Monday, August 29, 2011

Living on one's own terms

I don't care to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members.

-Groucho Marx

a land ethics changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it.

-Aldo Leopold

I've always identified myself as a Marxist, a Groucho Marxist that is, since I've always resisted joining clubs, especially those that wanted me to join them. It must be somehow built in to my character because long before I'd even heard of Groucho Marx, let alone was capable of thinking about the idea of living on my own terms, I refused to join the Cub Scouts because they wanted me to pledge allegiance to God, Country and Community. That, I thought, had little to do with learning how to tie knots, whittle and build campfires, and everything to do with submitting to rules that were made up by adults without asking me for my input. I was a difficult child, I guess. Over the years I have figured out how to rationalize and defend my resistance to joining clubs that wanted me as a member -- it is because living on my own terms, living autonomously, is simply incompatible with submitting to the arbitrary authority of others, especially those who claim to know what is really right for me. If I am autonomous, this literally means that I am a law unto myself, guided by my best lights, of course and respectful of all other autonomous agents out there. It was thus a short step from identifying myself as a Groucho Marxist to becoming the grouchy anarchist I've been accused of being.

Lately, however, and this brings me to the real subject of this blog entry, I've begun to rethink my commitment to the ideas of Groucho Marx. Living here at D Acres has made me start to question my assumption that living on my own terms is best done alone, detached from other people and from the complex web of interconnections that Aldo Leopold calls the land-community. In fact, it's starting to seem that the opposite is true, that, ironically, it is only by embracing community that it is really possible to live autonomously.

Where to begin? How about with the potatoes that we are beginning to harvest. There have been other blog postings by my comrades here on the potato crop so I won't go into too much detail about what we have been doing. The basic idea is that we clear a patch of forest, with the help of the oxen, then turn it over to the pigs who then spend a year or so rooting up the remaining vegetation. After we move the pigs out we use lots of people power to first lay out beds along the contours of the land, working around the remaining stumps; then we loosen and aerate the compacted soil with a broadfork, plant potatoes on the surface and cover them with enormous amounts of compost and hay. Over the course of the growing season we hand pick potato bugs daily in half of the field. Twice this summer we hilled up the plants with still more enormous amounts of compost and mulch hay. This year we planted about 1500 row feet of potatoes and expect to harvest somewhere between two and three thousand pounds of mature potato tubers. We'll store as many of these potatoes as possible in the root cellar for eating over the long New England winter when the gardens are covered in snow. What we don't eat ourselves we will cook for visitors at our regular food events or for overnight hostel guests, or sell to local restaurants.

So what do potatoes have to do with community, and its strange connection with living on one's own terms? Well, somewhat surprisingly, they have quite a bit to do with these more abstract topics and in a few different ways. Most obviously, they are a delicious and nutritious part of the meals we share with each other and with people who live nearby or visit us from further away. To live on one's own terms, first you have to eat. And living on one's own terms in this age of mass produced, heavily processed food of distant and often unknown origin, as more people are beginning to see, requires bringing food production back home. That to my mind is the point of the growing local food movement -- more autonomous eating: less dependence on global supply chains; less reliance on ethically objectionable practices like the use of virtual slave labor in the fields of Florida and California and Chile and China; less use of toxins with unknown and dubious effects on our bodies and the planet; less undemocratically won, heavily subsidized profits to giant agribusiness corporations; less hidden brutality towards the animals we eat; more healthy and tasty fresh food on the plate. Every year there are more local farmer's markets, more people buy seeds and plant gardens, more people preserve and store their own food for the time of year when the gardens and fields around them lay dormant. That's a club I am more than willing to join.

The way we approach food fosters both community building and living on one's own terms in a more immediate way, since here at D Acres we share many meals as well as the responsibility of cooking for each other and our guests. We share our midday and evening meals during the week which gives all of a welcome bit of time to socialize during an otherwise busy work week. Every day during the week one person prepares lunch, mostly from leftovers, and two people collaborate on dinner. Since there are currently ten of us living here, this means that for most of the week we get to enjoy together delicious meals prepared by our landmates and our mealtime responsibilities just involve helping out with the dishes. It sure beats having to do it all yourself, or fall back on industrially mass produced convenience food bought at a store with cash. So here community means independence and living on one's own terms.

Back to the potatoes -- growing them as we do, without reliance on fossil fuels for tilling the soil, or applying fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides, pesticides (all made from natural gas, coal or petroleum), requires nothing but the coordinated efforts of the whole crew. Community once again. We all contribute our labor power to bring in loads of compost, fill buckets, run them out into the field, dump them on the seed potatoes or plants, pick bugs, add more compost and hay as needed and eventually harvest, clean, store and cook the fruits of our labor. To make things as efficient as possible nobody is wedded to any one role, and all of us switch out with each other throughout the days when we are doing a potato planting or hilling marathon. If someone's back is giving out from bending over the plants with full buckets of compost, they can "rest" with a round of shoveling. If there is a bottleneck in the system, like too many full buckets waiting to be run into the field, one of the bucket fillers will run some buckets out to those depositing the compost where it is needed. We all work hard, but also recognize our different levels of physical ability and conditioning. All of this requires enormous amounts of trust and commitment to a common cause. And these are based on our recognition that we are all doing this for the sake of living on our own terms. Groucho, and so many other people who have lived in the modern world of competitive, capitalist individualism, overlook how collective accomplishment bridges the gap between living on one's own terms and doing things with and for other people. The payoff for all and for each is in the promise of the best french fries imaginable, but it is also in the huge sense of accomplishment that comes from seeing the potato crop flourish in an area that was very recently rocky forest land without much in the way of food for us on offer. All of us recognize that we could not have done it alone.

Under the surface of the soil, making all of this possible, is another kind of community that until recently, I didn't pay much attention to. Although I've known for a while that good organic farming practices are based on the principle that one should feed the soil and not the plants, it was never quite clear to me what this meant in practical terms. It turns out that the soil in which we grow food is an amazingly complex and finely tuned biological community. Leopold's land-community extends beneath the surface in ways that scientists and farmers are only now really learning to appreciate. Conventional agriculture treats soil like an inert place in which to put plants while they grow, supplying them with externally generated "inputs" to insure that they get the nutrients they need and that they are not eaten by pests or out-competed by weeds. This is a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy in that it is precisely by treating the soil this way, by the application of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides and pesticides, as well as by driving heavy machinery back and forth over farmland that the soil becomes an inert, dead medium and thus plants require these inputs to survive. Before the conventional farmer showed up there were almost unbelievably many organisms living in the soil working in conjunction with plants to serve the needs of each and all. To quote from a book I've been reading lately,

an acre of good garden soil contains several pounds of small mammals; 133 pounds of protozoa; 900 pounds each of earthworms, arthropods and algae; 2000 pounds of bacteria; and 2400 pounds of fungi.

-Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis, Teaming with Microbes: The Organic Gardener's Guide to the Soil Food Web, revised edition, 2010, Timber Press

Our potato field is roughly an acre in size and with any luck will yield between two and three thousand pounds of potatoes. That almost equals the combined total of bugs and worms living in the soil, not counting other organisms too small to be seen by the naked eye which would more than quadruple the sheer mass of living things that call this field home. All of these organisms are not just lumped in the soil together like so many bags of fertilizer. Instead, they are organized in a complex set of relationships that, like our work crews, make the whole much more than the sum of its parts.

Consider first just the worms. 900 pounds of earthworms translates into roughly a million of them tirelessly but gently mixing the soil, creating tunnels lined with their nutrient rich castings for easy penetration of plant roots, shredding decaying organic matter thus making it more available to the microorganisms that break it down and recycle essential nutrients for plants and each other. Tilling the soil not only kills countless worms outright, but more crucially destroys all of the work they have done in creating their network of nutrient rich tunnels. Applying chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides disrupts the delicate chemical balances on which they depend for survival and flourishing, let alone outright poisoning them. Leopold was right in his characterization of the conventional modern approach to the land as involving the attempt to conquer it and force it in to submission. And the worms are just the beginning of the collateral damage.

To see how far the conquest of the soil extends under conventional practices consider what is going on in the quarter inch of soil surrounding a plant's roots. Plants secrete sugary liquids, exudates, from their roots which are used as food by certain kinds of bacteria and fungi. These microorganisms contain in their cellular structures many nutrients that the plants themselves need, but can't get on their own. Consequently the microorganisms feed on the sugars secreted by the plants and then in turn die or are eaten and digested by larger organisms like protozoa and nematodes (tiny round worms living in the soil). As a result the nutrients needed by the plant become available at just the rate that the plant can absorb them. In a finely tuned ecosystem like this there is no waste as materials circulate through the system driven by the energy of the sun that is captured by the leaves of the plants. As in any ecological system, this tiny community surrounding the plant's roots depends for its healthy functioning on a proper balance among its diverse components. Too many, or the wrong type of bacteria and fungi, a shortage of protozoa, or not enough root hairs secreting exudates, and the whole system gets out of whack; the plant's health then declines leaving it vulnerable to attack from pests that normally wouldn't do much damage. All of the "additives" applied by conventional agriculture, as well as the standard practices of turning and tilling the soil and driving tractors back and forth across fields to plant, cultivate and harvest disrupt this tiny ecosystem in subtle and not so subtle ways. Conventional agriculture attempts to conquer the soil community and make it work faster and more efficiently. But by destroying the complex ecosystems of the soil it ultimately undermines itself and forces farmers to apply more and more chemical inputs to make up for the declining health of the soil community. The application of externally generated inputs becomes a life support system for a barely surviving fragment of a complex community destroyed by the application of those inputs. Farming like that is certainly not living on one's own terms, however good it may be for the chemical industry.

Now we certainly have to disrupt things in order to convert one ecosystem to another, to take forests with their intact communities of soil organisms and turn them into annual garden beds and perennial planting zones. But we do this in a way that minimizes impact and works with the ecosystems of the soil. The key is of course compost, a living fertilizer and soil builder which comes pre-loaded with bacteria, fungi, protozoa and of course lots of earthworms. Applying plenty of compost to the soil encourages the spread of the organisms needed to sustain the plants we grow. It is not at all the same as applying water soluble chemical fertilizers to directly feed otherwise crippled plants. Instead it is a way of helping the plants we grow for food to live on their own terms by building the kind of community they need to thrive. Appreciating this is the first step in retiring from the role of conqueror and assuming the more modest roles of plain member and citizen of the community. Time to eat some fries with the great people who I live and work with here.

~~ George Matthews ~~

No comments: