We like to think of ourselves as humble (or omnipotent) stewards of the Earth. We like to believe that we are the most powerful force in nature. That plants grow because we will them to. In fact, our will contributes significantly to our ability to produce huge amounts of staple foods, animal products, and even organic vegetables. Our mighty plow churns through the soil, our hands wrangle the uninvited weeds, and lo and behold, the seeds we painstakingly nurture in plastic houses set root and flourish in our fields.
After many long days working on an organic farm this summer in New York (check out the flashback post) I realized that I am not truly powerful in this relationship. Humans can parry with the forces encroaching on our every seedling, threatening to gobble up (damn deer!) or stunt (weeds and drought) the results of our labor. We fight a good, hard battle. And our farmer’s market table exhibits the heavy fruits of our labor. Like damn, those crates of summer squash required full squat protocol and a whole new layer of muscle on my ass.
These vegetables are some of the most delicious, nutritious foods I’ve ever encountered. There’s levels to this shit: Walmart veggies=colorful molds of water, Wholefoods veggies=organic watery Californian relics, farmer’s market veggies=oh, that’s what that tastes like, and silver slicer cucumbers straight off the vine=paradise. I’d rather eat silver slicer cucumbers off the vine than any and all candies in the world.
Now, not everyone can muck about in cucurbit vines wrenching over for little gastronomic glimpses of elysium. That’s totally understandable. I’m not doing that either nowadays (though I plan to, as soon as these Floridian gardens start popping off). And furthermore, the tremendous effort required to prepare the soil, irrigation, greenhouse, and then to maintain optimal growing conditions (while praying that cucumber beetles don’t raid your work) leads me to wonder: is this really stewardship? Of course, it is hard to be idealistic in such a world that demands so much of us economically. Small-scale organic farms struggle to maintain altitude with all the impinging costs and unforeseeable disasters haunting the corner of each new season.
Here’s an article that I resonated deeply with this last summer while on the farm: https://www.salon.com/2015/02/10/what_nobody_told_me_about_small_farming_i_cant_make_a_living/
It’s about loving the process, which tends to feel more like a struggle. In a society that values the heroic dynamic of the endless struggle towards progress (and salvation) the organic farm fits perfectly uncomfortably in that ethos.
Yet I saw the toll it took on my fellow farmhands, the stress and tension that boiled over often and irreversibly in the end of the summer season.
We can see how psycho it is to basically plunge the imperial phallus of human technology into the Earth and decimate all that is not our semen or subsequent corn-child. Conventional agriculture requires huge amounts of fossil-fuel based inputs along with pesticides and genetic tinkering (not that genetics cannot be harnessed for good) that ultimately leave the soil barren. In Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations David Montgomery emphasizes the fundamental importance of healthy soil in a society:
“Small societies are particularly vulnerable to disruption of key lifelines, such as trading relations, or to large perturbations like wars or natural disasters. Larger societies, with more diverse and extensive resources, can rush aid to disaster victims. But the complexity that brings resilience may also impede adaptation and change, producing social inertia that maintains collectively destructive behavior. Consequently, large societies have difficulty adapting to slow change and remain vulnerable to problems that eat away their foundation, such as soil erosion. In contrast, small systems are adaptable to shifting baselines but are acutely vulnerable to large perturbations. But unlike the first farmer-hunter-gatherers who could move around when their soil was used up, a global civilization cannot.”
We are sitting on land that is becoming increasingly more barren as we demand more and more from it. At the same time, we expect our economy to grow and grow. I’m not trying to convey a false notion of scarcity, but rather a phenomenological reality: we can’t keep treating the Earth this way. If you go to a place where the inhabitants value indigenous, permaculture principles you’ll be amazed by the abundance of nutrient-rich food sources always available, and the diversity of species that interact with the plants in that area. Yet, from the perspective of a city-dweller, Wholefoods organic vegetables seem like a luxurious, albeit necessary dip into an artificially restricted reservoir running off of an ocean of abundance.
How do we reconcile the ideals and abundance with the economic stranglehold that staves us from actualization? We take a step back, and observe what the fuck is actually going on beside our neat straight rows of crops. We embrace vulnerability and change, the need for adaptation rather than subjugation. We realize that for all our powers and technology, we are still nothing more than pollinators, meant to poop the seeds of seductive bright globules of fructose from our anuses, capable of moving far and wide with our slender bipedal frame.
Yet we are highly intelligent and capable of calculated interaction. We don’t just eat and shit fruit and expect that to grow a forest. We need integrated, perennial systems of food production. We need to interact with all the spectrums of life on Earth. We need to rethink the staple foods we rely on for the bulk of our calories. We need to get out of our fucking heads and shove our glossy white fingernails deep in the soil. We need to stop fighting the world and listen to it. We need, despite our incredible capacity for intervention and manipulation, to remember that we are just pollinators among pollinators.
Maybe one day, we can just eat fruit and shit. For now, we must plant that future.