Orga(ni)smic Communities

Mark Morford makes a nice contribution to an ongoing shift in the discussion about what we eat, approvingly citing Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” and intelligently reframing the tired opposition between vegetarian and omnivore in favor of an ecologically informed emphasis on local vs. industrial. This ongoing discussion seems like one of the most potent entry points to a deeper shift in our sensibilities these days. I’ve been reading a few different things that underpin this feel-good shift with some interesting reconceptualizing analyses.

One book I acquired a couple of months ago is “Soil and Civilization” by Edward Hyams, written in 1952. I’ve only read the beginning of the book, but already it’s quite fascinating, rethinking human history from the point of view of the relationship to different kinds of soil giving rise to pastoral or agricultural societies. Any history can be accused of narrowly promoting its own framework as an oversimplification of complex histories. Hyams acknowledges as much himself. Nevertheless, in spite of a somewhat Eurocentric approach (or Euro-Asia-centric anyway), he has a good account of the emergence of agriculture on the Nile and in Mesopotamia based on millennia of alluvial soil deposits in the river flood plains. Alternately he describes the rise of pastoralism as a phenomena of loess soils produced by glacial grinding and wind, leading to grasses suitable for ruminants, which in turn eventually lead to domesticated livestock. I’m oversimplifying it of course, but it leads to my larger point about the interrelationship of organisms that, while obvious, is finally starting to gain some real traction in everyday thinking. Hyams’ argument is basically that humans are but one member of a larger community of life tied fundamentally to the soil. And soil is an incredibly dense and interdependent environment of symbiotic and parastic (mostly bacteriological) species that are the basic source of the entire food chain.

Another book I’m reading that continues this theme is Dan Dagget’s “Gardeners of Eden“. It’s a beautifully photographed book that has the goal of derailing the “leave it alone” mentality that has dominated contemporary environmentalism for a while now. Dagget goes around visiting various members of what he has dubbed the “lost tribe,” folks who are working in mostly arid western landscapes to regenerate the once rich wetlands and grass prairies. Their technique often depends on cattle, herded together to serve as an organic pulse on the landscape, breaking up the crusty surface, leaving behind fertilizing manure, helping to stomp in the native plant seeds that are “broadcast” ahead of their arrival. In study after study, Dagget shows how human use of the land is often the key (almost as in ‘keystone’ species) to bringing back a thriving biodiversity, and in areas that have been fenced off and left alone to ‘recover’ a weird desertification or monoculture fills the space.

Dagget links his observable case studies to new anthropological evidence, presented compellingly in Charles Mann’s “1491,” a book-length treatment of arguments he was developing in various articles, showing how the pre-Columbian landscapes of the Americas were actually products of human ingenuity and ecological “management” much more than the eurocentric notion of a wilderness or an untouched natural world. The Amazon, the Great Plains, the Ohio River valley, and most of the landscapes of North America contain strong evidence of human intervention. The Amazonian tribes, considered pre-agricultural during decades of anthropological investigation, are being rediscovered as brilliant horticulturists who managed to produce a landscape abundant with food requiring relatively little daily work to maintain. A similar argument could be made for the pre-European SF Bay Area, a temperate paradise with incredibly rich food in the Bay and the surrounding hills, in which locals had no concept of “work” as a separate category from the intelligent inhabitation of a richly abundant landscape… whoo boy did that ever get messed up!

The emerging sensibilities about soil health underpin a lot of biodynamic agriculture and permacultural thinking. Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma has a whole section on the amazing results of a ‘grass farmer’ in Maryland (who also happens to be a Bob Jones Univ. graduate and fundamentalist Xtian) who has developed an intensive system of turning sunlight into high quality protein via 110 acres of grasses. It’s a fantastic read and inspiring story.

Ahead on my list is Mycelium Running, which deals in detail with the role of mushrooms, fungi and mycorrhizae in maintaining healthy soils and providing the basic sustenance of countless plants to grow. Going way back evolutionarily we find that the cellular forms we have as basic structural elements required a merger of bacteria and earlier cells to create the basis for life as we know it, making us descendents of bacteria! I’m going mushroom hunting tomorrow so I’ll have some photos and stories in my next entry I’m sure.

There’s an important social (albeit somewhat banal and reductionistic) point to this ecological rumination, which is that we are fundamentally communitarian, connected, and interdependent. During my just finished Thanksgiving retreat many of us were in conversation about community, driven in part by the slow but steady emergence of more friends getting sick, needing help, and the lack of a social infrastructure beyond that which we can create for ourselves. But as we get older we all ponder our ‘security’ in later years, wondering who will be there when we need help. More than that, there’s the inescapable and essential joy of sharing, of connecting, of making meaning together in our everyday lives.

Some of our conversation touched on the disappointment(s) many of us have felt as our sense of community (vague, to be sure) was betrayed by a lack of engagement when we thought we might be able to expect it. No doubt this will be an ongoing challenge for all of us, how to feel the community we have without feeling so disappointed when it doesn’t meet our unspoken expectations! We might consider elucidating those expectations, of course, but we don’t actually meet in person too often. The nature of our connectedness in community is completely undefined beyond our mutual pleasure in each others’ company (and our now decade-long experience of meeting up for a 4-5 day Thanksgiving get-away). On top of those logistic realities, we’re all getting older and more focused on whatever paths our lives have taken. As this happens, it’s not surprising that vague ideas of ‘community’ might begin to break down or lose their strength–in other words, when we’re younger our sense of ‘community’ means something, but as we get older whatever our sense of that was can become diminished in the face of more powerful connections, a deeper sense of our personal trajectory and meaning and purpose, etc. that we develop over time. So the reality of our community is likely the same as it ever was, but our own lives have more depth and thickness and meaning, rendering the old familiar community somewhat superficial and thin by comparison…

Nevertheless, our need for mutualistic lives is as compelling as ever. Part of why I write this is my hope to find that brain (and body!) out there who wants to meet me, who senses a shared mission, a larger engagement with life that these ruminations point to… Because even though I live in a dense web of projects, activities, social opportunities, great friends, et al, I often notice how profoundly alone I am too. Perhaps that is our basic condition, to hold both our individual isolation with our dense connections and mutual interdependence all at once, skating the hills and dales of depression and elation as the sun or the rain or the moon inspires us…

ok. enough for now. hasta la proxima (and keep your eye on Mexico!)

1 comment to Orga(ni)smic Communities

  • hibiscus

    wow nifty

    we’re a bunch of trees, but we’re being a bad forest in terms of measuring the success of the ones growing at our feet

    damn! why didn’t i see that before! we’re a fucking forest!

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