10 x +/- Solutions: Integrating Problems and Potential into a Self-Rescue for Our Species and Planet
programs | Burr Oak School | internships | curricula | photo albums
Loess Hills | Permaculture | museum | Director's Journal | newsletters
listen to an interview with Michael Luick-Thrams,
broadcast on Iowa Public Radio in June 2009
past partner projects:
Flower of Life Healing Center |
Jordan Creek Farm
Nekoda Farm | River Woods Farm
Mid-Missouri River Valley
Organic Producers Co-op MORIVA
associated partner projects
TRACES of Green was an educational and service project that used the history of European settlement in the Upper Midwest’s Loess Hills as a context from which to project, explore and work towards more livable possible futures. It measured those scenarios against the instructive timeline of earlier experiences. Informed by lessons of the past, we boldly strove to face present crises as we attempted to build more humane, nature-sustaining lives, as individuals and as enduring communities. To succeed, we tried to tap deeper, more fulfilling values and craft new narratives through which to see ourselves and the world.
For more than a decade, TRACES's leadership focused on Nazism in the first half of the 20th century as an illustrative case study. That political disaster threatened the security and freedoms enjoyed by millions of people in dozens of countries, and led to the deaths of some 60 million. Out of the narratives of individuals on both sides, this non-profit educational organization has generated learning opportunities in the form of exhibits, related publications, guest speakers, film series, concerts and other means. The central question behind the entire project has had little to do with the Second World War, but with war itself as a phenomenon: “How does war affect people, anywhere, in any era?
Today, we live in tumultuous times. European
Fascism—while horrific—posed a specific, short-term threat to a relatively small percentage of the world’s population. Our current, all-encompassing ecological and economic crises, however, endanger all peoples, everywhere, for the rest of imaginable history. Because of the urgency of the present world situation, TRACES’ board of directors voted in June 2009 to expand and shift the focus of the organization to include not only political menaces to human well-being, but material ones as well
Even if they often evade perception, the natural forces now compromising the Earth’s ability to adjust and continue to sustain life actually portend ecological catastrophe. At the very least, the world that we knew for many decades is not the one that we currently inhabit nor that our children will inherit as their own. In response, while TRACES will continue to explore the human consequences of war, through its new ecological emphasis, this dynamic, diverse group explored the human condition in a more fundamental, holistic context: what do people eat and how does their food affect them; how is that food grown and transported, and why is that important? On a social level, how could we live better, together, and how can we help each other thrive—despite external factors—as we pass through the various phases of life, including how we die
In response to such sweeping inquiries, we attempted to launch a large, comprehensive project. Given its size and diversity, we welcomed various
levels of involvement or commitment
Board of Directors members | core-community members | primary partners | associated partners
support-team members | interns | volunteers | guests and visitors
The physical focus of TRACES’ historical project consisted for 37 months of its Center for History and Culture in downtown Saint Paul, and continues in the form of the two BUS-eums, mobile museums that seasonally cross the Midwest and other regions of the US and Canada. The physical focus of TRACES’ new ecological project consists of the Burr Oak Center for Durable Culture. At our site in Turin—in the heart of Iowa’s Loess Hills—we sought:
* to craft new ways of living, less dictated by external influences such as commerce and technology, and healthier in terms of food, physical care, education, etc.
* more time for people—both family, friends, neighbors and those we do not personally know
* more time for nature, so that increased familiarity with the natural order will help us treat it better
* to live closely and well with both people and nature, without physical, verbal or emotional violence, and
* to share these new ways of living with others through programs, tours, print and electronic media, cultural events, etc.
To reach these aims, our sponsoring organization TRACES was in the process of:
* retrofitting two neglected houses in Turin/Iowa to serve as a one-acre campus for the Burr Oak Center for Durable Culture, which will house a school, a community and training center featuring Permaculture demonstration plots, small-livestock projects, and alternative energy.
* working to become the long-term steward of yet-to-be-identified nearby farmland, where we could operate a locally-grown, organic truck farm, where student-interns could “learn by doing”.
* locating individuals, couples or families to form a core community to: convert the two houses in Turin and, later, husband either several acres of rugged Loess Hills pastures and woods, or farm additional acres of flat, rich Missouri River Valley; and develop educational projects about organic farming, alternative energy, community building and other, related issues. Residents may consist of native-born Americans, immigrants/refugees; individuals; heterosexual or gay/lesbian couples with or without children; people of color or…
* using the sites' unique mix of protected nature and sustainable arable land as the setting for diverse learning opportunities for groups and individuals; Permaculture is a model for part of the project, and the focus of much of the on-going training.
* creating cooperative markets that generate income for on-site as well as other local products and services, empowering producers to be increasingly economically stable and independent.
* revitalizing rural life on farms and surrounding villages or towns by lessening dependence on non-local resources or entities, strengthening local social bonds and facilitating varied cultural expressions.
We were motivated, in part, by the following goals
regeneration | education | community
based on these central premises:
The Midwest’s rural population peaked in the 1920s and remained relatively stable until the 1950s. Since then, people have left the land in accelerating numbers, leaving small towns that used to serve a vibrant countryside to wither into skeletons of their former selves. The decimation of rural America could only happen because agrarian economic activities—producing food and raw materials—depended no longer largely on human and animal labor but on evermore-intricate machines, fueled by “cheap” oil. In effect, our nation substituted petroleum-based fuel, fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides for close, thoughtful human interaction with nature.
Now, however, general consensus agrees on two things. First: with exponentially growing world population levels and geometrically decreasing availability of fossil fuels (demand far surpassing supply), petroleum-based industrialized agriculture simply will no longer be feasible. Second: the continued burning of fossil fuels exacerbates an increasingly urgent global environmental crisis. The unavoidable increase of fossil-fuel costs, as well as the real, yet often-invisible costs we pay in terms of environmental degradation and our bodies' physical health, sooner than we expect will overtake our ability to cope in stop-gap ways. At some point very soon, we Midwesterners increasingly will find ourselves unable to afford fresh foods imported from, say, California or Chile, and distressed by a paralyzed transportation system no longer capable of affordably move goods or people. Ironically, a people sitting on what’s left of some of the Earth’s richest soil will struggle to eat healthful food or even provide for our other basic needs.
Already, “cheap” food (diluted with high-fructose syrup or other corn-based products) and other controllable factors have led to one-third of all Midwesterners being overweight, with another third being clinically obese. Besides the subsequent severe health problems generated by such disproportionate physical size (diabetes, heart problems, etc.), being so overweight unavoidably compromises the quality of life such individuals might otherwise enjoy. A separate but related consequence of our current agricultural system involves the more overt by-products of cancers, headaches, seizures, miscarriages and other symptoms of factory-raised pork, beef, poultry—and so on, ad nausea.
Beyond the implications of resource depletion or destruction, though, lies a problem fatal on a scale resembling any physical disaster: the spiritual collapse of our society. The demise of rural culture and justly-tuned producer-enriching economics has led to the breakdown of social bonds, durable values and a vital countryside. Many cities and suburbs have become less-than-happy places to live, and the soul of the nation suffers, as long as so much of rural America offers little viable counterweight to urban life.
It rarely makes sense to pursue a losing strategy—and at present the world seems fixed on numerous strategies that are self-sabotaging. We believe that the collapse of petroleum-based industrial agriculture, as well as other mechanized systems of production (clothing, building materials, vehicles, etc.), is a “when” not an “if” scenario; this assumption indicates that the need to train tens of thousands of individuals and groups in the arts of sustainability will be sudden and massive. The Burr Oak Center for Durable Culture will be prepared for that inevitability. This project is all about forging new ways of living, informed by the past. We invite you to join us.