I have been a gardener for quite a few years now. Not only do I find a whole lot of satisfaction in the physicality of it, and the calluses that I earn every year, I also really enjoy understanding how my little agroecosystem works. I understand nitrogen fixation, the value of both determinate and indeterminate varieties of tomatoes, soil organic matter, and the benefits of mulching. I’ve got a special place in my heart for carbon to nitrogen ratios and good, finished compost. MMMMM. Compost.
I understand the mechanics of how plants grow. You give a plant some water, nutrients, and sunlight and through the process of photosynthesis, carbon dioxide is converted into organic compounds. It is all quite well understood and documented in the textbooks. It is so well-described, in fact, that you’d think it all works like a machine -- linear, assured, and, therefore, easily controllable. A follows B follows C.
But, despite how well I understand it, I am always amazed when a seed that I planted actually sprouts. I am always pleasantly surprised, and a little relieved, when I see those first leaves pushing up through the surface of the soil, and I can’t help but think of it as a miracle each and every time it happens. Even more miraculous is that the tiny little seed, which turns into a plant, that I then care for, will bear fruit. One cannot stand in the garden, eating the first tomato of the season and think of it as an ‘organic compound.’ Manna from heaven is more like it. And I mean that literally. What is the fruit of a plant, but sunlight, organized?
There’s so much involved in the simple act of planting a seed that cannot be articulated through language, and that cannot be explained through scientific processes. It feels miraculous. And just because it’s a miracle that I’ve been a part of doesn’t diminish its mystery. It just makes it mundane, in the sense that it is “of this earthly world rather than a heavenly or spiritual one.” I’m participating in, and even encouraging, a miracle that I don’t entirely understand, but in which I’m deeply implicated. And because I am implicated, my fingerprints are all over it. My garden is, to a great extent, an expression of me. No, that’s not quite right…it’s an expression of my values and of my relationship with the sun and the soil and, by extension, the rich and diverse life contained therein.
As much as we’d like to think that food production is objective and value-less, it is not. That we are implicated means that food producing systems bear cultural marks. They are, in fact, deeply cultural artifacts, laden with social values. Think about what American style food production systems say about us and what we value. They are about uniformity, quantitative output, and efficiency. A focus on those qualities leads one to believe that producing food is the same as producing Fords. But, valuing those qualities means that other qualities, inherent in food production whether we acknowledge them or not, are obscured. In other food production systems, for example, diversity is more highly valued, since diversity can help to ensure an available food supply across a wide range of environmental circumstances: if one crop fails, another survives and people do not starve. A food production system that is guided more by the quality of diversity will look and act differently than one guided by uniformity.
The other day, I went to visit a woman named Saly who is part of my research study. In her small courtyard she is raising turkeys, two varieties of chickens, sheep, and rabbits. The courtyard itself was a hive of activity. There were about six kids running around trying to corral the chickens, two people doing laundry and two women pounding rice to get the hulls off. The rice was from the southern part of Senegal, which is where this family is from and where the food system is grounded in a rice culture. While I was standing there, trying to take in all that was going on around me, Saly brought me a handful of rice, which still had the hull on, and she said, "LOOK at this rice." It was as if she wanted me to see something amazing there. And it was amazing. It was such a moment of insight for me…this food...this sustenance…is so incredibly important and wonderful and beautiful. As mundane food and eating are, they are sacred. It's our (very physical) connection with all the rest of it.