Struggle & Sacrifice for Education about Earth

I’ve long said that if I don’t tell my own story, someone else will, and it won’t be the one I’d tell.  Therefore, this post offers an explanation of why after 16 years work, as founder of Ermah Ge, I continue to struggle to accomplish its mission: to teach the principles of complexity sciences and geophysiology applied to nature, Earth, life, human organizations and societies to as many people as possible in the face of abrupt climate change.

[**  [I have put that organization and web site into moth balls for an indefinite period of time while I work on other  projects of my own.  Ermah Ge will be revived at a later time.]

This is a very personal story of sacrifice and financial hardship.  It’s probably the longest post I’ve ever written on this blog.  As a result, fewer will read it.  But then, it’s been a long, hard six years, and there were decades leading up to them, and I wanted to chronicle them.  This is my story, at least the last few years of it.

I write this in Bangor, Maine, where I came three months ago to explore the possibility of basing Ermah Ge here. (I’ve decided not to for several reasons; I am going to Dover-Foxcroft, Maine instead).  But hard as I tried, I couldn’t make things happen in Bangor.  I found venues where I could teach, but I didn’t have enough budget for advertising.

To be clear, I’m very poor.  I started getting social security early several years ago at age 62; thus I get meager payments.  It’s barely enough to pay even inexpensive rent, let alone buy food or anything else, including advertising, which is  expensive.  Everything I own in Maine fits into the back of a full-sized pickup truck.  Furniture-wise, I own two folding chairs, a small folding table, and a 30” wide piece of firm foam for a mattress.  That’s it.  I own no motorized vehicle — only a bicycle (which for six winters in Maine has been a challenge) — no property, no stocks or bonds.  My savings account has $1 in it, just enough to keep it open.

Moving out of the Owls Head apartment, May 2015. It was furnished; none of the furniture is mine.

Another layer of struggle has been that since I’ve had such a hard time selling my courses in Maine, especially in summer when few want to be in class during the glorious Maine summers, I’ve had to move a lot.  Thirty times, to be exact, and #31 is coming next week.   The longest I’ve been able to stay in one place was six months, the shortest about six days.   I’ve only had my own apartment three times.  Other places were rooms in someone’s home or a boarding house.  Some of those were short-term couch surfing in someone’s home while I explored a new town or city, looking for more permanent quarters.  Every place is different.  I describe the experience as, living in other peoples places with other people’s things, rules and issues.  At times, it’s been hellish.  But the worst part has been never really getting settled, often living out of boxes and crates for weeks at a time.  Pack, move, unpack, repeat.  Belongings get stored here, then there, then in two or three places.  Stuff gets lost.  There are times when I have to ask myself, “Where is item X?  Is it here or stored there?”

So, why do I keep struggling and sacrificing to earn a living teaching what I do, and making Ermah Ge a successful organization/corporation with a global reach?  Why don’t I just give up and “get a job”?  For one simple reason: I believe strongly in what I’m trying to do.  I think it’s important.  So do my associates and students who have supported me for years.   I have argued for years — and still do even more strongly now — that complexity sciences and geophysiology are not only necessary to understand the abrupt climate change event that has begun and will challenge the existence of our civilization in coming decades, but also crucial to effectively address it.  In a nutshell, those sciences must serve as the foundation for new cultural maps to guide us this century and beyond, replacing the obsolete and dangerous cultural maps that we have blindly followed for several centuries based in the scientific paradigm of mechanistic reductionism.

I’ll state right up front that the last six years have been harder and darker than any period in my adult life.  Harder than a divorce, my doctoral studies — including an oral exam from hell — and the death of both parents.  Combined.  The way I describe those years is this: I almost made it six times, but every time, I got body slammed.  Sometimes it was just plain, dumb bad luck; other times, it involved people that my associates and I trusted, but should not have.  Sometimes it was both.

I write that not seeking sympathy — I’ve gotten great support from friends during that time, and — along with my sense of the importance of this work — it’s kept me going.  I say it instead to emphasize that I am very committed to the program that I have developed, and explain why I’m still struggling.

Some background.  I’ve always been an avid outdoors person.  I started hiking at age 6.  Then came hunting and fishing; my family was very poor, so that helped put food on our table.  Then came camping in my mid-teens, backpacking since 22, and rock climbing in my 40’s.

I’ve always been fascinated by nature and life.  I have vivid memories from childhood of sitting outside in warm sunshine looking at the trees and sky in utter amazement of it all, wondering how it came about.  I wanted to know, but no one could explain it to me.  The best answer I got was, God created it.  But I found that … less than satisfactory.

All through high school followed by 16 years of university — four degrees in biology and mathematics, finishing with a PhD in evolutionary ecology at University of New Mexico, Albuquerque — the story about nature and life that I was being taught in academia was not congruent with what I experienced in nature.  It felt too mechanical, and failed to explain the awe-inspiring sensations that I felt in the natural world.

In 1990, at age 40, after finishing my doctoral studies in evolutionary ecology, I took a full time position at Central New Mexico Community College in Albuquerque teaching biology and mathematics.  I was hired to teach the traditional biology and mathematics that I’d been taught in school that filled all the text books — and still does — based in mechanism (the world and everything in it is a machine) and neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory.

Me at a party at Lynn Margulis’s house, 2010

(Darwin got natural selection right, but the neo-Darwinians of the early 20th century — and continuing today — did not adequately explain evolution.  Lynn Margulis, Charles Darwin’s 20th century counterpart, my most influential mentor, taught me why.  In my newest course, Earth 101, a short course, I explain why in introductory fashion, then much more thoroughly in advanced courses.)

In 1992, after breakfast with my girlfriend at a famous Albuquerque diner, we went to a bookstore next door where I found an entire shelf of books about complexity, self-organization, fractal geometry, chaos theory, Gaia theory, and other topics that now form the basis of my educational program.  I bought $230 worth of those books — a large box — many of which I still own.

I began to devour them.  It became clear quickly that a new scientific story of nature was emerging that was fully congruent with my experiences in nature, but radically different from most of what I’d learned at university, as different as day from night.  (During my doctoral studies, two forward looking professors had told me of this new science, but they were not allowed to teach much of it.)  Clearly this represented a revolution and renaissance in sciences.

I wanted to teach the new sciences at the community college.  I wrote several course proposals, but the members of the curriculum committee — who were trained and trapped by the more traditional approach — would not approve them.  I offered them covertly in my courses when I could, and many of my students liked them more than the traditional stuff.  I watched excited faces as light bulbs blinked on.

After 7 years of struggle with heavy workloads (top 5 in the US), low pay (bottom 5 in the US), and horrible politics, I resigned my job at the community college along with 16 other full time faculty (out of 84 in arts and sciences).

I moved to the Pacific NW, and after some migratory exploration, I settled in Eugene, Oregon, where I invested about $100,000 of an inheritance from a relative that I’d never met (my deceased mother’s cousin) into a private school.

At first, we called it Prototista — after a kingdom of nucleated microbes — then later renamed it Euglena Academy, after one of those nucleated microbes — single-celled, photosynthetic, and very mobile — the first microbe that really excited me in high school when seen through a microscope, darting around like a jet in water.

I leased a 2500 sf warehouse in Eugene.  We cleaned, dry-walled, painted, and upgraded electric and plumbing.   I decked it out with couches, chairs, tables, wood stove, kitchenette, conference room, a loft with a dry bar, a 6000W professional sound system, two theater-sized projection screens with projection equipment.  It had the look and feel of a San Francisco loft space.  Week nights, we held classes there, from 5 to 20 people each.

We were not accredited — by choice — and offered no diplomas.  Students — mostly professional and retired adults — studied for the sheer joy of learning.  The principles lead to a radical, at times awe-inspiring change in how we view everything: nature, Earth, life, organizations, even every day life, even cooking.  Often on the weekends, we played music — I had connections to top DJ’s — danced and partied.

I knew one thing for sure then: I am an excellent, passionate teacher.  It’s one of the few things I do well.  I love teaching new ideas to people.  I love the challenge of making complex scientific and mathematical ideas palatable so that even science- and math-phobes not interested initially can grasp them, even be excited by them.   At the community college in New Mexico, I was a very challenging instructor with high expectations who gave written “essay exams” rather than multiple guess — and some of my students hated me for that (until it helped them in their advanced programs).  Yet my student evaluations were consistently high: 4.7 – 4.8 out of 5.  So I thought teaching as an independent free-lance educator would be easy.

I was right: the teaching was easy.  But running a business was not.  I learned quickly that I am a content person, a teacher and writer — not a business person.  I had nearly zero business skills.  I hated the business side of things, especially business plans and bookkeeping.  And marketing and advertising was not much easier.  Having been taught as a child to be humble and not boastful, promoting myself and my work was challenging.

Yet, I managed to keep the doors open at Euglena Academy for ten years.  But in 2010, after ten years of struggle, almost broke after my inheritance was spent supplementing the school and cashing in my 401k from the community college, after 2.5 years of no days off, I closed the doors, said goodbye to dozens of advanced students  — some of whom were my closest friends —  and moved to Maine to pursue a relationship with a woman I met in Oregon, but who lived in Maine.  I was also seeking a new culture.  I was tired of west coast culture, especially the new age-ism that was so rampant in western Oregon and California.

That relationship did not last long.  Body slam number 1.  It ended very painfully.   I’ve never experienced emotional pain that deep before.  The months following the ending were the darkest of my life.  I questioned everything, including life itself.  I thought about suicide, and even developed a plan to carry it out.  Fortunately, my love of my work — and again, my sense of its importance, to keep these ideas that I teach alive — saw me through that painful time.  Healing took years.

But during that healing time, I fell in love with Maine: its geography, geology and ecology.  I loved its ruggedness.  I saw the same kinds of forest ecosystems here at 400’ above sea level that I used to see backpacking at 11,000’ in the southern Colorado Rockies.  Maine winters were character-building, especially since I’ve owned no motorized vehicle in Maine, only a bicycle.  But my backpacking/mountaineering experiences, knowledge and equipment got me through.  I had good insulating outer garments from backpacking in winter.  I often grocery shopped using a backpack, even in winter.

I soon learned that Maine’s culture is equally rugged.   It’s people are more authentic, having endured centuries of climatic and economic hardship — unlike much of the west coast.  New agism was here, but far less and more covert than in Oregon.  Maine is now home.  As long as I live in the US, I will live in no other state.

I arrived in Lewiston, Maine — just north of Portland —  in July, 2010, where my lover lived.  Not only did the relationship not work, neither did Lewiston.  I had trouble even getting people to attend free lectures, let alone enroll in a course.  I taught only one course there, a free one at Bates College in their community education program.  I went broke after one year, spending all the money from sale of assets from Euglena Academy.  I put out an SOS to 30 people in Oregon and Maine, asking for help.

One was a person I had met on Facebook, Carmine Leo — now a close friend and associate — who owns an old 26 acre farm near Skowhegan.  “Come on up”, he said.  “I’ve got an extra room in the attic.”  And lucky for me, Carmine is also a life coach teaching the principles of emotional intelligence, a set of skills that help us identify and respond to emotions within ourselves and others.  He played a very  important role in my healing; and he brings those skills to Ermah Ge to help people deal with the fear and denial about climate change, essential if we are to effectively address it.

So I moved up there in summer, 2011, one year to the day after my arrival in Lewiston.  It was there — further north into the interior, the outback — that I first experienced the real Maine.  The further north one goes here, especially north of Augusta, the more rugged the country, the more authentic the people.

Beginning in October that year, after offering three public lectures in Skowhegan about climate change— attended by 100 people — I taught my first class there: Climate 101, about abrupt climate change from the perspective of complexity sciences and geophysiology, a science that studies Earth as a self-regulating, complex adaptive system.  Unfortunately, the message of that class is not good news.  When viewed from the perspective of complexity and geophysiology, the abrupt climate change event that has begun and is accelerating is bad news, far worse than is being portrayed by the media or even by most climatologists.  Yet Mainers are brave people, and for the most part appreciated being told the hard truth.  (As author Dianne Dumanoski wrote, “In times of danger, bitter truth serves us better than sweet lies.”)

There were ten in the course, one of whom, the late, great Jim Murphy — who understood my teachings deeply due to his strong background in science — owned an apartment building in Waterville.  At the end of the class, he said, “You need to be in Waterville.”  He offered me a free apartment for six months if I’d move there.  He also contributed financially to my work several over years until his tragic and untimely death in an automobile accident in 2014.

So I moved to Waterville in December, 2011, where I taught multiple courses during 2012.   All were about climate change and what to do about it.   I didn’t get so much interest in courses about complexity sciences  and geophysiology per se, let alone applied to living systems, which is much more fun and important.  Climate change was the interest there.  (I’ve had to work hard over the years to help people understand the crucial importance of complexity and geophysiology for understanding and effectively addressing climate change.)

Several students in those courses convinced me to let them build a non-profit organization around my work so that we could seek significant funding to support it.  There were 14 people involved, all older, experienced professionals, including two professional fundraisers.  We had plans to seek a 6-figure budget to start, then go global with our outreach.  I worked hard for ten months to get that organization up and running.  We filed articles of incorporation with the state, developed our bylaws with help of a non-profit attorney, and found 501.c.3 fiscal sponsorship until we could get our own, a long process.

But in November, 2012, just before board elections, the organization disintegrated in a most unpleasant way.  We learned that secret political agendas existed among seven members who did not support our mission; they only claimed to do so, and planned to use the organization for their own agendas.  Friendships were lost.

That was body slam number 2.  Once again, I was broke and nearly homeless.  I moved back to Carmine’s farm.  Six of the original 14 are still working with me in Ermah Ge; the 7th was my friend from Waterville who died.  

Months later, after we sorted out the details of what led to the failure, a philanthropist who had seen one of my lectures offered me $30,000 to travel in mid-Maine for six months teaching about climate change and how to address it.  But the money was to be administered by a relatively conservative environmental organization.  I had only two weeks to develop a proposal and a presentation for the board; I needed two months.  In the end, they rejected my proposal, refusing to administer the funds.  They felt that my message was too dark, my proposed solutions too radical, and they didn’t want to associate with it.  Body slam number 3.  Broke again.

Belfast Bay, a subset of Penobscot Bay

Then, I migrated to Belfast (Maine, on the coast) where I had new friends I’d met during my work, and during meetings with various transition town groups.  It was there that I formally named our organization Ermah Ge.  I rented an inexpensive apartment right on the bay.  I lived there for 7 months, offering about 2 dozen free lectures.  They were poorly attended.  Belfast is a lovely community, but there was little interest there in my teachings.  They’re more focused on art and gardening. I gained only 4 students, none from Belfast.  It was time to move on again.

Within a week, I was contacted by a top executive of the prestigious Camden Conference.  One of their members had seen one of my Belfast lectures on climate change.  He invited me to offer a lecture in Rockland as part of a lecture series leading up to the conference, the theme of which that year was climate change.  In February, 2014, two weeks before the conference, I offered a lecture at Rockland public library attended by 60+.  It was standing room only.  The lecture was very well received.  Afterward, I was thanked, tipped, and asked when classes could begin.  My response was, as soon as I could move to Rockland.

That process took two months since I was — again — nearly broke, and knew no one in Rockland.  I put out an SOS to my mailing list from the Rockland library lecture.  Eight people stepped up to help me find a place to live, and start a course.  That course was Complexity 101, my basic principles flagship class, in which climate change was little discussed.

In June, I found living quarters in Rockland: a guest room in the basement of the home of two of of my students, offered rent free.  In July, I rented an office and teaching space in the old Rockland high school building that had been purchased and refurbished by an entrepreneur who planned to create a center for culture, art and education.  I taught several classes there, and offered public lectures.

My office in Rockland

In September, my associates and I were approached by an education foundation — also based in the area — who had learned of our work and seen some of my lectures.  They wanted us to integrate our program into theirs, and offered us a budget of over $300,000 for 2015.  We joyously jumped at the chance.

But once again, fate reared its ugly head.  The founder of that foundation was funding their program as an oil broker.  When the price of oil fell in autumn, 2014, so did their budget, and our promised budget vaporized.  Body slam number 4.  Once again, I was broke and homeless.  (Homeless because one member of the couple in whose home I had a basement room became seriously ill and they understandably wanted the house to themselves.)

High tide at the “beach” at Owls Head; at low tide, there is a beach.

Friends offered me an apartment in their home on Owls Head peninsula, 400 steps from the open Atlantic.  I walked on the beach every day for five months, even during blizzards.  That place kept me sane, and helped me heal.

Then came several months work with an innovative marketing/advertising company that offered to get us rolling with an ad campaign pro-bono until we started making bank, then, they’d take a small share.  There was to be a new web site involved.  They had an extensive globally-connected network of associates in everything from advertising to project management and web site development to financing.   Five months into plans  — and again a huge amount of work — I discovered that one of the principles was a vocal advocate of a political movement that is considered to be a domestic terrorist threat in the US.  I severed connections.  Body slam number 5.  Months of work out the window.

A month later, I lost my apartment when my friends had to ask me to leave due to a family emergency; they needed the apartment for a family member who was in need.  I understood and supported their decision — family must come first.  But it was still body slam number 6.

That was late spring, 2015, as summer approached.  Summer is my hardest time to recruit students for courses, especially in Maine.  Once summer arrives, few want courses, understandably.

So in May, 2015, I packed up my meager belongings, put most in storage (knowing I would return to Maine), and retreated to Oregon for five months to teach classes to old friends and students, and retrieve some belongings that had been stored there since 2010.  Yet too few of my Oregon learning community were free to take classes on such short notice.  So my income was very meager.  I left Oregon in November, mostly broke, again.

A big vine covered pine in north central Florida

I went to Florida to visit college friends from 40 years ago, for some R&R, and to take a break from Maine winter.  It was good to see my friends, but I hated Florida’s weather: high 90’s F and humid in December with mosquitos.  And that winter in Maine was one of the mildest on record.  Just my luck.

I eagerly returned to Maine in March, 2016, where I landed in the tiny town Dexter to work on a climate / weather seminar with an associate, meteorologist Edward Hummel.  (We expect to unveil that full seminar in early 2017, and a shortened one-day version in November, 2016.)  I thought I would be able to supplement my meager social security payments by teaching courses.  But as in Belfast, there was no interest.  Dexter is a farming community with a very bad economy and little interest in science.

So, in July, after two exploratory visits that excited me, I moved to Bangor.  I wound up in a rooming house in Brewer — across the river — for three weeks, one of the worst places I’ve ever lived, worthy of an essay of its own.  I was concerned for my safety there.  Then, serendipitously, I met my current landlords [now past tense] during a coffee house conversation, and moved into a room in a nice house with them.

However, as I said above, Bangor is a tough town to get things started in without an advertising budget.  So with the intention of offering some programs here after I have a better budget, I’m heading to the much smaller Dover-Foxcroft.

For a small town, it’s an amazingly dynamic place; one can sense the cultural evolution, and there’s a higher level of intellect there than in most smaller towns.   I’ve already got collaborations going with Center Theatre (I’ll offer a lecture series there starting this fall), Piscataquis County Adult Education Cooperative (where I’ll offer three courses after the new year), and the Piscataquis County Chamber of Commerce — a very innovative chamber, I’ll add — who is encouraging me to pursue a state micro-enterprise grant to get Ermah Ge to the next level.   Video production also continues; my video courses will contribute significantly to earning a living starting in 2017.

My move to Dover-Foxcroft will be my 31st move in six years.  I’m tired and a little dis-spirited.  But I’m still confident that with luck and the right connections, I can make it, and climb out of a poverty pit.

If only I can avoid any more body slams.
_______

{Quick update on Monday, February 6, 2017, three months after I wrote this essay.  I landed in Dover-Foxcroft — or DoFox as I call it — on December 6.  I love the town; THE nicest I’ve lived in Maine.  I’m living in a very affordable (rent assisted by HUD), wonderful apartment — truly one of the nicest I’ve ever lived in — surrounded by hundreds of acres of beautiful Maine woods where I walk almost daily … at least 4 times per week.  I’ve had two months of R&R, unpacking boxes, getting settled in, arranging the apartment to be liveable.  I’ve recycled most moving boxes — as a ritual of sorts.  I’m happier than I’ve been in years, at times almost giddy with glee.  Now, I can get my work done with Ermah Ge … more coming about that in the next blog post …}

A tiny chunk of Dover-Foxcroft from the bridge over Piscataquis River; image by Robert N Ring

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