In a lecture held by James Howard Kunstler and William Fulton at the Congress for New Urbanism, both men go over in brief their experiences with and of urbanism as they grew up through it over the last 50 or so years. One of the striking things just listening to these two talk is how drastic the landscape changed in each others’ times being alive. Kunstler recalled experiencing what he called Central Park being the most lively and beautiful it has ever been after the financialization of the economy took place with the destruction of downtown NYC’s neighborhoods as a result, to the destruction wrought by urban planning in Auburn, NY in Fulton’s hometown. Throughout their lectures both men dug deep into the understanding that their relationship with the land and to the land fundamentally changed as urbanization dismantled peoples’ relationship to the land. What I appreciated about both is they both provided context to how each place looked historically, with Kunstler taking a detour to look at Buffalo’s progress over the last 100 years or so. The buildings that were torn down to make room for the new settlements went from places where one could walk, and as Fulton spoke, talked about how the landscape essentially went unchanged once the major highway cut Albany off from its residential zones, causing the zone to wither.
While the history of these places and their relationship to the burgeoning booms of the 40s and 50s are interesting in themselves, what it says about peoples’ relationship to the land is even more interesting to me. Kunstler roundly mocks people for the notion of building multistory food farms in city centers, and his primary reason for is that it is throwing a lot of resources at a problem while providing no long-term means for maintaining these structures. He points out that the urban areas are primarily for urban activities, and that the outskirts of cities and beyond, the rural areas, are the ones we have always historically grown the majority of our food in. That we are trying to get the cities, especially the multiplex cities to do this, is actively fighting against the point of having cities. This is not to say Kunstler is against folks growing their own food or urban gardening, but that we are ignoring the point of cities by trying to have the city do the job of rural areas by introducing ‘urban farming’ to them. For him this is no more apparent than these multimillion dollar projects of vertical farming.
Think about this for a minute. For the most part the cities’ soil is trapped under Gods-know-how-much concrete, steel, asphalt, and wood, and what soil is able to be gotten to may need quite a lot of remediation before it is ready to grow healthy food in. So this means, just on the basis of having enough soil to have enough for a multistory vertical garden, that much of that would have to be trucked in from somewhere else. The vertical gardens of the kinds that Kunstler was showing that are being proposed are massive, requiring millions of dollars in material and labor just to get built and Gods-knows how much more in maintenance. With climate change and peak oil both bearing down on us such projects are, in a word, untenable. Whether looked at from a cost perspective or a sustainability one, we have neither the treasure nor the resources to do this on the kind of scale that those who propose such techno-fixes would propose. We would be far better to retrofit rooftops to develop solar and wind energy, and retrofit the structure of the rooftops themselves to be able to be grown on and recycle water, use greywater systems, and develop top-of-building gardening and raising of animals. We have the technology available right now, the retrofits would cost the a small fraction of what it would to build wholly new vertical farming facilities, and it would have the potential of giving entire communities the ability to feed themselves far better with no space lost within them to what would probably be out-of-city/state developers.
There is another aspect to this that Kunstler did not touch on, and that is “Who is going to get displaced to make room for these? Who will benefit from this kind of development?” Just looking at the sheer amount of money such infrastructure would require I doubt, very highly, that any of the cities that could use such buildings would get them. If they did, in all likelihood it would generate one of the knock-on effects that the ‘urban farming’ initiatives are building in Detroit: gentrification. Sure, the buying up of and developing of properties is needed in the city. It keeps neighborhoods’ prices from depressing and creating a cascade effect in them. Yet, for many cities that are seeing a resurgence of affluent out-of-towners coming into the city and snatching up abandoned or especially foreclosed homes, it is pricing some folks, especially poor people of color, out of their own neighborhoods.
All these shifts, whether we look at the last 100 years in our own cities, towns, villages, and neighbrohoods, or across the board in how American living and commuting habits have changed since the introduction of the American highway system, provides insight in how we live on and with the land. There was a dynamic shift in how cities, towns, and villages were planned when we transitioned from horse, oxen, and waterways to trains for commuting and development. With the development of and later transition to the automobile these same places went through another shift, with the dominant feature being the main roadway arteries between various centers of industry at first, and more recently finance.
Just taking a look at US-12 here in Michigan shows how powerful these shifts are. The modern US-12 was part of two different and very old Native American trails, the St. Joseph Trail and the Sauk Trail. Both were footpaths for Natives here prior to European settlers arriving. It has always been a major thoroughfair for trade, and in the 1940s it was developed into expressways and freeways. Truck traffic still continues, but it has never really recovered from what expanding the highways have done to it. The aftereffects of the boomtown years can still be seen since US-12 is dotted with old, run-down tourist attractions from the 1970s and before, and the thriving antique shops throughout its run through lower Michigan.
As the train systems were demolished and automotives became our primary mode of transportation, many of the neighborhoods built up along the railroads died the same way our main outlets for shopping and commerce in suburban areas have been declinining since the 2008 financial crisis. Stores are shuttered, and entire areas that had once been full of life with residential communities growing in tandem along the railway, or in our case the main roads of cities and towns, went into foreclosure and short sales. Mom and Pop stores were replaced by larger companies or by centralizing stores in the same way that Wal-Mart, Kroger, and Meijer operates now. Those places that could not be replaced still remain as rotting husks of buildings displaying what once was a thriving place.
It is very sobering to think that automobiles have only been around since 1885, and in the time since, massive use of automobiles have only been around since the 1920s. So the main transportation method we take for granted today has only existed at most for about 133 years, and mass automotive use for 98 years. Before then we had mass transit in the form of electric streetcars, steam ferry, and trains. Before then we had horse, oxen, sailing ships, and of course, our own feet. With that in mind, what we have designed in America is an entire layout in cities, towns, and villages for a way of life that has only been with us for about a hundred years at best and is highly energy and resource intensive to create and maintain.
What does this mean for a polytheist view on these things?
We are bound up in the land we live on. Many of us worship Gods of the Earth, fertility, and local Gods. We worship our Ancestors, and the vaettir are all around us. Most of us don’t live anywhere near our Dead whether that is due to the amount of moving around automotives allow for, for personal ambitions, or the need to find steady work. For my family part of living well with our Ancestors is, where we are able, to live alongside Them. In this case this can mean something as small as an urn getting a place at an Ancestor ve, or as major a work as a burial mound being constructed so we can house our community’s Dead. The vaettir are all around us, no matter where we live. It is in our best interest to align well and live well in gipt fa gipt with all our Holy Powers.
If we are going to live well on the Earth with the Holy Powers we need to develop, revive, and encourage ways of life that align with the Earth’s ability to replenish and live well. We need to reduce or eliminate waste wherever we can, and to design our living arrangements so that we are not just extracting resources without Gebo. We have the cities, towns, villages, and neighborhoods we have now. I would have us retrofit what we can in these places and replace what we need to for a sustainable future now while we have the resources to do so. Whatever we do the work we put our hands to needs to be for the best for the environment and future generations who will live there.
This approach to how we plan and maintain our cities, towns, villages, and neighborhoods brings living with our Holy Powers out of abstraction and into our physical spaces, into lived everyday relationship with Them. It brings our concerns surrounding how we live in our everyday lives and asks “How can we best honor the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir of this place?” with every decision. It forces us to acknowledge that there are living relationships with Holy Powers to be had regardless of where we are, or with what part of our lives we are engaging with. Water treatment facility? Likely at least one, if not many Gods to be worked with in that, and many vaettir as well. The city square? Public life is acknowledged as having a spiritual dimension, even if not everyone appreciates that spiritual dimension. Parks and streets alike teem with spirits. Designing our living spaces with care will ultimately benefit the community and the bonds we hold together with our Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir. Planning for environmental impact, developing ways that honor our communities and making them places people want to live will help our communities thrive and grow resilient together.
Planning our living spaces does not have to be terribly jarring. We can orient future repair and maintenance projects to make everything as walkable as humanly possible in our cities. We can encourage repair and reuse where we now are encouraged to throw things away and just get a new thing. Encouraging people to live above their businesses where they could would help cut down on wasted space. Developing various districts that make use of locally harvested foods and goods, especially those closest to the our cities and towns, would bring resiliency into these places and in reciprocity, resiliency to those growing and processing these things. Developing intentional interdependent relationships in cottage industries between city, town, and villages with those in rural areas can strengthen bonds between them. Doing this will keep goods and money circulating within and between communities, strengthening bonds and the resiliency of all of those within these relationships.
Encouraging these kinds of investments in our own communities might require modifying entire swathes of building codes depending on how strict they are and the kinds of buildings and industries in a given area. It might require folks to reevaluate how we buy things, how we consume things, and from where we get the needs and wants of our lives. Looking into community efforts to not only put together recycling collections, but composting, can save a lot of space in landfills better put to use in fields and community gardens. Folks will need to decide on where it is best to put their energy. I think that creating more walkable, interconnected, and interdependent places will encourage people to be more active in their communities and develop tighter bonds with their neighbors and the spaces everyone in a community shares.
It is worth thinking about what a climate change and peak oil future looks like. Do not go for doom and gloom; give yourself room to explore the full breadth of human technology and innovation we are privileged to live with in this time. JMG noted in a recent interview he gave that we are not bound to a single time or place in terms of the technologies we can adopt to face the future, and actively encouraged folks to explore what technologies we could make best use of in an age of decline. So yes, that means at some point looking look at what it means to live with intermittent, and perhaps eventually little to no electricity. Look at what it may mean for us to live with little to no gas because much of it would be out of our price range. Once you look around yourself and really see how much work fossil fuels are doing for you, and what climate change can mean for your area, take a breath.
Think about all the technologies we put down because fossil fuels have done so much of the work for us and have taken us out of relationship with the world around us. Our food, our water, how we relate to physical work itself. How we relate to one another. Not everyone can or will farm just as not everyone can or will work metal or wood. There will still be need for writers and artists, laborers, and organizers. There will still be need for folks who know how to make infrastructure, or to design sustainable developments in the places we live. We will still have need of trade, we will still have markets, and we will still have need of means of exchange in some form. We have had cities longer than we have had fossil fuels.
If you think about it, that is damned exciting. If you work with moneyvaettir (money spirits), imagine bringing that dimension of respect for the power of exchange and the power a cultivated relationship that these spirits can bring to trade. When we no longer have our debt-based money system as the primary arbiter of relationships we give space for our relationships with one another to grow in different ways. If you worship Gods who care about governance, imagine bringing the lessons of your Gods to bear in local government work, in layout for the treatment of water, sustainable rain harvesting, or building codes. If you worship Gods who hold theaters as sacred to Them, rebuilding or encouraging a revival of local theater troupes might be a powerful form of devotion. Guilds for craftspeople can be a powerful source of devotion, whether to Gods of the craft, Ancestors (such as masters in the craft who have died), and the vaettir associated with the craft or to crafting in general. Just carrying on a craft or art in general, regardless of skill, can be a form of cultivating relationships with the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir associated with it.
When we allow ourselves to understand ourselves in relationship with our Holy Powers and one another not only in abstract ways, but concerete hand-to-mouth ways, our perspective changes. My understanding of Freyr changed when I recognized and worshiped Him as the God who blessed my asparagus with fertility. When I recognized the asparagus, each stalk a vaettr, as being in relationship with Him, it was a profound shift. Freyr could no longer abstractly be a God of fertility; His fertility was absolutely rooted in my soil and that has fed my family since we began to harvest it. Holiness is rootedness. The mead that I brew is related to many Gods and vaettir, and many of my Ancestors would have brewed their own drinks for their Gods, Ancestors, vaettir, and community. By taking up and engaging in the craft I have engaged in devotion with Kvasir, Gunnlodd, and in different ways, Odin. Likewise, I have worshiped different Ancestors I may not have engaged with, and the vaettir of the mead that I have developed has blossomed into a good, reciprocal relationship.
Through living our religious worldviews, in bringing these ideas of relationship, reciprocity, and wellbeing into our relationships with the lands we live on and the Beings we share this world with, we can avoid the devastating results that business-as-usual visited on Kunstler’s NYC and Fulton’s Albany. We can offer new ways forward in relationship of our societies to the lands we live on. Our neighborhoods may be more walkable, self-sustaining, and resilient. The very way we lay out these things can radically change. Our current ways of doing things are less than 150 years old. We can make our places that we live sustainable again. Arguably, it is one of the biggest shifts we could take so that our societies are in better alignment with Nature.
When it comes to peak oil and climate change we are looking at less is more. A simple example of this in action is a cob building. They can be constructed throughout most of the continental United States from local materials. Cob itself is a combination of soil, clay, and straw. The walls and ceiling are fashioned into multi-foot thick structures, often made in the footprint of the land they are built in. The placement below the frost line and thickness of their walls allows them to regulate heat effectively in most climates, with wood stoves, rocket stoves, and similar devices serving to heat them in colder climes.
Cob homes require very little in regards to fossil fuel inputs for their construction or maintenance due to being made of local all-natural materials, and can be fashioned by hand. Cob homes have lasted for hundreds of years as they were built. Contrast this with the average stick-built home not lasting well past a hundred years that requires massive inputs of fossil fuel powered machines, lumber, plastics, and so on just to build and even more to maintain. Cob homes can be built multistory, and can be built with basements as well.
Now, cob will not be useful in every situation, or even most urban situations where the layout of a city has been in place for a significant investment of time and capital. The same issues with soil quality that makes the question of whether an urban garden is a good idea applies to the fashioning of a roof and walls. Even putting aside issues of quality of the soil, the particular requirements for a home in the city may be too small for cob to be effective. Wattle and daub, made in similar fashion to cob with thinner walls due to its wooden ‘skeleton’, may be another house construction method with a long-term future. As with cob, wattle and daub can be made by hand and with local materials. As with cob, it has the ability to scale up and down for different building sizes. Unlike stick-built methods which require sizeable sums of lumber input, wattle and daub requires small amounts of timber with no need for processing pieces. Where neither cob or wattle-and-daub methods make sense, retrofitting homes and places of busines can still make dramatic impacts on energy use, repair, and development of spaces for different uses.
We could be much closer emotionally and spiritually to the places we live and work if we made them by hand, scaled them to our needs, and oriented them to maximizing our liveability in them. If we generated power locally, took care of our water and soils with an understanding that everyone in the community is part of the environment, we could not help but understand ourselves as living with the world around us. Making our communities easier to live and work in, making them more sustainable and resilient to climate change, peak oil, and other predicaments facing us, will benefit us and our descendants.
Engaging locally means our ways of doing things are much more accesible and doable at this level. Rather than fight with entrenched interests at the State and national level, we can encourage positive development where we live. We have the opportunity to be living examples to our neighbors, and encourage the spread of ideas further by showing that the things we are passionate about can be done. In regards to our polytheist religions, we can show the living our our religions and the values by embodying them. So yes, we are going to face push-back and set-backs will happen. The clear challenge to us is not that we need to reinvent the wheel but to put it to effective use.
By taking up the challenge of engaging in good relationships with the land, air, water, buildings, and homes as polytheists, we allow for our future with each to be better. By engaging with the land, air, water, buildings, and homes with respect, with devotion to the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir of our urban, suburban, and rural areas, we develop better working relationships with each. By asking “How can we best honor the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir of this place?” with every decision, we are mindful of our place in things, and open ourselves to the work before us. As we let the work each place asks of us to develop these relationships, this teaches us how to better to do the work.
Both Kunstler and Fulton spoke about how their ‘relationship with the land and to the land fundamentally changed as urbanization dismantled peoples’ relationship to the land’. It took less than 100 years for us to hit this point in our relationship with the land and all that has been built on it, much of it through fossil fuels and overextending renewable living Beings like our waters, forests, and land. By engaging with the land, air, and water in this healthier, more wholistic way, we are given the opportunity to repair our relationship to and with them. In taking up the challenge of repairing our relationships with and to land, water, and air, we can each weave threads that fundamentally change the tapestry of our society’s relationships with them for the better. Wherever you can and however you are able, start weaving your threads. There are no insignificant threads to developing better relationships with our Holy Powers.