Posts Tagged ‘Will Allen’

Hooks and Loops: Reweaving the Local

January 18, 2009


I live in a laptop, I live in the Internet, I live in airplanes and airports, I live in my library, in radio broadcasts, I live in my camera and often in other people’s cameras. As much as these virtualized sites levitate and excite me, I suspect they are eroding my vitality. Even as they put me in proximity to a wide variety of realities, they make others elusive. All these life-links occur in a similar kind of time. Perhaps I could call it info-time: the time it takes for information to travel electronic connections, for books to arrive by UPS, for jet fuel and other forms of credit to burn. Perhaps most attenuated of all is the time it takes me to comprehend what I am receiving.

There is so much to understand and it all feels so urgent. Urgency occupies a very tight temporal zone, and I find it spatially cornering as well. In the field of urgencies I have so many ways to contemplate my world at a distance, distance determines the macro and there is also a distance in the abstraction that delivers the micro. I am missing the velcro, the experience that sticks, the tactile weave of loops (needs? desires?) and hooks (invitations? exigencies?) that orient me both physically and conceptually.

In fact, I live in the Midwest, a real place. Here burdock grows vigorously in “disturbed soils.” The seeds of burdock are not airborne but are designed for contact: covered in microscopic hooks, they stick to passing loopy textures (fur, hair, cloth) to be dispersed further down the path—loosened in another touch between mobile and sessile. Growing up in Georgia, we knew “beggar’s lice,” a similar hitchhiker on socks and sweaters that became a toy or miniature building block for tiny worlds in our fascination. Legend has it that burdock inspired the inventor of velcro, George de Mestral of Switzerland. Burdocks, stickweed, tick trefoil, a panoply of hooking seed designs populates temperate, tropical and subtropical zones of the globe. How do I know this? I live in a computer, a library, a world of stories. Living in layers of narration is rich and pretty inevitable for the humans. But signs abound that we have lost touch with something.

The designers of our government’s interrogation policy (the one that advocates torture as a counter-terrorism necessity) cite Jack Bauer more than they do the U.S. Constitution. Who is Jack Bauer? The fictional protagonist of Fox television’s “24,” as in 24 hours, the always urgent time frame in which Bauer must prevent terrorist attacks, mostly by torturing suspects into giving up silver bullet answers. How do I know this? From books and news articles. People in power operate in a selective and sensational media world, a spectral bubble where they cannot feel the consequences of their own acts. Having little power myself (despite inexplicable privilege), I am eager to understand consequences.

So this summer we took to the road with Continental Drift, our ongoing collective learning seminar (see on a 10-day trip through what some have begun to call the Midwest Radical Cultural Corridor, planning a sequence of events and meetings in Champaign-Urbana, Chicago, Milwaukee, and many towns westward in Wisconsin.


[map by Sara Kanouse]

One of the themes of my attention that evolved as we traveled together through the Midwest was people’s hunger for reality, for making lives in which ineluctable reality is the teacher. We encountered a variety of attempts to localize, to build collective knowledge and purpose through material and social engagement, through specific experience and experiments that necessarily unfold in time and place. The localization I am seeing coexists with global awareness and habits of broad-based connection. At the same time it is also about overcoming parochialism. Maybe I should call it relocalization, because it is about repositioning the local, with sophisticated insight into how the local fits into larger schema.

At the Frederick Douglass branch of the Champaign public library we met with members of the C-U Citizens for Peace and Justice, a group formed around the unfinished business of a former manufactured gas plant that left a legacy of cancers and displacement in a poor black neighborhood. Criminal environmental degradation unfailingly occurs in the spaces of segregation. This is one of the ways the wealthier beneficiaries of industrial progress are protected from its ongoing catastrophe; from Bhopal to Aniston the worst side effects (so far) happen elsewhere to the seats of power. At our meeting Professor Ken Sela summed up the objective thus: if you want environmental sustainability work for social justice. As long as we segregate the risks and rewards of environmentally toxic industrialization, sustainability remains a specious marketing idea.

At Growing Power, the last farm in Milwaukee, we saw a 20-year-old, intensely local experiment in community development, food security, vermiculture and radical permaculture. The nine greenhouses and grounds combine the year-round cultivation of fish, sprouts, greens and other horticulture in intensive, low-impact systems that maximize local resources. Those resources are not only material—composting wastes from local breweries and coffee roasters for instance—but also social, including training programs for low-income youth and immigrant populations, and maintaining relationships throughout the region to produce and distribute healthy food.


Will Allen, founder and director of Growing Power, Milwaukee, WI

When I asked Julie, our guide, about a comprehensive training document, she replied that although they do make handouts for their courses, their approach emphasizes the coordination of the needs and surpluses specific to local contexts. There is no master manual, because a Growing Power type operation in another city would have to be different. But the model is inherently transferable. Will Allen, the founding director of GP is invited all over the world to advise urban agriculture projects; the Milwaukee site is visited by international delegations all year long. The experiments constantly unfolding in situ are undertaken in full cognizance of local and global problems begging for solutions.

In western Wisconsin we visited many people applying the skill of commitment to long-term processes in a particular place. Growing fabulous children and vital communities, finding ways to lessen the American burden on the rest of the world takes time. We saw this at the Holm Girls Dairy, a family farm run by Sara, Erika, Andrea, Laura, Rachel, and Mary, and their parents Doran and Mariann. Originally from the area, they were living in California when they decided to buy a defunct dairy farm in the late 90s. They have spent the last decade improving the soil and cultivating organic pasturage for their herd of 70 or so charismatic Jersey heifers. They are part of the Cooperative Regions of Organic Producer Pools (CROPP), known perhaps to you the conscientious buyer as Organic Valley. CROPP is an example of a new existential scale: networks connecting one localized form of integrity to another.

In the anarchic process of planning our drift, we didn’t decide to focus on resistant practices of food production and distribution. In the end almost half of our planned events and many of our ad hoc stops revealed ways that food is organizing new approaches to natural and social interdependency. I think we drifted this way because food is currently one of the most invigorated and invigorating vectors for expanding autonomy. Creating a mutually beneficial, sustaining relationship to the natural world and to other humans requires us to engage in many kinds of time. Most valuable things in nature and human development can’t be rushed. Worms make perfect soil from plant-based garbage. You can set up optimum conditions for them to do their job, but in the end it takes as long as it takes.

In his 1994 book A Sense of Place, a Sense of Time, landscape historian J.B. Jackson elucidated the degree to which community, or richness of place, is a function of both space and time. Community as defined by place is aggressively marketed to us, because that seductive fiction can be packaged as real estate by opportunistic developers, one of the forces that makes place-based community suspect . Time, on the other hand, is sold to us in the form of technological devices to speed things up, or at least relieve the drudgery of survival in a punishing world. We can also buy time in the form of lower-status, lesser-paid labor. But the kind of time required for a livable world can’t be bought.  We have to make it ourselves, in collective experiments, with no guarantees. We can continually work on creating optimum conditions, but it takes as long as it takes.

Not all our events were food related (though most included potluck). In Chicago we invited author and filmmaker Sam Greenlee to a public screening of the 1973 film “The Spook Who Sat by the Door,” adapted from Greenlee’s 1966 book of the same name. A Chicago native, Greenlee spent 1957-65 in the Foreign Service “rubbing shoulders with successful revolutionaries in the new states of Africa.” His fictional protagonist is the first black man recruited to the CIA, where he is basically shelved for five years. But his training in counter-insurgency is not lost on him; he returns to Chicago posing as a social worker in the rising black bourgeoisie while secretly organizing street gangs to prepare for disciplined armed revolt. Acerbically funny and breathtakingly radical, this work basically shut the door on Greenlee’s employment and further publishing opportunities, though it hasn’t stopped him from writing and from fearlessly speaking his mind. In the Q&A Greenlee mentioned that while his character could infiltrate the world of Washington yes-men, a street gang is almost impossible for outsiders to infiltrate because you have to be “from the neighborhood.” Faking a sympathetic ideology, idiom or style is not enough. He didn’t have to point out that the U.S. faces a similar obstacle to infiltrating terrorist organizations today.

Author and filmmaker Sam Greenlee speaking at Back Story Cafe

Author and filmmaker Sam Greenlee speaking at Back Story Cafe

But to recognize the tenacious power of premodern foundations of identity—clan, turf, religion, race, ethnicity, nationality—is not the same as advocating such identifications as a fitting solution to the devastating deracination that afflicts us all, in different ways, today. The draw of such structures reflects a desire for traction in shared lived experience. But the choice is not between the twin alienations of insular protection or rootless anomie. The current gravitational pull of localized experience gathers extended connections in a deeply textured world. Drifting or settled, let the hooks and loops multiply.

keeping the message close to the ground

keeping the message close to the ground

For a photographic record of the Continental Drift through the MRCC, see

To download a copy of the book we made together about the drift, see