Moving Beyond Sustainability to Thrivability

Let’s live lightly and joyfully on Earth so we can all thrive.

A few weeks ago, when I heard a Chumash man named Fred speak of moving beyond sustainability to thrivability, I thought, “Yes that is the path we should be on.”

At the time, I was standing in a circle of people holding hands outside of the San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden event center with the mouth-watering smell of breakfast cooking and the scent of smoldering sage wafting through the air. We had gathered for the summer session of the Chumash Kitchen to experience the culture and food of the Chumash people who have been living on the Central California Coast for thousands of years.

Although I am still a circle ceremony novice, this was my third Chumash Kitchen so I knew I should wear a sweater. If you are interested, you can read about the first two in the posts entitled Thanksgiving – We are All Connected and Adopt a Native Plant.

From the moment I heard Fred utter the word thrivability, I knew that I would be pondering the idea in the weeks ahead.

The Chumash Kitchen – July 2018

Perhaps it was serendipity that the summer Chumash Kitchen had been moved back from early June to late July because it gave me a much-needed respite from what I was researching and writing about at the time.

In June, I had been happily dispensing advice for couples wanting to minimize their belongings and live happily with less stuff and trying to convince everyone to put solar panels on their roof.

However, by the time the end of July rolled around, I was enmeshed in researching and writing a 4-part series about GMOs (genetically modified organisms) and bioengineered food. This is a highly controversial subject and it seems like everyone is constantly shouting on paper and film while thrusting their conflicting science studies in each other’s faces.

The Chumash Kitchen was like an oasis.

Circle Ceremony

Shortly after we arrived, Violet, the Chumash woman who is the driving force behind the Chumash Kitchen, and Lindsey, the woman who makes it all happen at the Botanical Garden, called us outside to begin the day with a circle ceremony.

The group shuffled about a bit as we formed a rough circle and then spontaneously we all held hands with the people on either side of us. Violet smiled (she is always smiling) and voiced her approval. She introduced us to her family members and those who wished to speak did while an ancient and lovely abalone shell encrusted pipe (the source of the smoldering sage) was carefully carried around the circle.

Fred and Violet did a father-daughter tag team recounting of the story of how they had obtained the yucca flowers that would be part of our lunch.

Sourcing a yucca plant is not like picking elderberries or gathering acorns. The small creamy white flowers of the yucca plant are attached in clusters on stalks that can reach ten feet tall and the whole plant is encircled by thick spiky leaves.

Violet and Fred Delivering Yucca for Chumash Kitchen July 2018
Violet and Fred delivering the Yucca for the Chumash Kitchen, July 2018 – Photo Courtesy of San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden

Violet and Fred were searching literally for a late bloomer that would still have flowers at the end of July. They found one residing on a rocky perch difficult to reach. Undaunted, Fred climbed up and retrieved a length of yucca with the flowers intact. They drove to the Botanical Garden with the flowers in the cab of the pickup truck and the stalk sticking out the back window.

After the stories, a song, and a blessing, with cold hands and joyful hearts, we headed inside for a breakfast of quiche, sage potatoes, and Botanical Garden tea made with native plants from the Garden.

Stories and Prayer Ties

A short stroll took us to the children’s garden where we occupied benches in a shady spot while Violet and her family members shared stories about the history and culture of the area from their perspective as Chumash people and native Californians who have inhabited this land for centuries.

Michael talked with us about tobacco and prayer ties. Tobacco is a sacred plant for the Chumash people. Prayer ties are made by tying a pinch of tobacco into a knot at the center of a colored strip of cloth and hanging it somewhere as a prayer, wish, blessing, remembrance, or thank you. (If I got this wrong, then I apologize that was not listening carefully enough.)

Violet set us to work making prayer ties to decorate the children’s garden. It is not easy to make a knot in a piece of fabric without the tobacco falling out so thankfully small lengths of yarn were passed around to help the less handy people, like me. We were invited to make extra prayer ties to take home with us.

Yellow and Green Prayer Tied on Fence Around Ailing Toyon
I tied these prayer ties on the fence surrounding an ailing toyon in our yard. (The fence is to protect it from deer until it gets big enough to hold its own.)

After exploring and decorating the children’s garden, we reassembled for lunch, which Fred had been preparing with a group of hardworking volunteer cooks.

Chumashtash

Lunch was beautifully served and delicious.

Our main course was dubbed Chumashtash (a cousin of succotash) by Violet. Our version combined chayote squash, yucca root, sweet corn, cheese, and a sumptuous sauce of wilted yucca blossoms sautéed in garlic butter. This was accompanied by a rice dish made with yerba buena, cilantro, and lime and Slo’w’s special pozole recipe, a sort of spicy corn soup served with fresh cabbage and lime wedges.

The artfully arranged dessert of vanilla ice cream topped with a chia flour and blueberry crumble, elderberry syrup, and garnished with a yucca blossom looked almost too good to eat, but I soon found myself scraping the bowl and wishing for more.

Replete with lovingly prepared food and wonderful stories, we headed home.

Thrivability

The next Monday, I returned to the world of GMOs and bioengineered food, which seemed even more alien than it had the week before. Once I completed the last post in that series, I was free to contemplate moving beyond sustainability to thrivability and to write this post.

According to my Webster’s dictionary, the word sustain means “to keep in existence, keep up, maintain, or prolong.”

It was the United Nations, in 1987, which popularized the term sustainability by defining sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

This is an indeed a worthy goal. If we want our children, everyone else’s children and future children to have a habitable planet to live on now and in the future, we need to think beyond our immediate needs and wants and act accordingly.

The problem is that no one wants to just exist or maintain. People want to be happy, enjoy life, and thrive.

Sustainability is an overused, misused, and uninspiring term that is more like a frame of reference for decision-making than a way to live. Due to the lack of a suitable alternative, I admit that I use the word sustainability more than I would like to (it is a category on my website). I know I am not alone in feeling this way.

Maybe thrivability is the idea we have been seeking.

Technically, the word thrivability does not exist. When I looked in my Webster’s and at online dictionaries, I could find thrive (to grow vigorously, flourish) but not thrivability. I did come across a couple of books and seminars with thrivability in the title and several companies with thrive in their name.

Actually, the lack of an “official” definition for thrivability is a good thing because we are free to come up with our own. Here is my take on a meaning for thrivability. Please feel free to share your own in the comment section.

Thrivability means living joyfully and in harmony with other people and the balance of nature, so that we can all flourish on Earth now and in the future.

Featured Image at Top: Children Holding Hands Running through a Meadow Silhouetted by the Sun – Photo Credit Shutterstock/ESB Professional

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Adopt a Native Plant

Native plants make good neighbors.

I did not always appreciate the beauty of native plants and how integral they are to the wellbeing of the communities in which they reside, but I do now.

A native plant is a plant or tree that is adapted to live in the soil and climate of a particular region (small or large) and that can co-exist with neighboring plants and animals without being killed off or taking over. Native plants are good for the environment because they do not require extra inputs like water, synthetic fertilizers, or pesticides. They help nourish the soil, prevent erosion, maintain biodiversity, and provide habit and food for local wildlife and people.

It was not as if I woke up one morning thinking “Wow, native plants are beautiful. I need to learn more about them.” The appreciation for native plants just sort of crept up on me after several years of living in the Monterey pine forest of the California Central Coast.

I am originally from Southern California where my spouse and I doggedly defied the hot dry climate by maintaining not one, but two turf grass lawns. We also tended two dozen rose bushes, a few hydrangeas, and a bed of azaleas. The venerable old oak tree in the corner of the backyard might have been the only native plant on the property.

As you can imagine, moving from a manicured yard to a wild one took some getting used to. What you might call a weed, we call grass. Plant and tree seedlings volunteer to live wherever the wind blows their seeds or an animal deposits them. Birds visit daily to avail themselves of our birdbaths and deer cruise through in search of food and sometimes to hang out.

By observing the land surrounding our house and nearby open spaces, I saw that some plants seemed to flourish growing with a variety of different plants, while other plants seemed to be trying to hog a whole area just for themselves. I realized that I did not know much about native and invasive plants and that even our tiny piece of land might need a hand to be at its best.

I set out to educate myself by reading, joining the California Native Plant Society, and participating in events that provide me with opportunities to learn about native plants.

In October, my spouse and I attended the fall session of the Chumash Kitchen series being held at the San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden. The Chumash people have lived in this area for thousands of years so what could be better than learning about native plants from Violet and Jeanette, two Chumash women who live here now. That day it was all about oaks and acorns. I came away informed and inspired to write Thanksgiving – We are All Connected.

We pick up the thread of the Chumash Kitchen story on a cool February morning that quickly turned into a hot day.

The Chumash Kitchen – February 2018

The winter session of the Chumash Kitchen began with the group gathering outside and forming a rough circle so that Violet could give us a rundown of the morning including a few hints about the native foods we would be enjoying at breakfast and lunch.

I had left my sweater inside and was feeling a bit chilled but there was no way I was going to break the circle to go get it. I forgot I was cold after Violet introduced her father, Fred, and he began telling stories about growing up in this area. Fred is a good storyteller and I think he could have entertained us indefinitely, but Violet gave him a gentle sign that he needed to wrap things up so we could all go eat breakfast.

Breakfast consisted of tasty rice, egg, and mushroom dishes made with locally harvested and foraged ingredients. I bypassed the coffee urn to try some tea made with cedar and Yerba Buena. The tea was both warm and refreshing with a slightly minty taste and a cedar fragrance.

We Meet a Toyon

After breakfast, the group set out across the grass of the adjacent park to a nearby campground to meet a plant commonly known as Toyon and called Qwe’ by the Chumash people. In the midst of winter, this 12-foot tall Toyon was glorious with evergreen leaves and branches laden with tiny ripe red berries.

Chumash Kitchen Group Photo in Front of a Toyon
Chumash Kitchen Group Photo in Front of a Toyon at El Chorro Regional Campground in San Luis Obispo, CA – Photo Courtesy of San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden

Easily passing the conversation back and forth, Jeanette and Violet shared information about Toyons, which are native to California and especially enjoy growing with oak trees. Besides being beautiful, we learned that Toyons provide habitat and food for a wide variety of wildlife as well as food, medicine, tools, and fuel for people.

Jeanette talked about how the Chumash and other indigenous people have been tending wild native plants and trees for thousands of years by gathering seeds, planting, weeding, pruning, transplanting, harvesting, and sometimes burning. When pruning a plant or harvesting from it, Chumash people give an offering of some sort, which could be a drink of water, a pinch of tobacco, a prayer, or even a piece of hair.

The Three Yerba Sisters

With the sun now bright and hot, we walked back to a cool shady area on the botanical garden grounds to learn about three California native medicinal plants and then go meet them. As Jeanette and Violet talked about the healing properties of Yerba Buena, Yerba Mansa, and Yerba Santa, they stressed that using plants for medicinal purposes is not like taking pills.

Pharmaceutical pills usually address a narrow range of ailments, have specific dosages, and are uniform in size, color, and ingredients. A plant may have many medicinal uses as well as be a source of food for people and wildlife and it is a living being so each plant in the family will have similar traits but none will be exactly alike. It is important to get to know the plant and to help care for it, after all, it is giving a part of itself for your benefit.

Yerba Santa Plant Growing at San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden
Yerba Santa Growing at the San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden

After learning about the Yerba sisters, Lindsey from the botanical garden led us on a joyful walk through the garden to meet the plants.

She also gave us some background about the botanical garden, which showcases plants and trees from five Mediterranean climates like our own.

We headed back to the event center for a sumptuous lunch prepared by Violet and a talented group of volunteers.

Bountiful Lunch

The day before the event, a hardworking group of volunteers had done some of the meal prep work, which included removing two itsy bitsy seeds from each Toyon berry that had previously been picked and dried.

Chumash Kitchen Lunch Plate Full of Delicious Food
Chumash Kitchen Plate Full of Delicious Food – Photo Credit charmainecoimbra.com

After the food was blessed, our plates were filled with delicious looking and smelling food. A creamy gravy with ground bison was poured over rice. This was accompanied by sautéed greens and roasted root vegetables with a Toyon vinaigrette.

Chumash Kitchen Chocolate Crepe with Toyon Berries
Chumash Kitchen Chocolate Crepe with Toyon Berries – Photo Courtesy of San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden

For dessert, we were treated to a chocolate crepe topped with rose hip infused whipped cream and a lovely handcrafted chocolate rosette.

A sweet syrup made with Toyon berries was dotted around the plate and drizzled over the top.

The dessert looked almost too good to eat, but we did eat it and it was scrumptious.

Full of information and replete with delicious food, we were sent off with a tiny Yerba Buena seedling of our own to get to know and tend.

Yerba Buena Seedling from San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden
Yerba Buena Seedling from San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden

Get to Know a Native Plant

Meeting the Toyon was an auspicious occasion for me.

Even though I have seen hundreds of Toyons while living on the Central Coast, I had not met one until last December during my first native plant walk with the California Native Plant Society. Toyon was the very first plant pointed out on the trail. Later in the month, my spouse and I planted two Toyon seedlings in our yard as part of our tradition of planting two trees each year during the Christmas season.

I felt blessed to have had the opportunity to meet a grown-up Toyon that had been living at its location for many years and was obviously thriving. Better yet, was learning about Toyons from two Chumash women whose ancestors have been living with Toyons for centuries.

Over the past couple of months, I have developed a special affinity for Toyons that I cannot explain. When we got home, I filled up a watering can and gave the two small Toyons growing in your yard a drink and a few words of encouragement.

You can help native plants flourish in your community by adopting a native plant or two.

Learn about native plants at your local botanical garden, native plant society, or nursery. Select a native plant that appeals to you. Locate a suitable place for the plant to live in your yard. Get to know your native plant and tend it. Alternately, introduce yourself to a plant or tree living in the wild and adopt it.

Featured Image at Top: Toyon with Ripe Red Berries at El Chorro Regional Park Campground in San Luis Obispo, CA

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