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Earthseed Part 5
The movement, and the finale
Earthseed: The Movement
In Octavia Butler’s Parable books, the Earthseed theology rapidly leaves the world of abstraction, and becomes a new type of religious movement. The movement means that Earthseed is composed of much more than verses from “The Book of the Living,” it’s also constituted in the way the verses translate into concrete practices adopted by Lauren and those around her in Acorn (the community they create together) and later on in the larger Earthseed religion. Similarly, although there is scholarship about Earthseed here in our world, there are also those who have tried to bring the teachings into movements and practices. There are communities, both online and gathered in three dimensions, seeking explicitly to practice Earthseed, to turn it from an abstraction to a guiding light for their members. One virtual community, the SolSeed movement, gathers people online to discuss and conceptualize the practice of Earthseed.  There is also the Facebook group entitled simply “Earthseed” that is a looser affiliation of people and groups from around the world coming together to talk about applying Earthseed to their lives.  However, the impact of these virtual communities appears limited, based on membership and engagement over time, whereas there are some striking examples of how folks have come together to embody Earthseed in three dimensions, in the flesh and in community and with the land, which have become sustainable models of putting Lauren Olamina and Octavia Butler’s principles into practice.
In the winter of 2020 in “South Cultures”, Danielle Purifoy published an article that blurs the lines between the academic and the practical, much like her subject blurs the lines between the theoretical, spiritual, and practical, creating a spiritual praxis of liberation. Her subject is the Earthseed Land Collective, which, “is committed to developing the relationships and practices necessary for thriving lives here, on renewed earths,” near Durham, North Carolina.  She pairs this vision with Butler’s line that Earthseed adherents aim to “live and thrive on new earths,” implying that the Land Collective is living out Butler’s words on a new plot of earth in North Carolina just as much as those who leave Earth at the end of Parable of the Talents might do so on other planets. And the members of the Earthseed Land Collective (ELC) would agree with that description, I think. Purifoy quotes Justin Robison, one of the founding members, as saying, “we were able to look at this fictionalized future [in the Parable series] and be able to see some parallels for us…” and she later quotes Courtney Woods, another member, saying, “We’re helping ourselves reconnect and to understand that there’s no separation between us and the natural world.”  What the members of the collective did, and continue to do, is take Butler’s vision from theory to practice, bringing it from a fictional world into our own. In doing so they didn’t need to adhere strictly to Earthseed, not only because our world has its own demands, but because Earthseed itself does not propose a theology of strict adherence. Rather, it proposes adaptability, flexibility, change.
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In the beginning, purchasing land was a difficult and expensive process, where members had to question if they were willing to enter into debt and a long-term commitment. Then, compounding their difficulties, the pandemic struck shortly after an ideal parcel emerged, and they had just begun to move forward with starting the ELC. However, instead of Covid-19 and its attendant disruptions destroying the nascent collective, the members made a way and the project continues today. As Purifoy writes:
Four years later, in the midst of a pandemic, economic crisis, and a global uprising against anti-Blackness and capitalism, Earthseed represents a version of the alternative world Octavia Butler imagined; the collective is hard at work to maintain it, and its mission—“to remember and reimagine our relationship to ourselves, each other and the land in pursuit and practice of collective liberation.” 
For the ELC this practice takes many forms. Some members are focused primarily on farming, some on building power with the community, some on education, some on ancestral Black and indigenous spiritual practices, and many on several of the above, and more. There is a collective vision of future liberation, but there is also an understanding of Butler’s ideas of adaptability, and the members of the collective demonstrate that by being willing to do what is necessary to survive, be that fundraising or hosting events on their land, or whatever strategy may come next. As adrienne marie brown, an activist and writer inspired by Butler, writes, “those who survive on the margins tend to be the most experientially innovative—practicing survival-based efficiency, doing the most with the least, an important skill area on a planet whose resources are under assault by less marginalized people.”  There are still questions for the collective, around safety, around colonialism and participation in systems of oppression, but these questions aren’t obstacles. Instead they’re invitations to think more deeply, to chart better paths forward, to be innovative, and to live into the better world amidst this decaying society, as glimpsed in Butler’s fiction. While oppressive and colonial forces habitually demand that “reformers” or revolutionaries articulate precisely how each and every facet of their ambitions will play out in an as-not-yet realized world, the Earthseed Land Collective and others embody Butler’s notion of pursuing utopian yearning, while rejecting easy answers.
And they’re not alone. Other, similar projects have popped up in other parts of the country which embody the teachings and practices of Earthseed, although not all explicitly use that vocabulary. The Soul Fire Farm, near Petersburg, New York, as described in the book Farming While Black and elsewhere, is another powerful example of connecting with ancestral practices while seeking out better world. Soul Fire Farm is, “an Afro-Indigenous centered community farm committed to uprooting racism and seeding sovereignty in the food system,” according to their mission statement.  And in the aforementioned book on the farm and its philosophy and practices Leah Penniman includes, “exactly 16 chapters to honor the 16 major books in Odu Ifa literary corpus.”  Odu Ifa is a Yoruba religion and divination practice, part of the same tradition that Monica Coleman discusses when she talks about the spirit of Oya, which is present throughout the Parable books, and their protagonist Lauren Oya Olamina. For Penniman, and the community of Soul Fire Farms, Odu Ifa is not just a religion of the ancestors, it provides guidance and is manifested in communal and farming practices here and now.
Farming While Black cites multiple lessons from Odu Ifa that the community uses in their daily lives such as, “Offer prayers and sacrifices to the land, honoring the laws of reciprocity,” and, “Use the farm as a refuge for violence and strife.”  While these are just two of many principles derived from Yoruba religious texts and practices this snapshot offers a lesson similar to the Earthseed Land Collective, which is that ancestral lessons, womanist foundations in lived experience, and an Afro-Futurist approach to drawing resources from a far-flung constellation of sources is not just a fictional practice in the work of writers like Octavia Butler, but rather a pragmatic reality being lived out in this moment. As the folks at Soul Fire Farm write, “Our food sovereignty programs reach over 160,000 people each year,” whether it be the over 80,000 pounds of produce grown, the educational programs, or the social justice initiatives.  This is another way to live and thrive on new earths, here on Earth. Rather than feeling constrained either by literal interpretations of Earthseed and the Parable books, one can look to Soul Fire Farm, and the Earthseed Land Collective to see that radical acts can be, and must be, utterly pragmatic. Land sovereignty, food sovereignty, reconnecting with powerful religious traditions, this is adaptability geared towards survival under difficult circumstances. As the Book of the Living says, “To survive,/ Let the past/ Teach you--”  but don’t cling to it; honor it, learn from it, and then innovate and grow towards a better future.
Despite reaching over 160,000 people a year, no one would deny that Soul Fire Farms is at its core a relatively small enterprise, with 13 people on staff and an additional 3 fellows. Similarly, the Earthseed land collective is currently composed of 11 people. Yet their power should not be measured just qualitatively, but also by the number of people they inspire. By writing Farming While Black Penniman reached thousands of people, much like the farm’s programming reaches thousands each year, not just with produce but with the ideological seeds that have now been planted. Through articles and events and their online presence the ELC also reaches far more people than the central group that lives on the land. Although only one of these projects explicitly cites Octavia Butler as their inspiration, both embody her work and ideas. Both embody what Lauren Olamina described as an effort to, “pry people loose from the rotting past, and maybe push them into saving themselves and building a future that makes sense.”  Both understand that prying from, separating from a rotting past is not enough, that reconnecting to a healthy, life-giving past is vital, while not clinging so tightly to that past that you cannot launch into a vibrant future. Both communities also embody principles that David Morris describes as crucial to Earthseed, “communal democratic governance and ecological self-consciousness.”  In this way they mirror Acorn, but crucially they mirror the larger foundational values of adaptability, agency, and sustainability that remain central to the movement even after the first Earthseed community does not succeed. They also mirror the flexibility showcased by this very transition from community to movement, in how the Earthseed Land Collective and Soul Fire Farm have survived the pandemic, finding new revenue streams and survival mechanisms to weather this particular storm, while holding fast to beliefs that will allow them to weather the next storm, and the next.
This is not to say that adaptability is easy, or that the “right way” has been charted by Butler, Coleman, Penniman, and others. If anything, adaptability is extremely difficult. Rigid rules and unbending adherence to them has, in many cases, been easier for people to swallow, and cling to. But it’s in the perseverance through difficulty that the communities discussed above have shown their value as exemplars. In discussing the founding of the ELC, Purifoy writes, “Zulayka [a founding member of the collective] read a book on intentional communities and was startled when she saw the statistic that 90 percent of such efforts ultimately fail.”  She then quotes Zulayka as saying, “We’re going against the grain of something that is in the air we breathe,” with that something being the idea that, “My individual [self ] comes first.”  An idea she says needs to be pushed back against again and again. Whether it was going into debt to start the collective, or adapting to the pandemic, the Earthseed Land Collective needed to take risks and course correct again and again. On this topic Morris interrogates another Butler scholar, Tom Moylan, for questioning, “Why did the utopian program need adjusting?”  The implication here being that the course correction, in Lauren Olamina’s case, from a community building to movement building model that targeted the recruitment of the wealthy and influential, reveals a fundamental flaw in the program. However, Morris emphasizes that the adaptability, the willingness to change and adjust, is in fact a revelation of strength in the Earthseed program. As adrienne marie brown says, “The strategies that played out in Octavia’s books included adaptability and interdependence—often through the practice of repeated vulnerability.”  It is the lack of this very adaptability and interdependence that brought society to the place it has reached in Butler’s books, and is perhaps heading towards on our timeline as well. It is hyper-individualism, the opposite of interdependence and reliance on others and interconnectedness, that played a key role in shaping a society that ignores climate disaster, that creates companies towns once again, that shatters the societal contract. And it is stagnation, calcification, inability to adapt that accompanies hyper-individualism in this decline.
It’s clearer today than ever before, and it grows clearer still every day, that the world of Lauren Olamina, and specifically the societal decline that Lauren lives in and through, is not so distant from our own times. Butler was projecting the trends she saw in the world around her, perhaps even more accurately than she knew. Climate change, already a reality in the 1980s and ‘90s, as Butler was writing and publishing the Parable series, has only accelerated, and its results can be seen and felt both in ways that may seem minor, and in major catastrophes. Democracy in the U.S. and around the world is under threat, from a range of fascists and Christo-fascists strikingly similar to the ones Butler describes. Corporate monopolies are resurgent, and the idea of company towns is not nearly so distant as it was even three decades ago. Yet, in the midst of all this, people are fighting back, struggling to survive as we always have, and in new ways as well. Mass waves of resistance, such as the 2020 uprising in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, inspire millions to seek a life giving society either for the first time or once again. Mutual aid groups and networks rise amidst organized abandonment accelerated by a global pandemic. And, here and there, little land collectives and farms spring up, innovating on multiple fronts in ways that fight death, provide community care, deliver radical education and rejuvenate ancient religions.
Still, the left and all those struggling to survive oppression seek answers, or even “the answer.” Already some have turned to Octavia Butler’s prophetic Earthseed, but even here many have ignored its pragmatism and regard it only as fiction. But scholars like Monica Coleman or David Morris have seen that it truly is the embodiment of a post-modern womanist theology, or as a revolutionary movement for the 21st century. Little pockets like the Earthseed Land Collective take it and do much more than write about it, they run with it and adapt it and put it into practice as a real guiding light for the theology of survival and adaptability we need today. Despite its fictional roots, and definite imperfections, Earthseed holds ingredients that can serve all those who struggle for a new spiritual path forward, or updates on their more well-worn path. It is rooted in the past, in the lived experience of Lauren, Butler, and Black women, presenting us with an innovative womanist theology. Simultaneously it gathers lessons from far-flung points, constellating them in the Afro-Futurist tradition of innovative methods of making a way. It offers us lessons, to be deeply rooted in the experiences of the oppressed, and to struggle towards a liberation that looks like survival and quality of life for all. It offers us creativity, a new way that is constructed out of no way, a path forward built amid falter and collapse. It offers a new way to see God, to see our interconnectedness with a God that is both all around us and that we are a part of. It does not offer perfection, but rather pushes us to innovate, to adapt, to refuse to be constrained by the stalled ideologies which produce decay, and rather to seek survival and growth and transformation that just might save us, and might, maybe, liberate us if we, “Through learning and adaption, / Become a partner of God…”
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Thank you to everyone who has been reading this series! This is the conclusion, for now, but the five serialized articles can always be found in their own tab on the website (here) and I’m sure the work of Octavia Butler will come up in future essays, both implicitly and explicitly. It’s been fun sharing this with you all, and thanks for the wonderful comments and feedback along the way! - Josh
 “SolSeed - Parable of the Sower.” Accessed March 23, 2022. https://sites.google.com/a/depauw.edu/the-parable-of-the-sower/earthseed/solseed.
 Purifoy, Danielle M. “‘To Live and Thrive on New Earths’: The Earthseed Land Collective and Black Freedom.” Southern Cultures 26, no. 4 (2020): 78–89. Pg, 79.
 Ibid, 80.
 Ibid, 84.
 Brown, Adrienne M. Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds. Chico, CA: AK Press, 2017. Pg, 114.
 Penniman, Leah, and Karen Washington. Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land. White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2018. Pg, 58.
 Ibid, 58.
 Book of the Living, Verse 64
 Butler, Octavia E. Parable of the Sower. Warner books edition. New York, NY: Warner Books, 1993. Pg, 79.
 Morris, David. “Octavia Butler’s (R)Evolutionary Movement for the Twenty-First Century.” Utopian Studies 26, no. 2 (2015): 270–88.
 Purifoy, 88.
 Ibid, 88.
 Morris, 277.
 brown, 15.
 Book of the Living, Verse 7.