I love walking in the Ozarks, and there is a special place in my heart for glades and hillsides with limestone outcrops. Even after all these decades, every single time I stop to take one of countless photos, or sit and read a book, I pause in wonder that I am on the floor of what used to be an inland sea, the result of millions of years of marine animals living and dying in a shallow sea. (In fact, this sea has been compared to what the Bahamas are like today. So we are, in fact, living in what was something like that paradise; we are just living here 325 million or so years too late!) The memory of this paradise is in the rocks themselves, most readily seen in crinoid fossils. Its stalked form, known as a sea lily, made a tubular calcite shell. When the crinoid died, its shell was added to layers and layers of other shells, comprising much of the limestone we see today. And when the sea receded, more layers of shale, limestone, and sandstone were left behind.
This same ancient history is also responsible for so much that I love here, from losing streams, shut-in swimming holes, springs, caves, sinkholes, karst windows, and more. Growing up, I floated, swam, waded, and, when the beds ran dry, collected fossils in the many losing streams and creeks that ran across the countryside. I learned only later that the water was still there, just running out of sight in the bedrock aquifers beneath our feet. And I’ll never forget caving, especially with my friend Aubra. We didn’t need anything spectacular; we just enjoyed the profound solitude that being underground offered. (Although, we did have our share of misadventures. I remember one time, after we had been wriggling for about fifteen minutes through a bit of a squeeze, when Aubra suddenly stopped and shuddered. In the light of my head lamp, all I could see was her feet, which, to my surprise, started to move backwards towards me. They were moving much more quickly than I expected, given we were in a tight passage and moving backwards was not exactly easy. I didn’t have time to figure it out; I started wriggling backwards, too. We made it out in what I would assume is still a record time, at which point I learned that Aubra had inadvertently discovered a thriving community of beetles in the passage ceiling, which had started cascading into her hair.)
All of this natural wonder, and the fun that went with it, owes itself to the dissolvability of limestone, made up of calcite, in a weak acid. The Ozarks’ soil happens to be made up of layers and layers of rotting organic matter, such as leaves and pine needles. Rotting organic matter produces carbonic acid, which is dissolved and absorbed by rainwater as it soaks and drains through the soil. When this acidic water meets limestone, it slowly dissolves the calcite. Over millions of years, water carved out the karsts and caves, and coursed beneath our feet as underground rivers in a living process that continues today.
But a karst topography is also especially sensitive to groundwater pollution, for the simple fact that there is less sediment to act as a filter. Contaminated surface water can very quickly become contaminated groundwater. And the pollution can spread quickly, at the speed of an underground river. So what happens when we don’t pay attention to this fact? Or worse, what happens when we don’t care? I grew up hearing stories of people using sinkholes as private landfills, and of folks thinking it was okay to dump used motor oil into street drains, without any consideration that these contaminants would go straight into our groundwater systems.
But as bad as those abuses were, they have been outdone by local industries. One of these terrible lessons in human hubris came courtesy of Litton Systems, near the Springfield-Branson airport. Beginning in the 1960s, they manufactured circuit boards on behalf of the US Navy and the telecommunications industry, and they did so for over forty years. Especially before the EPA was established in 1970, hazardous chemicals were disposed of in very dangerous ways, including dumping them directly into a company pond. According to a report for NPR, one employee said, “They didn't care what kind of chemical it was … . They all went in.” Just how much went in? “[A] 1993 EPA report estimated that Litton dumped 193.8 million gallons of wastewater from its circuit board manufacturing into pits and sinkholes on its property.” Another employee, who worked at Litton from 1967 to 1975, remembered inhaling fumes and passing out. “You don’t really know that it’s in the air,” she said. “You just smell it and then it gets you high. It was very bad.”
When Litton tried to sale the property in 1991, testing revealed that concentrations of TCE, trichloroethene, in the groundwater under the property “reached 130,000 parts per billion, or 26,000 times higher than the level that the EPA considers safe in drinking water.” The site eventually sold and was closed in 2007, but those pollutants remained in the ground, out of sight. And the TCE, a chemical used to clean the circuit boards, was persistently moving in the Ozarks groundwater. From 2018 to 2020, tests at properties within five miles of the Litton site found TCE at 87 properties, several at dangerously high levels. Not all of the property owners in the area around Litton were contacted, and people spent years drinking, cooking with, and bathing in contaminated water that is associated with severe health risks, including “Neurological, liver, and kidney effects,” miscarriages, and “several types of cancer.”
That cleanup is still ongoing, five decades later. Along with government agencies, Northrop Grumman, the company that bought Litton, is part of the cleanup, pumping and treating millions of gallons of water every year so it can be safely released back into the groundwater system. And all of this – the harm to the environment, the health impacts and risks to people who live here, and the expensive and long-term cleanup – is the result of the lack of attention and care given to what was being done and the impacts it would have.
As I noted a couple of weeks ago, it is this kind of hubris that has led us to the edge of catastrophe, as we have collectively ignored the reality of climate change for decades. One of the questions I raised then was how spiritual and reflective practices might help us in nourishing cultures and communities where this kind of hubris, whether dumping contaminants into groundwater or pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, is avoided as much as possible, and recognized, healed, and transformed whenever it does arise. I offered those reflections on May 7, which happened to be International Permaculture Day, and permaculture happens to be a good starting place for these kinds of reflections.
The word permaculture comes from the mid 1970s, when Bill Mollison and David Holmgren combined the words “permanent agriculture” to describe an “integrated, evolving system of perennial or self-perpetuating plant and animal species useful to [humanity].” Over the decades, it has developed into “a worldview, a design system, a framework for best practice and a world-wide movement, based on an academic review of published material” that transforms the role of humans in the ecosystem “from being dependent consumers to becoming responsible producers.”
Practically speaking, this means that we are paying attention and joining in with natural ecosystems, whether we’re growing herbs in the backyard, tending a food forest, harvesting water, building a home, or designing a neighborhood. The Permaculture Research Institute describes it as -
“the harmonious integration of landscape and people — providing their food, energy, shelter, and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way. … The philosophy behind permaculture is one of working with, rather than against, nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless action; of looking at systems in all their functions, rather than asking only one yield of them; and allowing systems to demonstrate their own evolutions.”
It is easy to see the stark contrast between a permaculture approach and, for instance, the approach demonstrated by Litton Systems. Rather than working with the local karst topography, Litton worked against it, introducing millions of gallons of dangerous chemicals into the groundwater system. And it continued this “protracted and thoughtless action” even when “protracted and thoughtful observation” revealed there were problems. Neither sick employees, multiple on-site water tests revealing dangerous levels of contamination, nor evidence that the pollution had entered the groundwater system convinced them to address the problems. This was a system divorced from the ecosystem and that threatened the well-being of an entire community. This kind of ecological violence is not possible within the ethics of a system like permaculture, which is oriented around an ethic of care for the earth, care for people, and care for the future. As Andrew French, describing “Permaculture Strategies in a Karst Landscape,” put it, “Designing for a Karst landscape means designing for groundwater protection.” That protection is a first priority, instead of an afterthought.
As such, permaculture is both a response and a corrective to the hubris that has characterized our economic and agricultural systems. It’s not the only response, but it is a very accessible one that can help us shift the broader culture away from “protracted and thoughtless action” toward “protracted and thoughtful observation,” while giving us an ethical framework and practical tools for translating that thoughtful observation into wise and compassionate design, from our backyards to our board rooms. And it’s no accident that permaculture practitioners have also been deeply involved in cultivating and applying bioremediation techniques, working with natural processes to clean up, heal, and reclaim ecosystems ravaged by the reckless destruction caused by companies like Litton Systems.
Starhawk described the importance and potential of this approach in an introductory article to the Permaculture Design Course she teaches with Charles Williams. She writes that -
“We have a very narrow window of time left in which to respond to climate change and environmental degradation. If we don’t, we face ecological and human catastrophes that are beyond imagining. No one solution or technology can save us: in fact, applying single or simplistic solutions generally will create new, unforeseen and possibly worse problems. … Only an integrated systems approach can find effective solutions to environmental and social ills. This is what permaculture offers, and why we feel such a driving need to teach these skills and insights.”
So when we talk about paying attention, it is important to emphasize that this is not value neutral. We are not merely paying attention, or paying attention in order to make the most profit or gain the most power. Permaculture helps us link our insights with actions that intentionally support healthy ecosystems, including human communities. The quality of our attention is love. We pay attention to know a place, to learn to work with the natural world because we are part of the natural world. We learn to heal the wounds left by pollution and extraction, because our own healing is bound up with the health of the earth. It is intentional that permaculture frames its ethics in terms of care, because care is regenerative. We have to cultivate cultures and communities of care if the human species is going to have a future on this planet, or at least a future that is characterized by health, wholeness, and joy.
For those of use cultivating a spiritual practice, this probably feels very familiar. The ethics of permaculture fit right within my own spiritual biography. From my childhood, I can remember feeling most at home in the quiet places, moments that were often pauses for reflection amidst the slow work of life. I remember: sitting in the bean patch, covered in dirt and sweat; picking berries with my grandmother; digging potatoes with my father; climbing a tree above a swollen creek; baking cookies with my mother; playing with a friendly cocker spaniel; basking in the unexpected empathy of a friend; taking a walk through the woods under a full moon, relishing the silence that is full of life that I could sense even when I could not see. In this way, my spiritual seeking was a recognition of simplicity, of letting go into a mindful, grateful, kind awareness of the present moment.
Alongside this, I can also remember my childhood experiences of pain, especially becoming aware of the realities of injustice and loss, and feeling a strong commitment to peace and wholeness from an early age. Though my immediate family was a safe place, my life in my extended family and community included witnessing or experiencing suffering born of racism, sexism, classism, coercion, and abuse. Since my church and family didn't provide any clear ways to address those experiences, my spiritual seeking was also a response to a vision of healing and justice.
These two themes have stayed with me throughout my life: embodying joy and contentment, born of gratitude in the face of joy and wonder, and embodying healing and justice, born of compassion in the face of oppression and suffering. Looking back, I understand these two aspirations both spring from the root of kindness and goodwill, the root of love, encountering both the beautiful (leading to joy) and the tragic (leading to compassion) in my life and community.
Looking back from where I am now, I can see how my life has unfolded as an expression of these aspirations. Along the way, I've learned that what is most important to me is how we, as human persons and communities, care for one another and our world. My spiritual practices have value inasmuch as they support integrating inner and outer transformation. I am interested in how cultural and spiritual practices have helped or hindered the development of social and ecological justice and lasting peace, and what we can learn from those successes and failures. I aspire to be open-hearted and willing to encounter truth and wisdom in each person and experience I meet, and to do this in community.
Permaculture provides a path that empowers this process, even in the face of the overwhelming challenges we’ve produced in this era of climate change and ecological destruction. Its simple principles can transform our relationship with the natural world and each other: take time to pay attention and understand a system before you act; recognize the value of diversity and its role in resilience and health; act in small and slow ways, so you can notice impacts and choose actions that preserve that health; participate in regenerative systems that produce more than they consume; empower people to act in whatever ways they can, rolling back our helplessness and building accessible, healing, joyful opportunities for everyone. In Starhawk’s words, “Our goal is more than sustainability: we work for abundance, regeneration and healing.” Whatever path we take, this is the destination we need. Let’s go there, together.