle also cited a marginal note written by Erik Erikson in a book called The Protean Self written by one of Erikson’s students, Robert Jay Lifton. Where Lifton had written enthusiastically about an emergent “protean man,” Erikson had penned in the margin: “protean boy?” In other words, Turkle interpreted Erikson’s query as meaning “terminally juvenile,” unequipped and unfit for the responsibilities of mature adulthood not just as parents but as implicated participants in society.
To offset our isolation from one another requires a second area of capacity building: sharing grounded connection not just with our children but with the Earth, the habitat from which all life derives. If we are to learn and teach our children to be stewards of the larger commons and environment, we must first be responsible for those we co-create in our homes and local communities. “Environments” condition and shape us. They enable some things and disable others. It’s what Marshall McLuhan meant in his famous aphorism “the medium is the message,” inspiring a whole new school of communication called “media ecology” that focuses on the social relations of communication and the larger medium context. McLuhan actually spelled this out once, explaining that when he coined this memorable phrase, he meant that media function as environments. The infrastructure and operating atmosphere and environment of a particular medium work people over, he said, imparting and implanting a message far deeper and more lasting than any messages carried through its structures. It’s the relationship, detached or intimate, observer or participant within the environment that matters.
I learned this as a child, both at the farm planting trees and in the backyard garden at our suburban home tending the vegetables and weeding. I learned it more fully as a mother, whole conversations with my infant son unfolding through eye contact, body language and pre-verbal exchanges of sounds. And I learned it in the classroom teaching seminar courses for some 20 years at Carleton University where I capped enrollments if I could to ensure a rich and inclusive dialogue with everyone around the table. In all cases, the important thing was being fully present, relating to others and other life forms, co-creating an environment of mutuality, learning and growth.
Community Gardens as Capacity Building
I have kept up gardening ever since childhood, raising my family almost entirely on my backyard garden’s produce. Even in the days when I lived in an apartment, I kept it up, renting space in allotment gardens run by the City of Winnipeg when I lived there and, later, Ottawa. Once I grew lettuce and arugula in an old wooden drawer I’d salvaged. I’ve always liked having my hands in the dirt, forking in compost that I’ve managed to make myself, marking off rows and planting seeds one by one, covering them with earth and patting that into place, then waiting for the first telltale crack in the earth, the pale shaft of a seedling poking through, seeking the sun. Often I work the garden barefoot, and having now read William Bryant Logan’s book Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth, I do so with an added delight and intent. Logan’s book contains a wealth of fascinating facts, my favorite being that as people work skin to skin with their hands in the dirt, it boosts their serotonin levels. Small wonder, I think as I consider that working the soil this way, day after day, week after week through the summer is also a way of creating a connection to the Earth directly and even intimately. I come to know it as I turn it over with a shovel or fork, my nose taking in small shifts in smell, my fingers absorbing subtle shifts in texture. The soil is alive to me, and I to it. A relationship has been formed; the biochemical reaction is surely merely a sign.
But this is only part of what’s needed. It’s important to share this, through community gardens or working out the sharing of water and tools in allotment gardens. It’s the sharing of this embedded physical work, and the organizational details around it, that fosters a social as well as natural habitat. Part of capacity building, then, is recognizing many existing sites, institutions and community projects as possible commons-like habitats that can be coproduced by people through the activities they’re involved in. In existing social habitats (community centers, schools, churches, for example) further capacity building might involve building relationships with the outdoors. A church might sponsor an outdoor community labyrinth, a mosque, a halal chicken coop. A school and community center might cosponsor a community vegetable garden. Alternately, where the habitat is largely natural (such as a nature conservancy) capacity building here might mean building social relationships by, for example, constructing a boardwalk through a wetland, creating signs to illustrate a walking tour or forming a partnership with a local mental health facility through which clients can participate in green therapy.
At its simplest, a commons is a habitat of interrelationships, bound by mutuality: mutual obligation and mutual self-interest and also, hopefully, affinity. The Gabriola Commons is an emergent expression of such integrated capacity building. People decide things together, and they do things together on the land. Relationships are formed, even right relations involving mutual recognition and respect toward both other people and other lifeforms. Trust is developed. People become implicated participants, more and more immersed in what’s going on, attuned to the pulse of ongoing growth. And as they do, an ethos is developing, the beginnings of what might one day be called a commons consciousness. Part of this is coming to know things together as well, with the resultant knowledge informing self-governing decision-making and fostering the confidence that together-as-one, we can get things done.
Reprinted with permission from Reclaiming the Commons for the Common Good: A Memoir & Manifesto by Heather Menzies and published by New Society Publishers, 2014.