Background image of Giant homes rise up behind a pond in a forested valley


Confluence: Where cities and mountains meet

Simple technologies that remain close to nature are surprisingly effective in creating resilience and natural wellbeing

Over the past few weeks, my son Sam and I have been navigating different tributaries in the Magic Canoe’s voyage of discovery. Sam, with companion and Ecotrust economist Noah Enelow visited Detroit to chronicle stories of regeneration after industrial collapse. Meanwhile, I have been fly-fishing the clear, cold headwaters of the Snake River with Patagonia’s legendary founder Yvon Chouinard. While Sam and Noah were deep in conversation with urban farmers as houses burn from arson in the next neighborhood over, Yvon and I were immersed in the wild Teton Mountains at deep blue Jackson Lake, with moose wandering the willowed floodplain of the Snake River.

How can these dramatically different backdrops provide us with insights for crafting a natural model of development? A unifying theme underlies our experiences: simple technologies that remain close to nature are surprisingly effective in creating resilience and natural wellbeing.

Out among the moose, elk and grizzlies of the Tetons, Yvon taught me a simple but profound fly-fishing technique called tankara. Tankara dates back to the fifteenth century, and has been practiced on small streams from Asia to Europe ever since. It involves a shorter line and a simpler pole than modern fly techniques, allowing a more precise connection to the fly; a slight twitching of the fingers makes the wet fly mimic the movement of an aquatic insect, triggering an immediate response from hungry cutthroat trout. It’s also cheaper than modern fly-fishing. The pole costs about $120; there is no need for a $500 reel with miles of backing, no big fly box or $850 graphite rod.

“In Japanese,” Yvon explained, tankara means “from the heavens.” Such was my experience yesterday with Yvon on a clear mountain stream, immersed in nature in an ancient, time-tested way. “Tankara is a metaphor,” Yvon says in a recent article in Flyfisherman magazine, “for society as a whole, which keeps trying to make a failed economic system, based on endlessly consuming and discarding, work. Maybe we should turn around and learn from the past.” It is also similar to the work Ecotrust is doing with Ecotrust Forests, a natural model of forestry that increases returns while protecting ecosystems. Perhaps not incidentally, Yvon invested his entire 401k in Ecotrust Forests, saying “the safest thing to do is invest more in what we need, less in what we want.”

Simple tools and approaches that are close to nature– technologies that support natural economies– are at the core of our work at Ecotrust. A few weeks ago, we released  Madrona, an open-source software platform we’ve developed that has the potential to transform the process of natural resource planning by making the tools of the trade more flexible and easier to use.

Across the country in Detroit, Sam and Noah witness a prime example of investing in basic needs while learning from the past. In the face of declining industry, a group of hardy Detroiters has taken to one of the oldest economic activities of all: farming. While downtown high-tech start-ups make headlines, urban agriculturists such as Patrick Crouch of Earthworks Urban Farm are taking the opposite approach. “We’re into low tech because we want things to be accessible,” Crouch explains. Each year, the farm turns a handful of Detroit’s most disadvantaged citizens into enterprising farmers, with skills that range from planting and composting to food marketing and business management. Trainees have gone on to manage profitable farms such as Rising Pheasant and successful shops such as Detroit Farm and Gardens. Like tankara, Earthworks is low tech, close to nature. And it works.