Embers of Hope: Embracing Life in an Age of Ecological Destruction and Climate Chaos

by Bonita Ford

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I am concerned we are killing the living world that makes our survival possible. I want to imagine a healthy future for the children I know; right now, I worry about the hardship they will have to bear in their lifetimes.

When I chat with people, be they neighbours or strangers, most agree that things are not working in some way: the state of our environment is dire, our economies are unstable, and our political systems do not serve the average citizen. In addition, many of us may be dealing with personal challenges such as a serious illness, the loss of a loved one, or other trauma. It’s not easy to deal with all of this and still keep our hearts open.

The future of life on Earth is uncertain and our lifetimes are finite. Considering our own deaths as well as the possibilities of climate catastrophe, and perhaps even our collective extinction, shows us what we have to lose. If we are to find happiness in the face of this, I believe it is up to us to create it while making a contribution to the world.

Embers of Hope is about doing just that: embracing life in uncertain times. In this book, we explore death in order to reconnect with our vitality, and we confront ecological devastation in an effort to rediscover our oneness with all of life. Although reflecting on these things may feel uncomfortable or scary at first, ultimately they lead to uncovering what is truly important to each of us.

Personally, my perspective has been radically transformed by the deaths of a dear friend and a close family member. I learned through them to be grateful, to do small meaningful things each day, to give back to the community, and to let go, so that when it’s my time to die, hopefully I can be at peace.

My loved ones’ journeys helped me see our global ecological crisis through new eyes. Previously, I thought there were only two options: be hopeful and do everything in my power to change things, or accept that there’s nothing I can do and give up. I now try to hold both perspectives: I am doing what I can to foster a healthier world and make peace with the end; I am nurturing new possibilities and trying to be open to receiving what life brings.

When we take the step of acknowledging our own mortality, how does this affect the way we live? When we look at the threats to our planet home, how does this compel us to act?

We can nurture ourselves and the life around us through our choices. Those choices can be as simple as helping a neighbour, or they can be as significant as protecting a forest or starting a nonprofit to serve food-insecure people in our community. If the end is near, then now is the best time to appreciate life: to feel the air on our faces, to sing, to sit under a tree, to hug a friend.

I hope this book will help you realise or remember how you want to live. May this nourish the seeds of possibility and the embers of hope that you carry.

Choice

The world can be very messed up and our life conditions may allow us few options. Still, we have some measure of internal choice and it is up to us to use it.

I think of Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist who survived the Nazi concentration camps. He recalls that there were a few people who, in spite of the horrific circumstances there, comforted others and gave away their only piece of bread. Choosing kindness and generosity in the midst of extreme suffering may seem impossible. Yet humans can be incredibly adaptable.

I went to Haiti three times; Bastou and I were invited once for work and later I raised funds to go back. There, I saw the resilience of people and of Mother Earth. I met individuals who, despite living in extreme poverty, made choices that enriched life. They were everyday heroes whose actions made a difference to their families and neighbours.

During a permaculture course there, one student team had chosen to do a design project for a neighbourhood in Cité Soleil, which is considered one of the poorest and most dangerous areas in the Western Hemisphere. The team members who lived there gave a small group of us a walking tour.

We met a man who lived in a tin house with his adult son. Inside, there was a baby sleeping naked on a cardboard box on the floor. I asked the man whether this was his grandchild. He said it was his friend’s baby and she was sitting outside. He explained that whenever there were children who needed a place to stay or food to eat, they would come here. He was like the grandfather of the neighbourhood.

He told us about his small garden. He had saved seeds from fruit and planted and watered them. As the plants grew, he had put up a make-shift fence to protect them from animals.

Since the 1980s, people had been gathering at his home to play dominoes every afternoon. Sometimes, someone brought food for the group. When he had the means, he would offer food too.

In another home, we met a young man in his late teens who lived with his three siblings. He told us they had eaten one meal that day and did not know where their next meal would come from. Their parents worked and lived over an hour away and would send money whenever they could.

Back at our course, it was clear that we had so much more than the impoverished communities around us. Although we were hot in the classroom, there was not always enough lunch to feed everyone, the composting toilet did not always get emptied, and the hand-washing station did not always get filled, we did not hear anyone complain. One of the teachers noted that he’d taught in much better conditions in other places and had heard people complain there.

Being in Haiti reminded me to make the best of a situation. I looked for what I could change, in my perspective or in my actions, to help myself and those around me.

Even if our lives are limited, I believe we each have some choice. If there is not enough food, we could share our meal with someone else or we could not eat. We could use food scraps to make compost and save seeds to plant.

Livelihood

Like our garden, our livelihood has evolved over the years. We continue to adapt and redesign both as things change.

Before or while establishing trees, which require nutrients and hospitable growing conditions, one can prepare the land with “pioneer plants” and “nitrogen fixers.” Pioneer plants are the fast-growing, short-lived plants that appear first on freshly-disturbed soil; they help cover the ground, accumulate organic matter, and build soil fertility. Nitrogen-fixing plants convert nitrogen, an essential nutrient, into a form that is accessible to most plants; when these plants are pruned or die back, the nitrogen becomes available in the soil. As the landscape progresses, the pioneers and nitrogen-fixers can be cut and used as mulch to support the slower-growing trees, which may provide fruit or nuts. In ecological terms, this maturation of a landscape over time is called “succession.”

While seeking our long-term home, I had a small contract doing business administration. This was like a pioneer plant, which gave us a solid foundation as we started to establish our livelihood. We also used permaculture design to direct our thinking.

“Design” includes the way we make decisions and plans. I would describe permaculture as a holistic approach to design that uses principles from nature, which was first articulated by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. We can apply this design process to physical things (such as gardens and houses) and to social things (such as a business or one’s lifestyle).

When we use “design thinking,” we observe what is present and what is available to us now. Through reflection, we try to make sense of what we observed. We identify the needs we want to meet. Then we explore strategies, considering various options that might meet the needs.

Here’s how we applied this to our livelihood:

Observation: What do we observe or notice around us? What do we observe or notice about ourselves? Shortly after arriving in Perth, we considered starting a small business. We had conversations with several longtime residents and read about the community. We learned that the town has a number of small businesses and a large population of retirees who had moved here from cities. On bulletin boards around town, we found two different fliers for “handy person” services and one for personal assistant and errand services. Bastou and I knew that we enjoyed working with people and had a lot of skills, including bookkeeping, computers, marketing, organising, gardening, and cooking.

Reflection: So what do our observations suggest to us? We thought that assistant services could be useful in the community. We guessed that retirees from the city and small businesses would have the income to afford these kinds of services.

Needs: What needs are we trying to meet? We needed self-sustainability, meaning, contribution, and support. We wanted to be able to sustain ourselves and do meaningful work. We also wanted to support other people and contribute something useful.

Possibilities: What possible strategies might meet these needs? After launching our assistant services, we accepted a variety of work requests. We volunteered in the community. Later, Bastou did web design, I developed our permaculture courses, and we had a few part-time jobs. All of these in combination helped us to sustain ourselves, support others, and contribute to the community in meaningful ways.

Additionally, our decision-making was guided by permaculture design principles, which include thinking creatively, starting small and slow, serving multiple purposes, observing feedback, working with change over time, and having beneficial redundancy.

We thought about creative ways to make a living. Offering personal and business assistant services was a simple idea that allowed us to match our skills to possible needs in the community. We took small steps and started slowly; the start-up costs were minimal with only insurance, business name registration, and photocopying for brochures and business cards.

Our assistant services had multiple purposes, bringing a bit of income and giving us a reason to connect with new people. We did a lot of volunteer work, which included co-founding Transition Perth (a group to address environmental and economic resilience in the community), organising film nights and potlucks, running neighbourhood garden tours, and hosting three local permaculture convergences. Our volunteering also served multiple purposes, like building community, developing new skills, and making new friends.

After launching our business, we observed what grew. Someone asked Bastou to make a website. Soon after, he received a second website-related request and then a third. Although our business did not turn out the way we had imagined, we worked with the feedback and opportunities that came. Bastou read about and studied web design and slowly established a business.

I continued with the business administration work that I had started while travelling, and I was also working with change. Bastou and I led permaculture courses together; I taught Nonviolent Communication, stress-reduction in the garden, and Reiki; I facilitated community designs of edible forest gardens; and I presented at conferences and to master gardener groups. After several years, as my courses, project work, and public speaking grew, I gradually let go of the business administration.

Having varied work provided us with multiple sources of income, which made our financial situation resilient to change. Since we depend on money for various things, it made sense to have redundancy.

Over the years, our interests changed too. I began writing this book and Bastou began to make Islamic geometric art. When his art brought in some income and required more time, he decided to stop offering web design services; he took a part-time job two days a week and did more artwork. Similarly, in the last year, I took a break from our courses and did paid work one day a week so I could dedicate most of my time to editing. My book and his art are like the young fruit trees in the garden of our lives.

In essence, we put our passion to good use and made purposeful decisions to contribute to our community. With small steps, we gradually reshaped our livelihood and lifestyle. Even as things continue to unfold, we are finding ways to sustain ourselves financially, to engage ourselves creatively, and to support the people and places around us.

Community

Human beings are social creatures. To belong and to be valued matters to us, and to support one another is part of the fabric of communal life. Our ancestors moved together in bands and lived in villages. Even if we grow up in a contemporary culture that emphasises the individual, we still have a need for some form of community.

Bastou has travelled more than me. Growing up in France, he was accustomed to getting on a train with a backpack and going to another country. When he and his brother were 19 and 16 respectively, they flew to Senegal on their own for the first time. His exposure to other cultures showed him that people have a lot in common, despite seeing themselves as different through the lens of ethnicity, nationality, religion, and more. In his twenties, he started a nonprofit to help promote cross-cultural exchange.

Bastou believes that some of the biggest problems in the world come from people seeing one another as different. When we cannot relate to something, we tend to fear or mistrust it. When some people feel insecure, they build taller fences around their homes, both literally and psychologically.

When I imagine large-scale crises, my immediate response is admittedly still fear: I want to run to the woods away from people. However, I’ve learned from living in Perth that cultivating relationships is an important part of being resilient.

I once asked a farmer friend if she would trade some squash for some potatoes.

When she brought me the squash, she said, “Your potatoes are worth more than the squash. Here, have some onions too.”

I replied, “Wow, that’s really generous. Here, let me give you some tomatoes.”

Our initial exchange created a mini cascade of gifts — including seeds and other vegetables — that continued over a couple of years. We exchanged more than we would have had it been a simple, one-time cash transaction. As the gifts cycled between us, our goodwill grew.

Since moving to our home in Perth, I’ve made an effort to connect with our neighbours. I’ve enjoyed knocking on their doors with food in hand or leaving small gifts in their mailboxes. Depending on the year, we’ve had extra seeds, seedlings, tomatoes, cucumbers, oregano, garlic, or chutney to share. Our neighbours seemed appreciative, and this strengthened our relationships in ways that I could not have foreseen at the time.

***

I’ve heard a few permaculture teachers say that, even with the best design, a system can fail if its social structures do. Even though a healthy forest can take care of itself, if economic pressures encroach, that forest can become a pile of lumber. Taking care of people goes hand in hand with taking care of the Earth.

At the same time, our communities and social webs are a key part of our resilience, especially when the ecological, economic, or political systems around us become unstable.

In 1998, a severe ice storm hit large parts of Ontario, Québec, and the Northeast of the U.S., bringing down trees and electrical wires and disabling large portions of the electrical grid. The worst-affected places were without power for weeks.

I was in Kingston, Ontario at the time. I have fond memories of that short period without power. A friend showed up with hot chocolate one day and we set out to bring hot food to an elderly friend. Large community shelters opened and free meals were served. Strangers talked on the streets. A few blocks of the downtown area still had power, since their electrical cables were underground and safe from the weight of the ice and the falling trees. Away from those busy blocks, the neighbourhoods were dark, quiet, and peaceful.

In her book A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster, writer and activist Rebecca Solnit writes that when disaster hits, it is real people, even strangers, who self-organise to help one another. She asserts:

The image of the selfish, panicky, or regressively savage human being in times of disaster has little truth to it. Decades of meticulous sociological research on behavior in disaster, from the bombings of World War II to floods, tornadoes, earthquakes, and storms across the continent and around the world, have demonstrated this.

The immediacy of disaster tends to cast aside the barriers of “normal” life and many people have a strong need to help and be useful. Solnit highlights how people in New York, in response to the attacks of September 11th, 2001, demonstrated an urgent desire to help, because giving to others or doing something gave them purpose. Solnit also emphasises that the most extreme behaviour in disaster situations often come from those who anticipate barbarism and believe they have to defend themselves.

We could learn a lot from this. Our dominant culture upholds the idea of competition for survival, whereas cooperation within a species and mutualism between species are widespread in nature. Over 80% of plant species on land have root associations with fungi (called mycorrhizae). In this symbiotic relationship, the plants provide sugars made through photosynthesis and can even give up to half of this to their fungal partners. In return, they receive minerals, are more tolerant to drought and salinity, and experience fewer pests and disease. The mycorrhizae can form a network in the soil that connects plants and may promote diversity in the plant community by improving access to nutrients.

It is important to recognise that the biggest help in a disaster can come from those in our immediate vicinity. Instead of feeding our mistrust about how dangerous people can be, we can start to connect with our neighbours now. If we can learn to help one another while conditions are relatively stable then, when things break down, we’ll be more able to work together effectively and be less inclined to give in to fear.

A small group of our neighbours have talked about creating a system to check in on everyone in the neighbourhood during an emergency. Neighbourhood associations, which can do projects together and hold community events, are one of many ways to strengthen local resilience.

Now when I worry about potential crises, I remind myself to build relationships rather than fences — and to build relationships where there are already fences. I challenge myself to make more of an effort to get to know the people around me.

Over the years, giving gifts and receiving help have taught me about a culture of mutual support. In the garden, when we feed the diverse life in the soil, we feed ourselves in the long-term; likewise, nurturing the relationships around us prepares the ground for our future well-being.

BONITA ELOISE FORD, M.A., B.SC.

Bonita teaches permaculture (ecological design), Nonviolent Communication (cooperative communication), Reiki (energy work), and gardening. She has led workshops around the world for over 18 years. Bonita loves eating wild foods, talking to the plants, and dancing barefoot on the Earth. To read more excerpts and to order the book, Embers of Hope: Embracing Life in an Age of Ecological Destruction and Climate Chaos, visit: https://www.embersofhopebook.com/.

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