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Archive for the ‘Our Earth’ Category

Plants as the basis for a paradigm shift

When I first began practicing permaculture, I was inspired by my teacher, Keith Johnson, and his love of and connection to plants. He made it seem very easy to create beautiful, artistic gardens which provided massive amounts of food and beauty. While I had grown up gardening and foraging—even helping to plant and tend 200 trees and shrubs on our two acres my senior year of high-school: I still didn’t think I was very good with plants. In fact, I killed most house plants, and every year my community garden bed was a tangle of weeds by August. I didn’t know any Latin names, and if asked about pest solutions, I would have drawn a panicked blank.

Despite my lack of confidence with plants, just working the systems of permaculture design changed almost all of the above (house plants are still a challenge with two active cats in play). Moving the garden close to home, thinking about guilds and niche relationships and building soil really helped me to see success in the garden. Using the plants I was growing for basic herbalism and seed saving or propagation helped me over the past ten years to be more interested in (and therefore more successful) in learning Latin names. I’m better today than I was a dozen years ago, and there’s still so much to learn. 

When homeschooling my daughter, we went through fifth grade botany together.  Learning the story of the development of plants on the Earth helped me to appreciate the big picture. Plants provide such service and diversity in support of life on the planet. Their capacity to mediate soil and atmosphere; regulate water cycles; and partner with fungi and bacteria drive life on the planet. Our civilization has desperately challenged their capacity to do that work effectively. 

black raspberriesIn the same curriculum, I discovered a beautiful book, New Eyes for Plants.The book helped me to see the tiny details I’d missed to that point. Tiny details in flowering and the flow of nutrient through the plant make all the difference in its shape, color, and nutrient-holding capacities. Learning the parts of plants and how to recognize the identifying characteristics became a game or puzzle. Plants are AMAZING! That year only reinforced for me the power of appreciation and the need to work with plants by using them well. It reinforced for me that the way forward for humanity is to embrace the paradigm shift from a mechanical/industrial mindset to a post-industrial/post-modern world that embraces the biological foundations of life. *

Learning plants becomes a beautiful duty to ourselves. Do you eat habanero peppers? Try growing them in really good soil that you made from kitchen compost. Challenged to compost in an urban environment? Learn to build a bomb-proof composting system. (Maybe bokashi?) This kind of system development will help you to re-skill and take control of the means of production in your life. Along the way, you’ll find plant allies that can really give you a boost. 

I grew up gardening the typical Indiana summer diet: corn, green beans, tomatoes (I didn’t hear of a roma until I was an adult), potatoes, peas, cucumbers, and small fruits (raspberries, blueberries, and grapes on trellis). If we were feeling adventurous we would try a small amount of something else. I can remember black eyed peas, cotton, cauliflower and broccoli, cabbages—only green—carrots and radishes if we got the garden out early enough in the spring.

In my garden now, there is horseradish, lamb’s quarters, kale, ground cherries, garlic (just partially harvested), onions, carrots, asparagus, and on and on and on. This has been a busy year for travel and so much of the spring and summer garden are either perennials or self-seeding volunteers this year. Fall crops are germinating, but even with very little input, there have been harvests to gather. That’s one way to work with a permaculture system. 

IMG_0507By learning which plants grow or self-seed and by maintaining a seed bank, I can benefit from plants doing what they do best. I had to learn which ones will work in my area. And how to put plants into relationship with each other so that they can provide fertility and pest support to each other. I learned to give some consideration to how the light reaches the taller ones (at the back) and how the spreading vines cover the ground to shade and cool the roots of all of the other plants. 

From year to year the mix changes. I have a lot of purple coneflower this year. After the flowering and seeding time, I’ll pull some of it to tincture for immune support. Next year, the spaces left open will be filled with something else. 

Food is a high priority in my garden, but fiber and craft materials and fuel-wood for occasional fires are all important yields from a system. I’ve prioritized nettles because I have the space for them and they provide food, medicine, and fiber for our home—as well as enriching compost piles for greater fertility. Not everyone is (or perhaps should be) so tolerant of such a prickly companion. Hazelnuts are another prize for both the nuts (and bluejays and squirrels are ferocious competitors for them), but also for craft wood to build wattle fences and other craft wood. 

Whether you are in a suburban garden like me, or an urban or rural landscape, we have a great deal of regenerative work to do with plants. We are moving toward a biological world—as seen in the growth of sustainable agriculture and small farms and the growth of gardening. If you live in the city, your window-sill, your deck, your roof, your sidewalk and hell strip, your corner pocket park are all places to begin working with plants to cool and beautify your landscape. Re-imagining the landscape with small farms everywhere and supporting people with real food are the next step in weaving a more resilient, more just world in support of all life. Will you join me?

I can imagine a more beautiful world just through the doorway. Image CC0 via pixabay.

* If we take the interpretation that much of the modern project of science and civilization has been the distancing from the biological world because of the horrors of the Black Plague in Europe which moved us toward scientific reductionism and fractured the Christian religion into a hundred splinters, then there are further thoughts to explore here. Embracing a biological view which reintegrates humanity with that natural (read “living”) world means also healing the ancestral trauma and civilizational scarring of that time in the 13th century. The need to “torture nature for her secrets” (and also people ?) can come to an end. We can move forward—not by controlling nature (ala genetic manipulation)—but by caring for it and living within the natural limits fostered by a healthy biological world. If we don’t draw the conclusions in the biggest frame of the story, we will fail to make the right choices.

Mother’s Day, 2017

Mother’s Day, 2017

Right now, my husband is making breakfast while I linger in bed. My son is cuddling next to me watching me type out these thoughts. My teenaged daughter is entrenched in her bed. Everyone is enjoying the break from the harried pace of weekday mornings on this gorgeous May Sunday. Facebook greetings and well-wishes are going out. It is a wonderful day to celebrate mothers.

Enjoying the day

Enjoying the day!

Being a mother has as many faces as there are mothers, but here are a few thoughts about mothering:

  • Being a mother sometimes means allowing your body to be transformed—I think I used the term hijacked during my first pregnancy—by the development of another person. Other times, mothering means making a commitment to a person to help them develop and grow.
  • Dinner tables become the stage for sharing stories, playing games, family debates, arguments, and forgiveness. Our family table is, at some microscopic level, probably still covered with clay, paint, paper mache, candle wax, poked with felting needles, and yarn. And of course the energetic layers of so many birthdays, potlucks, tea parties, holiday dinners….
  • The garden becomes a surprise of beans planted in clumps instead of rows and the flowers pulled out with the weeds.
  • Your bed becomes the scene of cuddles and tickles and snuggles, and comforting tears, sick kids, and hugs of appreciation.
  • Being a mother means driving…the endless driving (or bus/train trips) and the support of all the activities you are transporting your child to.
  • Being a mother means creating the space for a person to go through all the steps to becoming an adult—a healthy, contributing member of a healthier society—knowing and supporting the acquisition of the skills needed to thrive.
  • It means surrendering your life to be in service to another person’s best interest—forever.
  • It means failing in that surrender, because you are only human. And you are only human in a society that is not set up to help anyone succeed in being healthy or whole. This means taking responsibility for the wounds you inevitably, unintentionally inflict.
  • It means holding your heart open while pieces of it leave on their own journey through life.
  • It means continuing to grow and develop on your human journey through life—developing your skills and insight, so that you become a better mother, a better elder. That means facilitating community and culture towards wholeness.
  • It means holding irresponsible people accountable for the harm they do to your children, their development, and the world we all share. The Earth is our first mother.

We are all responsible for the well-being of our Earth. We are all able to respond to the needs of the Earth. While we are checking in today with our human mothers, why don’t we take a moment to appreciate and care for our first mother. The birds outside are singing…the catbirds are watching the berries grow toward ripeness…fish are nesting in the lakes…frogs are calling by the pond.

Human Beings are Not Born

I was greeted to the day with this post on Phillip Carr-Gomm’s blog (a blog I enjoy tremendously).

The beauty of this short film is only surpassed by the poignancy of the message Stephen Jenkins is sharing. I thought of the many endeavors of my friends and the questions with which they dance as they consider how to live a sane and beautiful life in this culture and these times. Ann Kreilkamp with her wonderful blog, Exopermaculture–wherein she addresses big questions about creating permanent culture, the changes of our times, and how to approach death and dying in our culture. I thought of Kevin and Monique, Mark Morey and the 8 Shields Institute, and Maya’s efforts to go to Coyote Camp. There are so many rich and wonderful responses here–and I know there are many more.


Teaching permaculture to children?

I love to offer permaculture workshops to children. People are usually surprised and supportive–but mostly surprised when I say that I love to work with children. Their response is usually based on their own perceptions or understanding of permaculture.

What is permaculture?

It’s an ethical design science–and it’s more than that. It is a movement. In this country, it’s a gloriously unruly movement of people implementing their versions of permaculture. Yes, permaculture–“permanent agriculture” or “permanent culture” is based in the three ethics: Care of the Land, Care of People, and Equitable Distribution of Surplus. Yes, it’s systems theory driven and based in mimicking the patterns and solutions of natural systems. Yes, it’s about growing food, foraging, and integration with the natural landscape. Yes, permaculture is about buildings, technology, water, energy, seeds, nutrition, economics, villages, and regenerative cultures–story-telling, song, art, really, really good design. And it all derives from a connection to the land.

I love Jon Young’s gentle challenge in the May 2013 edition of the Permaculture Activist (which I guest edited) when he asks, “Is it permaculture if no one connects to the land anymore?” (p. 11) I have the rare opportunity to work in my programs with children who are learning to connect deeply to the land through Nature Connection programs (through The Wild Nature Project) or to introduce children to some of the basic routines that are held in common with nature connection and permaculture.

Harvest & Emily at PDC 2007

Why children?

I love introducing children to permaculture–they GET IT! So I’ll share the top three reasons I offer to adults about why I love sharing with kids so much:

1. Design: The “shoulds” of our modern culture are not imposed. Children are natural designers–and because they are not limited in their imaginations, they are very, very creative with design. Children will spend a long time organizing, imagining, problem-solving and creating together–given the opportunity to do so. Team designs bring out the best in sharing and the joy of co-creating.

2. Patterns: Children can (and, I believe, should) spend hours observing the patterns and rhythms of nature–even a small backyard garden or the changes and interactions between a single potted plant and the light. They don’t do this because they HAVE TO, but because they are drawn to. Young children are learning to orient themselves to time and space. Having a solid natural context with grounded understandings of the movement of birds and animals, the weather, the timing of plantings, the flowering and fruiting of plants, why people build houses and communities the way they do–these are all valuable skills.

I love celebrating their discoveries with them. Patterns hold secrets to a mysterious language–how air and liquids move through plants and over land, pathways of animals, bird song, the growth of trees, where the cats sleep, how a seed sprouts and grows, and on and on and on…

bee balm & Asiatic lily

3. Ethics: This response always gets a few raised eyebrows, but it is completely true. Ethics do not have to be some eye-rolling, tortuous, intellectual exercise.

Children, maybe especially the young ones, love the simplicity of the ethics: Earth Care, People Care, and Fair Share. It’s natural for them. Often when we come to a point of potential conflict, a child will pipe up with “Okay, Fair Share.” Or, in answer to a question about why we might do something (like donate extra produce to a food bank), we’ll get “People Care, Fair Share.” When my daughter asked me what a group meant by “social justice” (comparing it with her own understanding) we clarified it with anything that has to do with the permaculture ethics. “Clear as a bell, mom.”

I would love to see every child have an opportunity to practice Deep Nature Connection and explore permaculture for themselves. To that effect (and in the interest of a bit of self-promotion), I am offering:

workshops this fall for children;

drafting a set of curricula for children ages 3-15; and

offering workshops on parenting for permanent culture next spring. This fall, my daughter and I are offering a workshop at the Bluegrass Bioneers about our journey together.

Lest you think children get to have all the fun, we are currently enrolling adults in our fall weekend course, which will begin mid-September.


Sisters of the Earth

It was soooo much fun to be surrounded by many, many intelligent, beautiful women who are dedicated to re-visioning how we inhabit our beloved Earth. Tugged along by my friend, Ann, I made my way back to the St.-Mary-of-the-Woods campus in July for a weekend of song, celebration, presentations, and deep conversations about the state of our world, women’s work within it, and how to create a new story. We were at the gathering of the Sisters of the Earth,  which happens every two years.

While there, I heard Nettie Wiebe, of La Via Campesina, fresh back from the Rio Summit. Nettie Wiebe, a farmer and philosopher from Canada, spoke eloquently about the place of action and the power of women gathering together to do the work that must be done. Women are the majority of “farmers” around the world. Women’s rights and food sovereignty are directly linked.

It was heartening to hear a nun stand up and point out that we are all peasants. We are all “of the land.” Isn’t it true. Much of the future of our world has to do with access to land to grow modest amounts of food for ourselves and for trade. My friend, mentor, and colleague, Peter Bane, has often said when we are teaching permaculture that, “We are all peasants. Some of us just don’t know it yet.”

Helena Norberg-Hodge spoke eloquently from her home, via Skype, about the need for women that are young and older to take action, as the middle-aged women are trying to feed and care for families, aging parents, and do the work of community in that way.

Carolyn Baker wow-ed us with her drumming and storytelling. She spoke about the need to develop inner resilience through creativity, culture, and intelligent preparation.

As a 30-something woman, I was delighted to be appreciated by dozens of older women–and to recognize those both my contemporaries and younger than myself. I am looking forward to the next conference in two years.


The Gift of the Hydra

I once called it a “trash tree.” So ignorant, I was. We cut the “ugly thing” down in 2006–preferring to use the space for an apple tree in our new permaculture forest garden. But, year after year, it’s sprouted new growth–so that for every branch we cut back two seemed to grow.

I nicknamed it “The Hydra,” and wrangled with what to do. I could keep cutting it so ferociously that its roots would give up all of their nourishment and it would die. I could paint it with some sort of chemical to stop that. That’s when the poison ivy sprouted at its base. The gods seemed to be laughing. That slowed me down a bit.

I’m really glad the poison ivy DID slow me down and help me appreciate what a gift it is. Not only is the shrubby growth a visual barrier between my living space and my neighbor’s big living room windows. I realized the rabbits I keep love the tender growth and leaves. Last year I let it grow as a supplemental feed for them. I began to think of it as an unusual coppice tree. Then a friend showed me how to create cordage from the bark of saplings.

Today, it all came together in a new and joyful way. I am so thankful to this mulberry–which in my ignorance and its persistence–has come to live a different life. We have a new relationship. Today, needing a stake for the garden, I took a branch the right size and left the rest to grow for now. I stripped the extra small branches and leaves. I stripped the outer bark. I staked one of the tomato plants.

My staked tomato

Then I divided up the rest of the materials: bark set aside to make cordage. Larger branches stripped to make baskets, and the smaller twigs and leaves for rabbit feed. The rabbits love the fresh leaves–preferring it to their normal pelleted food in the heat. Mulberry and lambsquarters are among their favorites.

Not a scrap of it is left as “waste.” Every bit of it is integrated into our garden and home for the good of the whole. This is joyful living. Taking only what we need, and using every bit.

Lily munching on the mulberry treat

Materials separated for their purposes

The Standard, Part II

Life has resumed some normalcy after the Standard–but still, I don’t approach things in quite the same way I did before.

I’d been feeling the need to attend a Standard class for over a year, but a sudden sense of urgency and practical drive pushed me to take the Standard in California. In part, my husband and I have been enjoying our weekend WILD classes so much, that we agreed we both needed to take the Standard at least in 2012. Sometimes you have to just go for it.

I knew that the approach to nature, community, and self-responsibility that was taught at the school would blend with permaculture. I’ve been telling my permaculture students that I feel that a person’s education in the world today is truly through blending permaculture and the ways of wilderness schools such as Tracker School. I’ve admired the work of Penny Livingston-Stark and Jon Young together. I would love to participate in and support other such programs (indeed, that’s the very path I would love to see happen here in Bloomington).

At the Standard, even from the first moments of registration, I did field a few permaculture questions. More often, volunteers and students were encouraging me to bring the perspective of the Standard into my permaculture work. And, I have to say, I’m all for it. Absolutely, I will teach sections of the course with greater confidence, new skills and activities, and a deeper sense of what it means to be alive as a person on the planet.

That’s what happened at this course. I became more alive. I felt close to the Earth, my ancestors, and future generations. Through skillful instruction and gentle support, I didn’t just collect 100+ pages of notes, but I broke my heart open and let the gentle guidance of taking responsibility for my own survival on the planet begin to work on me in new ways.

Knowing something of providing your own shelter, fire, water, and food brings you more into right relationship with everything around you. This is more basic than the swales and mulch and architecture and currencies of my permaculture life. It is more primal. It is real.

The Standard, Part I

“The words of Marcus Aurelius thundered in my brain. ‘It is not dying that a man should fear, but a man should fear never having lived at all.’ ” –Tom Brown, Jr.

Packing out after the course

Packing out--full minds, full hearts

I’ve been contemplating how to relate my experience at the Tracker School’s Standard Class at Camp Lindblad in California. I imagine that different people will have different interests and so I’ve decided to write a few posts about the experience. This post will talk about the content and mechanics of what we learned.

The course is intense. We started the day with breakfast and chores at 7 am and kept a full day until 10:30 or ll every night. Most of that was in lecture–other courses aren’t so lecture-heavy. I took over a 100 pages of notes and drawings (on full-sized paper) plus supplementary pictures. We covered four categories: Survival, Tracking, Awareness, and Spirit.

In Survival we focused on the basics of Shelter, Water, Fire, and Food–so the first day we worked on Bowdrill–which has become a teacher to me. We built a debris shelter as a group. We learned two different ways to purify water–and also different ways to find it. We came to understand fire and what our relationship to it in new ways. We learned the basics of finding plant and animal food. I learned to how to eat thistles raw. There were a thousand “aha!” moments.

For example, I’ve watched my father clean and filet dozens and dozens of fish as a kid–but I’d never done it. ’til the standard, when we worked in pairs to clean a fresh-caught rock fish and cook it over coals. Delicious!

With Tracking, we worked on clear print identification, gait patterns, and the more subtle signs of tracking. I started to feel a connection to tracking before I left. I love it, really. Seeing the sign of how other beings are using places–knowing the story of a place is fascinating to me. Then there’s the tracking itself–following the story of how an animal moves through the land responding to its environment, its needs, and the other animals around it. I studied my own tracks in the tracking box–walking, running, barefoot. Wondering what secrets were there–that even I didn’t know about.

Awareness was a lot of fun, too. Volunteers in the course often camouflaged themselves and surprised us during a demonstration or workshop.

Find the volunteer

Awareness also was there with how we moved in the landscape; how we responded to our environment; how we took care of one another and ourselves.

Tom Brown, Jr.’s stories stirred our Spirit and he shared with us some of the foundational teachings of Grandfather (Stalking Wolf). These are special moments in the course where students could see the birthright of humans and how taking a purely physical approach to survival and tracking skills is not sufficient. There is much more to living a full life.

We finished the course on my birthday. It felt like a true birth day, an opportunity to mark my own new opportunities.

Since coming back, I’ve been practicing some of the skills every day: bowdrill is every day. Yesterday, I made four coals with my daughter and we built a small fire with the last one. It was the first time she’d gotten a coal with anyone other than her teacher, Kevin Glenn.

I make cordage almost every day. We’ve practiced caretaking on the land–visiting neglected places and helping them to grow into more health.

On Sunday the entire family went tracking with Kevin for a couple of hours and found mink tracks among others–in a very unexpected place.

Tom Brown shared that the skills are a gateway to the Earth. This is so.

WILD Winter-time

This winter I’ve had the opportunity to find my own edges and build up my connections with the natural world. I followed through on the long-time wish to take a class or workshop with Kevin Glenn and Monique Philpot of the WILD Nature Project. My husband and I signed up for their three-weekend Winter W.I.L.D. program. Over each of the weekends, we planned to learn new skills and practice some familiar ones.

The first weekend, the group was very nervous about an overnight camp. We were all people experienced with the outdoors, but facing a nighttime low of 17 degrees was a bit scary. It turns out, with a little group work and good planning with our gear, we were all pretty comfortable.

The first weekend, we worked on awareness of nature. I loved it. I’ve been doing a sit spot (where a person sits very still and relaxed in one place over and over again) periodically in my own yard and out in some of my favorite haunts. It’s become something I encourage my permaculture students to do, too. It sharpens the powers of observation and fosters the connection we feel with the world around us. I find that I am more aware of the influences and forces coming into the landscape (think sector analysis all you permies). I’m more aware of the growth and change going on.

There were a lot of games and lots of questions and mysteries in the forest. I was humbled by how very little I knew about even the most common animals around. How many of you have ever explored an early-successional field on hands and knees to watch the movement of mice–or were those voles? Or seen the places where coyotes and raccoons have stopped over something interesting? One of the amazing things we came across was a feeding site up in a red cedar tree. Something had gotten a blue jay, though we never knew exactly what happened.

That's me in the middle of the picture--a white hoodie and a hand-knit Icelandic wool sweater. Burly, huh.

The second weekend, we focused on basic skills–creating a bowdrill kit and making fire, shelter, making bowls and spoons, working with rawhide, cooking over fires… I realized again how very little I know. I haven’t done much carving in my life. I know some plants and trees, but not as many as I should. I don’t know when to harvest them, or what many of their uses are. I made a decent bowdrill kit and came close to getting a coal for a fire. But I realized how these physical skills don’t come easy to me. That was an edge.

I’m a person that has been able to get most things I wanted to try first go. I’m not good at practicing. I found myself getting angry and frustrated with myself. And that is something that just won’t help. So, here I am at that edge. Mastery will always elude me if I don’t practice. And, in my opinion, these things are too important to not keep practicing, not find success in. Mastering these skills means greater freedom and self-reliance. Bill Mollison said, “Take responsibility now.” So, here I am learning how to keep myself warm and dry and how to work with fire and the forest in a new way. I’m developing a new relationship to cold. I’m taking responsibility for my well-being in a new way.  Along this journey of exploration, I get to make new connections to great people.

In the time since that weekend, I’ve been continuing to practice. I had a coal for the fire yesterday–but didn’t get it to the tinder bundle to create the fire in time. I’ll try again today.

Another edge was being cold. It was 9 degrees the second night we were out. Even though we were in a better shelter, I forgot to bring a wool blanket for  my sleeping bag. I was cold all night. Every couple of hours I would wake up and build up the fire. Even though it was cold when I lay back down, while I was building the fire up I felt warm. I heard things others didn’t, too. Coyotes, owls… I learned that I can be cold and tired and still be okay.

I’ll miss the final weekend with my husband and new friends, because I’ll be at the Standard Class offered by the Tracker School in California–practicing these very things for a week. I’m looking forward to the challenges–some given by instructors, some by my self.

Botany in the Key of Fifth

Plants are amazing–almost as amazing as fifth graders. Maya and I are delving into botany through our Waldorf curriculum–exploring our garden, our neighborhood, and our community forests in new eyes. We will revisit botany throughout the year.

Our Waldorf curriculum prompts us to understand the kinds of plants as a metaphor for my daughter’s own development. It is deeply moving. She understands her own growth and capabilities reflected in the plant world around her. And, as we work with the fungi and lichens, the algae and ferns, we appreciate the pattern-knowledge we have from permaculture. We talk about the fungal connections through the forest mirroring our social connections.

Sunflowers in the garden in August

Our work is to come to understand the plants–their unique properties, their relationships with their environment and each other, and the ways in which humans relate to them especially. Drawing the plants, harvesting them for use, making medicines and art with them, planting and observing them. Tending the garden. Feeding our bodies, minds, and souls.  This is what education is all about.

When I hear what is happening with public schools from the preschools to the university–it is the loss of our humanity. I am very concerned that not only is the press of our society leaving people uneducated and pressured to conform to a mold of unconsidered stereotypes, but that it deprives them of the ability to understand their own capacity for growth and understanding.

For a very long time, public education has been about giving the masses enough skills to be good workers–good parts in the machine. More and more, the changes I see seem designed to undermine the ability of the adults “produced” by the system to consider, challenge, and resist the very system that “creates” them. Fear, anxiety, and anger are manipulated to enslave our children. Peer groups become more important than parents. Teachers are pitted against parents and parents against teachers. Administrators, politicians, and teachers are all vying for solid ground. And the system I see doesn’t have solid ground to give.  This is not always the case, but that dynamic is one that crops up in almost every article I read, every story related to me.

Wake up!

There are different ways. I salute the teachers, administrators, parents, and elected officials that seek to make connections and work for the best interests of children and families. But don’t let those words be twisted. We’ve set the bar too low. Families need time and support. Teachers need support to help the beauty and genius of each child unfold–just as the flowers in our garden unfold. Children need to know their own capacities and feel confident about their own growth–just as my daughter is beginning to know this.


I pray that we all wake up. That we all make those connections–and that our confidence in our humanity is restored.