Sunday, January 29, 2017

#163 Drainage ditches

Dear all,
Since we've all been saturated with politics this month, I hope this offering is a welcome break--its randomness makes me smile.  Though it has been good to be in the streets (twice with grandchildren), and I'm excited to be thinking with a friend about strategies for nurturing the spirits of activists in hard times--stay tuned.
I continue to be thankful for good health, and it's been a blessing this month to catch up with some old friends and be present to a couple of brand new babies and their parents.
Remember that our strength lies in our connections.

Drainage Ditches

What, exactly, is the lure of agricultural drainage ditches?  It started out as simple curiosity, an itch.  A group of religiously based environmentalists, whom I respect and try to follow, were doing a series of workshops at a conference and I couldn’t make the one on drainage ditches.  What had I missed?  What did ditches have to do with earth stewardship?  It was weeks, or maybe months later when I found that enigmatic note on my desk and decided to scratch the itch.

Searching the internet, I found the connection.  Traditional commercial agricultural practice in this country calls for getting excess water out of fields by diverting it into ditches.  If they are lined and straight, they can carry a lot of water quickly and efficiently.  But, as we are learning on so many other fronts, quick and efficient often has a down side, particularly when we’re talking about highly complex and interdependent life systems.

Water that might otherwise soak deep into the soil gets carried away from the fields.  Pesticides and topsoil are carried away with it.  Receiving streams become more flood prone, polluted and over-enriched in a way that chokes out native water life.

So people are beginning to experiment with alternatives to the traditional drainage ditch.  If the water flows more slowly, less runs off at the beginning, reducing flooding. If it can meander, unlined, through a more natural habitat on its way to the stream, it can be cleansed, mimicking the seemingly-miraculous ability of wetlands to transform water quality

I’m glad to learn this.  I feel that I’ve made up for missing the workshop, and am on to other things.  Yet when I find myself, in a time of meditation, hearing the phrase “a channel of God’s peace” inside my head, I have to wonder. Being a channel requires maintaining a flow, so it makes sense to put attention to clearing away obstructions.  But should my goal be efficiency, on the model of those modern agricultural drainage ditches?  If I work to get my channel straight and well-lined, will God’s peace flow through more easily and quickly?  Or would I be of better service as the meandering kind, with more slow-moving opportunities for peace to soak in around me?

Somehow I doubt if I’ll find the final word here.  But following this thread of curiosity and wonder has made me smile more than once.  And I do trust the wisdom of eco-systems—which may be all the answer I need. 


I scratch my head
at holes in jeans.

First to go for me is the left knee
It comes from kneeling,
bending, honest work.
(I’m always sad to feel that rip,
a sign of the beginning
of the end.)

But these jeans I see are new
with matching holes—
in thighs and shins
as well as knees.
What work is here?

What have we come to?
Paying others
to create the illusion
that we work?
How can we survive
the battles ahead
if we can’t even
wear out our own jeans?

Imagine:  A New Economy is Possible!
Organic farming, scaled up

The Balbo sugar business in Brazil produces 75,000 tons of organic sugar, 34% of the world market, from a crop of about 1.2 million tons of cane. The transformation from traditional agriculture has taken 27 years, but cane production has improved, energy use has fallen by half, bio-diversity has increased, and all Balbo employees now have access to welfare, medical facilities, and low-cost housing.

Leontino Balbo has designed a new harvester that spreads the leaves and other waste from the cane, providing cover to protect the soil and control weeds. Waste from the distilling of sugar into ethanol is turned into a potent fertilizer.  Tens of thousands of tiny wasps that infect a type of caterpillar that can be deadly for sugar cane are raised and released.  Beneficial species, such as earthworms, are protected by using tilling and harvesting methods that do not compact the soil. By returning some of land to woods, wildlife that had not been seen in the region for decades has come back, while erosion has been reduced.  The most advanced technology is combined with the traditional ways of natural farming, treating the farm as a living organism, and giving nature an opportunity to participate in the stewardship of the soil.

Some things that have made me hopeful recently

The City Council of Portland, Oregon, which has passed a zoning ordinance that effectively bans all new fossil-fuel-export infrastructure within the city’s limits—including new port facilities for shipping coal, and holding tanks for oil and natural gas—and prevents existing facilities from expanding.

Teams of African masons trained in the Nubian Vault (NV) technique, who build safe, sturdy, well-insulated vaulted roofs of mud bricks, and train local apprentices on-site, modifying ancient Egyptian technology and making roofing accessible to poor people, by avoiding imported building material that must be paid for in cash.

A community land trust that is helping transform an informal settlement around a polluted and flood prone river channel in San Juan, Puerto Rico into a sustainable community. It provides a new model for improving informal settlements in cities without them then becoming unaffordable for the original residents.

The women's march, with over three million people (and counting) in the U.S., and how hopeful it made so many people.

Toward a Right Relationship with Finance 
Check out this new book that I co-authored on Debt, Interest, Growth and Security.

The growth economy is failing to provide equitable well-being for humanity and a life-sustaining future for Earth.  However our institutional endowments and individual retirement are dependent on that same growth economy.  This book:
    • offers background on our current economic system--how it is based on unearned income on the one hand and debt on the other, with a built-in momentum toward economy inequality and ecological overshoot;
    • frames the conversation within the context of our deepest values and beliefs;
    • suggests plausible and historically grounded alternatives to the current system, particularly with regard to financing retirement; and
    • invites everyone to imagine new forms of durable economic and social security, and to help create the relationships and institutions that will make them a reality.
With many people now counting as never before on the performance of Wall Street for retirement security, how can this system be challenged with integrity and effectiveness?  Can we break with our dependence on financial speculation and build up new structures of security in a transformed, life-centered economy?

To order the book, or read it on line, go to and scroll down.

More resources

Resource from my friend Daniel Hunter, Building a Movement to End the New Jim Crow; An Organizing Guide.

Recent posts on other web/blog sites:

In, Pamela Haines locates her family's homey DIY celebrations on a class spectrum of different connections to upward mobility.


Muscle Building for Peace and Justice; a Non-Violent Workout Routine for the 21st Century--an integration of much of my experience and thinking over the years: (or just google the title), a website that I've contributed to often (check the archives), a home for all the parenting writing I've done over the past 20 years.  NOTE THE NEW URL. START: a way to study and work together with others to create a better world.

For earlier columns, go to  I'm currently posting at

Pamela Haines

To be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing.