This is an article I wrote before the Open Space event we organised in June 2013. The purpose of the event was to explore how to find what is useful in 21st century culture, nourishing in Nature, and ways to integrate both as we move forward.Open Space is an enjoyable and effective way for a group of people to organise itself around an issue. Dr Sheila Marsh of Public Service Works kindly agreed to facilitate the event, and Garden Organic offered to host it.
Background to the question
Here are some of the considerations that led to the invitation.
Starting point: the disconnect. We humans are bound to planet Earth by gravity. We breathe its air every moment of our lives. Our bodies are made of the stuff of the Earth. And yet … we spend most of our time in rectangular rooms, looking at the rest of the world through rectangular windows. We buy our food from shops, through intermediaries who bought it from other intermediaries, leading back ultimately to someone who cultivated a part of the Earth to obtain it. We live in a sort of virtual world, populated with artificial importances (money or the lack of it, the house we live in, what we possess – each of us with our particular flavour of artificiality). Have we lost the sentiment, the perception of the REALITY of our connectedness to the Earth, and the recognition of what that implies?
Historical context Modern human civilisation has been around for a remarkably short time in planetary terms. If you take a human generation as 20 years or five to a century (probably not the case in the twentieth century but more so before then) 500 generations takes us back to the first farmers after the last Ice Age, the so-called Neolithic Agricultural Revolution. Bacteria in a petrie dish go through 500 generations in an hour, so this timespan is very short for humans to accommodate all the changes that have happened to us. Before the development of agriculture, the norm for human beings was the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, much more intimately connected with the rhythms and life of the Earth. That way of living lasted for considerably longer than 500 generations.
The effect of the disconnect The Neolithic revolution led to an agricultural surplus that has in turn allowed some extraordinary achievements. If I were to make a personal list it would include Sibelius’ 5th symphony, Keith Jarrett’s Cologne concert, Durer’s painting of a clump of grass, the Alhambra at Granada, the internet – achievements that can all be traced back to the relief from the requirement to go and find our food every day. Achievements that make me proud to be a member of the species that created them. It is as if the Neolithic revolution set us humans on a different trajectory, perhaps parallel to the one we might have followed without it. The disconnect is not ‘good’ or ‘bad’. It is what happened. First questions: has the disconnect served its purpose? Is it time to think about ways to reconnect, to reintegrate?
There are seven billion humans on the planet. How does this influence our consideration of these questions?
Farming versus gardening. Farming provides nourishment for the body by exploiting the Earth, and provides enough of a surplus to allow civilisation to continue, including the technology that allows me to write this. Gardening is more holistic, providing food for the body and lifting the spirits. It was time spent at Ryton Organic Gardens that prompted me to write this. What is the relationship between farming and gardening? Are both part of the way forward? Is all human intervention with the Earth necessarily to be avoided? Or do humans bring something else when they create a garden?
More on artificiality. The food crops we grow on our farms and in our gardens often have to be carefully tended, as they have been selectively bred by humans. Tending them involves removing the weeds that grow naturally and are more adapted to the local environment. The wild food movement has prompted a rethink of weeds. Is there further to go? Why do I trust the food from seeds in a packet more than from those that grow without my input? (As a secondary thought, this leads to consideration of the human activity of plant-collecting, which can itself be traced back to the Neolithic Revolution).
Trust versus fear. We have been so conditioned to buy our food from shops or grow particular crops, that I was hesitant to pick and eat a hawthorn shoot direct from the bush in spring (delicious and energising). Fewer people in my area pick blackberries in autumn. Another aspect of the disconnect, maybe.
Concluding thought I suspect that it was through contemplation of these areas that the organic movement was born. Where is the leading edge now? What can be born out of looking at these issues now, over half a century later?
‘Does our approach to growing food rely on what we have been instructed to do, or what we feel is the right way to treat soil and plants? In my case I am thinking of digging! But a lot of other things too eg sterilising pots, fertilising soil, not watering plants in sunlight, feeding soil not plants etc. Even thoughtful, organic gardeners seem reluctant to trust their hunches, when in conflict with main teachings.’