writing, breathing, living

June 23rd, 2020 by Johann Strube

There is a rhythm to writing non-fiction (such as a dissertation) that is like breathing. I take in a lot of information at once, it’s all over the place, it’s a mess, and I am overwhelmed. Then I breathe and relax. I let go of much of this information and organize what remains. Then I read what I wrote, it is now a text, but still a mess. Then I breathe and relax. I edit. Then I read it again. It is good enough for now. I take an afternoon off. Then I start the next section, and the cycle begins anew. Knowing that this is the rhythm of writing, mess and order, I embrace both. It is like many things in life. There is a burst of inspiration. I give up control to see where it takes me. I go all in. Eventually, I take a step back, slow down, and process. I journal, create art, or take a long walk through the woods—until it starts over again.

Epidemic. Welcome to the new normal.

March 15th, 2020 by Johann Strube

The social distancing measures taken around the world to slow down the spread of the coronavirus may seem extraordinary, but we’ll better get used to it. In a predominantly urban and inter-connected world, the spread of new diseases to which we do not yet have developed immunity will be the rule, not the exception. Accepting this, we can take pre-cautious measures—something we have failed at terribly this time around. Social distancing in an early stage of an outbreak will always be most effective. If we prepare to retreat early on, we might actually be able to contain a disease, or at least stagger its outbreak over time and space, so our health system is not overwhelmed.

If we had effective epidemic response plans, distancing ourselves could be much less disruptive. When you know an outbreak will happen at some point, you can establish an insurance fund to pay workers to stay at home, businesses to stay closed, and folks to get reimbursed for canceled travel. If your job can be done remotely, you have your temporary home office already set up. You store food and toilet paper for three weeks. Teachers are prepared to shift classes online and school children will be delivered their lunches.

And you have cultural practices in place to make the most of your lockdown time, or to meet in small groups in contagion-safe settings. I believe that such times can be moments of slowing down, cutting down the noise, introspection, focusing on what’s important, healing, renewal. As a society, we have to create that space for people to retreat and focus on their healing or that of their community (by preventing others to get sick). As individuals, we need to treat the disruption as a regular opportunity to slow down, not as a reason to panic. As more of us in this coronavirus season reduce their social contacts and spend more time at home, we can start developing such practices now.

Meet me at the lake

September 9th, 2019 by Johann Strube

Life moves on quickly. After my stint in Winnipeg, I now live in Fort Frances, Northwestern Ontario to conduct my dissertation fieldwork. I specify Northwestern, because this country here is nothing like Toronto which most people tend to think about when hearing Ontario. In fact, Toronto and Lake Ontario are about an 18h drive away. The next bigger town is 2.5h away. It has about 15000 inhabitants. Considering the vast areas of bogs, rocks, and lakes that cover this country, the sparse population does not surprise. Although the villages and towns around here have a distinct frontier feel to them—think logging trucks and gold mines—this country is steeped in old and rich Indigenous culture. Just this weekend I visited the Nigigoonsiminikaaning First Nation powwow. There are sweat lodge ceremonies happening almost daily, and the manoomin (a.k.a. wild rice) harvest is around the corner.

Speaking of manoomin, my dissertation focuses on how a hydro-dam here in Fort Frances impacts manoomin and the Ojibwe communities. It keeps me rather busy and so I hardly find time for blogging. When I started this blog, it was my main writing outlet. Now I am a PhD candidate and my writing opportunities have exploded. For example, Agriculture and Human Values has published the summary about my Master’s thesis on Pockets of Peasantness in Upstate New York. Another piece that I have co-authored with Sarah Eisler and Brian Thiede has appeared in Global Environmental Change and there is more work in the pipe.

I’ll probably stay busy for a while. It’s time for my to apply for faculty jobs and post-docs for next year. These applications are their own side-project. When I do manage to take some down time, I make sure to enjoy this beautiful country and go out on Rainy Lake or camping. Isn’t it beautiful here?

Reviewing James Scott’s “Against the Grain”

February 9th, 2019 by Johann Strube

It so happened that the subject of my second published book review, like my first, might be categorized as contemporary anarchist scholarship. Good to see that there is a space for this kind of work in the academy. This time, I like to introduce James Scott’s “Against the Grain”, published by Yale University Press. The book’s core message, that the integration of hunters, gatherers, pastoralists, and other mobile peoples into sedentary, agrarian society has been a deeply political process of an elite trying to force peoples into a social structure that served the formers’ personal interests against the letters’ will is an assault on conventional narratives about unilateral civilizational progress and the inevitability of a hierarchical, agrarian society. Provocative, and – given the presented evidence – convincing stuff. Anyway, I loved this piece. Check out my review in the Journal of Agriculture and Human Values.

When blogging about my first book review, I thanked the author Alex Barnard to encourage fellow grad students like me to stay true to our values and conviction to pursue radical scholarship. Now, James Scott doesn’t need more recognition and life-time achievement awards, but I still like to acknowledge that your scholarship – and success as a professor despite unpopular, “against-the-grain”-type of arguments – encouraged me to even enter academia and stick to it to this day. I will do my best to carry on that legacy!


finding my pace VS slowing-down-to-speed-up

February 4th, 2019 by Johann Strube

I read an article in Die Zeit on the ever increasing tempo of our world, about the ever accelerating rate of change and the difficulty of the human mind to keep up with it. The author Ulrich Schnabel suggests that a key skill of our time is to both be lighting fast when need be, but also be able to slow down when need be. Slowing down is portrayed as a means to recharge and ultimately to keep up. This may indeed be a useful strategy to be successful by today’s dominant standards, yet it is also written from a colonialist standpoint. The accelerating rate of change is not a natural force but it is man-made and largely fueled by burning fossil energy. It benefits those that rather have us consume and spend money than create and reflect. I have yet to see that anyone has gotten happier by responding to a text message faster or loading a browser tab in half a second vs two. The slowing-down-to-speed-up strategy is about aligning ourselves to someone else’s pace rather than finding our own. However, being happy is neither about slowing down nor speeding up but about doing the things that are meaningful to us in a mindful way, however long that will take us.

Anxiety, my new, awkward friend

February 1st, 2019 by Johann Strube

I’d like to share something about anxiety that I have come to understand over the past months which I like to share, hoping it might be helpful to some of you.

As most graduate students I know, and indeed many fellow millennials, I often struggle with anxiety. That nagging feeling of uncertainty, stress, discomfort, that often distracts me from doing the things I set out to do and that, frankly, makes it hard to enjoy life. It is often so vague and undefined that I can be ashamed of feeling miserable about it, considering the types of “objective” hardships that many other people go through, such as oppression, hunger, disease, death. I used to think I just need to get my act together, push through, and eventually I will feel better. Long story short, I saw anxiety as something bad, something to rid myself of.

I no longer see it that way. Now, I treat my anxiety as a mentor, a partner of sorts, a good spirit, a true friend that tells me the truth even though I may not want to hear it. Don’t get me wrong, this friend is awkward and a huge party pooper. But still a valuable one.

My anxiety helps me in two important ways. First, it’s a tell-tale that I am off-track with something. I do believe that there are right things and wrong things that we could be doing with our time on earth, and too often, most of us, me included, do the wrong things. Like spending the majority of our time working a job (or preparing for such a career) to earn enough money to approach a bourgeois middle-class lifestyle (and than needing the rest of our waking hours decompressing) while forgetting to attend to the emotional and spiritual needs of ourselves and the people around us. Probably not a good thing to do and yet the trajectory of most. So my anxiety is that red flag that is hoisted when I’m off-track. Unfortunately, it really is just a red flag. It will not tell me which of the many things I am doing is the one that caused it to give me that warning, nor does it tell me what the right path would be. So I still need to do a lot of introspection (meditation, walks, conversations, counseling, fasting, etc.) to figure these things out, but my anxiety is a gentle (or sometimes not so gentle) reminder that I still have work to do in this regard. Ultimately, I see it as an act of love, though, because aligning my life with what I perceive as my purpose in life is key to my happiness, and isn’t that what we all should be striving towards?

Second, my anxieties are reminders that some things in my life are objectively shit. Some of these things are relatively evident, like some unresolved conflict with a loved one. Some are less obvious, like the profound lack of true community and solidarity in our capitalist society, imminent climate catastrophe, reemergence of fascism, a deep sitting feeling of uprootedness. The point is not to mistake the anxiety for the problem itself. Shooting the messenger will not solve the problem. So instead of blaming my anxiety, I should be blaming all these issues mentioned above, or better still, turning my energy towards working towards a solution of these things, or if that is impossible, finding other, conscious ways of coping with them. Anxiety is uncomfortable. So is fascism or deep conflict. Trying to be comfortable in the face of these issues is just plain ignorant and might even deepen these problems instead of solving them. It is time to accept discomfort and use it creatively. Becoming conscious about this type of anxiety also moves away my focus on these issues as something that is my personal problem, something that I have internalized the blame for my discomfort. No, more often that not, these things are societal issues, or at least interpersonal issues, that I might be part of, but that are also beyond my sole individual responsibility. I will no longer blame myself for feeling uncomfortable about oppression, violence, climate change, other people’s avoidance of relational problems, capitalism and what have you.

Do I need anxieties to show me these things? Probably not. A good friend that hugs me when I feel shaken up by the distressing truths they are reminding me off would probably do the same result with less pain. In an ideal world we would have lots of people around us that help us coping with this discomfort and make us feel less powerless when facing it. In fact, those people are around more often than we think but we have forgot to reach out for them and admit to our own vulnerability. But meanwhile, I appreciate my anxiety as perhaps the ultimate ally on my path towards living a more truthful and purposeful life in a world that bombards me with temptations to rather use my precious time and energy to make someone else richer and more powerful.

Now, I’m not a psychologist and there are probably instances of anxiety that are pathological, that is to say, not rooted in some actual problem that deserves our attention. Anxiety of being anxious. A self-perpetuating loop that can only be remedied by some kind of psychiatric intervention (whether medically, psychotherapeutically, or ceremonially). I also don’t mean to say that one should dwell on one’s anxieties. Going back to the party pooper analogy, you don’t want to be around that person all the time or else you are bound to feel miserable forever. Just take their advice and then move on towards what they have told you and focus on resolving that situation. Finally, it is not always the right moment to face our inner gloom. We do have to function in the real world, we have to make ends met and secure our survival. For those moments, I welcome all the anxiety-management techniques out there – meditation, sports, arts, masturbation, video-games, the odd joint, whatever helps to move on. I just need to remember that nothing of this will actually solve anything, it only gives me time until I face what I need to face, or until I break down.

This is hard stuff and I get the temptation to somehow avoid anxieties, either through denial, medication, or even excessive, that is never-ending, coping techniques. But I doubt this is feasible in the long run. Bottling up everything that makes me feel uncomfortable is just bound to burst that bottle eventually, burnout, depression, violence, addiction, suicide, or any other type of mental breakdown. But perhaps even more importantly, anxiety can help me on a path towards more happiness and peace if I start listening to it and trusting myself that I am able to cope with its messages. Anxiety, I no longer run away from you. Let’s sit down and have a tea together (but stay away from my party, FFS!).

Winnipeg and I don’t even know how that happened but I like it

August 22nd, 2018 by Johann Strube

In what can only be described as a mad twist of serendipity, life  washed me up against the banks of the Assiniboine and Red Rivers, in the Canadian city of Winnipeg, that only a bit over a year ago I only knew through Venetian Snare’s charmingly titled song “Winnipeg is a Dogshit Dildo”. I am not sure what I was supposed to expect of a city that is likened to a, well, dogshit dildo, but those expectations have been exceeded by far.

Think of Winnipeg as the kind of place where–unless you try to hitch your way from East Coast to West Coast along the Trans-Canada Highway–people don’t end up without a purpose of doing so (in fact, most Winnipeggers don’t end up here at all, they just never left). In that respect, it is the antithesis of New York City and the Pacific Crest Trail, the obvious places where one would go who has no purpose to be anywhere else. In fact, Winnipeg is the antithesis to NYC and the PCT in many ways. These comparisons out of the way, Winnipeg is a very livable, bike-able (in the summer anyway), diverse, culturally rich, and socially complex city that seems to be the exact thing I was craving after two years in a small college town in the hills of Pennsylvania.

Part of my purpose to be here is to find out what that purpose is. Superficially Professionally speaking, I am here to pinpoint the nitty-gritty of my dissertation, that will be something around tribal sovereignty, wild rice, and ownership over land and water. Or will it? I am currently using the blank back pages of my proposal to take my fieldnotes. This is about as useful a proposal is once you actually get into the field and get your reality check. Did I mention that I have a lot of fun figuring these things out? I mean it. Driving around Manitoba, Western Ontario and Minnesota, talking to and learning from Ojibwe elders, joining their ceremonies, attending community meetings, and just being (a person) in this beautiful country is a heck more enjoyable than sketching out a dissertation from my office desk half a continent away.

But of course, there is always a deeper level to which one could take the question of purpose, and this is where the serendipity comes in and my readiness to pour out the well of my soul in the public parts of the internet drops out. So I leave it at that. Think of this post as a public service announcement, that I live in Winnipeg, Manitoba (Canada) for now. Now, what about visiting me as a purpose for you to come to this city?

article on Pockets of Peasantness in Cornell Small Farm Quarterly

November 1st, 2017 by Johann Strube

Cornell Small Farm Quarterly has published a short overview over my master’s thesis work on Pockets of Peasantness in Upstate New York. I hope, this way some people outside of academia but with an interest in small farming in the Northeast will get to read it.

Reviewing Alex Barnard’s “Freegans: diving into the wealth of food waste in America.”

June 10th, 2017 by Johann Strube

I’m equally surprised and pleased, that my first academic publication is a book review about freeganism and dumpster diving. I absolutely loved reading Alex Barnard’s “Freegans: diving into the wealth of food waste in America.” I’m not gonna write more about the book here, just check out the review at the Journal of Agriculture and Human Values.

There are certainly moments in grad school, when you’re wondering if the path that you’ve chosen is the right one, but when you get a chance to be involved in scholarship on some radical anarchists and their interpretation of how messed up our capitalist food system is, it makes you wonder a little less.

On a slightly more somber note: isn’t it ironic that copyright law and my agreement with the publisher prohibits me from posting my own review on a book on freeganism on my blog?

Also, if you ever read this: Go Alex! You wrote such a great book and it hugely inspirational that a grad student on the other side of the country devotes his dissertation work on such an important yet often intentionally ignored topic. Thank you!

Pockets of Peasantness – Small-scale Agricultural Producers in the Central Finger Lakes Region of Upstate New York

September 21st, 2016 by admin

Over the course of 2015 and 2016 I worked on my master’s thesis called “Pockets of Peasantness – Small-scale Agricultural Producers in the Central Finger Lakes Region of Upstate New York” which is finally available online.

In case you haven’t downloaded and read it already, here’s what it is about. Some people call this an abstract:

Farmers in the Central Finger Lakes Region of New York (USA) balance their production between principles of peasant farming and capitalist farming. They struggle to extend their sphere of autonomy and subsistence production, while extended commodity production is often a response to external forces of the state and capital. This struggle, together with a quantitative increase of small farms, can be described as an instance of repeasantization.

Based on inductive, empirical qualitative social research, and in particular, ethnographic participant observation and semi-structured interviews, this thesis describes the economy and social organization of six farms in the area under investigation. Besides selling commodities to pay for many farming inputs and consumer goods, the farms produce for their subsistence and that of their community. They exchange products and services with other farms, they build networks of mutual provisioning, support and mentorship and try to take good care of the land.

This thesis shows that subsistence production and peasant culture are not restricted to the past or the Global South, but also exist in the United States of America, albeit subject to the globalized capitalist market economy. I suggest that these pockets of peasantness are an important source of inspiration for society at large, while the dominant capitalistic social order fails to deliver good living conditions for most people. It is therefore critical to support farmers in their struggle.