Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Diamond Cutter at Apache Pass, Part 2: Passage to India

"Blindfolded, he spoke eloquently on the nature of emptiness."

This is the second installment in a series.
When he tells his own story, it runs something like this:
I attended Princeton University and received an honors degree in Religion in 1975. Prior to that I had received the Presidential Scholar Medal from the President of the United States at the White House. In 1973, while still at university, I received word from my home in Arizona that my mother was seriously ill with cancer.
I had been preparing for a career as a priest in the Episcopal ministry, and had already chosen Episcopal Theological School in Boston. But the news of my mother shook me deeply, and I requested a one-year sabbatical in order to go to India and seek some answers. 
He went to India in search of medicine and eventually took his mother there to be treated by a famous Tibetan doctor, Yeshi Dhonden, who was also personal physician to His Holiness the Dalai Lama. While staying in the same home as the Dalai Lama, his doctor arranged a private meeting with His Holiness. They talked about his university studies and the Dalai Lama approved his plan to study with a lama living not far from Princeton, Khen Rinpoche.
I stayed for several months in Mussoorie, learned my first basic Tibetan words and ideas there. At this time I also began intensive studies in Indian classical music — sitar and tabla — with Shri Mubarak Masih, a master from the Persian tradition. I slept in a sleeping bag on the concrete floor of a small, unheated Christian church; and I remember spending my 21st birthday there alone on a particularly cold day, and hearing that poor people in the village had died from the cold during those weeks.
In the summer of 1975 I graduated from Princeton and on the same day moved to Khen Rinpoche’s residence at Rashi Gempil Ling. This is a small Buddhist monastery and temple located in a community of Mongolian-Americans in central New Jersey.
I lived here personally with Khen Rinpoche for 25 years, as his student and assistant. He was one of the last great geshes of old Tibet, having completed the hlarampa (this is the correct phonetic of this word, often misspelled) or highest rank of geshe, with angi dangpo — highest honors, a very rare achievement in Tibet which put him in the top ten or so of all geshes graduating that year from the tens of thousands of monks in the Gelukpa tradition of Tibet. He was a fierce debater and a very demanding taskmaster — and also incredibly loving and caring of all of us who had the honor of being his students.
After some years with Khen Rinpoche, and with a degree in religion from Princeton and conversational Tibetan and Sanskrit, Michael Roach went to India to take formal vows and be ordained at Sera Mey Tibetan Monastery.
The monks checked my level of study after the first 8 years with Rinpoche, and gave me some credit for my 16 years of western education (which actually did give me a solid foundation for my monastic education). For my first day on the debate ground, still in the suit, they placed me with the 12th-year class, debating Middle Way philosophy.
He soon found the lessons overwhelmed him. 
I went back to my little monk’s room and gave it some hard thought, and the next day made a brave decision: I approached the monastery and asked if I could start my education all over again from near the bottom, with kids who barely stood shoulder height to me.
The monastery gave their permission, and I spent the next 12 years growing with my class. I have always felt that these years of reviewing all that I had already studied for the first 8 years is what really helped me master the material. When I began there were about 60 monks in each of the classes, and in the end I think only four of us graduated with the geshe degree.
One of his special interests was in rare manuscripts. 
When I first got to the monastery, there was a dire shortage of textbooks. Many had been lost or burned in the destruction of the original Sera Mey library. What textbooks we had were copied out by hand and then printed on paper off of flat stones coated with cow’s urine and charcoal as the ink — a true “lithograph.”
The teacher in our geshe class would have the only copy of the textbook, and we had to learn to read it upside down leaning over the front of his desk. To do our memorization lessons, pages would be slipped out of the original and taken up on the roof, where we did our memorizing. Many books got broken up this way and never restored.
Later I founded the Asian Classics Input Project (ACIP), and we began searching the world for textbooks from our monastery that had made it out of Tibet in previous centuries. We were successful in these efforts, and began a program to reprint our monastery’s textbooks off of personal computers. My friend Steve Bruzgulis and I invented the world’s first Tibetan word processor, called TTPS (Tibetan Text Processing System), for this purpose.
With funding from David Packard, Roach established a computer center in the Sera Mey library and began to digitize rare manuscripts. That work took him to China, Mongolia and Tibet and, after the fall of the Soviet Union, to St. Petersburg where he learned Russian so he could locate and translate rare texts that had been brought from China to Russia over 300 years. To date, ACIP has digitized more than 130,000 manuscripts.

Geshe Michael now teaches 10-day programs four times a year in his home state of Arizona, and spends the remainder of his time traveling in search of rare manuscripts or providing lectures.
Sometimes I just sit there and wonder why I ended up in this little strip-mall town in New Jersey; why just about all of the high geshes in America happened to be sitting there when I arrived there at age 22; why they had fled from Tibet at exactly that particular time; why the best books and teachers in the monastery kept showing up just when I needed them, and so on and so on. It seems that fate, or karma, had a lot to do with my being able to finish a geshe degree, and I think about that a lot.
Because a big part of the geshe program doesn’t have to do with books and debates at all. I watched a lot of incredibly good scholars and debaters, people I could hardly keep up with, rise and disappear in our class — die, leave the monastery, lose interest — as we passed through the years. And in the end I came to realize that the survivors were those who were doing something more than just studying: they were serving.
The Tibetan monastic system, at it best, has some failsafes in it to prevent a very smart person who doesn’t care about others from reaching a geshe degree. First and foremost, all of the students in the geshe course are expected to follow a very rigid code of conduct towards our teachers. Buddhism teaches that you don’t just study with a teacher, you serve them at the same time. And the karma of trying to serve well causes amazing teachings to fall from their lips: you make your teacher.
When I made my first trip to the monastery for my ordination, the monks were drinking out of a filthy stream that ran across the monastery cornfields, and almost everyone was sick all the time with dysentery — especially myself. Lama encouraged me to scour the refugee aid agencies in New York, and I designed and built the first wells and water lines serving every house in the monastery.
I worked in the cornfields behind water buffalo dragging an old log plow, my Irishman skin burnt to a crisp in the Indian sun. I got the monastery international aid grants to inter-plant soy among the rows of corn to keep the crop going, and helped start a tofu factory to use the soy to try to get the monks off of meat.
I built most of the dormitories for poor monks in my own college, and also built the elementary school complex for the young monks who were just learning to read and write, using the money from my job and from some Christian aid agencies in New York. The computer project to save Tibetan literary culture has for 25 years been one of the biggest sources of employment and income for the monastery and for the entire Tibetan refugee community.
I started the textbook printing project and took care of its funding for many years, so we would all have the books we needed to study. I helped build the first medical clinic at the monastery; to hire doctors and bring in medicines from western countries.
There are also several ways that monks in the geshe program in general are required to serve the monastery, even beyond what their own teacher demands of them. In my day, when your class finished the first 12 years in Perfection of Wisdom and was about to go on to Middle Way, the entire class was expected to take several months off of their studies and go begging for funds to help the monastery throughout all the Tibetan refugee camps in India — the idea being that the karma you got from this hardship would help you crack the idea of emptiness.
After 20 years of monastery life, Roach was urged by Khen Rinpoche to enter the business world. He wangled a job at Andin International Diamond Corporation, buying and selling precious stones. He commuted for 2 hours each day from the New Jersey monastery to the 47th Street diamond shop, never letting on that he was a Buddhist monk. All the while, he began analyzing how Tibetan Buddhist principles could be applied in the business world. This eventually became the subject of his 2000 book, The Diamond Cutter: The Buddha on Managing Your Business and Your Life. 

Meanwhile, in the 15 years he was there, the firm grew from a backroom company to a giant global operation that generated annual revenue in excess of $100 million.

According to Scott Carney, writing for Tibetian Buddhism in the West
His blend of Buddhism and business made him an instant success on the lecture circuit, and even today he is comfortable in boardrooms in Taipei, Geneva, Hamburg and Kiev, lecturing executives on how behaving ethically in business will both make you rich and speeding the path of enlightenment.
Following the success of the book, Geshe Michael returned to his birth state of Arizona. After giving some lectures and attracting a small following of devotees, he decided to undertake a 3 year, 3 month, 3 day silent retreat. 
In many ways, Roach’s silence was more powerful than his words. Three years, three months and three days went by, and Roach’s reputation grew. Word of mouth about his feat helped expand the patronage of Diamond Mountain and the Asian Classics Institute, which distributed his teachings through audio recordings and online courses. Every six months he emerged to teach breathless crowds about his meditating experiences. At those events he was blindfolded but spoke eloquently on the nature of emptiness.
And thus was born Diamond Mountain. With money from his books and lectures, and generous donations from businessmen who swore The Diamond Cutter brought them unparalleled success, Geshe Michael purchased more than 1000 acres of private land at the entrance to Apache Pass, just outside the Fort Bowie National Monument.
Subhüti, if there were as many Ganges rivers as the sand grains of the Ganges, would the sand grains of them all be many?
Subhüti said: Many indeed, World-Honored One! Even the Ganges rivers would be innumerable; how much more so would be their sand grains!
Subhüti, I will declare a truth to you. If a good man or good woman filled three thousand galaxies of worlds with the seven treasures for each sand grain in all those Ganges rivers, and gave all away in gifts or alms, would he gain great merit?
Subhüti answered: Great indeed, World-Honored One!
Then Buddha declared: Nevertheless, Subhüti, if a good man or good woman studies this discourse only so far as to receive and retain four lines, and teaches and explains them to others, the consequent merit would be far greater.

We are traveling at the moment and don’t have regular opportunities to post, so we have written this ahead of time, to release in the place of our regular weekly installments. This is the second in the series. Next week we will look more at the doctrine propounded by Geshe Michael.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

The Diamond Cutter at Apache Pass, Part 1: Cut the Tent

"When we move, or we consume foods from outside our region, we are thwarting adaptation. Our epigenome never gets in sync with the genetic resources of our region."

This year we were contacted by a friend requesting advice on a planned development for a Buddhist retreat center in the mountains of Southeastern Arizona. We agreed to make a quick trip and have a look.

To the untrained eye the area is about as arid and devoid of life as anywhere in North America. As we came up from the valley floor to the East of Tucson we saw a little more greenery tucked into narrow washes descending from canyons, along with sage, tumbleweed, nopale cactus and agave. We were told that there were once more trees here but that early in its history, Arizona decided it was going to be a cattle state and the trees were in the way of those plans, so they were cut down. They became cabins, railroad ties and fuel wood for locomotives.

Not surprisingly, many springs dried up.

Just as it takes 20 generations for a plant to adapt to a new ecology, it takes 20 generations for humans to adapt to a new environment. The Chiricahua for whom these mountains are named had just reached their 20th generation in this place when the White Eyes’ cows arrived.

When we move, or we consume foods from outside our region, we are thwarting adaptation. Our epigenome never gets in sync with the genetic makeup of our region. A 2015 study by Pueblo artist Roxanne Swentzell, of Flowering Tree Permaculture, showed that her people had been fully adapted to the local diet when the whites came. Her peaceful ancestors got caught up in the ethnic cleansing of the continent, were removed from their ancestral homes to squalid camps on reservations, and forced to eat subsidized rations of canned goods, flour and lard.

When the study returned her people to their original pre-contact diets it cured their chronic ill health of all types, including seemingly incurable diseases.

As we come to the foot of the mountain range 116 miles east of Tucson, a dirt road takes us towards Fort Bowie, the least visited park in the National Parks system. The 1.5 mile hiking trail to the ruins of the 1862 army outpost travels over the route of the Butterfield Overland Stage, rising 200 feet as it winds past remains of the stage station, the fort’s cemetery, a recreated Apache wickiup, the site of the Chiricahua Apache Indian Agency, and the original adobe and stone walls built to deprive the Chiricahua of access to the spring. 

Entering the pass, we paused to say a prayer for the spirits of the departed.

This mountain spring is the center of this ecosystem —its sacred heart. Whether you are here as a two legged, four-legged, one with wings or roots in the ground, you depend on this unceasing water to sustain you in hard times. Its health is your health. 

The biome begins here. The birds, the mammals and the whole food chain of the arid ecosystem radiates from this center outward.

It is more direct and faster to go from Texas to Tucson through the valley below but there is no water there. The Butterfield company, ancestor to American Express, detoured into the mountains and built a coach station at Apache Spring. Butterfield negotiated that arrangement with the leader of the Chiricahua, Cochise. In exchange for the opportunity of trade, Cochise allowed the regular passage of the Overland Stage and the permanent coach station, set back some 600 meters from the spring. He grew to have a cordial relationship with the stationmaster.

Jay W. Sharp writing for Desert USA Newsletter:
The Mogollon peoples discovered this secluded spring more than a millennium ago. In small nearby encampments, they constructed lodges, probably semi-subterranean pit houses. They manufactured plain brown pottery, raised corn and gathered wild plants. They used bows and arrows.
Those early people were gone before the Coronado Expedition of 1540–42 passed this way. No one really knows why they disappeared after having built irrigated orchards, earth-sheltered villages and fine roads.
The Chiricahua Apaches, drifting southwest from the southern Great Plains, found the spring in the sixteenth century, and they made it the center of their new homeland, which became known as Apachería, the desert basin and range country of southeastern Arizona, southwestern New Mexico and north central Mexico. In small encampments, the Chiricahuas constructed ephemeral brush or grass lodges called wickiups. They wove grass baskets. Sometimes, they raised a little corn. They gathered wild plants. They used bows and arrows and, later, rifles and pistols. They gloried in warfare and the raid.

Ft. Bowie’s Visitors Center is a small museum staffed by a single ranger. At appointed hours, a recording plays the bugle calls of the daily military routine over a P.A. system — First Call, Reveille, Assembly, Mess Call (morning), Sick Call, Drill Call, Assembly, First Sergeant’s Call, Officer’s Call, Mail Call, Mess Call (noon), Drill Call, Assembly, Mess Call (evening), Call to Quarters, Taps.
In a ravine which leads to a canyon which, in turn, descends to a pass between southeastern Arizona’s Chiricahua and Dos Cabezas Mountains, a small spring issues from the earth. Called Apache Spring, it delivers its stream — cool, clear, sparkling like a cascade of diamonds — into a sequestered rocky basin shaded by a few oak trees. Among exposed roots of the oaks, moss as green as emeralds clings to stone surfaces at the basin’s rim. The water flows from the basin and trickles down the ravine toward the canyon, to a place where it will play out and submerge back into the earth.
In the pass, called Apache Pass, about a mile above the level of the sea, nature has stirred a cocktail of ecological systems, a blend of two deserts and two life zones. Here, the high, hot Chihuahuan Desert to the east, in southern New Mexico, merges with the lower and even hotter Sonoran Desert to the west, in southern Arizona; and both deserts, marked by agave, yucca, sotol and cholla, merge with the higher woodland, distinguished by mountain mahogany, oak, juniper and piñon pine.
Along the stream — the only source of water for all seasons near the pass and its adjoining mountain slopes — mountain lions, bobcats, gray foxes, coyotes, coatimundl and mule deer quench their thirsts in the cover of the night. The red-capped acorn woodpecker rattles the morning stillness. The dusky-eyed Mexican jay whenks querulously at other birds. Plumed Gambel’s quail scurry through late spring undergrowth, plumed puffs of down — their chicks — in close pursuit. Hummingbirds, glittering like rubies in dappled sunlight, pause at the spring during their annual journeys north and south. Turkey vultures wheel through the summer skies above the spring.
Along the 990-acre National Monument’s northern border, from near the top of the pass down, are private ranchlands acquired by Diamond Mountain Retreat Center. As we begin our permaculture observations, we start in the same place that the rain does, at the ridgeline, and walk down.

Fort Bowie ruins, The Ranger Station is at the center-right in the back.
There are ghosts here. It is curious that newcomers would build remote cabins for silent retreats, hermitages, and meditation temples in such a place. We will explore that more, but this first installment must begin by taking you to the dark side.

It was here in the winter of 1861 that the Apache Wars began. The white eyes called it “the Bascom Affair.” To the Apaches it was known as “Cut the Tent.”

In January, 1861, a 12-year-old boy was kidnapped from a ranch in southern Arizona Territory by Apache raiders from a band to the north, most likely the Arivaipa, Pinal or Western White Mountain Apache. The boy’s father reported the kidnapping to Fort Buchanan and the commander dispatched Second Lieutenant George Bascom, 24, from Kentucky, to search for him. Bascom graduated 26th in a class of 27 at the U.S. Military Academy in 1858, the year after freshman George Armstrong Custer arrived. He had been at his western post less than 90 days when he got the assignment. The National Park Service tells the story this way:
Morrison assigned Bascom a force of 54 newly arrived mounted troopers. The inexperienced lieutenant proceeded to lead his inexperienced troopers into the field. Finding tracks of the raiders’ ponies leading eastward from Ward’s ranch towards the Chiricahua Mountains, he assumed Cochise’s band was guilty of the raid. Had he known Chiricahua Apaches were not known at that time for kidnapping and that the livestock raiding they engaged in then was limited almost entirely to south of the border, Bascom may have approached the chief in another way.
Bascom’s force camped at the Butterfield Stage Station and sent word via the stationmaster that he wished to speak with Cochise. In 1861, the chief of the Chokonen band of Chiricahua Apaches was then about 50 years old. Tall and handsome, he was second only to Mangas Coloradas among all the chiefs. The son of Apache Chief Juh, Asa Daklugie, told author Eve Ball that Cochise had a profound sense of honor. “Cochise was very proud of making his word good…Apaches hated liars.” Cochise was a man not accustomed to anyone questioning or doubting his word.
Cochise eventually did come to Bascom’s camp, at dinner time. Because Cochise brought several of his family members to Bascom’s tent to share a meal, he obviously believed this was a social visit. At some point during this meeting, Bascom accused the chief of kidnapping the boy. Though Cochise denied the accusation and told the officer he did not know the whereabouts of the boy he did say he would try to locate him and secure his release. However, the lieutenant told the chief he would not allow him to leave until the boy was returned.
Cochise rushed for the door but was blocked by sentries with bayonets. He wheeled and ran to the back wall of the tent, slashing it open with a single swipe of his Bowie knife. As he ran for the hills a bullet went through his leg but he did not slow until he reached safety in rocks near the summit. It was then that he noticed that he was bleeding and that he was still holding the tin cup of coffee Bascom had given him.
Cochise’s warriors then attacked a wagon train coming into the pass along the Overland Trail, killing the Mexicans on it, and taking the Anglos hostage. His warriors also captured Wallace, the Butterfield employee. The chief then attempted to trade his hostages for Bascom’s. Exchanging hostages was something Mexicans and Apaches had engaged in routinely and was a common practice of the time. In Cochise’s mind, he probably saw this as a logical solution to the problem.
Again the lieutenant insisted he would not release his Apache hostages until the boy was returned. And again Cochise denied having any knowledge of the whereabouts of the boy, still offering to help find him if Bascom would let his relatives go. What was going on in the minds of all involved, we can only wonder now. Each of us can only try to imagine what we might have felt, and done, had we been in the situation ourselves. Can you imagine the anger Cochise must have felt after having trusted his family would be safe in Bascom’s tent? Was he angry at himself for letting his guard down? Did he feel betrayed by Bascom’s initial pretense of hospitality?
Most certainly, he was deeply offended the lieutenant did not believe he did not have the boy. Being a leader held in such high regard by his people it must have been incomprehensible to Cochise to have his word doubted. Try to imagine the mortification Bascom might have felt when the whole situation spun out of his control and escalated into violence. Was he ever really concerned about the missing boy or was he consumed with a sense of duty, an ambitious desire to carry out orders and advance his military career?
What about the hostages? Can you imagine the terror they were experiencing as the drama played out, knowing they were caught in the center of it? Why didn’t Bascom exchange his hostages for Cochise’s? Some historians believe even Bascom’s soldiers were asking among themselves this very question. At some point, Cochise’s frustration with Bascom’s inflexibility turned to resignation, as he abandoned hopes of a peaceful resolution. At what point that frustration turned to murderous rage, we can only guess.
Eventually the higher-ranking officers who arrived decided to hang the male Apache hostages — Cochise’s family — from high trees, along with three other Apache men of another band not involved with the incident. Cochise’s wife and young son were taken back to Fort Buchanan.

Some reports state the bodies hung over the Overland Trail, swaying in the wind, until the skeletons finally fell apart. It was a symbol of intolerance and vengeance, not easily ignored, and the die was cast. Cochise never forgot the incident, or forgave those responsible for the execution and imprisonment of his relatives. For the next 11 years, Chiricahua warriors attacked settlers, travelers, miners, mail carriers, virtually every white in their territory.

The only Civil War battle where the Confederate Army was not a participant took place in Southeast Arizona when a legion company of the Union Army, on its way to engage Confederate regulars in Texas, wandered into Apache territory and poked the hornet’s nest.

When they reached Apache Spring after marching dozens of miles across the hot Arizona desert they were met by several hundred well-armed Chiricahua warriors led by Mangas, Cochise and Geronimo. Low on water, and unable to retreat without water, Captain Thomas L. Roberts chose to fight.

The Apaches had thrown up rock breastworks on the cliffs, and waited until the soldiers came within 30–80 yards of their positions before opening fire. After a few minutes of intense combat Roberts ordered retreat, regrouped and unlimbered the mountain howitzers. A local history says:
This was one of the first times the United States Army had been able to use artillery against the Indians in the Southwest. 
Roberts advanced with his howitzers and had them open fire. Their effectiveness was limited by the fact that they were 300–400 feet below the Apache defenses. Roberts moved his guns ahead to a better position, all the time under heavy fire. Once the guns were in effective range, the artillery opened fire in earnest.
John C. Cremony, who commanded the howitzers, said, “I afterwards learned from a prominent Apache who was present in the engagement, that sixty-three warriors were killed outright by the [howitzer] shells, while only three perished from musketry fire.” He added that he was told, “We would have done well enough if you had not fired wagons at us.’” They called the fight the Battle of Apache Pass.

Within days, Brigadier General James Henry Carlton ordered the California troops to build a post at Apache Spring to control the water supply and the mountain pass.

In late 1872, frontiersman Tom Jeffords and Cochise negotiated an agreement of peace, which called for a Chiricahua reservation surrounding Fort Bowie and Apache Spring. “Hereafter,” said Cochise, “the white man and the Indian are to drink of the same water, eat of the same bread, and be at peace.” Jeffords became Chiricahua Indian Agent.

After Cochise’s death in 1874, Washington determined to consolidate all the western Apache bands. The US removed the Chiricahuas to the reservation at San Carlos. The Chiricahuas bolted, took to Mexico’s Sierra Madre and went back to raiding and plundering on both sides of the border.
Mangas Coloradas, in his 60s but still a virile figure well over 6 foot tall, came to negotiate for peace and was taken hostage and assassinated. His skull is believed to be in the Smithsonian. 

Geronimo followed Mangas as principal chief of the Chiricahua. He surrendered and died in prison. He is buried in Apache Indian Prisoner of War Cemetery, Fort Sill. 

When Geronimo and his people departed Ft Bowie in chains, the post band struck up Auld Lang Syne. The Indian wars were over. Right or wrong had nothing to do with the outcome. Mulberry bows and arrows were no match for howitzers.

In the ravine that leads to the canyon that in turn, descends to the pass between southeastern Arizona’s Chiricahua and Dos Cabezas Mountains, Apache Spring still issues from the earth. Its bubbles rise to the surface and sparkle like diamonds.

We are traveling at the moment and don’t have regular opportunities to post, so we have written this ahead of time, to release in the place of our regular weekly installments. This is the first of a series. Next week we will look at the man who opened the Tibetian Buddhism retreat center here.

Sunday, October 29, 2017


"We need to get to above-the-line climate solutions with the same urgency as beach communities spying an approaching tsunami."

When we were young our parents made a bargain with us. If you will not drink or smoke until you are 21, they said, we will buy you the car of your choice on your 21st birthday. Both of them were recovering alcoholics and we could well appreciate their intentions. And so, at age 13, we took the deal. In our wild adolescence, through High School prom nights and fraternity football weekends, we were always the designated driver.

When the long-awaited birthday arrived, in 1968, our choice was a 1953 MG TD open-seated roadster. It was built on the famous Morris MG-Y green oak chassis so you could actually feel the car bend around curves or from the torque as you went quickly through the gears. It had high-ratio rack-and-pinion steering, not introduced in American cars until the 1974 Mustang. The interior furnishing and finish, the tuck and roll leather, the door panels framed in burr walnut, the instrument panel set in book-matched veneer, all amazing for a $1000 used car. 

There were no fuel or oil pressure gauges, but it came with a crank starter in case the battery died. It had a top speed of 77 mph (we know because we blew a piston when we ran it up to 100 on the interstate between Albany and Syracuse) and did 0–60 in 18.2 seconds. It was not exactly a Tesla, but at that time, with the ragtop and windscreen down, goggles and silk scarf on, being pushed back into the leather seat as it accelerated was ineluctable.

We remember one other acceleration experience that thrilling — the time we got up bareback on Blue, a King Ranch quarter horse kept for stud by one of The Farm’s neighbors, Dennis Whitwell. Comfortably seated, and with the horse antsy to get going, we wheeled and stomped the gas. We nearly went off over his hindquarters.

It is all about acceleration. Sometimes you experience it so powerfully that you never forget.

We are preparing now for next month’s conference of the parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, COP-23 in Bonn, Germany. The Global Ecovillage Network, buoyed by a successful Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign, will be there in the Bula zone with its meticulously well-organized program. Our niche falls at the nexus between carbon drawdown and sustainable development.

Sustainable development has become something of an oxymoron, we acknowledge. It needn’t be. It is unfortunate how the terminology gets used these days. By sustainable development, the UN implies unlimited capacity for physical growth using an extractive economy. It should instead imply directed de-growth of that economy while simultaneously developing harmonious relationships with nature and each other in a sustainable spiral of endless improvement in the quality of life. Better, not more.

These sorts of things should really not be being negotiated by government leaders because that is already limiting discussion to the viewpoints of people who are only looking to their next election cycle or succession to the throne. “Development” means to them anything that can be promised to their people — whether delivered or not — to assure they, personally, remain in power.

The sense of acceleration that excites us now is how serious the discussion is getting. No doubt getting slammed by successive category 5 storms, unprecedented flooding and mudslides, city-leveling wildfires, heat waves and droughts has something to do with focusing the attention. Mother Nature is seriously angry now.

Lately we have been attending the free webinars provided by the US National Academy of Sciences, UK’s Tyndall Centre, and others, bringing together various experts to look at our options in the climate arena, without all the b.s. or fairy dust (i.e.: clean coal, nuclear energy, BECCS, and geoengineering).

We could say there is a hierarchy of realistic survival choices now, in roughly this order:

The first three (above the line) are actual drawdown methods that would, if widely applied, pull carbon out of the atmosphere and return us to the Holocene from which we evolved and a climate suitable to sustain civilization.

The second three (below the line) are the “low-hanging fruit” that are the primary focus of international treaty negotiations and national or regional initiatives.

The below-the-line options take us towards zero. The above-the-line options take us beyond. At this late hour, we need to go well beyond to even matter.

from Pete Smith, Global potential and impacts of terrestrial carbon sequestration measures (2017)

Griscom’s team, which included 32 research scholars from the USA, Scotland, Brazil, Australia, Sweden, and The Netherlands, looked at the way Earth naturally heals when its atmosphere is damaged, and asked whether that healing process could be accelerated, whether it would be enough, and what it would take in terms of land area and money.

They eliminated from consideration monoculture plantations, untried “fairy dust” technologies, and anything destructive of indigenous cultures or to biodiversity. All pathways require conservation and restoration of existing agricultural fields and natural forests. Any improved land management practices must include safeguards for food, fiber, and habitat. They adopt Land Degradation Neutrality, Sustainable Development Goal 15.3.
"We allow no reduction in existing cropland area, but we assume grazing lands in forested ecoregions can be reforested, consistent with agricultural intensification and diet change scenarios. This maximum value is also constrained by excluding activities that would either negatively impact biodiversity (e.g., replacing native nonforest ecosystems with forests) or have carbon benefits that are offset by net biophysical warming (e.g., albedo effects from expansion of boreal forests). We avoid double-counting among pathways."

Books like Paul Hawken’s Drawdown or Bruce King’s The New Carbon Architecture are primarily concerned with below-the-line options. There is scant information available on what lies above.
For this reason, many people, including some climate scientists, brush off the above-the-line natural climate solutions (NCS) options, such as trees in pastures and biochar, as unproven speculation. That is a mistake. Griscom’s paper has gone a long way to correct misconceptions and mischaracterizations.

Contrary to some of the critics of world efforts to reverse climate change, NCS shows that it can be accomplished quickly without fairy dust, and at negative cost. But lets look at some of that technology going on sale now.

Number one is direct removal. “DAC” is now associated with what we previously derided as “artificial trees;” a closed chemical loop, powered by fossil fuels (likely fracked gas) that continuously captures CO2 from ambient air using amide solutions and not-insignificant amounts of energy. The biggest obstacle is not even the energy, since these calorie leeches could be mounted on existing power stations or solar powered, but what to do with the captured carbon? Most storage schemes lose up to 75 per cent of carbon to leakage.

The DAC process starts with a “wet scrubbing” air contactor which uses a strong hydroxide solution to capture CO2 and convert it into carbonate. This occurs within an air contactor structure modelled on industrial cooling tower design, which effectively contains the liquid hydroxide solution. Our second step is called a “pellet reactor” which precipitates small pellets of calcium carbonate from the aqueous carbonate solution. This calcium carbonate, once dried, is then processed in our third step, a circulating fluid bed calciner, which heats it to decomposition temperature, breaking it apart into CO2 and residual calcium oxide. The calcium oxide is hydrated with our make-up water stream in our fourth step, called a slaker, and is returned into the pellet reactor to precipitate calcium carbonate, and close the chemical loop.

In our baseline design, our calciner is heated by oxy-fired natural gas, so that the calciner contains CO2 originally captured from air and liberated by the pellets, CO2 from natural gas combustion, and water vapour. This gas stream is sent for clean up, compression, and water knock-out, in order to produce a stream of pure CO2. This configuration avoids emission of CO2 from natural gas usage, and we also have technical variants that reduce or eliminate natural gas requirements by substituting biogas or clean electricity.

Instead of artificial trees, what about using real trees? As the Griscom study shows, Natural Climate Solutions make economic sense at $10 per ton of Carbon (either emitted — payors ; or sequestered — payees) and shift into top gear at $100 per ton. DAC needs at least ten times that market peg to make its business case.

Also currently under exploration are a variety of carbon-absorbing biocretes and biocomposites that go beyond merely entraining photosynthesized carbon the way biochar, forests and kelp do, and actually suck GHG from the atmosphere.

We are not talking about materials that sequester carbon in their manufacture, like Novacem, Calera, Sriya or hemp fiber blocks. Its nice to think of offices and homes that can be built to endure without the huge carbon footprint that cement usually creates. That’s below the line technology. But what about concrete substitutes that draw more carbon from the atmosphere into their structure passively, year after year?

These would be cements that react with carbon, either in the ambient air or in a marine environment, to form carbonate structures within the concrete itself.


Pozzolanic reaction of volcanic ash with hydrated lime is thought to dominate the cementing fabric and durability of 2000-year-old Roman harbor concrete. Pliny the Elder, however, in first century CE emphasized rock-like cementitious processes involving volcanic ash (pulvis) “that as soon as it comes into contact with the waves of the sea and is submerged becomes a single stone mass (fierem unum lapidem), impregnable to the waves and every day stronger” (Naturalis Historia 35.166). Pozzolanic crystallization of Al-tobermorite, a rare, hydrothermal, calcium-silicate-hydrate mineral with cation exchange capabilities, has been previously recognized in relict lime clasts of the concrete. Synchrotron-based X-ray microdiffraction maps of cementitious microstructures in Baianus Sinus and Portus Neronis submarine breakwaters and a Portus Cosanus subaerial pier now reveal that Al-tobermorite also occurs in the leached perimeters of feldspar fragments, zeolitized pumice vesicles, and in situ phillipsite fabrics in relict pores. Production of alkaline pore fluids through dissolution-precipitation, cation-exchange and/or carbonation reactions with Campi Flegrei ash components, similar to processes in altered trachytic and basaltic tuffs, created multiple pathways to post-pozzolanic phillipsite and Al-tobermorite crystallization at ambient seawater and surface temperatures. Long-term chemical resilience of the concrete evidently relied on water-rock interactions, as Pliny the Elder inferred. Raman spectroscopic analyses of Baianus Sinus Al-tobermorite in diverse microstructural environments indicate a cross-linked structure with Al3+ substitution for Si4+ in Q3 tetrahedral sites, and suggest coupled [Al3++Na+] substitution and potential for cation exchange. The mineral fabrics provide a geoarchaeological prototype for developing cementitious processes through low-temperature rock-fluid interactions, subsequent to an initial phase of reaction with lime that defines the activity of natural pozzolans. These processes have relevance to carbonation reactions in storage reservoirs for CO2 in pyroclastic rocks, production of alkali-activated mineral cements in maritime concretes, and regenerative cementitious resilience in waste encapsulations using natural volcanic pozzolans.

Deer Lake peroditite with traces of magnetite
Direct removal can also be accomplished by minerals that soak up carbon from the air, such as peridotite, essentially turning air into stone. There is enough peridotite in Oman and the neighboring United Arab Emirates to absorb 33 trillion tons of CO2, equivalent to 1,000 years of present-day emission rates.

The smart money is covering that wager. Can exchange-traded peroditite futures be far off?
After direct air capture is Biomass Energy with Biochar (BEBCS). We have described field and forest soil carbon capture systems here often, and other natural means might include wetlands, such as chinampas and mangroves, and what Project Drawdown refers to as “marine permaculture,” or what we have described as kelp forestry, potentially in combination with food-fuel-and-biochar production systems that cascade yields for enterprises, beyond the trophic cascades that benefit biomes.

Woolf et al, 2010, Nature Communications 1, 56
BEBCS (Biomass Energy Biochar Capture & Storage) is a personal favorite, transforming the snake oil of BECCS (Biomass Energy Carbon Capture and Storage) by solving the dual BECCS dilemmas of how to pay for it and what to do with the captured carbon. 

You could call this “sky mining” but one company has already staked out that claim and destroyed the meaning. Quorum IP of Stockholm, dba SkyMining AB, takes the steps that are required — supergrasses that soak up CO2, pelletizer, pyrolizer, and biochar that could withhold the carbon for millennia — but then add a final step that completely defeats their purpose. They burn the biochar in retired coal plants to make electricity.
We use a commercially viable process of rapid carbonization to convert biomass into a copy of fossil fuels; in a process that mimics natural processes — but “measured in minutes instead of millions of years”. The technology has been tested on industrial scale and the proven process is ready for global deployment.
BEBCS employs waste biomass — in plentiful supply everywhere in the world — to make cascades of food, fuels, fibers, biocomposites and electricity before ending as biochar-based biofertilizers to restore degraded soils. The amended soils become resilient to weather extremes (droughts, floods, locusts, etc). The BEBCS process, which we elsewhere call our Cool Lab, profitably employs people at all stages, and can scale without taxpayer subsidy.

"The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming"
Of the hundred solutions to climate change put forward in Drawdown, a handful of them are outright frauds — ecomodernists parading as the Green Man. In that category we place nuclear fission and fusion, autonomous vehicles and hyperloop. Of the remaining 96, 71 are below-the-line solutions. Only 25 of Drawdown’s 100 best practices actually pull carbon from the atmosphere and oceans and store it safely away, although the storage is still problematic for more than half of those. 

Drawdown misses completely on carbon-absorbing biocretes and biocomposites and gives short shrift (with a healthy dollop of factual error) to biomass (ranked #34) and biochar (ranked #72).
Right now the world is focused on the below-the-line section: windmills, electric cars and solar. Climate scientists are screaming that won’t do it — we need to get to above-the-line climate solutions with the same urgency as beach communities spying an approaching tsunami.

We are in just the first stage of a learning curve. The acceleration promises to be memorable if we don’t kill ourselves going over the back of the horse.

Albert Bates is an Emergency Planetary Technician, founder of Global Village Institute for Appropriate Technology (, and Chief Permaculture Officer for eCO2, a COOL DESIGN services company focusing on climate recovery strategies with high returns on investment.


Sunday, October 22, 2017

Greening Apocalypse California

"At some point the marble will fall into a warmer domain of equilibrium."

This is one of those essays that if read 100 years from now will be seen as either amazingly prophetic or yet another example of the misguided apocalyptic literature emerging in the early 21st century — the way flying cars and armies of rocketmen did in the same part of the 20th.
Our thesis is simple. What is occurred in October 2017 in California and the Iberian Peninsula of Europe was a process of reshaping continental climates as we left behind the late Holocene and passed into the early Anthropocene.

This H-A boundary condition may last not centuries or millennia like the Cretaceous–Paleogene boundary (~22000 years) or the Permian–Triassic boundary (10 million years) but could be bridged in decades owing to the magnitude, scope and speed of the triggering mechanisms.

Courtesy of California Department of Water Resources — Florence Low
Inveterate party-goers, we two-legged naked apes heedlessly withdrew 250 million years of fossil sunlight from Earth’s savings account and binged like mice in a corn silo. Then we vomited all that carbon into the atmosphere. It will take a very long time to clean up, even after the mice have long gone.

Climatologist Johan Rockstrom, among others, has used the trough-and-ball analogy to explain how climates shift domain less by gradual invasion than by sudden jumps.

This is also referred to as the tipping points diagram. If you have played the marble race game where you move a steel ball through a maze of holes you know how it works. Raising the incline slowly does not immediately move the marble. Only when the static equilibrium of the marble is overcome as elevation passes through an invisible threshold does the marble suddenly start to roll. Its forward motion is then not easily arrested, demonstrating Newton’s laws about objects at rest and objects in motion. Rockstrom said that global climate may have several equilibrium states, and when you disturb the resting state, it will put climate into motion — several degrees warmer, for instance. At some point the marble will fall into a warmer domain of equilibrium — let say 5 degrees. Everything in nature then retools to conform to that domain.

What seems to us plausible is that at somewhere between 350 and 400 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere, average global climate left its cozy warm resting state and began to roam. As we keep raising greenhouse gas concentrations — now close to 410 ppm and likely to reach 425 in 5 years and 450 seven to ten years thereafter, the marble remains in motion, and picking up speed.
“In a warming world, higher temperatures could combine with and amplify severe precipitation deficits. If temperatures continue to rise as they have, the U.S. Southwest could be facing “megadroughts” — worse than any droughts in the region since medieval times — by the second half of the 21st century.” 
— National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Assessing the U.S. Climate in September 2017

At the next hiatus — an equilibrium of greater warmth — the Sonoran desert of Mexico could extend to within a few hundred miles of the Mississippi at its eastern extent and beyond the Canadian border in places at its northern extent. Reverting to an interglacial past will be the Sandhills region of Nebraska, aided by the Trump/Pence Administration's lifting of restrictions to the route of the TransCanada Keystone XL Pipeline. California and the American Southwest would be populated by shifting dunes, scorpions and sidewinders. In Europe, the Sahara desert may cross the Mediterranean and extend to the foothills of the Pyrenees, Apennines, Alps and Balkans.

At this, the earliest stage of the H-A boundary, we are witnessing removal of forests to make way for those future deserts. They will not regrow. The soil will be too warm for seed germination. Droughts and fires will continue to periodically sweep away any vegetation that emerges. Eventually the topsoils will erode and the subsoil will turn to fine, wind-borne sand. Anyone foolish enough to build a home in these places will sooner or later watch it burn or blow away.

It’s like President Trump telling a pregnant widow, ”He knew what he signed up for but when it happens it hurts.” When you spend $3.4 trillion tax dollars each year to boost the failing fortunes of companies like Peabody, Exxon and TransCanada, you have to know what you are signing up for.

There is, in all this, a tiny ray of hope. Out there at the edge of the Portuguese high plains, with a faint odor of smoke from a distant fire line, there stand a small group of youth. They are gathered on a farm in the northwest of Quinta do Vale da Lama. They have come from around the world to make a stand.

On November 13 they will host a training session: Campo de Regeneração do Ecossistema — Ecosystem Regen Camp. They are regenerating the mediterranean landscape with mixed dry-fruit orchards, native reforestation projects and transition zones of vegetative swales and hugelkultur, crossing it with approaches that worked for settlers in Nebraska’s Sandhills a century ago, holistic rotational grazing systems, rainwater harvesting, keyline planning, biofertilizers and teas, permanent pastures, living fences, forage banks, and agroforestry edge systems. It’s Permaculture 101, without the college credit.

It may seem Quixotic, given the pent-up anger on Mother Nature’s side, but let us remember that Franklin Delano Roosevelt almost single-handedly halted the Great American Dust Bowl.
FDR established the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) within his first 100 days in office and the Soil Erosion Service (later the Soil Conservation Service and now the Natural Resources Conservation Service) shortly thereafter.
Fires in Portugal, 2017
The establishment of the Soil Erosion Service marks the first major federal commitment to the preservation of natural resources in private hands. Even more significantly, in 1935, FDR initiated the Prairie States Forestry Project to create a “shelter belt” from the Texas Panhandle to the Canadian border. Over the course of the next seven years, the U.S Forestry Service, working in conjunction with the CCC, the newly established Works Progress Administration (WPA), and local farmers, planted nearly 220 million trees, creating over 18,000 miles of windbreaks on some 30,000 farms. The scale of this effort boggles the imagination. It literally changed the face of America and most importantly — along with the introduction of new farming techniques also initiated by the New Deal — stopped the dust storms dead in their tracks.

It bears footnoting that FDR’s shelter belt was also the design of his Agriculture Secretary (later Commerce Secretary and Vice -President) Henry A. Wallace, who might have become the 33rd President of the United States (instead of Harry Truman) had his progressive agenda (universal single payer health insurance, an end to the incipient Cold War and red-baiting, and abolition of segregation) not been opposed by his own party.
The Abraham Lincoln Brigade, 1936
Volunteer foot-soldiers are now rushing to the Iberian salient. Perhaps an Abraham Lincoln Brigade from the USA?. To enlist in the Portuguese workshop register here. The first 30 applicants received will be confirmed (the rest will have to be wait-listed).

If you can afford 10 euros per Month to support this grassroots effort you can join a growing community and become a founding member of the Ecosystem Restoration Camps Foundation. If you don’t have the resources to support but wish to learn about regenerative agriculture and large-scale ecosystem restoration more camps are being built to make this possible, join here.

The movement’s vanguard camp in Altiplano Spain held its first public open day on October 16. The campfires have been lit.
Alone the scale of the problems we face can be overwhelming but together we are a powerful force that can change the world. Lets go camping and restore a little bit of paradise every day.
— John D. Liu

Albert Bates is an Emergency Planetary Technician, founder of Global Village Institute for Appropriate Technology (, and Chief Permaculture Officer for eCO2, a COOL DESIGN services company focusing on climate recovery strategies with high returns on investment.




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