Resilience Reflections with Dan Allen

April 22, 2015

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

In Resilience Reflections we ask some of our contributors what it is that inspires their work, and what keeps them going.

Read more Resilience Reflections here including Sandra Postel and Brian Kaller.

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Dan Allen is a high school chemistry teacher in New Jersey. He is also a concerned father, organic farmer, and community garden organizer. He has written a number of articles published at including Come on Home!: Ecological Agriculture and Sixteen Wonderful Farms that Point the Way, Growing Fruit in a Nuthouse: Designing Our Orchards for Economic Collapse and Climate-Destabilization and Resilience or death: Preparing our farms for the end of agriculture (…as we know it).

Who/what has been your greatest inspiration? And why?

I’m inspired by any living organism around me that seems to be thriving — especially those who either have a long ‘family’ history in this place or are adapting successfully to some changing circumstance.

For example, I marvel at the squirrels that emerge from their nests in Spring and jump around in the trees over my house, the honey mushrooms that fruit every Summer underneath the big silver maple, the sparrows that find a way to make it through the icy winter by the pond, the autumn olive bushes that pop up so vigorously in the fence row, the spiders who live along the ceiling edge above the kitchen sink, etc.
The obvious reason for this is that it is also my mission to thrive sustainably in this place and be able to adapt to the big ecological, economic, and social changes taking on increasingly-ominous shapes around me.  Despite all the work I do towards these goals, there are times I start to despair that it will even be possible.  These organisms give me daily hope and inspiration that it is possible.
Knowing what you know now about sustainability and resilience building, what piece of advice would you give your younger self if you were starting out?
I’d say to my younger self what Chris Martenson preaches, “Trust yourself.”  If something feels wrong at the gut level (like industrial schooling), don’t just blindly assume that “they” are right and I’m just missing something.  And if something feels right at the gut level (like the calmness I feel in the woods), don’t just assume “they” are right and that it holds no real, practical value.  Of course, always keep your eyes open to the possiblility that you may be missing something and that your knowledge will always be incomplete — but trust your gut!!
I’d also give myself a big pile of Wendell Berry books to digest at a much younger age than I did.  Ditto for ecology books.  All of that would’ve given me the proper bearings a lot sooner, I think.
Image RemovedWhat keeps you awake at night?
My daughter — literally and figuratively!
In a literal sense, my 10-year-old daughter comes into my room every morning around 3 am, usually wrenching me from some deep stage of sleep.  I lead her back to bed, kiss her forehead, and go back to sleep myself.  It’s pretty unpleasant to be woken up like that every night, but I think of it as a sort of metaphor for the kind of person I strive to be: someone who can happily make sacrifices so life can be nicer and safer for those around me.  I want to be that kind of person not only for my family, but for my community as well.  I want to be the kind of person who can help others when people are scared and it seems like everything is falling apart.  Which brings us to the next part…
In a figurative sense, I “lose sleep” about our increasingly unsettled future.  I’m deeply, deeply concerned that the fabric of our lives (economic, social, ecological) will unravel faster and more deeply than we can handle.  And I worry that my daughter will suffer misery as a result.  And like any parent, this increasingly likely possibility brings me great heartbreak.  Several years ago it literally kept me up nights.  But now my response has become to just double down with my work: trying to strengthen my relationships with my family, my community, and the land.  And since I’m comfortable that this strategy is the best that I can do with my time, I sleep well — until my daughter wakes me up, that is.  🙂
What gets you up in the morning or keeps you going?
I feel a responsibility for all the organisms I’m caring for on any given day.  The dog needs a pet and to be let out.  The sheep need water or hay or fresh pasture.  The chickens need to be fed and let out.  The (human) kids need to be fed.  The wife needs a hug.  The vegetable & tree seedlings in the nursery need to be watered.  The tree seedlings in the field need to be checked.  The garden needs to be weeded.  The fruit and veggies need to be picked.  The community garden needs to be attended to.  Etc., etc., etc….
Those are the immediate things that fling me out of bed.  But those are driven by the more ‘big picture’ reason I do them all: to strengthen the web of relationships between me, my family, my community, and the land.  And these tasks are, I feel, the best I can do with my waking hours to strengthen these relationships.

“I somewhat slowly learned that I was more the conductor than the builder of the farm; more the gentle nudger & potential inspiration for my family and community than the task-master.”

What has been your biggest setback and how did you recover?
The biggest setback was the stunning realization that the living organisms (people, domestic & wild plants and animals, microorganisms, etc.) with whom I was attempting to establish relationships all had their own agenda — agendas that often differed radically from my ‘ideal’ plan.
Starting out with the all the cool new community-togetherness plans and ecological theory I was learning, it was a shock to me how little of it all that I could actually control.  What? — the raspberries don’t want to grow where I want them to?!  Huh? — the sheep aren’t going to respect that fence I made just for them?!  Wait! — the whole town isn’t going to immediately plant food trees in their lawns like I want them to?!  Huh? — my kids aren’t going to gleefully follow me into the garden to weed every morning?!
I somewhat slowly learned that I was more the conductor than the builder of the farm; more the gentle nudger & potential inspiration for my family and community than the task-master.  I could gather all these organisms together on the farm, but it wasn’t up to me to tell them what to do; I had to listen to them and negotiate some arrangement that would work for both of us.  And I could come up with all sorts of initiatives for my family and community, but nobody was going to let me tell them what to do; I had to listen to them (what they said and didn’t say; what they did and didn’t do) and negotiate something that worked for all of us — try to nudge them in the right direction when the situation arose.
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For you resilience is…?
Resilience is having a Plan B…and a Plan C…and a plan D…and etc.  It’s being careful and thorough in my preparations.  It’s realizing my preparations probably won’t be enough.  It’s having people who have my back.  It’s partnering with the local ecosystem.  It’s not having my head in the sand.  It’s knowing what’s important and what’s not.  It’s knowing I may be wrong.  It’s knowing how to make stuff.  It’s being tough and flexible, bending but not breaking.  It’s having the skills, resources, smarts, and emotional strength to bounce back…again and again and again and…
Image RemovedWhat one social/political/cultural/policy change would most assist your work/hopes/dreams?
One present-day change I long for is better support for the development of sustainable local food-sheds.  This is a social/political/cultural/policy change that could easily gather serious momentum even in these industrially-indoctrinated times.  Of course, I’m doing what I can on this front, but I certainly wouldn’t object to some more help.

“The persistence of life gives me hope — and my expectation that this planet will retain (and eventually increase) its beauty in geologic time.”

What gives you hope?
The persistence of life gives me hope — and my expectation that this planet will retain (and eventually increase) its beauty in geologic time.  I will do what I can to help conserve as much of this beauty as I can in my lifetime, but it fills me with joy that industrial civilization looks like it’ll peter out before snuffing out the potential for long-term regeneration.  Go life!!!
What book/film/other resource has most supported your work?
I’m grateful for all books by Wendell Berry.  There are other important writers of course, but I could get by on just his work.  Beautiful.

Dan Allen

I'm a high school chemistry teacher in NJ. I'm also a concerned father, organic farmer, and community garden organizer. You can find my previous stories on here.

Tags: resilience reflections