Sunday, August 29, 2010

Dirty Hippie Festival

It's taken me a long time to mentally get back to the United States. I am still (literally) dreaming that I am in India, and I find it very hard to adjust to living alone again. This will all change tomorrow when I get in the car for a 30 hour drive to White Earth Indian Reservation in Minnesota. But first, I have some unfinished business from Belgium to take care of. On my way to India in June, I stopped to visit my friend and colleague, Stijn, who introduced me to a bunch of permaculturalists in Belgium. I got an invitation I couldn't refuse from one of those kind folks, Cyrille, to return at the end of my time in India for a permaculture festival in Belgium. The timing was perfect so I rerouted myself from a decidedly unsustainable stop in Dubai, to a beautiful grow, cook and eat week in Nethen, Belgium.

Permaculture tends to resist definition, and like everything else, has its fair share of contradictions. It has its roots in sustainable food production, but extends to virtually everything that humans need for life. It is also a philosophy about better ways of living. Permaculturalists believe there is a fairer, cleaner and more joyful way to live. The "perma" part of permaculture is the idea that all our destructive and temporary systems based on finite fuel sources can be replaced with something more life-giving that lasts. There was plenty of evidence of this at the festival--all the local, organic food cooked up in the kitchen; the tents, yurts and teepees that provided beautiful shelter; joyful people who gave workshops on everything from biofuels to loving; bucket showers and composting toilets that kept us all clean; and healthy, happy folks working hard with big smiles all day long.

I gave a little workshop on setting up community seed banks and donated a good amount of time to the kitchen--chopping, stirring and serving up good food in a lot of really good company. My friend Regan finds chopping vegetables relaxing, and had she been working in the kitchen at the festival she would have been as blissed out as a yogi in an ashram in Rishikesh. I have never chopped so many vegies in my life. I'm not complaining, mind you--it was incredibly fun work with so many kind hearts, and this is what it takes to feed a lot of people really well. A lot of sharp knives, strong wrists and good natures.

For the first few days I was there the cooks provided meals for the organizers--about 50 in all. On the last day of the festival, which was open to all the festival attendees and the community, the kitchen staff cooked food for close to a thousand people. Needless to say, to feed this many people three vegan meals per day with local food takes a small army of vegetable choppers working non-stop. It was a beautiful sight to behold. And proof that it can be done.

The festival was held on an organic farm about an hour outside of Brussels. The farmer donated his cow pasture to 750 dirty hippies for a week (imagine that happening in the U.S. post Woodstock?) and donated about 40% of his vegetable production to the festival. I'm not sure what came from where, but I spent an afternoon chopping swiss chard, and enjoyed a nice swiss chard and mushroom saute that evening. The next day I wandered around the farm and came across evidence of a lot of swiss chard production. It gave me a really good feeling to think that food was grown, cooked and eaten in a space with a radius of about 20 feet. In my opinion, this is the way it should be.

This was all a stroke of incredibly good fortune, and a turn of events that still leaves me a bit shocked. I set out on this journey with few expectations, but hoping to find a few examples of how people are building alternative relationships with food and agriculture throughout the world. I was amazed to find out how much is going on outside the capitalist system, and really impressed with all the efforts of individuals and communities to do food and agriculture differently. This festival was a defining and shining example of how to do this, and how to do it well.

It was a beautiful and unexpected gift to have this festival arrive at the end of this phase of my travels. Permaculturalists believe in the importance of closing loops to eliminate waste and generate harmony in systems. This beautiful full circle in my intellectual and emotional travel is tremendously symbolic and poetic. I am grateful, humbled and awed. Permanently.

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