Saturday, February 23, 2008

Living in a "regenerative" way

My apologies for the silence. It's been nearly two weeks since my last post, the one that opened a new "blog duet" with poet and blogger on community Janet Riehl, in which we are considering the balance between outward-aiming work in the world and the inward work necessary to sustain the spirit and energy that outward work draws on. I'm usually pretty good about maintaining that balance, but in the past week, I "spent" all of my outward-aiming work energy on speaking engagements, so blogging just had to wait until I could let the new ideas settle and hear myself think.

Yesterday, Richard and I drove home from Albuquerque, New Mexico, where I spoke at the New Mexico Xeriscape Council's 13th national conference on water conservation and sustainable landscape design. Some 400 attendees involved in how we design the landscapes where we live and work gathered to hear a fascinating and inspiring line-up of speakers, beginning with New Mexico Senator Jeff Bingaman, who pointed out that conservation is the cheapest and most effective way to "find" new sources of water. Bingaman quoted US Bureau of Reclamation studies saying every dollar spent on water conservation yields around $5 dollars worth of water that can now be used in other ways -- or just allowed to flow downstream to maintain the health of aquatic ecosystems.

Other highlights of the conference: Natural capitalist Hunter Lovins talked compellingly about the opportunities in environmental challenges, from developing renewable energy sources and carbon cap trading to restoring ecosystems. Her three points of natural capitalism:
1. Buy time with increased energy and water-use efficiency.
2. Reinvent with natural technology after studying how nature - the ultimate sustainable, renewable system - does business.
3. Restore natural systems - healthy ecosystems provide trillions of dollars a year in "services" from cleaning and delivering fresh water to fixing carbon to regular CO2, the most important greenhouse gas.

Gloria Flora talked about how to work within human communities to bring change for the better: Find the common ground and work from there. Think in terms of transformation, not destruction. Peter Warshall gave us the global picture on conservation of water and energy. This nugget particularly struck me: 8 barrels of water are used in locating, recovering and refining every barrel of oil. (Yikes! That's a powerful incentive to consume less oil, whether in driving or choosing foods and clothing not dependent on oil-consumptive pesticides and fertilizers.)

NPR correspondent and "doyenne of dirt" Ketzel Levine took us on a tour of some of the heroic ordinary people working with restoring local plant communities whom she has interviewed in the network's series on global climate change. (Check out Ketzel's fabulous NPR blog, "Talking Plants.") Sculptor Betsy Damon showed us the results of her three decades spent using landscape sculpture to restore rivers and educate people in China about clean, healthy water.

The phrase that sticks in my mind from the conference came from Keith Bowers of Biohabitats, an ecological restoration firm based in Maryland. He talked about "regenerative design," designing landscapes and systems that renew or restore themselves, using the integrity of nature to also meet human needs. I hadn't come across the word before, but it was the perfect lead-in for my talk about how Richard and I stumbled into restoring what we only half-jokingly call our "decaying industrial empire," half a block of blighted property that is now the site of our house and our wildflower-filled yard, our lively organic kitchen garden and the restored block of urban creek that edges our property. (The photo at the top of the post is Indian paintbrush in our front-yard native grassland as it looks now; below is the "before" shot.)

We didn't set out to rescue this place, but once we bought it, there was no other option but to return it - and us - to health. It's been a tough project, and it's given us a lot of joy. (Nor are we finished, but that's the story of life!) Now I know it's been regenerative as well, because in restoring this place, much of its native plant community and some of the animals and insects as well, we've restored our own connection to the landscape where we live.

And that brings me back to the blog duet with Janet Riehl on the subject of keeping one's balance between outward-aiming work and inward-aiming sustenance. It seems to me that regenerative applies here too: if we work to make our lives regenerative, to make sure the rhythms of our days restore our own energy and enthusiasm as well as work to restore the communities around us, if we use nature as our model to keep our balance, surely we'll find the balance that brings us both fulfillment and joy.


Janet Grace Riehl said...

Susan, I'm so glad to hear this lovely "trip report" (my parent's term for their write-ups when they returned from journeys)...yes, I agree with you...the interconection and potential wholeness. The designers of the conference were clearly visionaries in how they structured the topics and the folks they invited.

I lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico for 7 years in the 1980s. We had a patch of double-dug dirt out back we planted in garden ala John Jevins, who we invited to speak at a Solar America event I chaired in San Jose. Years later I was to meet him again in Willets, Northern California where he lives. Another doyenne of dirt! What a great phrase. He knows every earth worm in every inch of soil, and its name, I think. He drove a battered VW at the time we first met. One of my heros. A fine example of someone sustaining their sustainable work through time.

I'll take this as an invitation to duet back later on Riehlife.

Welcome home, Susan!

Janet Riehl

Deborah said...

Hi, Susan:

Thanks for the conference overview. It sounds like it was wonderful. I get my nose pretty close to the grindstone sometimes and forget to look up. Your post was a reminder that there are horizons.

And your home piece of ground is truly wonderful. I feel blessed to have been able to see what you have done in person.