writer + artist

Rebecca Burgess

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“You have to look back to know how to move forward.”

-Rebecca Burgess

Back in 2010, Rebecca Burgess set out with an ambitious goal: to see if she could create a wardrobe that was grown, processed and made within 150 miles of her home in northern California. Along with a team of other women, she crowdfunded the project. But what grew out of this endeavor was in fact much more than a wardrobe; Burgess launched a movement.

The project evolved into what is now Fibershed, an organization devoted to developing regional and regenerative fiber systems. Based in California, Fibershed has affiliate groups around the world, all working on reviving and growing local fiber systems, communities and economies.

Burgess is also a climate activist, and an advocate of carbon farming, a holistic method of farming that sequesters carbon. Fibershed has an entire program devoted to climate beneficial wool which not only supporters producers who are sustainably managing their land and animals, but also works with brands and designers to turn that fiber into products and bring them to market. Last year Fibershed teamed up with The North Face to launch the Cali Beanie, made with climate beneficial wool sourced in California, and the organization also hosted a climate beneficial fashion gala.

The organization also has a program focused on the development of a regional indigo industry, and another one on hemp. Their work has help to kickstart a new generation of U.S. fiber and textile systems, helping people to start to think about what they wear like they think about what they eat. After all, without agriculture, we don’t have food or fiber, and investing in sustainable agriculture systems is the only way that we can move forward.

Her tireless work makes her a force for change, but I think what makes Burgess such a symbol of wisdom is that she is approaching that change in a slow and intentional way. When we connected over phone, she had just returned from a trip to Europe, investigating local textile and agricultural systems in places like Norway and Sweden. In our conversation we talked about everything from an appreciation of landscape, to slowing down, to how to manage our anxiety in an increasingly complex world.

Grab a mug of tea and settle in.

Anna Brones: What does wisdom mean to you?

Rebecca Burgess: Very general, broad brushstrokes that you’re pulling from a collective, more timeless source of information and synthesizing that in some way that works for the context of now. I think wisdom is tethered to time. It doesn’t mean you have to be old to have it, it just means you have to look back to know how to move forward.

Wisdom to me is about knowing how things have come to be and understanding the cycles. Everything comes back around, it just might sound, feel, taste, look a little different. But all these human things that we’ve been dealing with – our own anger, frustration and aggression, joy, bliss, happiness – all these human emotions have been guiding civilization, for better or worse, for as long as we’ve been here on planet earth. I think wisdom is about understanding the drivers for how civilizations have come and gone and understanding how to work collaboratively with our planet and each other. And I think that to do that, you need this thing called wisdom, which is tethered to time.

Who are you? Who is Rebecca Burgess?

Who am I? Well, I have a physical human body, that is having a human experience, but I do sense there’s a consciousness or something that runs through my system that is smarter than my mind. I might be a little esoteric here, but there is who I think I am, and then there’s my innate nature. I sense that my innate nature is the most wise and I think we all can tap into that. So there’s no real identity or a specific thing about innate nature that’s unique to Rebecca Burgess, but I think fundamentally that’s kind of a template, a body with a lot of wisdom in it, it’s like cellular knowing. And a mind that’s super active and constantly responding to sensory input.

I do feel grateful for my time and place. I am grateful to be a woman in 2018. To me it feels like a really opportunistic moment, to be born and raised in a community that I’m still in. I don’t know how long that will last, but I feel very grateful for the land-based continuity of my life. That is very defining because I’ve seen changes to landscape in my lifetime that have really informed my thinking.

And my gratitude for being a woman today; I think it’s a great time to be a woman.

I feel like my day to day is all about responsibility. What am I doing? What am I feeding into? What am I investing in? What am I divesting from? How are my daily actions part of supporting or not supporting something?

It’s not always that mental. I really try to be slow, but to be in a positive flow I have to give myself good materials to work with, you know, live in a community with healthy food and clean water. The more I look abroad, I think, “wow, these resources are really diminishing for other people.” And even in our community they’re diminishing. So I feel like to be Rebecca Burgess now is about taking responsibility for the gifts and doing as much as I can to give back more than I’m taking. It really slows you down.

I’m interested in that idea of responsibility because I think it’s a two-part question. On the one hand, I think that as we pay more attention to the world around us, it’s pretty hard to not feel a heightened sense of responsibility. But I think that people who feel a sense of responsibility can really struggle with the fact that there are all of these terrible things happening, and there is a pressure to always think about our impact. That can become really debilitating, particularly when we look at the world and see so many people not taking responsibility. So one, how do we tap into that sense of responsibility? And then two, how do we balance that responsibility so that it doesn’t feel overwhelming?

How do we tap into that responsibility for others that aren’t necessarily tapped in, how do we create an onramp ourselves?

That’s a great way to put it. How do we do that as a culture?

Many people have taken responsibility. Rachel Carson took responsibility for understanding something in a way others didn’t. I think about any of the civil rights leaders in this country who took responsibility for a community and a need to elevate the social justice conversation. Those are really premier examples.

But in a way, “celebritizing” those who do take responsibility, making them icons, has its pluses and minuses. They are leaders, but does that simultaneously disenfranchise us from feeling connected to the possibility of being our own leaders and taking responsibility because we think we can’t do it the way she did it or he did it?

I think in terms of onramp, simplifying things in general. You know, I’m reflecting back on being on a plane. Being on a plane felt like a really irresponsible action for me personally. All the plastic in an airport feels really challenging for me. You can’t even bring clean water in with you.

I think that’s the preeminent example of how the conditions and the rules disable you from taking responsibility. In an airport, being on an airplane, you have no choices. So I think then the question is: where do I have choice?

Here’s an example: I’m on a plane and I’m really thirsty. Do I not hydrate myself or do I take the plastic cup with water? My answer to that was to check in with my body; how am I doing? Do I need this water? Am I hydrated, am I not hydrated? If I’m not hydrated, I’m not going to function well in these greater responsibilities I have after I’m off this plane, so I’m going to take the water.

Checking in with yourself a little bit about what you really need. It doesn’t have to be a crisis of thought, it’s just a quick check in. And then when we get off the plane and we have more choices, taking those choices seriously.

Honor stopping and pausing. Pause and assess the outcomes of decisions a little bit. We move so fast in this culture. I feel like slowing down is not asking too much.

Is there a woman in your life who passed along wisdom to you?

My great grandmother was definitely the most inspiring woman from my childhood. She had a big role in raising me because my mom was somewhat homeless. From around age three to seven, my very formative years, we didn’t have a home. My great grandmother was a really grounding force at that time.

She had such a relationship with her place. When we didn’t have a place to live and my mom was trying to find work or had work that just didn’t pay the bills, my great grandma would pick me up from school, and she would take me on long walks. In that time she was always commenting on the plant and the animal life. We were always in dialogue, but then also a lot of prolonged silence, walking quietly through nature with her. It was between learning from her and also just learning how to be in silence with another human in the natural world. She allowed me the sovereignty to have my sense of solitude.

She was just gently encouraging and supportive and willing to sacrifice a lot quietly but not to the point of debilitating herself. She actually had a standout capacity to take care of herself, in that she was a gardener and loved and worked with plants and she always knew how to take care of herself by being in the garden and cooking full meals. As a little person being on the run, like I was with my mom, it was fundamentally amazing to have time with this woman who understood the ground beneath our feet better than anyone I had run into up to that point.

The last thing that I’ll say about her that I thought was so fundamental is that on these long walks that we would go on, I was little, with little legs, little feet. But she was comfortable walking way ahead of me and letting me just trail behind without worrying. She would do her pace and I would do my pace and we knew we’d catch up with each other. I have these visceral memories of these certain animals and plants. After she told me what their names were, I would have this time of solitude to engage with them on my own, and that was really special.

She didn’t do this explicitly, but I don’t associate a lack of money with a lack of insecurity. I know that it’s the cultural norm to say that if you don’t have money you’re insecure. In many places in the world that’s very true because the natural resource space is so depleted. However, I still come from a place where money doesn’t drive me. The sense of security and stability I need, I don’t associate that just with cash.

I was a poor kid, but I had the sense of walking through nature, and nature provided what we needed. The garden provided what we needed. There was no stress about it and I also then learned the landscape. I learned my watershed. Instead of a house and one little nuclear family, my very formative years were spent connecting with a larger landscape and the security that this brought was much more gratifying than the security of a single family home in the suburbs.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about disconnecting and solitude. I was specifically thinking about the concept of the word “disconnect” and when we say, “ I’m disconnecting” that means disconnecting from media, social media or the urban world. It means kind of taking a step out. And yet that action allows us to connect with a lot of other things, like nature and the world around us.

We could instead use “disconnect” to focus on our disconnectiong from the natural world, but we never take it in that direction. We’re always focused on what the kind of urban, money, commercial driven environment provides for us as opposed to the opposite and when we choose to check out of that, it seem so radical. Most of the time we are disconnected from the natural world, but that doesn’t seem radical. Even though we’re disconnected from something that we were so connected to for hundreds of thousands of years.

It’s so true. What are we divesting from and what are we investing in?

If you’re taking energy away from something, it means you have more energy to put somewhere else. It awakens us when we take away the electronics and the commercial activities and we just spend time. I’ve noticed that time in nature, in the last 15 years since we’ve gotten the Internet and phones and email, it feels like that time is almost completely destroyed.

And it’s really unfortunate because I feel it like an anxiety. If I’m not checking the email, who has a question for me that I’m not answering right now? Who is asking me for something? What calls have I missed? Does this mean I mean I’m doing my job and do I even deserve to be here if I’m not answering everyone’s questions all the time? Before the Internet, phone and email, I never had to manage that low level anxiety.

What are you doing in a world that has supposedly all these diminishing resources? For me at least, if you’re not working on altering how the machine of production and consumption is working, you’re not doing your job. That’s true, we need to alter that. But we also have these mindset changes we have to make. So how am I supposed to help change culture if I can’t do it for myself?

I think on the flip side of that too, because of the Internet, in the moments that we do spend time doing something else other than work or when we do spend time outside, often we feel like we have to make a statement about it. For example, “I went to a National Park and it was amazing and I felt so good. I should probably post something about how valuable it is that we have public lands.” It’s as if you feel like everything has to come with a message because we live in this time where there is crisis at every single turn, so then it feels that you’re not even allowed to enjoy things just for what they are. You feel obligated to enjoy them and do something to fight for them, which an odd feeling.

I feel the same way. Any experience I have I put it in this bucket of “good experience and we need to now protect these experiences for others, so now I’m going to write about it or put it on Instagram.” That feels like the compelling thing to do, the “right” thing to do.

When I was traveling in Norway, I noticed everyone has green roofs. Not everyone, but a large majority of people put the ecology on the rooftop. The country was so beautiful because they had cared for their architecture. You could go into a small community – and yes, there’s centralized food system and a lot of chain stores and industrialization in Norway – but these green roofs are kind of a moniker. We can do these beautiful things that are game changers for ecology in really small ways. So I came home and I was like, okay, I’m going to rebuild our woodshed because it’s falling apart and it needs to be rebuilt, but I’m going to put a diverse array of native perennial grass seed and wildflower seed on a green roof.

And also I’m thinking about like using storefronts more. When I was in New York, I was in Beacon New York. It’s a great little downtown district, all of the old buildings that were totally boarded up 10 years ago, and now they have community gardens in the town. New York Textile Lab is there where they help people do refabrication on their clothes.

I’m thinking that what I need to do with Fibershed, is we need a public face in our community. We basically need a storefront. Maybe I need to put the green roof downtown. We need real hard, beautiful three-dimensional experiences of a synthesis. Everything feels better in my heart when I think about working in my own community at a very grassroots level.

Well, because that’s what’s manageable. The change that we can truly effect on a day-to-day basis is with our neighbors. It’s easy to forget that because in the face of all of these global problems, working in our own community doesn’t feel “important enough,” because it feels like the problems are so much greater. But change is incremental and big change is an accumulation of small change.

That’s all it can be.

It’s about decentralizing the whole thing and empowering community members to feel empowered. They’re doing the right thing by working in their home community. We have to slow the whole thing down.

I think the nineties were a really big time for trying to scale the organic movement into the mainstream model of capitalism. You saw surges in the use of organic cotton in the mid nineties, the beginning of Whole Foods. We thought that the way to solve the big problems was just to make it big. But now Amazon owns Whole Foods. Where has that gotten us?

I think we have to have more dynamic thinking. I don’t want to attack the idea of organic cotton on a large scale. It doesn’t mean it’s the only trajectory towards solving the problem, and in fact those trajectories have just made it worse so far. Global emissions are higher than they’ve ever been, so we haven’t truly solved the problem. We have to have more dynamic sets of solutions.

I also think that a lot of those development have made us believe that we are “conscious consumers,” whatever that really means. We want to consume and feel okay about it. So I often feel like some of those things – for example H&M having organic cotton or recycled fibers – are just to make you feel better about the fact that you still continue to consume at the same rate and haven’t actually made any change. at point of purchase, you got to pat yourself on the back. “I chose this thing over something else.” Which is just so crazy because the ultimate impact is so minimal.

The conversation around changing our relationship with things is a huge stage for community organizers to start really activating around. What are the new cultural models for engaging with things? That’s the next frontier that I would like to spend more time working on. Like with having a storefront, not to sell things necessarily, but to have an interactive space with clothing.

I got to hear Kate Fletcher speak in Norway and she did a project on localism as it applies to her community and she highlighted all the mending that was embedded into her community in the UK that you wouldn’t notice, like the dry cleaner that will hem your pants for you. All that mending stuff goes relatively unnoticed because we haven’t culturally highlighted mending in a fashionable way.

I really want rural economies to do well. It’s total irony that we’re trying to get fast fashion to slow down, but we need slow fashion to kind of speed up. These are two things that have to meet in a central point at some point. Yes, we do need more mills in our home communities processing the farmers’ material because these farmers do need to stay on their land. They’re important parts of the community and the food system and the fiber is constantly with that as a byproduct. Why aren’t we wearing it? Those things need to get addressed. It’s not like reducing consumption is a straight ahead answer. It’s more like reducing certain types of consumption.

When you were talking about mending, I was thinking that from a female perspective, there are so many things that women have done over time, like the textile arts, making clothing, making food, that have never been in the spotlight. Yet these activities seem so essential to creating a sustainable path forward. I am wondering what your thoughts are on the value that women have to bring to the table and creating this forward movement.

You put it really well, the value around the qualities that we’ve been excluding from quantification. When we don’t quantify something, we don’t acknowledge value. Like to quantify ecosystem services – so that we can start valuing a flower – we have to put value on its ability to feed a bumblebee?

I have a little bit of a bristle when I think about quantifying women’s women’s work or ecosystems work, the stuff we haven’t been quantifying. It’s almost like we’re still trying to fit it into this idea of capitalism, which is a male construct, fundamentally, as an economic system.

Right now I think that women can bring a wholly different conversation around value. Not just try to fit our values into the frameworks that we’ve been presented, but question the frameworks of capitalism and question the frameworks of how we quantify value. With the #metoo movement, it would be amazing if there were movements subsequent to this, that take on these other sets of questions around punching holes in the framework of what we hold dear.

Can you talk a little bit about your 150 Mile Wardrobe, which is the project that Fibershed eventually grow out of?

[When I traveled in Southeast Asia] I got to work in some villages in Indonesia and northern Thailand and got to learn experientially what it was like to see cotton growing in very small fields. Not like the big laser level fields like in the U.S. All of your food and your fiber and your dye is being grown in this intersectional way, right in the outskirts of your village. The plots of land that you need for your textile resource space are actually quite small. That was such a game changer to just think small.

The one-year wardrobe challenges was exploring this idea of village scale in textile production. Could I dress myself within 150 miles from my front door? In doing so, could I build a community that may, or may not, invigorate at least a conversation about what local textile creation and wearing looks like?

That wardrobe challenge brought a lot of design students to farms, and women who didn’t have a design background, they were just amazing knitters. We built an aesthetic from the existing skill base. We grew and processed what we had.

I found so much latent abundance. We have this framework, this box, that hasn’t been giving voice to women’s work. And holy moly, are we talented, and we have so much to offer.

All the women I worked with growing the fiber were women. I worked with like one male fiber producer and all the people who had the talent to pull off the one-year wardrobe challenge were about 95 percent women. Not to say there weren’t some great men that we worked with, but it was just amazing that all these quiet, latent skills and raw materials were not being talked about. So that was my “aha.” I thought I would come home and struggle to pull this off. There are struggles and difficulties, but the abundance of skill and labor and people doing good things in production of raw material is totally here.

The approach has been to give voice to what’s here and then to ask the question for my community: what do we need to enhance what we already do to perhaps make it just a little more accessible to more people?

We call it community infrastructure. Fibershed has been trying to gently enhance our work, the women’s work in the world, but we’re not trying to slice and dice it to make it just like the monoliths of today. So it’s taking more time. It is slow to rebuild these gentler systems that empower independent businesses.

Fibershed’s work is about keeping money, decentralized, keeping money in the hands of small businesses. Keeping that healthy, it does take time.

And in that sense what you’re doing isn’t just about fiber, it’s about creating a discussion around a new model.

That’s really why I’m compelled to elevate the milling systems and elevate the production just enough that it is within the ecological carrying capacity of the geography. That’s why the Fibershed model is so interesting to me because you’re really trying to grow everything and process it within one geography. By doing that you really do get a sensitivity to: what does the rainfall pattern in my community allow us to grow? What do these soils define for us in terms of crops? What do the length of the summer temperatures allow us to do? When is the last frost date? The last frost date defines what you’re wearing.

That’s the kind of connectivity that I would like others to be able to experience. It gets me back to that moment with my great grandmother where a human being gets to have some freedom and some choice and explores a landscape.

What is the wisdom you would share with your younger self?

A little more patience and the willingness to keep retrying things that maybe didn’t work the first time.

Everything you do is going to be a bit of an exploration in your teens and twenties even into your thirties and the rest of your life. But you do a lot more exploring in the beginning when you’re trying to search out what you resonate with, and it takes time. So there’s a patience that’s involved and I would tell my younger self to have a little more of that patience.

I think I would just allow myself to feel comfortable with my own pace. Your progression and your movement and your case is totally acceptable. Just be kind to yourself, be kind to others. You never have to make a move with cruelty or frustration. Honoring yourself in a loving way is the best you can do.

Written by Anna Brones

September 6, 2018 at 08:34

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