Survival Tools: Farming, Stories, Poetry, Writing, and Leaning

I farm with an old-fashioned scythe, which I use to cut grass. I relish how my body feels as it dances in the field while swinging this long, efficient tool. I enjoy seeing what I am cutting and thus avoid killing small oaks and redwoods. The sharp blade takes my gaze to the ground, which holds up all of us and merits our attention and even devotion. Each creature–no matter how small–has an important role in the whole. The sweet sounds that the scythe makes as it swishes through the grass comfort me.

The loud, ugly, industrial sounds and smells made by gas-operated mowers do not appeal to me. Beautiful sounds like swishing grass and recited poetry relax me. I love the multiple utterances that my chickens release from their joyful beaks as they ecstatically celebrate their appreciations of the new day and still being alive. When the wind sweeps through the tall grass and bamboo I planted on my Kokopelli Farm here in the Redwood Empire of Northern California, it soothes me as if it were a harp. I hear Orpheus—the father of ancient Greek poetry and music–playing his enchanting lyre. The wind and the redwoods make incredible dance partners.

An incense cedar and giant sequoia on the land where I also live lean on each other and inspire me. I call them “the couple.” At night I sometimes sleep out in the cozy forest bed beneath them and drink in the fragrant, sweet darkness revealed by the diffuse light of the moon and stars. I benefit from and bask beneath their leaning.

Everything that lives dies—individuals, nations, and even planets. The Grim Reaper gets all of us, even empires. The United States seems to be at the end of its rope in many ways—loosing wars, a falling dollar and declining economy, decreasing prestige among the peoples of the world. A key question now is how to live during the transition from the no longer of the American Empire, trying to salvage the best of America, and make it to whatever not yet we can create. The deepening darkness can be more manageable if we lean on each other.


After 25 years of college teaching and administration, I left college as my primary work environment for agriculture in the early l990s. I sensed that many of humanity’s support systems and the natural capital that sustains us were breaking down. I wanted to learn more about the basics of food, water, plants, animals, the soil, climate, and the elements. I wanted to be able to feed myself and others with good, nourishing food during an uncertain future of diminishing natural resources and heightening conflicts.

After a search I decided to move to Sonoma County, remaining in the state of my birth. Whenever this native son tries to leave my home state, California, my body goes where I direct it, but only for a while; then my feet take me back home. Sonoma has nearly 500,000 people and is within the creative San Francisco Bay Area. I bought land with berry vines, apple trees, oaks, redwoods and a tiny house in the uplands of the Cunningham Marsh near the small town of Sebastopol, where less than 8000 souls live.

Our community actively deals with issues such as making a transition to alternative energy sources and the increasingly chaotic global climate. We have active neighborhood groups and support each other to buy local and re-localize. Among the effective groups here are the Climate Protection Campaign and the Post-Carbon Institute. Sebastopol citizens regularly elect well-informed officials who seek to deal with the real issues. We welcome newcomers as we work together to build community during this transition to a post-carbon future.

As the US begins to have more political, economic, and social problems, certain geographical areas where people have gathered to pursue sustainability and relocalization are more likely to prosper. Thinking strategically about where to live—where there is enough food, water, and the social capital of community—is crucial.

I recently returned to part-time college teaching. I sense that we are approaching a tipping point, so I decided to re-embed myself within institutions to have more contact with people and resources to help make a transition to whatever we can create to thrive during the changing times. I have also recently returned to working within religious institutions. I have been appointed to the arts and spirituality board of a local Episcopal church and have preached about the themes in this essay at three Unitarian Universalist churches in our region.

Kokopelli Farm is what I decided to call the place that I have inhabited with animals, plants, the elements and a few people for most of the last 15 years. I named it after the legendary humpbacked flute player of the pueblo Anasazi people. He went from village to village— even those who were fighting each other—and brought peace. Kokopelli is an agrarian deity, man of peace, and trickster. Known as the great sprinkler and fertilizer, with his antenna, Kokopelli is a member of the insect clan. I wanted the blessings of the insects on my food growing. They can have their part, as can the deer and others who also need to eat. I was, however, glad when a mountain lion returned a few years ago and thinned out the deer. Too much of even a good thing can be problematic. The old but short oaks—made into bonsai by too many deer–shot up tall in a few years, leaping with joy from their sturdy and deep taproots. Plants have so much to teach us about survival and adaptation, as do animals.

When obstacles to appropriate growth are dealt with, amazing growth spurts are possible. We need such growth spurts in public awareness to deal with the substantial problems created by over-population, war-making, increasingly extreme climate, and the depletion of natural resources such as fossil fuels.

As I write in my redwood cabin built with wood salvaged over a decade from old chicken coops, I hear my neighbor’s dairy cows bellowing in the distance and I see his large, gentle workhorses calmly eating grass. The majority of people used to farm and live in the countryside. Now less than 2% farm in the US and most people live in urban areas. As our high tech energy sources diminish more people will have to turn to farming to survive. It is not such a bad option. Agriculture, after all, is a basis of culture, which is more important than agri-business, in my opinion.


We have a small group of minstrels and troubadours who call ourselves the Kokopelli Players. Some of us met through the Sons of Orpheus, a group that gathered weekly for years to tell our stories, recite poetry, and play music. The oral, musical, movement, and artistic traditions take on a special importance during a time—such as ours—of cultural change. Political and social change are not enough; we need what Brazilian educator Paulo Freire describes as “cultural action” to dig deeper to craft new stories and ways of being to lead us into a better future where humanity can live in balance with nature.

The blind French resistance member Jacques Lusseyran was condemned to Buchenwald concentration camp by the Nazis. He survived by reciting poetry and helping organize other prisoners to do so. In “Poetry in Buchenwald,” translated by Noelle Oxenhandler, Lusseyran writes the following:

“I saw the lines of prisoners who trudged toward the central square to report for work. I saw the cold, the hunger, the fear…I began to recite verses…Little by little, another voice was added to mine… the verses were being repeated in the darkness… More men came. They formed a circle. They echoed the words…They leaned toward me, gesturing, swaying, beating their chests, lisping, muttering, crying out, seized by a sudden passion. I was dumbstruck, happy like a child.”

“One dark winter morning…we were about thirty exhausted men, shivering…Boris suddenly…recited from Peguy’s ‘The Tapestry of Notre Dame’…when the poem was over, a little man…said to me, ‘Touch my forehead. It’s sweat! That’s what warms us up, poetry!’ In fact, the iciness had disappeared. We no longer felt our exhaustion.”

“…poetry is an act, an incantation, a kiss of peace, a medicine, one of the rare things in the world which can prevail over cold and hatred…To nourish the desire to live, to make it burn… Man is nourished by the invisible…Man is nourished by that which is beyond the personal.”

The blind, young Lusseyran was one of the few to survive Buchenwald.


Our Kokopelli Players roam around blending earthy sounds with recited poetry in the oral tradition. We offer sermons at local churches on subjects such as “In Praise of Sweet Darkness, Luscious Berries, and Endarkenment.” We honor the night, sleep, dreams, and chocolate, seeking to recover the benevolent aspects of the darkness that the ancients, mystics and indigenous people seem to understand. Some contemporary poets–including Wendell Berry, David Whyte, and Mary Oliver—also embrace sweet darkness. Industrial culture often hides in the glare of too much brilliant light, which combat needs.

The current over-emphasis on industrialism’s bright lights needs to be balanced by the multiple gifts that the dark offers, which many 21st century Western people fear. As the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu wrote in the 6th century BCE, “Darkness is the gateway to all understanding.” The Greek poet Noonus requested the following in the 6th century A.D.: “Make long the sweet darkness.” In his poem during the Vietnam War, “In a Dark Time,” l966, the American poet Theodore Roethke wrote, “In a dark time, the eye begins to see.” We once again live in such a dark time when global war-making threatens us; would that more of our eyes would begin to open and see.

In his song “Darkness, Darkness” Jessie Colin Young longs for darkness “to ease the day that brings me pain.” As the great German-speaking poet Rainer Maria Rilke affirms, “I love the dark hours of my being/ in which my senses drop into the deep.” From those depths we can create better futures.


This past summer an attorney summoned me to Chile to appear in the torture and execution case of my good friend Frank Teruggi. We lived there during the democratic government of Pres. Salvador Allende. When Gen. Augusto Pinochet took over on Sept. 11, l973, he began killing many people, including Frank, and continued his reign of terror for nearly 20 years.

The prompt for me to write this essay was the Veterans’ Writing Group that I have been meeting with for over a dozen years. Initiated by the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn, it has been skillfully lead by Maxine Hong Kingston. We recently published our first book, Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace. Knowing that I would sit in circle again with these men and women evoked certain memories. Storytelling—both orally and on the page—can heal and help set us free. In our vets group we investigate, reveal, and write from our memories, attempting to integrate them. We seek to distill the sweetness hidden within the darkness.


“I know I won’t always be here,” the co-host of our vets group comments as she looks out the window from her hilltop home into a marvelous Redwood Empire valley. “So I want to appreciate and care for the Earth while I can,” she adds, leaning on her World War II veteran husband. We recently celebrated his 80th birthday.

“I see when I walk how well all things lean on each other,” Robert Bly begins his poem “In the Month of May.” As our vets group goes on its afternoon walking meditation, I notice how well the trees and other vegetation lean on each other. Such leaning can create great joy and capacity to endure pain and suffering. The reverence and humor of our being together enable me to speak more of my truth, ask for help, and lean toward others, thus breaking the isolation that characterizes industrialism.

I talk and write about my memories from Chile in order to replace them with sweet winter images of leaning on each other. It is warmer that way. I recently received a load of wool, which I am placing around the berry vines as mulch to help them through the winter and to suppress the weeds. Stories and poems can help us mulch and compost our experiences.

As we walk on our meditation through the giant trees, a women vet takes my arm as we go down the hill. “You can lean on me,” I think. “May I lean on you?” I wonder.

Shepherd Bliss ( is a retired college teacher who has contributed to 24 books. Read other articles by Shepherd, or visit Shepherd's website.

5 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Gary Corseri said on January 7th, 2008 at 10:26am #

    Beautifully written, beautifully thought.

    Shepherd Bliss is an inspiration. His experiences–dark and light–, his reading and observations, friends, music, nature have deepened him so that he is now a natural teacher–animated and able to respond to the spontaneity of life, while nurturing the taproots.

    He weaves the teaching of others into a Navaho blanket, a European tapestry, a Chinese/Japanese silk hanging. Through him we perceive the richness of diversity, the unity of scythe and grass, redwood and cedar, leaning and support, the fine art of balancing.

    Mille Grazie. Domo Arigato. Muchas Gracias. Merci. Much thanks.

  2. AJ Nasreddin said on January 7th, 2008 at 12:36pm #

    Yes, very well written indeed. I suppose being away from disconnected flashes of information of the technological age can help you compose your thoughts better.

    Between the lines I can sense the slowness of life – as I once had the opportunity a decade ago to just slow down and live a bit, not having to worry about business meetings, deadlines, answering emails in a “timely” manner (usually the boss means “immediately”).

    I just have one question for Shepherd: When can I come and visit?

  3. Dave said on January 8th, 2008 at 8:45am #

    Great piece of writing. Not to appear ungrateful, but what are people who can’t afford to buy a large farm in the wilderness supposed to do? I suspect that Mr. Bliss’ blissful existence will be shattered by not-so-friendly visits from the “have-nots” when TSHTF.

  4. AJ Nasreddin said on January 9th, 2008 at 10:35am #

    Dave, why not get together with some friends a start your own commune? I had some friends who did that years ago – pooled their cash together and went out to New Mexico, bought a big piece of land and built their own community.

    Just remember: Location, location, location. My friends commune fell apart after a few years because it was really out in the middle of nowhere. And the New Mexican desert, although spiritually rich, does not support too much agriculture.

  5. cj said on January 10th, 2008 at 10:38am #

    This is not a description of sustainable agriculture. This is a yuppie professors hobby farm/ poetry circle. He would not be able to do this without extremely high tax supported income from the university. We pay extremely generous tax support to the academic community to provide creative and usable solutions to the significant problems our communities and world face. Academics are protected by tax support and tenure from the real world competition the rest of us face. He has chosen to take the extremely generous freebies society has given him and run off to dreamland leaving the rest of us to support him. Real agriculture is hard work even with machinery. Hand agriculture on a level which supports life is grueling and does not provide time or energy to set up drum circles and poetry readings. Ask the handful of people still around who lived in those days. This is absurd and he should be required to pay back in full his academic salary for abandoning his part of the bargain to provide real intellectual effort to support our society not slurp the cream and abandon it .