The Expansion of Small: A Lesson in Slow Living from the Blue
By Heather Hillier
The first time I went free-diving I was looking for something to eat. Speargun in hand, my weight belt (a few rocks in a fanny pack) held me in baffling suspension as I entered a quiet, blue world. My lungs took on a comfortably weighted floating sensation, like sitting in a good bean-bag chair, while I hid behind rocks waiting for fry-pan-sized visitors and forgot all about the need to breathe.
As it was, I never much enjoyed snorkeling. I was always jumpy, the mask obstructing all peripheral vision and sticking to my matted hair, feet blistering and legs cramping from kicking too hard, thrashing around at the surface just to point at colourful fish that swam around in some version of The Little Mermaid that I didn’t quite understand. Spearfishing, though, changed everything. Suddenly I was “part of that world,” and the fish thought so too – or at least were curious – if only I held my breath long enough.
However, childhood Disney dreams always come at a cost. My price of admission into the clicking blue depths was the realization that with all this choice, all these fish I could pick from and measure up to my fry pan, came the fact that I now had the responsibility to decide which were the best ones to shoot. At what point in its life-cycle was it? Male or female? How long does it normally live? How many times does it reproduce in a year? Is it a keystone species? My lunch was quite simply, no longer just lunch. Not only had I found yet another extreme way to “enjoy nature,” I had discovered, again, that the simple act of eating went far deeper than my stomach.
Much of my post-school life has been spent exploring food systems, mostly through small-scale agriculture. I’m no stranger to thinking about where food comes from; in fact, these thoughts consume most of my waking hours. Spearfishing though, threw me into a different sort of wild that humans had not fully cultured and changed. I was an alien in this underwater world, waning confidence as I realized the weight of this revelation – the scope of how little I truly understood, and what that meant for how I would have to start approaching mealtimes.
I grew up in a coastal forest in British Columbia, digging clams from a small muddy bay in the summertime. Barefoot, squatting beside little hand-dug holes as the incoming tide lapped at our ankles, we were taught to leave the small ones to grow bigger and have a chance to reproduce for next year, and then to cover the spots we had already dug. Nearby was a large midden, a deep pile of small bones and broken shells cast from the campfires of people of the Kwakwaka’wakw nation, who once ate from the same small bay. I liked to think of those people when I harvested from the “clam gardens,” and thank them for their work, spanning generations, cultivating a bountiful wild foodscape that we were lucky to be part of. Far from untouched, these beaches and forests were tended and revered as profound ecosystems, whose resilience was integral to the survival of the people.
One year we noticed groups decked out with big harvest bags, wide-brimmed hats, gumboots, and neon work-vests combing the beach, digging large holes and leaving them open for gulls to crack open any marine life they’d left behind, if there was any. I grew worried for the tiny gravelly beach; these people didn’t know it like I did! They’d come to pillage a few times a year before they got hired on to a new job, on the other side of the island, maybe in a different industry, never to think about those baby clams and the offspring they never produced, canned and shipped away so somebody somewhere could eat chowder on a whim.
I get it, we all need to eat, and clothe ourselves, and live in a house, at least in the winter. Add to that a modern consumerist idea of how we should be spending our time (read: working to make money to buy things that somebody somewhere else can do cheaper), and we get an environmental crisis situation.
So what do we do?
I often feel better when I blame someone else. It seems to work for many other people too; we blame the CEO’s, for not caring about what their practices do to the environment, the President for everything, the white colonists for ruining intricate systems developed carefully over thousands of years, our neighbors for their oversized SUV’s, the city council for rampant rural development, country people for not being educated enough, city people for not understanding enough… The list could go on. And it feels good, for a while, to rest at the thought that what I do is right and good and proper and most definitely the way of the future. Well, it could be. Taking the time to re-learn ancestral knowledge of the essential processes that keep us alive, such as cultivating and preparing food and medicine, natural building, and community-building, is the essence of the slow living movement.
Before we get too comfortable blaming everyone else, we need to realize that we, each of us, are all of those people. The responsibility to change rests on every one of us equally; the things we buy and the shortcuts we take. Our greatest blunder has been to remove the wild from ourselves and to declare what’s left as mere monuments; antique relics of the past, collecting dust, moth-eaten and sun-bleached as knowledge of their true value breaks from the root like a tumbleweed. We enter wilderness only if we can afford to pay for it, national parks fenced off and viewed from the safety of a road or platform so we can entertain the notion that we’re different than those wild spaces. Detachment is clawing at our minds; a disease of disconnect from the processes that keep us alive. It’s making us crazy, and tearing us away from the depth of understanding that the land can offer us. There’s a certain ease to looking at the world as good and bad, light and dark, pristine and human-cultured, but I think we’re better than that. At the very least, the earth and its processes deserve better than that. Nothing is pristine, but it sure as hell is perfect; a fine web of waste and clutter and weeds, that on closer inspection, reveals mathematical precision in its tiniest forms. After all, much of "waste" is only something else’s food or home that we can’t see, just as weeds are simply plants whose value we don’t understand.
So now, our task is to begin re-learning what it means to take part. To slow down and recognize our accountability in every action, starting with the small. We must begin to notice what we take and ultimately, what we’re capable of giving back – including the waste we produce. In a great paradox, the removal of people and their knowledge from the land has turned us into aliens, unworldly creatures whose misuse of resources is tolerated, and even celebrated as “progress.” Yet despite all our technologies, every building material, or piece of clothing, or raw coconut bliss ball, came from a piece of earth that somebody, at some point, grew up watching, tending, and growing; someone believed wholeheartedly in its longevity. This is the knowledge that shrinks me, freezes me in confident stride – what can I do?
But I know.
I can be better. I can buy products whose story I can re-tell; I can make things myself, worthy of a story; I can ask questions, take time to learn my backyard, my forest, my watershed, my reefs, animal habitats, and my role amongst these living systems. I can dig my own holes, knowing that next year there will still be clams, and that I will still be there to eat them. There is value in the cracks between everything known, richness in unspoken detail, medicine in the edible weeds who spring from the sidewalk.
So, notice them. Expand your knowledge of the small things – bake bread, sow seeds, try new things. Find out what might grow in that space if only you’d plant it. Rid yourself of dependency on the forces who make you feel trapped and cheap. And then build a composting toilet.
This, the expansion of small, is my activism.