Friday, May 20, 2011

Healthy world: human help required

There’s something about preparing the soil for our vegetable beds that reminds me of Pizza Friday.  

On Fridays, we make pizzas and have fancy cocktails (well, martinis for me and red wine for Jocelyn).  It became a tradition on the farm in Argentina, when pangs of longing for NYC pizza and a night out would sometimes pierce our small farming community rural bliss.  So we started making our own pizza dough, thinking up toppings from the garden and local butcher, and pulling city-slicker clothes from the suitcases that had been abandoned under our bed. 

Pizza dough is simple: flour, yeast, salt, sugar and water.  But getting it just right is more difficult, more about the kneading process and getting a feel for what the right consistency of the dough should be.  Adding a pinch of flour or a few drops of water until it’s elastic.

Kneading the dough just right is what I’m thinking about with the pick-axe in my hands on Friday afternoon in our vegetable garden, double-digging another bed.  If you drove by on the road, it might just look like a guy slogging away at the rocky ground, but we’ve got a process here, a plan driven by the hopes that the soil will come out just the way we want it to.  

Just like pizza dough, it’s a pretty simple recipe and goes something like this: dig down a foot and remove the top-soil, break up the soil another foot down with a fork and mix in a good helping of manure, place the sod you removed back in the bottom of the hole for future compost, replace the top-soil and fork in lime and organic material.  Simple recipe, harder to execute in reality.  But it’s what we think is best for the future of our farm.

What I started thinking about is that while most people would accept the idea that human skill and involvement is needed to create the perfect pizza dough, most people would not automatically think the same would be true for a perfectly healthy soil -- or a perfectly healthy natural environment for that matter.  But I believe the work we are doing in the vegetable garden is helping the place be a better version of itself; more beautiful, more rich, more productive, more conducive to life, more a part of its natural eco-system.

One of the most important things we are doing by double-digging is loosening the soil so air, water and nutrients can better move through it and vegetable roots have room to grow.  The soil is largely compacted for natural reasons – thousands of years of little rain-drops hitting the ground like a herd of seven ton elephants if time was condensed (*disclaimer to this metaphor – using the unknown-as-of-then future vegetable garden as our wedding parking lot may have added to soil compaction).

So in our work we are helping to change a natural process which results in making the land more sustaining to life around it; not only ours and hopefully our neighbors, but soil micro-organisms that need soil with space and nutrients, birds that will feed off of the small life forms in the soil, bees and other insects that will feed off of and help pollinate our fruits and vegetables, rabbits and moles and squirrels and deer that will (hopefully only) stare longingly at the produce of our garden from beyond our fence, and the predators that will be drawn to stare longingly at the rabbits, moles, squirrels and deer…the list goes on and on up the chain.

On a farm, examples of this relationship between human help and a healthy natural environment are abundant.  Fruit trees need to be pruned so sun and air reaches the fruit; early fruit buds need to be thinned on each branch to protect the branch from breaking and to produce large, healthy fruit.  Fields need to be mowed every so often to protect against one dominant, fast-growing weed from squeezing out other beneficial grasses.  Vegetable beds need to be weeded and pests controlled to produce a bounty of food.  Forests need to be cleared of low-lying dead brush to prevent against fires and make space for new trees; invasive climbing vines need to be cut from trees before they kill them.  

But all of this work leads to a more important question: what does it mean that human help is required to do this?  In a natural system that we often consider to be so intricately complex and balanced that it goes beyond our full understanding and abilities of prediction, what does it mean that we have a necessary role in helping nature be it’s best, life-sustaining self?

I’m not quite sure what it means yet.

We were having dinner recently with some neighbors that live down the road.  The husband is a professor of political science and we were talking about the weaknesses of the modern environmental movement; its difficulties in convincing the public (beyond the very wealthy who most often are narrowly concentrated on land preservation) about the fundamental dangers that our modern way of living pose to a healthy natural world.  

The problem might best be expressed in the movement’s rallying cry – “Save the Environment!”  The slogan directs us to save something outside of ourselves – “the environment” – and reinforces the outdated belief that we as humans are somehow separate from the environment around us.  The environment we should be striving to save is out there somewhere, in Alaska or Canada, and is filled with howling wolves and snow-capped mountains and glacial lakes.  

But not only is the natural world not outside of ourselves (for better or worse we are a part of it!), but even more importantly, it might just be that we have a designed-in role in helping it remain a place that we can live well in.  

And “the environment” is not only our wild places, but our neighborhoods, schools, and places of work.  It’s the places we live in every day, it’s ourselves, it’s the life around us, it’s life itself. 
Maybe the fact is that a healthy, happy life takes a lot of work by a lot of people; it requires getting our hands in the dirt of the places we live in.  

And maybe at the end of the day, that’s not such a bad thing.  In a modern world when the meaningfulness of the things we call work sometime seem questionable, at least it gives us something to do that we know is necessary and makes the world one we can pass onto the following generations with pride.

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