Michigan Land Trustees Newsletter
... I just finished teaching a unit on utopias and transcendentalism
and found it incredibly difficult for my students to “get
it.” It's not that they're stupid or lazy, but because I think
many of them are only half there in a sense that I can only explain as
are joined to a great Self... And because that Self is inclusive, you
are joined to all. “Awake! awake o sleeper of the land of
shadows, wake! expand! I am in you and you in me,
mutual in love... Fibers of love from man to man... Lo! we are One.
and from Walt Whitman's 'Leaves of Grass:
And if the body were not the soul, what is the soul?
--I sing the Body Electric
Was somebody asking to see the soul?
See, your own shape and countenance, persons, substances, beasts,
the trees, the running rivers, the rocks and sands.
--Starting from Paumanok, 13
You furnish your parts toward eternity,
Great or small, you furnish your parts toward the soul
--Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, 9
All these separations and gaps shall be taken up and hook'd and link'd together,
The whole earth, this cold, impassive, voiceless earth, shall be completely justified,
Trinitas divine shall be gloriously accomplish'd and compacted by the true son of God, the poet...
Nature and Man shall be disjoin'd and diffused no more,
The true son of God shall absolutely fuse them
--Passage to India
I am with you, men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence.
--Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, 3
and from Meister Eckhart:
Be thou therefore happily caught, and the more you are caught, the more you are set free.
“We live in a sinful society." "We live in a sick society.”
What difference does it make how we say it? The language of psychology
has displaced the language of theology. Hester Prynne; in her own day,
was considered sinful, in need of years of penance and penitence before
she could live in a state of grace. Hester Prynne, in our day, is
considered dysfunctional, in need of years of therapy before she can
live in a state of normalcy. Whether she has to recover her God's
blessing or her own inner child, Hester must go through a process of
recovery to fix what is wrong in her life. And our society--what
process of recovery does it need to go through?
What is our sin, our sickness? The ready answer, I suppose, is
materialism, in the form of mamon or the market economy and its
attendant greed and desire for power. And that answer is wrong. It is
wrong because the question is wrong, phrased as it is in language,
whether theological or psychological, that condemns rather than
perceives, that prescribes rather than understands, that names
solutions rather than describes the process of recovery for getting
A better question, then: What is it we need to recover? Not what must
we repent or be cured of, but what must we regain, and how do we regain
it? Whether “it” is Eden of grace, innocence or normalcy,
social democracy or a household economy or deep ecology, how do we
regain it? Or put it another way: How do we understand William Blake in
his best Chief Seattle mystical mode; or how do we moderns understand
Walt Whitman, the self-styled poet of the Modern, who is seen as the
voice of the radical individual materialist, since that is what we
moderns have become and the post-moderns condemn? What do we need to
recover in order to understand what they are saying, to perceive what
they are seeing?
We see, at best, only half, and we settle for half. The problem is not
that we are sinners or that we are sick. The problem is that we go
through life with one eye closed and see only half. The problem of
materialism is not one of which form the economy takes or of greed of
power or sin, but one of perception. We see the half and think it is
the whole and wonder what is missing, what we need to recover to feel
What is missing is the spirit. And being the materialists we are, when
we try to recover the spirit, we reify it with dogma and form instead
of experiencing it in a relationship. We name it God or Goddess and use
ritual to worship or evoke it as a thing outside ourselves instead of
to perceive and experience it as a part of ourselves. When Whitman
tells us the body is the soul, and the trees and rocks and rivers are
the soul, we take him literally: These are the soul, and the soul is
nothing more than these. And we miss the point. When Blake tells us we
are part of the greater Self, we take him literally: We reconfigure our
notions of the family and society and the earth as greater selves. And
we miss the point.
In the half-context of materialism, greed and power are not sins or
illnesses but perfectly rational behaviors designed to maximize the
benefits of materialism for the self. And if we expand the notion of
the material self to include some version of family or society or
world, rational behavior will attempt to maximize the benefits to be
gained from the exploitation of material resources and power.
Accommodating a larger sense of self simply means accommodating a
larger sense of the resources and power. Accommodating a larger sense
of self simply means accommodating a larger sense of the resource base.
In economic terms, this means internalizing externalities. If my idea
of self doesn't extend beyond my own skin, I can externalize the cost
of my behaviors to others: I will smoke a cigarette (or build a factory
and dump its effluents) whenever and wherever I please. If I enlarge my
sense of self to include family, I won't smoke at home (or bury the
effluents in my own backyard). Or, to include society, I won't smoke in
public places (and will ship the effluents overseas). Or to include the
world, I will look to technology to come up with a safer cigarette (or
an appropriate technology). What I will not do is give up the
material pleasures of smoking or technology because that's all there
is: the material pleasure. And if I am convinced that, for the sake of
my health, I must give it up, then I'll replace it with another and
devote whatever time and resources are necessary to getting it and will
have no peace or joy until I've gotten it abundantly. No matter what
form the self, the family, the society, the economy or the world take
for me, if its limits are material, its aspirations will also be
material. - My destiny, my desire, my goal, my ambition, will be
meaningless because materialism has to do with pleasure and pain, not
with meaning. Or, if one insists on meaning, then meaning will reside
in trying to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. Or, if one insists on
meaning, then meaning will reside in trying.
And to enlarge one's sense of meaning, one's perception? The answer is
in Blake or Whitman and in psychology and religion, but the answer is
not Blake or Whitman or psychology or religion. It is, according to
Buddha, to take one way of phrasing the answer, right views, right
resolve, right speech, ridht conduct, right livelihood, right effort,
right mindfulness, and right meditation. E.F. Schumacher tried to
develop a Buddhist economics. His followers have tried to develop an
appropriate technology. The aspiration towards and practice of one is
not the same as the aspiration towards and practice of the other. One
perceives the whole of our experience, the other only half. We begin to
recover the missing half, along with peace and joy, by reading Blake
and Whitman with both eyes open, by finding the right meditation to
keep both eyes open long enough to “Awake! awake o sleeper of the land of shadows, wake! expand!” (Could
Plato write a commentary on that line or what?) The Self is inclusive,
and it includes not just women and men, straight and gay, red and
yellow, black and white, rich and poor, market economies and home
economies; it also includes spirit.
My wish is for every one of us to be set free to see it with both eyes open.
Recollections About “The Old Radical”
I first heard of Axel Nielsen during the tumult of the late Sixties. A
friend of mine within the peace movement advised me to go to Peoples
Church so I could check out this man said to be well worth meeting. Not
only did he attend services there, I was told, but he also saw to it
that the church's literature rack was kept well-stocked with an
impressive array of antiwar pamphlets.
My curiosity piqued, I simply had to heed this advise. It wasn't hard
to spot Axel, a kindly but somewhat frail-looking man well into his
seventies at the least. There he was, his coat lapels festooned with
buttons--tridents, doves, and other paraphernalia identified with those
who protested our country's involvement in Vietnam.
I found him warm, unassuming, and thoroughly earnest in his
convictions. He pressed a stack of pamphlets into my hand and asked
whether there were enough of them for me to give to all the persons I
knew who needed convincing about the wrongness of that brutal war. My
wife and I had to return to church the next Sunday, for there we'd met
a kindred soul--and others who also were distraught about the moral and
political climate rampant in the country. Just about every Sunday from
then on I'd see him there proselytizing for a cause he so obviously
cared about, seemingly unfazed by the hostile reception he sometimes
got. As time went by, I found myself taking over from him the
responsibility for stocking the literature display with peace
My wife and I went to various rallies and teach-ins around Kalamazoo,
meeting more and more people who were turning against the war. Often he
was there; once he gave his testimony about the war in front of an
audience filled with hecklers and dissenters. Despite the heat
generated by sucb arguments, he always maintained his cool and politely
stated his case. In the spring of 1969 a peace march was held in
Chicago--Chicago, where Mayor Daley and “the city's finest”
had 'beaten up protestors during what was later called a “police
riot” at the infamous 1968 Democratic convention. I decided to go
but with trepidation, knowing that the city could once again erupt in
Daly- sanctioned violence against us “commies, pinkoes, and
hippies.” I had to be there despite that risk; how could I do
otherwise when I found out that Axel was also going to be there,
marching right along with the rest of us on those mean streets?
There came a day when we were invited to Axel's home just outside of
South Haven. Met his wife, Edna, who proudly showed us scrapbooks which
chronicled his exploits over the years. Until then I didn't know that
he'd run for Congress in 1952 as a peace candidate on a platform of
immediate disengagement from the Korean War. I saw yellowed clippings
of editorials from the local newspaper excoriating him for his
“treasonous” ideas. I saw photographs of members of
veterans organizations picketing in his front yard, calling him
“Communist” and “appeaser” and the like. He
lost the election, of course, but he continued to agitate for peace and
reconciliation with the Russians and whoever else was being villified
as our enemies. Perhaps his views about peaceful coexistence were
naive, perhaps it was imprudent to let his family and business suffer
because' of the public vilification and the boycotts that his neighbors
so eagerly used against him. Perhaps...
In post-McCarthy America he joined the Ban the Bomb movement. In the
Sixties, he was in the vanguard of the antiwar movement before it was
fashionable for the intelligentsia or the youth to turn against the
destruction of Southeast Asia. So I learned a lot about Axel Nielsen,
the old man who wouldn't keep his mouth shut when he saw militarism and
jingoism rear their respective ugly heads; the old man who tirelessly
tried to convince “the Silent Majority” that the war was
not the only effective and honorable option to counter the threat of
falling dominoes around the world.
On several occasions Axel pulled out his wallet and laid several bills
in my hand. I can still hear him say, “I took this out of my
Social Security check so you can buy more pamphlets; and you folks need
gas money so you can drive out to the shopping malls to hand them out.
People have got to know the truth about this war.” And he gave
generously to the Peace Council and Peace Watch, two local
organizations devoted to the cause.
When the war was finally over, Axel seemed at a loss over what to do
next with his passion and his pocketbook; perhaps this was inevitable--
the let-down after someone has spent so much of himself over such a
long period of time on a cause felt to be so noble. Because his health
was failing, I seldom saw him at church after that. And there were no
more peace rallies to attend. The last time I saw him was in 1977 at
his 50th weddIng anniversary. I met his granddaughter from
out-of-state. We talked about his exploits and about those scrapbooks.
She said she wanted to write a biography. I offered to help, but in
less than a month he was gone, and I never saw his granddaughter again.
The details have escaped me, but I know I saw and editorial comment in
the Kalamazoo Gazette--a memorial of sorts to “the old
radical.” His notoriety was more widespread than I realized.
Whoever had given him this sobriquet seemed to have described him well,
but perhaps for the wrong reasons. Axel was indeed somewhat radical in
his political views, but to characterize him~ thusly on political
ideology alone would miss the point. More “radical” than
his anti-establishment views about war and peace was his conviction
that one person can make a difference and that one must try--even in
the face of overwhelming odds (southwest Michigan being no hotbed of
liberal points of view)--to say that the emperor has no clothes. This
gentle visionary endured public contempt, even slander, without any
trace of resentment, without any trace of hesitation. He was a man who
risked much in his lifetime and may have lost much in terms of social
approval and a good income--but one thing he didn't lose was his
The very term, “the old radical,” indicates a connection
between Axel Nielsen and the Michigan Land Trustees. The ideas espoused
by the foundation, including promoting a non-monetized economy and a
much greater sense of community, are truly radical in a capitalistic
society wherein individual freedom (as exemplified by that trite
saying, “It's a free country”) is usually given greater
weight that the notion of social responsibility and where the profit
motive has been elevated to the status of divine law. 'Radical ideas
aren't good just because they are radical, but they need to be
entertained and tried just because there may be a better way to live
than with the status quo. We owe that effort to Axel as well as to
ourselves and our progeny.
A Proposal From the Farm Managers
Bobbi Martindale and Jon Towne
Change seems to be the buzz word this year. In the transition from a
Republican to Democrat administration (hopefully the latter will prove
to be kinder and gentler), we felt the need to re-evaluate our
situation as farm managers. Our over-riding feeling of the past few
years has been one of guilt: Have we done enough to fulfill our's and
the MLT's expectations as farm managers? We've been assured by several
members that the MLT has no problems with us, but then, the matter has
never been fully discussed. More importantly, it is our own
expectations of ourselves that have not been met. Should we continue to
pay the low rent that reflects the property's tax-free status? We have
one child in the local school system and soon will have another. In our
estimation, we need to be doing a heck of a lot more for the Bangor
area than we are doing now.
The farm has been continuously tilled organically and permaculture has
been broadly applied according to a general plan. But is this being
done on an emphasis and scale appropriate for a non-profit organization
like the MLT? Our goals for the farm are personal: to grow our own food
and fuel; to live lightly on the land; to make a few bucks; and last
but not least, to pursue my interest in exploring and exploiting
aspects of natural communities by integrating them into peoples'
sustenance and livelihoods by the process known as permaculture. Also,
I just like trees and I keep a lot of trees, shrubs and other plants as
“pets.” While these goals aren't incompatible with MLT's
goals, one MLT goal is not included. The farm is not made
accessible to the community via PR, workshops, or other programs. We
find ourselves unmotivated to pursue this. As the LandTrustFarm, PR
should be the most important aspect to be exploited and we are falling
short in that area.
Another shortcoming regarding the current situation is that some
necessary repairs and remodeling need to be done on the house. We don't
think that the MLT has the resources for what we have in mind, and we
really don't want to sink a lot of money into something that isn't
“ours.” (We're talking new carpeting, windows, doors,
furnace, siding--the works.)
The past three or four years have been rough for us. The illness and
death of my mother, my having gone to nursing school and acclimating to
the stress of a full time job have taken their toll. During much of
this period, Bobbi served as the only bread winner along with trying to
be an effective parent.
For us and MLT we see two options. One is for us to step aside-- to
move on and allow new farm managers to have a crack at it. I'm sure
there are people who would jump at the chance. In a very real sense,
MLT is only as strong as the people in it and this would give an
infusion of new blood.
The other option is more palatable for us. We would buy the farm lock
stock and barrel. MLT would receive an infusion of cash which might
also invigorate it. We would then continue to do what we have been
doing: growing our own food, farming organically, and practicing
permaculture. We could even be on the board of directors!
Our proposal is this: we sign a land contract for the total price
agreed upon with one-quarter of that price down and the balance payable
in one year. Of course the farm would be out of MLT control and we
cannot guarantee its future.
So how about some opinions, feedback, alternative proposals, insults,
whatever, concerning this important, if not earthshaking, subject.
(Editor's note: the MLT Board will be
considering Jon and Bobbi's proposal within the next couple of months.
We implore the membership to please provide input regarding this
LOCAL WRITING/POETRY CONTEST
Several months ago Michigan Land Trustees initiated a new project
designed to promote more community self-reliance and local economic
vitality. For now, we have decided to call it 'Trickle-Up
Economics” and our first task is to establish a Local Exchange
Trading System (or LETS) in the neighboring small town of Bangor.
If this pilot project is successful in the economically depressed town
of Bangor it could work anywhere to help people recognize alternatives
to the formal jobs-and-money economy. It represents a paradigm shift
from exclusive dependence on the market economy to a balance between
-it and the household economy, a homecoming of economics as it were.
For unemployed persons it represents a Third Way beyond dependence on a
job or welfare.
One of our members, seeing the potential value of this project and
wanting to promote it, has suggested a contest to publicize it and has
provided money for prizes.
A $100.00 prize will be awarded for the best name (and accompanying reasons for its choice) for this new approach to economics.
In addition, our benefactor has challenged us to think about the many
other and broader cultural changes that are involved in this paradigm
shift. To quote him:
“A new age is birthing. It
needs a new name, a new poetic mythology.... We have all known for
thirty years that the world needs a new poetic mythology.... In the
good old American game of baseball, some strike out, some make a hit.
The object is to get the hitters HOME. So there may be some poetic
savant out here who will come up with a divinely inspired mythological
message and hit us home.”
A $200.00 prize will be awarded for the best titled poem or short essay
capturing this new age in mythic or poetic terms. The name of this new
age also needs to be included as an integral part of the poem or essay.