I rattled down the dirt road in Northern California at dusk searching for any sign of address numbers on rusted mailboxes. I drove past one desolate farm after another before finally rolling onto Four Eagles Ranch. Devon Strong found me in the falling night amongst his scattered library of broken down vehicles and organic building materials as I shut off my truck engine, grabbed my video camera, and stepped into his reality.
"You brought shorts and a towel right?" he asks me.
Within twenty minutes I am sitting inside a sweat lodge next to a pile of smoldering lava rocks as Devon pours pitcher after pitcher of water creating clouds of invisible smoke in the dark. He and two elders sing Lakota Indian prayer songs for the upcoming bison slaughter as the heat rises and I slowly approach a state of painful euphoria. The ceremony is performed in preparation for the bison kill, where Devon will ask one of his chosen animals to come to him without fear or anger and offer up its life to the tip of a spear.
Weeks later, after many days of filming Devon for my feature documentary You Are God as he fed, slaughtered, butchered, and sold his happy and healthy free-range bison, I recall him offering me this bit of wisdom that carried me through the rest of my journey, "You will know what you need to know when you need to know it."
Months and miles later I was near the Texas border in the middle of the desert when I would learn a lesson by the light of a second fire. John Wells, a white bearded New Yorker living off the grid in this harsh desert environment at the Field Lab, was using a metal grinder to shear off the end of an I-beam when one little spark, just a millimeter of hot metal, strayed from a shower of sparks into contact with the unprotected lens of my video camera and sent me into a crisis. This one tiny point of heat would leave a spot on my lens that was quite un-repairable with no civilization, or solution, on the horizon. I was a filmmaker in the middle of nowhere without a camera.
Few people in the world make decisions about the direction of our global village of humans. The majority of us choose from a handful of life paths that have been laid out for us. It can be extremely difficult to take a blind step into an unknown direction in life, to have the faith in oneself that when everything falls apart we'll be able to figure out how to put it back together. So we rarely take the risks to achieve greatness, as individuals and as a society.
The air in the back of my pickup truck was stifling and at four in the morning I still couldn’t sleep. The heat was oppressive in the Texas desert. I couldn’t open the back of the truck for fear of the rumored long-horned beetle giving me nasty bites, which led to paranoia about exotic desert bugs laying eggs in my skin in my overheated brain. I felt trapped in an existential wasteland and still had not executed a plan on how to fix my camera and keep the film rolling.
Later I would film Marcin Jakubowski, the radical physicist turned revolutionary founder of the Open Source Ecology movement, as his welding arc made sparks fly in the dead of night in rural Missouri. It was a familiar situation; sparks shooting towards my lens, but at this point I had learned my lesson and covered my camera with protective glass filters and a plastic waterproof casing. It was serving me well as Marcin and a partner continued to labor endlessly on one of their inventions. That night, it was an open source industrial tractor that was built for just a fraction of the price of a John Deere. It would be shipped in the morning to a client and suddenly it wasn’t running. After pondering and testing for sleepless hours the engines finally roared at four AM. Marcin ripped into the night for the first successful test-drive, victory achieved two hours before shipping. I retired to my hut that morning on the Factor E Farm compound, wrapped up in a cheap sleeping bag in twenty-degree weather shivering myself to sleep, but content.
I drove through the Texas desert on my way back to civilization. A storm was ravaging towns to the north, directly in my path. I listened to reports on the radio of golf ball sized hail, wildfires tearing across the plains, and tornados touching down. The sky was green and I remember my mother telling me as a little boy that this was a sign that tornadoes were brewing. There was nowhere to hide from the elements in the wide-open expanse. I pushed on.
Facing adversity is part of challenging the status quo. People usually don’t pay you to break the rules. In New Orleans I filmed day in and day out with Nat Turner as he drove his busted old truck back and forth across town picking up students and supplies to run his urban farm school, Our School at Blair Grocery. He started the project with only a few bucks in his pocket and was living on a big blue school bus next to the abandoned building that would become the school. He endured sweltering nights with no electricity, took bucket showers with water from the neighbors, and began farming with borrowed shovels. By the time I visited him his determination had driven the project to become the largest employer of youth in the Lower Ninth Ward.
I sat in the cool natural waters of Barton Springs with the desert days behind me. After extensive research I found the only repair shop in Texas that would fix my camera quick enough not to jeopardize my production schedule. I dropped off the broken baby of mine to the technician in a storage unit on the edge of Austin, feeling like a mother sending her child into surgery. Crisis averted, and amongst a newfound group of one-day-friends, I watched little kids do cannonballs and front flips off the diving board. There were more storms on the horizon, but there was no point in worrying about where the tornadoes were going to touch down.
Ian Midgley is the director of The Spark, a documentary about being the change you want to see in the world.