Keeping Quiet, Pablo Neruda


“Keeping Quiet,” Pablo Neruda


Now we will count to twelve

and we will all keep still.


For once on the face of the earth,

let’s not speak in any language;

let’s stop for one second,

and not move our arms so much.


It would be an exotic moment

without rush, without engines;

we would all be together

in a sudden strangeness.


Fisherman in the cold sea

would not harm whales

and the man gathering salt

would look at his hurt hands.


Those who prepare green wars,

wars with gas, wars with fire,

victories with no survivors,

would put on clean clothes

and walk about with their brothers

in the shade, doing nothing.


What I want should not be confused

with total inactivity.

Life is what it is about;

I want no truck with death.


If we were not so single-minded

about keeping our lives moving,

and for once could do nothing,

perhaps a huge silence

might interrupt this sadness

of never understanding ourselves

and of threatening ourselves with death.

Perhaps the earth can teach us

as when everything seems dead

and later proves to be alive.


Now I’ll count up to twelve

and you keep quiet and I will go.


That concludes today’s poetic interlude. Have a nice day everyone.

More things to read

A random salad of subjects, but I can’t stand having 800 tabs open all at once on my web browser so I’m filing them here.

More links + call for submissions

To read: Work and Idleness in the Age of the Great Recession – a special issue of Periscope


Essays on Frugal Abundance: Degrowth: Misinterpretations and Controversies, part 1 of 4 (Serge Latouche, via the Simplicity Collective)


Urban Backyard Food Production as a Strategy for Food Security in Melbourne, Australia (Permaculture Research Institute)

Also, veering quite a bit off topic but it’s via a friend and the context of the journal is interesting: a call for submissions to Project Freerange


Heraclitus, the old pre-Socratic philosopher, said that you cannot step into the same river twice.

Sensuous and fluid yet powerful, raging and unforgiving – from Styx to bottled water, from great lake to babbling brook, from poetic vessel to trade route, water exists in a myriad of states and is characterized by its many forms and expressions, its imaginative potential and raw impact upon life on earth. Its changeable nature and ability to hold contradictions (it is both life-sustainer, provider of food and abundance yet bearer of disease and destruction) has leant water to art, metaphor, songs, philosophy, literature, science and a myriad of other disciplines. Revered in religious and cultural practice, yet continually degraded by industry and human activities, water has a symbiotic relationship with cities, politics and of course, pirates.

Freerange thought it was time to pay tribute to the most abundant substance on earth, the universal solvent. Water shapes landscape; it creates and reflects history. It defines where civilisations have established themselves and has forced them to move (whether through diversions, dams or rising sea levels). It has appealed to pilgrims, explorers, scientists, philosophers, weather forecasters, town planners and swimmers. And now with rising sea levels, pollution, increasing reports of natural disasters, water criminals, water degradation and privatisation, water is set to be the definitive resource of time to come.

So we are calling for submissions on the big issue for our next issue: Freerange Vol. 9: The Wet Issue.  We want to hear your thoughts, experiences and artistic expressions on water: from holy water to mythical flood, from ice cap to desert, from Moby Dick to naiads, from Atlantis to Venice, from resource to privatisation.

Some things to think about: Poseidon, armadas, treasures, foreshore and seabed, watery graves, climate change refugees, erosion, purification, Old Man and the Sea, astrology, battles on it and battles for it, tropical storms and big snows, river highways, irrigation, tears, Shackleton…..

Please send your abstract of 100-200 words by April 1 .

Slow Art: Serge, Piero & their many casks of brew

Piero Isgro and Serge Margel are old friends and it shows. They speak like two men possessed, frantic, wild-eyed, impassioned, talking a mile a minute and interrupting each other to complete the other one’s sentence, constructing their stories in loops of elongated time rather than linear narratives. Plantopic had a meeting with these two on Friday in order to learn more about a particular project that they’ve been working on together for the past twelve years: the fabrication of plant dyes using a long, slow process of natural fermentation.

Piero is an artist and Serge has a background in philosophy and is also an artist. They began the plant dye project out of a love for color, experimentation and process, but not necessarily with an interest in controlling end results, and certainly not with an interest in selling their wares. They meet every Friday in their studio space in the neighborhood of Servette to embark on exploration in the purest sense: no road map, no objectives, no agenda.

They seem to test out pretty much everything you can think of to see what color it makes. All of it they gather out in the wild, and depending on the plant they use a different part of it for the dye (roots, stems, flowers, berries, etc). They put some plants directly into the water baths, while they tuck others into plastic bags for varying lengths of time, where the heat inside (like in composting) will jump start the fermentation before putting the plant matter in the water bath. The proportion of plant to water is something they play with, but Serge used as an example a basketball sized ball of plant matter for 30 liters of water.

Then comes the wait. Acidity is what makes it ferment, and they check the acidity with a pH strip and simply add some lemon if it’s too base. It all sounded a little like my own mad scientist kitchen experiments with sourdough, pickles, yogurt … except that I get to enjoy the products of microbial labor within a few hours, days or weeks. Serge and Piero’s dyes take much longer. To give you an idea of the timeline we’re talking about here, on the day before our meeting with them they had just opened up a cask of dye that had been fermenting quietly for the past eight years. Think about that for a moment.

They know when it’s done fermenting because the ball of plant matter falls to the bottom of the bath. Once that happens, they filter out the plant matter and return the liquid to the bath to begin dyeing. That part goes more or less how I would expect it to. They soak fabric in the dye for a few hours, and then take it out to dry for 10 days, either in a light or dark space. The decision of light or dark depends on what plant matter they used for the dye: berry-based dye, for example, needs a dark space because light causes some weird reaction to the color. This process of soaking and leaving to dry is repeated until they decide they’re done.

A friend of theirs who is a molecular biochemist has observed the whole progression of production and cannot figure out what exactly is the chemical process throughout it all. Hence why they call it plant alchemy.

The one color they still have not achieved is indigo, the color that marks one with the status of Master Dyeman (or whatever the title would be). This they said is because climatically Geneva isn’t well placed for making that color — too cold and damp for the techniques they’re using. Said techniques are informed in part by in-person tutorials they organized with two elderly sisters living outside of Anduze who were masters at creating plant-based dyes à l’ancien.

It was only at the end of our conversation that the pair thought to show us a few swatches of fabric. This is a piece of silk from a collaboration they did with another artist who works with computer-based projection:


Showing us samples seemingly only as an afterthought was a funny flip on how many people treat their work — show and then tell. But for these two, showing their work comes second. (Piero actually had to go out to his car and dig around under the back seat in order to find a few pieces.) The question of the visibility of their work is seemingly something that haunts them both — initially Serge said that they wouldn’t be showing us anything because we’d get distracted by them as objects, as products, and forget what was important, ie, the process of dilating time and production: “We are prisoners of these beautiful colors.”




What does it mean to sustain humanity?

I read an essay on a blog this afternoon that led to me losing about two hours of my life pondering how I felt about it. I don’t want to post the link here unless someone really, really wants me to, because I don’t want to subject anyone else to what I consider to be an unconstructive rant, nor to the very muddy rabbit hole of the comments section.

In sum, it was a manifesto of sorts against … I’m not sure what, exactly, and that’s what bothers me. It started off with an attack on the concept of sustainability, but at first the author didn’t define what he meant by that word. Later on in the essay, I understood that his definition of “sustainable” was sustaining any human societal structure on this planet other than that of hunter-gatherers. And that made me very, very sad. I am so tired of reading such misanthropic, self-hating, browbeating, not to mention delusional diatribes coming from people in radical movements. Yes, it would have been awesome for the planet and all lifeforms on it had the human population not exploded exponentially, but it did, and we need to figure out how to manage this mess holistically. In the end, blowing up parliament and imposing a post-scarcity lifestyle on people is only going to lead us back to the hierarchical structures that got us into our current mess. If it all comes crashing down tomorrow, people will adopt a simpler life because they will have no choice, not because they’ve changed their relationship with the planet, with their neighbors, and with themselves. That — a change in relationships — is what needs to happen. Some may say we don’t have time for such nice ideas, that these are urgent times (I agree), but I really don’t believe it’s impossible to change people’s hearts. I just think that individuals who believe in a just and balanced world haven’t yet figured out how to enact large-scale change that takes hold and sustains.

Obviously it would be inconceivable to try and go back to the old formulas, which relate to periods when the planet was far less densely populated and when social relations were much stronger than they are today. But it will be a question of literally reconstructing the modalities of ‘group-being,’ not only through ‘communicational’ interventions but through existential mutations driven by the motor of subjectivity. Instead of clinging to general recommendations we would be implementing effective practices of experimentation, as much on a micro-social level as on a larger scale.

Félix Guattari, The Three Ecologies.

Ode to Thoreau #1


from Ch 7 “The Bean-Field” (Walden)

This further experience also I gained: I said to myself, I will not plant beans and corn with so much industry another summer, but such seeds, if the seed is not lost, as sincerity, truth, simplicity, faith, innocence, and the like, and see if they will not grow in this soil, even with less toil and manurance, and sustain me, for surely it has not been exhausted for these crops. Alas! I said this to myself; but now another summer is gone, and another, and another, and I am obliged to say to you, Reader, that the seeds which I planted, if indeed they were the seeds of those virtues, were wormeaten or had lost their vitality, and so did not come up. Commonly men will only be brave as their fathers were brave, or timid. This generation is very sure to plant corn and beans each new year precisely as the Indians did centuries ago and taught the first settlers to do, as if there were a fate in it. I saw an old man the other day, to my astonishment, making the holes with a hoe for the seventieth time at least, and not for himself to lie down in! But why should not the New Englander try new adventures, and not lay so much stress on his grain, his potato and grass crop, and his orchards — raise other crops than these? Why concern ourselves so much about our beans for seed, and not be concerned at all about a new generation of men? We should really be fed and cheered if when we met a man we were sure to see that some of the qualities which I have named, which we all prize more than those other productions, but which are for the most part broadcast and floating in the air, had taken root and grown in him. Here comes such a subtile and ineffable quality, for instance, as truth or justice, though the slightest amount or new variety of it, along the road. Our ambassadors should be instructed to send home such seeds as these, and Congress help to distribute them over all the land. We should never stand upon ceremony with sincerity. We should never cheat and insult and banish one another by our meanness, if there were present the kernel of worth and friendliness. We should not meet thus in haste. Most men I do not meet at all, for they seem not to have time; they are busy about their beans. We would not deal with a man thus plodding ever, leaning on a hoe or a spade as a staff between his work, not as a mushroom, but partially risen out of the earth, something more than erect, like swallows alighted and walking on the ground:–

“And as he spake, his wings would now and then Spread, as he meant to fly, then close again –“

so that we should suspect that we might be conversing with an angel. Bread may not always nourish us; but it always does us good, it even takes stiffness out of our joints, and makes us supple and buoyant, when we knew not what ailed us, to recognize any generosity in man or Nature, to share any unmixed and heroic joy. Ancient poetry and mythology suggest, at least, that husbandry was once a sacred art; but it is pursued with irreverent haste and heedlessness by us, our object being to have large farms and large crops merely. We have no festival, nor procession, nor ceremony, not excepting our cattle-shows and so-called Thanksgivings, by which the farmer expresses a sense of the sacredness of his calling, or is reminded of its sacred origin. It is the premium and the feast which tempt him. He sacrifices not to Ceres and the Terrestrial Jove, but to the infernal Plutus rather. By avarice and selfishness, and a grovelling habit, from which none of us is free, of regarding the soil as property, or the means of acquiring property chiefly, the landscape is deformed, husbandry is degraded with us, and the farmer leads the meanest of lives. He knows Nature but as a robber. Cato says that the profits of agriculture are particularly pious or just (maximeque pius quaestus), and according to Varro the old Romans “called the same earth Mother and Ceres, and thought that they who cultivated it led a pious and useful life, and that they alone were left of the race of King Saturn.” We are wont to forget that the sun looks on our cultivated fields and on the prairies and forests without distinction. They all reflect and absorb his rays alike, and the former make but a small part of the glorious picture which he beholds in his daily course. In his view the earth is all equally cultivated like a garden. Therefore we should receive the benefit of his light and heat with a corresponding trust and magnanimity. What though I value the seed of these beans, and harvest that in the fall of the year? This broad field which I have looked at so long looks not to me as the principal cultivator, but away from me to influences more genial to it, which water and make it green. These beans have results which are not harvested by me. Do they not grow for woodchucks partly? The ear of wheat (in Latin spica, obsoletely speca, from spe, hope) should not be the only hope of the husbandman; its kernel or grain (granum from gerendo, bearing) is not all that it bears. How, then, can our harvest fail? Shall I not rejoice also at the abundance of the weeds whose seeds are the granary of the birds? It matters little comparatively whether the fields fill the farmer’s barns. The true husbandman will cease from anxiety, as the squirrels manifest no concern whether the woods will bear chestnuts this year or not, and finish his labor with every day, relinquishing all claim to the produce of his fields, and sacrificing in his mind not only his first but his last fruits also.


I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read Walden. My Dover Thrift edition is one more reading away from being held together with duct tape. I’ve poured through tons more of his writings, but I still feel like I’ve barely started. Take one look at the online digital collection of the Walden Woods Project and you’ll see why. (That’s the sort of site, by the way, that I wish more libraries and foundations would/could create. Free access to the entire collection of Thoreau’s books, poetry, essays, and correspondence.)

One of the things that I like most about what I’ve read of Thoreau is how he manages to be Seneca-esque in his refusal of modern luxuries (he can get a bit preachy at times with that, and I don’t entirely disagree with Robert Louis Stevenson’s Thoreau slam) but at the same time he’s an utter hedonist. I don’t doubt that there were plenty of nights out in Walden Woods during which he howled at the moon with the rest of the wildlife. Stevenson calls Thoreau a misanthrope, but I don’t think Thoreau hated people; he just thought that most of them had their priorities a little screwy and decided to start saying so. You can call that snobbery, but I think few people can deny ever feeling frustration over the self-destruction of friends or family to the point where you just want to be like, Hey! You! You know, if you quit blowing all your money on $300 bottles of vodka for your table of friends-richer-than-you (for example) you’d not only be able to make it to the end of the month financially, but also maybe have some time to discover more fulfilling engagements. That’s basically what Thoreau was doing, except his concerned interventions were Open Letters to Everyone in the Western World.

Why do some people take such commentary as an attack on their mortal being? I’m asking because I’m trying to figure out what it is about the environmentalist discourse that makes some people get all defensive. I’d like to think that I’ll get to the bottom of that before it’s too late for the hippies to achieve world domination, but Thoreau was pondering more or less this same question back in the day so I can’t say my hopes are excessively high. I tend to think that it’s because a lot of people believe somewhere deep down that life is cold and hollow and that if they stop consuming, this emptiness will be revealed in all its ugliness.

(pause to make some coffee)

I just had a thought. Maybe people need to cry more. (Just go with me on this one.) By cry I also mean laugh. Generally: Feel emotions and learn to not just surf through them, but appreciate them. Crying is painful, I know — I had a good cry this afternoon in fact, when out of nowhere I started thinking about my cat, who died in August. Since I was on a roll thinking about death, I started thinking about my grandmother, who was one of the greatest human beings who ever lived and who died two years ago December, and then I was really a goner. But I came back, and now I’m here writing about it.

This makes me think of a clip a friend of mine posted on Facebook a couple of weeks ago of some comedian on Letterman talking about why he didn’t let his kids have an iPhone. The guy’s argument was that if you have an iPhone (or any phone of the fancy apps variety), you always have an excuse to not feel full-on loneliness, even when you’re not actually connecting with a human being, and sometimes you just need to feel lonely and scared in order to experience the full range of human emotions and thus be a full human being capable of connecting with other human beings at a deeper-than-Facebook-friend level. Without occasional uncomfortable emotions, you’re living with a whole big hidden cauldron of rage and sadness boiling in your depths, and that’s no way to live.

So maybe the answer for how to save humanity is to make it cry. Make it feel emotions, out of control and animalistic. We’ll all have a good cry together, realize that it’s okay to do that, and, with one taboo broken, move on from there to realize that it’s okay to do all sorts of other things, such as: listen to instinct, sleep and eat when we need to, stand up to unfair and abusive treatment from others, share and accept the things that are shared with us, and spend time doing activities unproductive for the economy such as basking in the sun and making love.

This is what I hear Thoreau defending. People who read him as an ascetic partykill because he lived in the woods for a couple of years and didn’t drink coffee or eat meat are missing the point.


(Drawing by Annia)

Toothbrushing, Party of Three

I’m taking Kathak dance classes with Zainub, a dancer and musician from Pakistan in residency at Utopiana right now. Mas and Alvaro are in the group as well. It’s a lot of fun. Zainub’s a lovely person, and I don’t resent her one bit for the fact that her excess of grace makes me feel like a bumbling fool. We had class Wednesday night, and as it happened I was the only one who could make it. She disappointed, understandably. We danced for a bit but quickly migrated toward the kitchen to drink tea and talk about our stupid governments.

Somehow, don’t ask me how, talk moved toward DIY beauty and hygiene products. Actually, I know how, because that’s 50% of what I talk about these days. I said that I’d been making progress on step-by-step weaning myself entirely off drugstore products, but that I was a bit stumped when it came to brushing my teeth.

“What about baking soda?” she asked.

Ah yes, baking soda. I do love my baking soda, but I’ve read too many things about it wearing down tooth enamel at an alarming pace so I don’t really want to risk it. True to American stereotypes, I have big shiny white Hollywood teeth and I’d like to keep them that way. That is when she told me about the twigs.

It’s common in Pakistan, she explained, for people to brush their teeth using the chewed-till-soft end of a special twig. There are three different toothbrush twig-producing trees, but she couldn’t recall their names in English. I found it written about online, such as here, called a miswaak. I don’t think we’re talking about the exact same tree, though it could be. Another teeth-cleaning method Zainub said she uses is a chip of walnut tree bark, its end chewed till pulpy and then rubbed all over one’s teeth for several minutes. No toothpaste required, as the compounds in the sap kill bacteria and other tooth rot culprits. Hold that thought, she said, and she ran upstairs to get a couple chips from her affairs, returning to the kitchen with them as well as a small bottle of tooth powder that a friend concocted. So our dance class turned economy rantings turned political rantings turned into a toothbrushing party of three. (Her seven-year-old joined us. I have never seen a seven-year-old boy having so much fun brushing his teeth.)

It burns the inside of the lips a little — the antiseptic elements, she said. After we had a good round of tooth scrubbing, we rinsed, and then broke into the bottle of tooth powder for a go at our gums. She didn’t know what exactly was in it, but judging from the taste there was definitely cardamom and cloves in addition to whatever else. It was nice, if time consuming. You need to rub it in good and proper and then wait with mouth closed, no swallowing, for five minutes to let the spice-spit mixture do its work. This was more difficult than it sounds as we were having a hard time sitting there looking at each other’s chipmunk cheeks in silence and not laughing. It was like fluoride treatments at the dentist, without the nasty faux bubble gum flavor nor government mind control 😉

Verdict: My teeth were squeaky clean, but when I got home Alvaro thought I’d been drinking hooch. So perhaps if I am to adopt this as my dental hygiene routine, I’ll add a chew of peppermint leaves at the end to freshen things up differently. I also need to figure out this issue of twig access, to scout out local trees that produce the right kind of twig for the job. I see you can order them online, but that makes little sense to me if what I’m interested in is a small environmental impact, little to no cost, and local production. I need to find them quickly though, because I just finished off my last bit of wood chip. You see, I was brushing my teeth this whole time, one handed, while writing a blog post. Multitasking.