Sunday, August 22, 2010


If you ever have the good fortune to sit down with Joe Hollis, he might explain that the molecules of hemoglobin and chlorophyll share an uncanny similarity. Look around his place and you’ll see that Joe has found a thousand ways to honor the connection between plants and people suggested by that bit of biochemical lore.

Forty years ago, Joe Hollis moved off the grid and onto two acres of land bordering the Pisgah National Forest, where he started building a collection of useful plants. He didn’t stop with common plants or plants native to this area, but sought plants from similar habitats on other continents.

The closest analog to the botanical diversity of the Southern Appalachians is found in the mountains of China. The plants growing in a Smokies cove are mirrored by plants of the same genus, if not the same species, in a Chinese mountain cove:

Over 50 such genera of plants include magnolias, hickory, sassafras, ginseng, mayapple, skunk cabbage, several orchids, jack-in-the-pulpit, coffee-tree, stewartia, witch hazel, dogwoods, persimmons, hollies, sumacs, maples, and yellowood. Several animal taxa also show unique affinities with East Asian relatives, including copperheads (Agkistrodon spp.), hellbender salamanders (Cryptobranchidae family), some land snails, and paddlefish (Polyodon spathula).
[Source -]

In the course of gathering useful plants from around the world, Hollis put together what may be the richest collection of Chinese medicinal plants growing in the United States. On my quick tour of his gardens, I saw flowers and plants I’ve never seen and might never see again. He doesn’t merely grow the plants but has assembled a significant research library of books on the subject and has processed the plants into tinctures and dried form. For a small fee, anyone can pick and choose from the neatly arranged shelves of natural medicines grown onsite to fill a customized prescription of botanical remedies.

Interns initiate and carry out many projects at the gardens, including the construction of yurts and graceful earth-sheltered cob dwellings fashioned from little more than sticks and mud. Some might say Joe Hollis lives in the past. I would say he is a pioneer of our future.

But enough of that. Here’s more from Joe, in his own words:

Although I am always up for 'reasoning together', because only upon the bedrock of a solid understanding of where we're at will we be able to build a new world (the Greeks called this ataraxy), my real purpose here is to reach out to like-minds and reason together how to get out of this mess.

Because we are all part of the cancer.

We were born into it, it is our world, even more real to us than the real world Gaia. For all of us, 'making a living' means 'making money' - and money is the life blood of the cancer. We turn to nature for beauty, inspiration, solace; but our life support system is civilization, the State/Economy, which grows by eating away and poisoning Gaia. To recognize this is one thing (actually, a very big thing), but it's not the answer; it's just accurately defining the problem.

All we can do is walk away from it, which means, at the simplest and most obvious level, making less money every year. Without being any less (actually, in my experience more) happy and healthy. This is accomplished by fulfilling the needs formerly satisfied with money directly from the earth, like every other living creature. This activity, properly conceived, I call Paradise Gardening. In the world which I imagine, each family or, better, band, or even small village, would be the nucleus of a Paradise Garden cell.

I believe we are right now at a point where we change - or bust. We began as hunter-gatherers, from which happy and healthy state we were shanghied by greedy men ("Civilization begins in conquest and continues in repression" - until by now most have no idea how repressed they are). Since then we have come a long way and done a lot of damage - to Gaia, to each other, to ourselves. New York City perhaps approaches in complexity the disappearing Amazon rain forest. But at least some of us have learned a lot from our mistakes.

So now, or never, the next step in human evolution, the New Age. Hunter-gatherer (who we really are) plus what we have learned from Civilization generates Paradise. The gradual development of a Paradise cell around you equals your gradual withdrawal from the cancer. I'm not talking about a way to live on earth, I'm talking about the way to live on earth, the way that is in our bones and genes: occupying our rightful and ordained niche. Of course these Paradise cells will be all different, varying with bioregions and topography and personal proclivities. What they will share is richness of diversity and fertility.

This, at the simplest and most obvious level, is the 'purpose' of Gaia: ever increasing diversity and inter-connectedness, an ever denser web of life woven around the planet. (Of course there are many other levels on which to consider the 'purpose' of Gaia, and of humans within her, and in the future which I imagine many of us would devote much of our abundant 'leisure time' to such considerations, and to practices opening ourselves to conscious communication with Gaia, but right this minute the house is on fire.) We must walk - don't run - away. Calmly, considerately, and immediately, we must begin to walk away.

We must begin to get and spend less (it wastes our powers anyway) and enjoy life more.


Christopher C. NC said...

This speaks to me at a very deep level. By fate or design walking away has begun. Now if I could just get over my strong predilection for purely ornamental plants.

GULAHIYI said...

More to come from Joe's Place. I put myself into a very uncomfortable situation a couple of weekends ago, and wondered why in the heck I was subjecting myself to what I knew would be tough, but when I had the chance to visit Joe's garden, I realized the purpose of my weekend sojourn.

It seems that many gardeners gravitate toward one end of the spectrum or the other. I had lunch with Peter Loewer once and recall his mentioning that "if you can eat it, I don't grow it."

On the other hand, I've made some moves from growing only vegetables toward growing ornamentals, too, although from the looks of things this year, I grow nothing but weeds!

Christopher C. NC said...

I look forward to seeing more from Joe's place.

I do have the vegetable garden that keeps expanding and enjoy growing my own food. It just tends to be a separate place from the garden. I should work more on incorporating edibles into the garden. Blueberries come to mind.

The medicinals and wild edibles like the Rudbeckia laciniata are what I tend to ignore even knowing plenty grow here naturally. Pokeweed I am sorry is just a damn weed. Then maybe I don't credit myself enough for collecting and sowing seeds of ramp and sang.

GULAHIYI said...

I think of blueberies as the ultimate "edible ornamentals." When picking the wild ones along the BRP, I'm always impressed with the many varieties to be found there, especially those little plants only a foot tall and covered with berries.

"Poke sallet" is something for which I never acquired a taste, although it sure did inspire a good song.

Frances said...

What a concept, and I couldn't agree more with it. But, or course there is a but, moving from civilization to the state of paradise explained above, can only happen for some of us with baby steps. Get rid of all the *stuff*, use less and recycle what isn't used. The garden is the easy part.