Savory’s expertise is focused on land management, and at this point in his book, Holistic Management, he spends some time educating the reader about water and mineral cycles, community dynamics and energy flow as they pertain to the soil.
Ecosystem, however, is defined by Oxford Online Dictionary as “a complex network or interconnected system” of “interacting organisms and their physical environment.” If we’re seeking to manage a family unit, a work team, a business, a job, or any other kind of organization not directly connected to the land (remembering all human activities are ultimately rooted in Planet Earth), ecosystem processes remain an important component to consider.
Community dynamics include the whole community. If we have done an effective job of defining our whole, we’ve already broadly defined our community. In my case, my community context includes the human and animals I live with; those people I work with, who are also my community of friends; my family, because we are always working out of our family context; and the plants and animals we share our 26 acres with. I also include a future team of writing support professionals, such as an editor, agent, and publisher.
This seems sufficiently complex, but it’s not even half the story, because most of the life around us is invisible to our eyes. We have just spent a year being reminded at every turn how powerful the world of microbes is. Our bodies are inhabited by uncountable microscopic organisms without which we could not live. We teem with viruses, bacteria, and fungi, and every living being we’re in contact with carries a universe of life with them, too.
We are just now beginning to understand how essential these microbes are to our health and the health of the planet. Healthy soil is full of complex microbial life that helps it retain water, cycle minerals, and provide plants with what they need to thrive. Without healthy soil, mineral and water cycles fail and ecosystems collapse.
Community dynamics are hugely complex and often chaotic. We don’t know enough to see the full scope of them, but we can observe the difference between healthy and unhealthy communities. A flock of chickens, an orchard, a garden, a team, a family, a marriage, all reflect their degree of health in obvious ways.
Energy flow is part of any ecosystem process. For land management, energy flow is obviously driven by sunlight, climate, weather, and the activities of members of the community.
Energy is “strength and vitality required for sustained physical or mental activity (Oxford Online Dictionary). You might notice that definition does not reference money, but the health of our finances has become closely tied to our perceived strength and vitality, as well as our position of power.
Our current political context is a stark example of what happens when the energy flow of money is dammed. Flow implies movement and cycles, an open hand out of which resource is both given and received. When water or mineral cycles are interrupted, the ecosystem suffers. Energy becomes stagnant and the whole system falters. Interconnection breaks down. The system dies, including the organism that withheld energy from everyone else.
This doesn’t occur in natural ecosystems that are not interfered with, but humans do it all the time. It’s the end result of a power-over culture. Some thrive at the expense of the impoverished majority, creating an unsustainable situation that eventually collapses and allows energy to be redistributed.
Any management plan will include us, the planner, as well as other living organisms, and all those living organisms, from a human being to the complex creature we call a cat or a cow to the tiniest soil microbes, need appropriate energy to thrive.
At this point I feel overwhelmed. Some days I can barely take care of myself, let alone anyone or anything else. How can I possibly worry about the soil microbes next to our front steps when I feel too tired or rushed to prepare and eat a good meal? And what does any of it have to do with earning a living through my writing?
Holistic planning is a dance between the tension of the big picture, or holistic context, and discerning where our power lies within that picture. If I prepare and eat a meal that provides good fuel for my physical needs and the needs of the whole community of viruses and bacteria that lives with me, I’m maintaining a good energy flow in my personal ecosystem, which supports my holistic management plan.
There is no writing if there is no me. Nobody else can write my stories. I’m the only one.
If I choose to implement a compost toilet and/or grey water system, the wastes that my body produces (in collaboration with billions of microbes) as a result of energy flow can then be properly managed and returned to the soil ecosystem, which can break it down and use it to enhance water and mineral cycles and the production of more food for my next meal.
If I feed my cats (which greatly enhance my health and happiness) an appropriate diet that meets their physical energy needs, as well as the needs of their living biomes of viruses and bacteria, and compost the waste and wood pellets from their litter boxes, I’m once again supporting a healthy energy flow. Nothing is wasted. One organism’s excretions feed other organisms in the community.
If we want food sustainability, this is the kind of flow we must commit to. Animals and plants evolved together in order to maintain this kind of a sustainable energy cycle, but human activity has broken that elegant flow. We can repair it, if we’re willing to learn and can muster the political will.
At first glance, community dynamics and energy flow seem to have nothing to do with a business plan, but that only demonstrates how unskilled we are at holistic problem solving. We can’t expect a sustainable and effective plan if we don’t use energy of all kinds effectively and recycle it back into the ecosystem with as little waste as possible. The healthy whole is the last level, not the first.
To be alive is to be part of a community. None of us can escape community dynamics and energy flow. None of us can escape dependence on healthy mineral and water cycles. We are now beginning to experience the consequences of centuries of refusal to consider or take responsibility for ecosystem processes.
As I seek sustainability and security for myself, I must also understand my personal whole as part of a larger whole, which in turn forms part of a larger whole, and so on. I am both the center of my whole and a community member for countless other forms of life. I bear responsibility on two fronts: my own power and needsand choosing a position of power in regard to other members of the community. Will I enhance power for others or undermine it? Will I enhance energy flow or block it? Will I work cooperatively with my community or ignore it?
This balance between self and others is the dynamic tension of life. Holistic management planning and decision making put it center stage. Complex systems are by their nature dynamic and nonlinear; both regaining lost balance and maintaining it require resilience and presence, a commitment to living more mindfully and with a wider awareness of the life around us in all its forms.
We can no longer afford to benefit ourselves at the cost of others.
After a heavy storm on Thursday and an eventful Easter weekend, Monday dawned grey and raw. Our Internet was still down, but I luxuriated in a shower and our usual breakfast, courtesy of electricity, and lost no time in doing the daily bleach wipe down. My sick friend was still sick, but everyone else felt well.
We were under wind and flood warnings from the National Weather Service.
Rain started midday with some wind, but nothing out of the ordinary. The snow, already sodden, lay heavy and sullen and ugly under the intensifying downpour. Our Internet was suddenly restored at some point when we weren’t paying attention. We’d done all we could do to prepare for another power outage, but I washed every dish as we used it and didn’t delay doing anything requiring power.
The wind gradually rose and the snow on the ground ebbed. The street and our driveway ran with water. Several leaning branches and trees subsided as they were further saturated and the already wet ground lost its grip on root balls. It looked like February, the landscape grey and brown, muddy and soaking in cold rain. The wind gusted and strengthened throughout the day.
During the evening, we had a phone call from my sick friend saying her test for COVID-19 was negative. Good news!
When I went to bed, the power was still on, rain pounding down, wind gusting intermittently.
The next morning, I reached for my bedside reading light. It came on.
The wind had backed down to a breeze and the storm was over, after unleashing about four inches of rain. The snow was gone.
During breakfast, we regrouped. The next several days were predicted to be clear and sunny. We had power and Internet. We needed to assess for spoiled food, and my partner needed to make a town trip. We both had various people to e-mail and call, letting everyone know we were back up and running and healthy. Now that I was in quarantine, I intended to be more vigilant than ever about cleaning and began wearing a mask in the house unless shut away in my private space.
We felt ready to go out and take a closer look at our downed trees and check on the river.
After breakfast, we squelched around our acres, taking pictures and assessing the damage. The river bordering our property was flooded, but it’s well below our house and barn, so we weren’t worried about that. The pond was overflowing and water ran everywhere in streams and rivulets, draining down to the river. The water in the toilet turned the color of tea, stained by tannins leaching into the well.
I spent three hours transferring all my handwritten work of the last days into my word processor and putting together posts for this blog.
After the chaos and barrage of events during the last few days, I was finally able to pause and assimilate coronavirus news, the fact of my own quarantine, and the loss of work. Now I shape a new routine, for a time, at least. The news is full of predictions about how things will change in the weeks, months and years ahead, economically, socially and culturally, but I don’t explore them, because nobody really knows how all this will unfold. I feel better when I stay in the now and let the future take care of itself.
As always, I turn my attention to the most important things: connection with loved ones, being in service or making contributions to others, and taking care of myself, which includes managing my physical health and anxiety.
As an introvert, having to stay home for a 14-day quarantine is a positive pleasure. I am lucky in this, I know. For once, I’m not at a social disadvantage! On the other hand, I very much miss my community and spend time every day staying in touch with friends and family. We’ve now heard the original four positive COVID-19 people from our building at work have become eight. It’s hard to know what to do with that. Every day we watch and wait, checking on one another, passing on news, sharing our concern and anxiety.
Then came the news that one of the pool staff is ill. His wife works in Rehab also, and they’ve both been tested. This particular pool staff member hasn’t been working for more than two weeks, but he’s one of ours, and we anxiously await the results of testing and further news about him and his wife.
In spite of early Spring’s tantrums of snow, rain and wind, the season is changing in our northern latitudes. We’re all taking great comfort in being outside, aware of how fortunate we are not to be locked down in a city. We are hiking, walking, bicycling, working in our gardens and yards and woodlots. It’s chilly and muddy, and the wind more of a slap than a caress, but the wood frogs are chuckling in our pond, woodpeckers are at work among the trees, squirrels are busy frisking around, and chickadees, finches, sparrows, doves, juncos, flickers and others flutter among the bird feeders. The phoebes dart back and forth along the south side of the house in the mornings, catching bugs sunning themselves. Our daffodils are just beginning to open, and yellow coltsfoot, the first spring wildflower, blooms along ditches and dirt roads.
I’m wearing my most disreputable clothes, an old pair of men’s Carhartt canvas jeans with the knee blown out, a holey tee-shirt that both my boys wore before they outgrew it, and a navy blue hooded sweatshirt I used to wear camping, liberally dotted with holes from campfire sparks, the sleeves streaked with pink (who knew navy blue turns pink with the application of bleach?) from wiping down with bleach every day. It’s tick season as well as mud season, and as I rake, prune and walk I intermittently spray my shoes and legs with tick spray.
I’m not wearing a watch or rings because I’m washing my hands so thoroughly and often. I cut and file my nails short every weekend. Earrings are a pain in the patoozie because I’m using a mask, so they’re sitting in a china dish on the bathroom counter.
No glamour here, but then, I was never a fan of glamour to begin with. Right now my comfort is in the cold, heavy mud; the tough, sharp-thorned rose canes; the chilly breeze and periods of thin sunshine; the texture of wood, old leaves, leather work gloves, and our dilapidated porch furniture; and the smell of bug spray. A barred owl flew over our heads as we walked this week. It perched in a tree and regarded us with great dignity and condescension. I was honored.
We lost five pounds of beef that waiting in the refrigerator to be turned into beef stew before the power went out. My partner cut it up and threw it on the sloping meadow on the north side of the house where we throw the dead mice we trap in the kitchen. Local ravens check that slope at least once a day, and in a few minutes they came to retrieve and cache the meat. Two, probably a nesting pair, spent half an hour in their muscular aerial ballet, circling, swooping down to the ground and snatching the chunks. I watched them outside my attic window with wonder and delight.
These are the things sustaining my courage and hope.
Life is simple. Words spill onto the empty screen of my word processor. We wake, eat, play outside, walk, read, sleep, and do it all again. I mark off my quarantine days on the calendar. As I write this, it’s day 7. Tomorrow is my brother’s birthday, and I will call him, because we both have time to talk right now.
I came across a poem by Ursula K. LeGuin (see below) and found it beautiful and timely. The wheel of cycles and seasons has swung around to the resurrection of light once more, and we wish one another a happy new year, each of us with our own hopes and fears for the months ahead.
For much of my life, I equated love with protection. When I became a parent, the vulnerability of my sons added exponentially to my own. In common with many parents, I struggled fiercely to protect them through infancy, childhood and beyond. Naturally, we protect others from what we ourselves most fear. In my case these fears include pain, loss, addiction, abuse and abandonment. I tried to shield my children from those people and experiences that hurt me, lest they be hurt in the same ways.
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Certainly, in the case of small children, animals and others who have no voice or are unable to use it, protection can be an act of love, but I’ve thought for some time now that we carry it too far, especially when we seek to “protect” our perfectly capable adult children, partners and friends. At some point our impulse to protect others becomes selfish. We do not want to bear witness to a loved one’s pain, let alone our own. We do not welcome the responsibility of telling the truth. Protection becomes a pathological means of disempowering others and binding them to us because we don’t want to be alone or the independence of our loved ones threatens us.
To be over-protected is to be without the freedom to develop confidence in our own good sense, strength and courage. We’re never allowed to stumble and fall and we don’t have to figure out how to comfort ourselves, clean our scraped knees and move forward. We over-protect out of fear or control, not love, and our constant vigilance of our loved one or loved ones teaches them fear as well. Fear makes our lives smaller, not bigger.
This new year, I don’t wish you photoshopped health, prosperity and happiness, and I don’t have a list of resolutions I hope will lead me to those things, either.
This year, I wish us each the ability to stand in our own power.
May we learn to love our bodies as they are. May we live joyfully in our skin. Let us teach our bodies new things and work with them to become as strong and healthy as we can. May we allow our bodies to be and to change.
This year, may we make mistakes. May we become lost and confused, and then find our way again. May we find out we’re wrong, and tell everyone. May we be vulnerable, get hurt and heal ourselves.
May we wander far from home without a map and walk a thousand miles, exploring new places and ideas. May we listen to a different kind of music and read a different kind of book. May we do something we’re afraid of.
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Let the new year bring us laughter that makes our bellies ache and tears that fall like warm rain on our anguish. Let us fall head over heels in love with something or someone as though it’s the first time we’ve ever done it and we just know it will all be perfect. Let us make friends with our rage and give it something productive to do. Let us tell someone about our deepest shame.
May we know loneliness, boredom, disappointment and humiliation, and balance them with companionship, engagement, satisfaction and validation.
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May we risk, dare and dream. May we learn to believe in ourselves. Let us burn our candle at both ends. Let us wear ourselves out with living. May we hear our lives whisper and speak our own truths. Let us learn and grow. Let us allow ourselves to be seen and rejected.
May we long for a home, find one, make one and lose it. May we make another and choose to walk away from it. May we learn how to come home to ourselves no matter where we are or who we’re with.
May we let go of our protection. Let us tear ourselves away from it. Let us outgrow it. May we feel what we feel with every cell of our body. May we make our thoughts, emotions, curiosity and creativity big and hold nothing back.
Go out into the sun flood of your life, my friends, my sons, my family, and know that I hold you in my heart. Know that I believe in you. Know that I neither ask for your protection nor seek to protect you, for none of us need it and love is bigger than that.
Go out from me into the new year, dear ones, and if you choose to return, please bring strange things.
Please bring strange things. Please come bringing new things. Let very old things come into your hands. Let what you do not know come into your eyes. Let desert sand harden your feet. Let the arch of your feet be the mountains. Let the paths of your fingertips be your maps and the ways you go be the lines on your palms. Let there be deep snow in your inbreathing and your outbreath be the shining of ice. May your mouth contain the shapes of strange words. May you smell food cooking you have not eaten. May the spring of a foreign river be your navel. May your soul be at home where there are no houses. Walk carefully, well loved one, walk mindfully, well loved one, walk fearlessly, well loved one. Return with us, return to us, be always coming home.
After years of interest, last autumn I finally found a Tai Chi teacher. I approached learning Tai Chi with hopes and expectations about the benefits it could provide, but I was unprepared for the power of the practice and how important it would become in my life.
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Tai Chi is a form of Chinese martial art intended to teach defense and support health. It’s a multilayered practice, elegantly complex. Learning the gross motor movements is only the first baby step. One layer is connected to and leads to the next. Tai Chi is not a linear activity to learn from beginner to master, but a dynamic, fluid practice best approached with humility every time. It’s constantly challenging in new ways, depending on what my state of mind, body and spirit is on any given day.
The Tai Chi I practice is called 24 forms, all of which gradually blend into one smooth, flowing whole with practice. The forms have delightful, poetic names like The Crane, Windmills and Clouds.
Tai Chi is about finding one’s center, physically and emotionally, and building on the strength and balance residing there. In order to facilitate this, one crouches slightly with bent knees throughout the whole routine. This is obviously quite challenging, and for some people impossible. However, with proper foot position, body dynamics and a crouched stance, we can immediately feel the solid, stable center at the core of every Tai Chi form. Crouching for long periods of time immediately informs us about the strength of our ankles, knees, hips, hamstrings and quadriceps, information we might not otherwise receive as we move upright through the world.
Crouching assists with balance because it lowers the center of gravity. Many people take up Tai Chi to support balance issues, in fact. Several forms require balancing on one foot or another with the supporting knee bent. This, too, can be unexpectedly challenging. Once again, our body has a story to tell we might not otherwise hear as we move normally. I’ve always been aware I have sloppy posture, but I’ve been habitually lazy about doing much about it. Tai Chi demands I stack my bones on top of one another and tuck in my tailbone. If I don’t do that, I can’t balance. I notice I now move through the rest of my life standing tall, with more grace and confidence and better posture. I don’t slump, crowding my lungs and abdominal organs. I don’t tilt or lean. I know where my pelvis is and I stay over it. My back is happier. I feel better.
Every movement counts in this practice. Each foot is placed just so in order to support a fully centered crouched stance. Shoulders, wrists and elbows stay in line with several of the forms, which necessitates holding arms straight out from the shoulder. My arms ached for months as I built strength, and I’m a strong swimmer who works out in the pool once a week. One form requires placing toes down and heel up, and another the heel down. At times we turn on our heel, and at other times our toe. In one form we turn one foot on the heel and the other on the toe at the same time. Everything about Tai Chi leads me inward on a spiraling journey of deeper focus and mindfulness.
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It’s amazing to practice over time and begin to feel the forms smoothing out into a cohesive routine with some kind of elegance and grace. Such fun and so rewarding. Then, however, the instructor started to talk to us about our eyes. It turns out every form requires a very specific eye gaze, often on our hand movements. I was doing well with balance, but when I took my gaze off the middle distance and looked at my hand in front of my face, I lost my balance. This was advanced balance. I added in the appropriate eye gaze and started all over again with balance.
Then, the teacher began to talk about breathing. Crap. I hadn’t even thought about my breathing! Breathing is connected to energy, and Tai Chi was originally a practice for working with energy as well as defense. All the forms have to do with pushing, pulling, deflecting or defending. Now that we had some mastery of the physical challenges, we began to work on feeling our field of energy and moving it with our bodies and breath. A push is an exhalation. A pull is an inhalation.
Breathing then leads to pace and rhythm. We practice Tai Chi to meditation music — very slow. Balancing on one leg is not so hard when you do it for two or three seconds. Balancing for sustained periods of time, especially with a bent knee, requires a lot more strength and, well, balance! Every movement takes far more concentration when slowed down. This is one of the few activities I’ve ever done where the goal is to slow down. We seem to be running faster all the time, overstimulated, overscheduled, multitasking, trying to earn more money, perpetually on call via technology. We’re all in pursuit of … something. What? Does anyone ever find it? Is it worth the cost of the chase?
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Tai Chi demands we slow down. In that slowness we discover our fatigue, our aches and pains, our half-healed injuries, our distractions and our distress and unmanaged feelings. We remember our center. We recover our balance. We make time to breathe.
Some people call Tai Chi a moving meditation, and I now understand why. When I’m practicing Tai Chi, I’m not doing anything else. When I’m walking or swimming my mind goes right on with whatever it’s busy with. Those activities are good for creative inspiration, prayer and processing feelings. Tai Chi, though, takes me to a deep, restful, quiet place of no thought, focus and present mindfulness, so rich and so empty. It opens the door for awareness, too, of the degree to which I’m captive to distraction. The instant I’m distracted by a sound or a stray thought, I lose my balance and center, I lose my breath, I lose the flow and I don’t know where I am in the forms. I think of myself as fairly focused, but I’m just as susceptible to distraction as anyone else, and I don’t want my life to become an uncontrolled blur of noise and stimulation in which I forget there’s anything but distraction. Tai Chi brings a precious and necessary balance into my days.
All these layers have brought health and healing into my life, but the greatest grace Tai Chi brings me is the opportunity to be in the body. I’m saddened by the ever-more strident body politics in our culture. I don’t remember a time in my life when it seemed so many people were locked in self-hatred and hatred of others based on some kind of physical characteristic. It reflects in our suicide and addiction rates, and it touches each one of us. We no longer honor the sacred feminine and masculine, we have few invitations to fully inhabit ourselves physically, and no one encourages us to honor and respect our physical form as it is.
Just like dance, Tai Chi calls us home to ourselves. My home is not nipped, tucked, plucked, lipo-suctioned, dyed, shaved, made-up, compressed, surgically reconstructed or uplifted. My home is my oldest friend, my most loyal companion, the loyal record keeper and diary of childbirth, breast-feeding, menopause, a lifetime of Colorado sun, slipped kitchen knives and barbed wire fence. My home is lines and wrinkles, lumpy thighs, softened breasts, grey hairs and thinning skin. This amazing, adaptable, resilient, hard-working body is the shelter and haven for my spirit.
I often move a chair aside, open the windows, take up the sheepskin rugs lying on the wide plank floor in my attic space, shut the door at the bottom of the stairs, turn on music and take off my clothes to practice Tai Chi. I like to look down at my bare toes and toe ring on the sloping grey-painted floorboards. I like to glance at my strong knees and make sure they’re in line with my heavy ankles. I like the gentle slope of my belly, cross-hatched with silver stretch marks, under which two children grew into life. I like to stack my bones carefully, tuck in my tailbone and feel the subtle realignment that opens up my center and my balance. I like the clench, pull, stretch and relaxation of my muscles. I like the combination of strength and loosening skin and flesh as I move my arms. I’m grateful for the ability to breath deeply, and the ability to sweat. I relish the air coming in the windows and touching my bared breasts.
We started with a large Tai Chi class, and over the weeks and months people dropped out, one by one. I suppose for some it wasn’t a good fit. For others it wasn’t a priority. Still others were discouraged by their physical limitations, in spite of the fact that the instructor was and is eager to modify the practice to accommodate anyone. One lady had trouble with balance but was unwilling to stand next to a chair for safety and support. Others were ashamed of their weight, their muscle weakness and/or learning a new thing in public. It made me sad. I think many would have benefitted if they could have moved past their shame and self-consciousness, and if they’d been willing to work with their physical reality instead of resenting and arguing with it.
Our Tai Chi group is small now, but we’re good friends. We laugh a lot. We learn from one another. We greet and part with hugs and affection. We enjoy the music; share our distractions, worries, aches and pains and support one another in centering, grounding, calming and mindfulness.
I posted three times about diet and food in 2017. You can find them here, here and here. They are among my most-read posts, and I’ve had enough comments and reads to encourage me to update my experience a year later. I still read everything I see regarding food, nutrition and diet, and I’m still learning what choices give me optimal health and following new science and data.
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For the record, I’m 54 years old, officially in menopause now, 5 feet 8 inches tall and a steady 140 lbs. I do a minimum of two hours of sweat-producing Tai Chi a week, swim laps for 45-60 minutes without stopping weekly, and walk energetically up and down a steep hill with my partner (about 50 minutes) five days a week. This walk is also sweat-producing. I dance occasionally and take shorter walks and snowshoe excursions several times a week. I go up and down steep flights of stairs all day long, shovel snow and help hump hardwood (heavy!) firewood into the barn. My blood pressure and pulse are both low, and my BMI is exactly where it’s supposed to be. I see a dentist and eye doctor regularly and a medical doctor rarely. I take no prescription medications and I don’t drink or smoke. I sleep 8-9 hours a night.
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In the summer of 2016, as I was slowly eating fewer and fewer plants and more and more meat and animal fats, I had trouble with hair loss. It occurred about six months into my transition to a very low-carb, high-fat diet. As you can imagine, it gave me pause. My hair is one of my few vanities (it misbehaves so gloriously!) and the women in my family have thick, healthy hair. I freaked out.
My first thought was thyroid. I was previously diagnosed as hypothyroid, but I had quit taking my medication when I moved to Maine in 2015 and had no further symptoms. I went to a doctor and had blood drawn. My thyroid levels were normal. Good news, but it didn’t explain my hair loss. At that particular time I was under a great deal of family stress, and the doctor assured me my hair loss was a stress reaction combined with menopause. I wasn’t much comforted, but I couldn’t find another explanation and he was undisturbed, so I decided to give it some time and see what happened.
The stress in my personal life resolved and after three or four weeks so did the hair loss. I didn’t think any more about it until recently, when my partner, who also eats low-carb, high-fat, told me he’d come across a blog post about temporary hair loss being a side effect of transitioning to a ketogenic diet, and it generally occurs around six months into the diet. Hair loss explained. It’s worth noting that since then, my hair is thicker, wilder and curlier than ever, and it grows fast. I need a cut at least every five weeks.
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In my old life, when I was eating a mostly plant-based diet, I really struggled with constipation. I took fiber supplements and ate loads of fiber-rich foods every day, but it seemed like the more fiber I took, the more trouble I had. I also had a lot of bloating and water retention, which was discouraging. I felt fat, and at the same time I felt depleted.
One of my biggest concerns about trying a low-carb diet was the issue of fiber. Everything I’d ever read told me unequivocally that it’s necessary to eat fiber to maintain a healthy GI tract, and cutting out plant-based food seemed to be going in the opposite direction.
What I discovered was that I still struggled with constipation, but it didn’t get worse. I was surprised, but I still wanted to fix the problem. I did a lot of reading on blogs about eating low or zero carb, and found constipation was a concern for many people. Everything I read pointed to focusing on micronutrients, especially when transitioning to low-carb, high-fat eating. I read a lot about electrolytes: salt, magnesium, calcium and potassium. My plant-based diet was low-salt (I was careful about salt and rarely added it when cooking and baking) and high in magnesium and potassium. My understanding was that salt is very bad for us, and causes high blood pressure, water retention and a myriad of other problems. Further reading informed me salt is a necessary nutrient, and I realized I was getting well below the recommended levels of salt, potassium and magnesium in my diet of meat and fat.
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I began to supplement magnesium and potassium, and I stopped restricting salt (which I’ve always loved). I also began making sure I drink at least 3 liters of water a day, more when it’s hot and humid. The other thing I read about consistently, and this was the hardest for me, was that one needs to eat at least a pound of meat a day, and many people aim for two. That’s a lot of meat!
When I implemented all this, my constipation went away. My blood pressure and water retention did not increase with increased salt. I never have bloating. If I have trouble now, it’s because I’ve been too sedentary, not drinking or eating enough, or I forgot my usual supplements.
When I began eating low-carb, high-fat, I also started having severe leg and foot cramps, which I’d never had before. They weren’t like my chronic pain and spasm, but in the middle of the night, without warning, my calf or foot would cramp, waking me in a hurry and making me writhe for a few seconds before it relaxed. I was concerned this was a sign that eating this way was as insane and unhealthy as most people say it is and I was starving my body of what it needed, but this, too, turned out to be a function of imbalanced electrolytes and under hydration. I haven’t had any kind of cramp since last year.
In retrospect, I wonder if both my chronic pain and spasm and my constipation had a lot to do with imbalanced electrolytes all along. It may be I’ve been chronically sodium deficient. I also believe I’ve been chronically under hydrated for most of my life. I have to really pay attention in order to get three plus liters of water a day, and I lived in Colorado, which is terribly dry, before I came to Maine. Obviously, staying well hydrated is essential to healthy bowel habits.
Another problem I had was debilitating migraine headaches that lasted for at least 24 hours and made it impossible to function. Photophobia, phonophobia, neuralgia and pounding pain had me in a dark room with an ice pack. For two or three years I had them once a month, right at the full moon. As I started eating meat and fat and reducing carbs, they gradually diminished in intensity, frequency and length. I’ve had one so far this year, and I was able to function all the way through it, albeit with discomfort.
So what, exactly, does my current diet look like?
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I eat three thick slices of bacon and two sausage links with four to five buttered eggs every morning. It’s always delicious and I’m not even close to bored eating it daily. I also drink my first liter of water in unsweetened green tea and just plain water with breakfast. Every other day I put a spoonful of fresh farm cream cheese with garlic and herbs on the eggs. We usually eat before 8:00 a.m.
I don’t think about food again until around 3:00 p.m. I write for three or four hours, exercise, do housework, run errands, etc. I usually drink a couple more cups of herbal tea and I drink at least another liter of water. Sometime mid afternoon I’ll feel hungry. My partner makes a beef stew to die for, but we don’t always have that. We always have ground beef, however, and last fall we saved money and bought half a locally-raised cow, butchered and packaged to our specifications. The meat is grass-fed and very lean. I’m sure this is what most people want, but we find it too lean. Because of that, I make a burger patty or crumble and cook the beef in the frying pan from breakfast in order to take advantage of the bacon and sausage fat. The lean ground beef soaks up the fat pretty well, especially if I just crumble and cook it, which takes about 2 minutes. I aim to cook at least 3/4 of a pound of burger.
I find this extremely filling and satisfying. I drink a lot of water with it. Now and then I spoon garlic and herb farm cheese on top. If I’m really starving or feel extra depleted, I bake a half a sweet potato or white potato, anoint it with lots of butter and fresh farm sour cream. I don’t eat any kind of carb without eating fat and meat first.
I also buy unsweetened, full-fat farm yoghurt, and sometimes after my afternoon meal I’ll eat a couple big spoonfuls of that. When there is beef stew, I occasionally like to have a half a thin slice of locally baked wheat bread, liberally buttered, with the gravy. I love ice cream, and about once a week I eat a small bowl of hard ice cream, but only after a good meal of meat and fat. If we buy ice cream in town, I get a child’s serving in a bowl. Cones are just empty carbs, and they make me hurt. My partner likes banana bread, and he occasionally bakes a very low-sugar version. Sometimes I’ll eat a half a thin slice, thickly buttered, as a treat after my afternoon meal.
I have a tendency to react badly to nuts, but I love peanut butter, and we buy nothing-added-but-salt peanut butter from East Wind in bulk. Once a week I eat a spoonful of that on a small square of buttered bread.
Oddly, I’ve discovered eating one spoonful of ice cream a day causes far more problems than having a small serving once a week. For me, there seems to be a cumulative effect in terms of carbs. Now and then I splurge on a carb, just for fun, and if I’ve eaten meat and fat first I can get away with it without too many consequences. If I squirt a little catsup on my burger three days in a row, though, I’m going to start to have pain that limits my activity level and sleep. Commercial catsup, for some stupid reason, is sweetened.
Photo by Gabriel Jimenez on Unsplash
Since I last wrote about food, I’ve done a lot of reading on permaculture, holistic food production, and land management. Please see my Resource page for links. What I’ve learned is that monocropping is biocide. Large-scale animal production can be equally catastrophic for the land and environment. What we know now is that a healthy complex system (i.e., Planet Earth, left undisturbed) contains an essential mix of plants, fungi, microorganisms, insects and animals. Earth is evolved for such communities, and we will destroy the planet if we don’t figure out how to emulate, nurture, protect and participate in such systems. All life will starve to death.
The most extraordinary thing about eating this way, and the hardest part to communicate to someone who doesn’t, is the level of hunger satisfaction. Previously, I was always snacking. A piece of fruit, a couple of pieces of toast, a salad, a smoothie. I was always hungry, and I was always ashamed of it. My shame caused me to withhold food from myself, which only made my cravings worse. My weight, mood and energy fluctuated wildly. My sleep was bad. I had constant pain. I was always thinking about food, one way or another.
It’s hard to express how different it is to eat a big breakfast and walk away feeling really satisfied and full until six or seven hours later. No craving. No shame. No snacking. No sense of deprivation. No counting calories or weighing portions. Then, another big meal, the evening routine and bedtime, satisfied and satiated. When I’m hungry, I eat. I don’t care what time it is or what else is going on. When I’m full, I stop eating. That’s it.
Photo by Erda Estremera on Unsplash
The same level of satisfaction applies to drinking water. We drink filtered water from our old hand-dug well, and I never thought just plain water could give me so much pleasure. You couldn’t pay me to drink soda or sweet tea or any of the things I used to drink. When I’m thirsty, I want water, lovely, fresh, cool, clean water. I’m never bored with it. I never want anything else. It satisfies me in a way that’s so deep it’s almost sensual.
I never feel deprived.
It’s worth noting that the absolutely most satisfying meat is beef. I eat some chicken and, occasionally, turkey, but I have to eat two or three times as much in order to get the same level of satiation, and those meats are less fatty than beef. Pork is good because it’s high-fat, and we hope to be able to buy a half a pig in the future from local farmers.
Sometimes, if I’ve been working unusually hard physically or am unusually emotionally upset, I’ll need a fast snack. In this case, hard-boiled eggs are portable, quick and healthy. Every couple of months I buy a plain ham, unsweetened, smoked, or otherwise manipulated, as fatty as I can find. I thin slice it and pack it into small baggies, which I throw in the freezer until wanted. This provides a quick, high-fat, high-salt, tasty snack I can eat on the run or in a hurry. If I’m going to visit a friend and have a cup of tea or a chat, I eat a little ham so I can have a cracker or cookie with my friend without paying for it in pain.
We have the great good fortune to be able to buy food from a farm. I no longer buy commercial milk, cheese, yoghurt, sour cream or eggs. Nothing compares to food that hasn’t left the farm until you take it home. It puts money back into the local community, fosters small-scale farmers who are working holistically with animals and plants (and they work day and night, let me assure you), and it allows me to know exactly where my food is coming from and how it’s being handled. It’s also fresh and far more delicious than anything available in the grocery store.
I’ve seen blogs and posts from people who claim to have tried a low or zero-carb, high-fat diet and say it “doesn’t work.” I’m not sure what “doesn’t work” means, exactly, but I always long to ask a lot of nosey questions. First, what was the goal? Why did they try it? Secondly, how long did they stick to it? Thirdly, did they really commit to it? Did they suspend their soda habit, stop sweetening their coffee and ditch the “healthy” granola bars? Did they eat meat and animal fat and drink water and nothing else? Lastly, do they smoke tobacco or drink? All alcohol is carbs. Do they take any prescription drugs or use recreational drugs?
Another thing I’ve heard is that eating this way is unmanageable socially. I don’t buy that. If you’re trying to change the way you eat in order to feel better and improve your health and your buddies at the bar give you a bad time for refusing nachos and cheese fries, grow a pair and tell them to back off! Better yet, get them to join you! Do a two-week challenge and bet on who will lose the most weight. True friends will support friends in maintaining health. If you can pack a sandwich for lunch, you can pack fatty ham, hard boiled eggs, and a container of full-fat unsweetened yoghurt. If your only option is fast food, buy a couple of burgers and ditch the buns and condiments. If you want to eat this way, you can. Nobody cares. Nobody’s really paying attention. They’re too busy with their own food preoccupations! Pot luck? Take a tray of cold cuts or deviled eggs. We go out to eat a couple of times a week and enjoy eggs and sausage, meatloaf, pot roast and chopped sirloin. Hold the bread, hold the side salad!
Eating in this way has transformed my life and my health. Shopping is easy, infrequent and fast. Every ten days or so I visit my friend’s farm, buy eight dozen eggs, cheese, sour cream and/or yoghurt (according to need), chat and exchange a hug. I spend a half hour in the kitchen making breakfast, doing dishes, giving the cat fresh water, looking out the windows, watching the birds and thinking about the day ahead. My afternoon meal is either already made (stew) or takes two or three minutes to cook in the breakfast frying pain. I don’t meal plan. We know exactly what we need to budget to eat well. I don’t need a lot of gear and gadgets or cupboard space. The refrigerator is not overflowing with who-knows-what leftovers and outdated food. Our collection of plastic Tupperware containers is virtually unused (which is good, because there are mice in that particular cupboard!). We don’t produce much trash, because we don’t buy cans, bags and boxes. We recycle all our egg cartons, plastic and aluminum. We compost egg shells, tea bags, coffee grounds, and any small amount of vegetable matter. Meat and bacon grease is also perfectly suitable for compost, managed properly. We know farmers who have buried a whole dead goat in the center of their compost pile with no smell and no problem.
I don’t diet. I eat food — joyously, effortlessly, with great satisfaction and pleasure. I drink water with a deep sense of gratitude that I have clean water to drink. I feel healthy, happy, energetic and filled with vitality. My body is my friend and ally, and I think it’s miraculously lovely.
Diet is a personal choice. I suspect different bodies have different requirements. Some people can’t eat eggs or dairy. Some are particularly sensitive to the herbicides in our grains. I also suspect that a lot of the current mainstream information and advice about food is skewed and misleading. I encourage everyone to research for themselves. A sampling of the links I’ve provided in these posts and on my Resource page may provide you with new information and data. Ultimately, the choice is yours, and yours alone. If you’re happy with your physical and mental health, your relationship to food and your body, and you have no need to take over-the-counter or prescription medication, you obviously have figured out what works for you. If not, it’s important to understand you’re not alone and not everyone (not even all doctors) is in agreement about diet.
As for me, I will never go back to a plant-based diet, chronic pain and spasm, constipation, migraines, hypothyroidism, anxiety and depression, insomnia and weight problems. I’m a carnivore, and I eat meat and animal fat with great relish.