How can you know what you are working towards if you haven’t explored what is possible? If you’ve only been festering the same monocropped cornfield of values and ideas, your imagination is stunted.
When I travel, I don’t like to move around. I am not a bee who thrives on the novelty of dancing from flower to flower all day, living in hostels or couchsurfing and checking out different monuments. If I were to choose a different nature metaphor for my travel style, I would lean towards the image of a seed who enjoys blowing in the wind, for a short while, and then rooting down where I land. For me, a month feels right around the minimum amount of time I like to stay in one place when traveling.
When I stay in one place, I feel the benefits of rootedness flowing upward through my veins and nourishing my whole being. The nutrients of relationships, community, routine, cultural immersion, and skill-building hydrate and replenish me. And at the same time, the newness provided by rooting myself in a foreign place enriches me with the diversity and variety of experience I crave in order to understand a little bit better who I want to be and where I am going.
It’s this balance of rootedness and variety that brings us so much growth, and today I want to focus on the strength of the variety portion of that yin and yang.
The magical benefits of variety.
This summer, I lived and worked for a month on a permaculture/syntropic farm called Hofverde in southern Germany. I found them through Workaway, an online work exchange platform I’ve used many times that helps you find places where you can exchange labor for room and board and integrate into new communities in beautiful, organic ways.
Lilly and Cory, the founders of the project, were inspired with the idea to begin this farm while talking passionately one evening over a bottle of wine about the state of ecological crisis we collectively face. The passion around the identification phase of the problem was so fervent that night that the seed of a new vision was birthed from their ideological ashes of grief. This seed had strong roots and a feisty urgency to break ground and greet the sun.
In her past, Cory had participated in a work exchange at a different permaculture project. Inspired by this experience, she floated the idea past Lilly. For her, this project really seemed to have the foundations of something deeply meaningful. Permaculture is a lifestyle philosophy and set of principles about regeneration: it seeks not only to minimize one’s negative impact on the earth, but also to create more vibrancy, health, and joyful balance to the ecosystem and human communities one tends to.
There was so much hope and possibility in this way of thinking and interacting with the planet and with one another. She saw how the permaculture philosophy spread to all aspects of life. It asked how we can live harmoniously and “permanently” with the most central aspects of life: people, planet, economy, community, health and spiritual well being, education and culture, tools and technology.
At the center of this web of well being, the permaculture philosophy has much to say about food. Growing food well has the potential not only to nourish humans but the earth itself. Creating closed feedback loops of waste and food creates incredible potential to live in a way that nourishes our bodies, the land, and our communities.
Inspired by the possibilities of this way of life to speak directly to the problems Lily and Cory saw as so dire, they began to change their entire life.
With farm land, barns, and some tools passed down through generations in Lily’s family nestled within this small farming town in Germany, they picked back up with an ancestral precedent, but this time with a wisdom lost for several generations: organic, symbiotic, permanent agriculture. Feeling a primal call to nurture the land rather than only take from it, Lilly and Cory set about creating a permaculture farm (now a syntropic farm) to feed their family and surrounding community members with any excess food produced.
The farmland’s lessons in variety
There are likely infinite lessons a person can learn from the land when they live in relationship with it. These lessons, beautifully and magically, apply within and without.
As I lived and worked at Hofverde, I was able to internalize in my body a pattern I had long kept in my intellectual mind: diversity and variety are integral to whether or not an ecosystem flourishes.
It seems almost too rote to mention at this point in the campaign against ‘monoculture farming’ or ‘monocropping,’ but I will mention it nonetheless: diversity in the ecosystem fights so many of the fatal breakdowns that monoculture farming brings. Companion plants, edges (the border between ecosystems), crop rotation, diversified soil inputs, a diversity of pollinators and animals to nurture the system… all of these systems mimic nature’s own divine design and play devastatingly integral roles in preventing deterioration of the land and encouraging bountiful growth. By living, working, and playing on the farm, I was able to internalize the ways that these plants and animals were created to live as intimate neighbors in a tight-knit village.
I internalized the critical role of diversification in social ways as well. For example, Lily ensured that the helpers living on her farm had a variety of tasks every day. Instead of bouncing lazily against the same corners of the mind, we had diversified tasks that challenged our minds and bodies by avoiding repetition -- harvesting crops, preparing beds, planting strawberries, sorting seeds, canning jams and sauces. The difference between this diversity of tasks and the numbing repetition of computer work struck me fiercely. I felt accomplished after a day working with my mind and body, which was definitely an unsurprising change from the amorphous feeling of nothingness I’d feel after a monocropped day of emails and paperwork that was sometimes required of me as a teacher.
The farm ensured we had a variety of nutrient-dense foods to eat every day, feeding the gut and the mind in holistic ways with a variety of nutrients in each meal. The farm brought a diversity of people from different countries into the human community of the land. The farm supplied a variety of cakes freshly baked, brought by from Lilly’s mother.
The farm family understood the land and the kinds of variety and diversity it needed in profound, deeply connected ways. By observing, listening, and feeling what was going on around them and how the land responded to the choices they made, they grew closer in wisdom and logic as to how to respond to the changing conditions around them.
It feels clear to me when I am observing the land that it is so much older, more powerful, and wiser than anything homosapien-related that I may understand. It feels clear to me that there is more than just pleasurable sensations I can derive from this intricately coordinated dance that takes place from microscopic villages of bacteria and fungus in the soil.
My time at the farm was both inspiration and lesson as a model of another way of being -- living in relationship with the earth, growing your own food, building a vision of community and spirituality and relationship with land and space and cycles. And also it was much needed practice in taking models from the earth.
How does this apply to human life?
We are complex organisms that came from the land and will go back to the land. We are nature, and the separation between human and nature or human and animal is an illusion of the ego. We cannot flourish without variation and diversity, same as the ecosystem. When we eat the same processed foods every day, commit to the same draining work patterns every day, have the same kinds of conversations, talk to the same people, experience the same happy hour bars… we limit our health and our growth.
This doesn’t mean that I think all routine and repetition is unhealthy -- ecosystems need roots, routine, repetition, and familiarity too. When you pick the seeds from the healthiest plants any given harvest season, those specific seeds grow back stronger and wiser than their parents because they are familiar with the environment, the soil structure, and the climate. The intergenerational familiarity with the environment breeds resilience and strength. In this way, familiarity builds strength. Regular water cycles bring strength. In a different way, variation fosters growth.
It is the combination of routine and variety that keeps the ecosystem flourishing.
For myself, I see significant growth and healing when I experiment with variety: countries, languages, communities, plant medicines, learning experiences, conversations, books, topics of discussion. I notice that I have companion plants -- people I grow more fiercely when I am planted next to them.
One important pattern I notice in people is that they can get stuck inside the routine, and the diversity and variation only comes in the form of superficial experiences that don’t change the core.
For example, if you are stuck in a rut where all people talk about around you are mortgages and renovating their houses, you might notice you need variation. This kind of discussion is leading to a fixation on material gain, consumerist habits, and away from spiritual development and intrigue. So, you go on a vacation to Puerto Rico to an all inclusive resort and find some new people to talk to who spend a majority of their time talking about how they’ve recently picked up mountain biking and EDM (electric dance music) festivals. They talk often about the brand of bikes they like, the type of trails they enjoy, and the raddest festivals they’ve attended.
In this hypothetical, you haven’t created real variation in your life. You are still in the same spiritual deprivation chamber, surrounded by fluff and distraction. If you were craving authentic human connection, instead you received a different version of distraction and avoidance.
It is important to envision the type of variation you want in the first place, so when you plan that experience to shake you out of the monoculture you’ve been planted in, you choose something that gives you the highest chance of true, healthy variation.
For example, you are able to envision the authentic connections and spiritual exploration you seek, perhaps you imagine something:
deeply rooted in nature
a culture experience that doesn’t covet money and comfort
perhaps a nature-based spiritual practice
a mission with clear values of spirit, nature, community.
In order to increase the likelihood of healthy and magical variation in your life, I would recommend this plan:
Write down your vision of variation. (See bulleted example above.) What are you seeking that is different?
Be as specific as possible, attune to your values
Ask the most interesting, most tuned-in people around you for help brainstorming pathways to get you there.
What websites, meet-up groups, community-posting boards, etc might help you find the type of experience you’re looking for?
Ex: Workaway.io, Meetup.com, your local super well connected person, a community message board...
Create a plan of action and a schedule for accomplishing your variation mission.
Ex: I want to send 10 emails to organic farms through the WWOOF website by May 10.
Perhaps the variation you seek might be in the people you connect with. Maybe it’s in the hobbies you pursue, or the educational path you are following, or the way you interact with the land, or the types of books you read.
Variation gives you the power to develop a true North Star in your mind’s eye. How can you know what you are working towards, who you want to be, or what is your metric for goodness if you haven’t explored what is possible? If you’ve only been festering the same monocropped cornfield of values and ideas, your imagination is stunted.
Imagine, instead, the potential of conversations if you were rooted in a permaculture farm with chrome colored beetles, and hairy caterpillars, and golden songbirds, and funguses that act as a connector of information in the roots that translate the matrix of light. How much more possibility and truth would you discover than if you had only seen rows of pesticide bathed corn most of your life?
In the same way that we must observe and ask the land what it needs, we need to observe ourselves living within the ecosystems of our lives. What is missing? What is there too much of? What diversification might help this substrate flourish? How can you make your soil teem with life?