Bruce Teeple | The Culture of Agriculture

Most gardeners don’t need news reports to learn about declining bat, bee and earthworm populations. We can see it for ourselves.

We also know our most valuable investment is right beneath our feet. Our gold is brown, not yellow.

There’s no price of admission to the show in our backyards. We have front-row seats to witness the timeless cycles of birth, death and return.

Every actor on this stage — from the humblest bacterium to the emergent seedling to the rotting root — climbs the rungs on life’s twisting ladder.

No wonder the ancient Egyptians worshiped the scarab, or dung beetle. It’s the ultimate recycler, releasing new life. Belief systems like to borrow such agricultural symbols.

We just can’t take them literally.

As scientific inquiry sought respectability alongside religion, philosophers argued that “natural laws,” “rational principles” and “self-evident truths” controlled everyone and everything.

But these dubious quests for absolute certainty have half-lives. When they persist, they usually become pathological. The market’s “invisible hand” (doing what?) was merely sleight-of-hand. “Survival of the fittest” turned into a fraudulent, self-fulfilling prophecy excusing bad behavior.

Gardeners know how and where to shovel the world’s dreck, whether it’s from bulls, chickens or horses. Life in the garden, like history, isn’t always pretty, predictable or perfect.

Every ideology yearns for those “good old days” of an untouched, unchanging, undemanding Eden. But that’s nonsense; it never existed. You can’t escape the human footprint.

The pleasure of gardening doesn’t come from self-righteous ranting for or against chemicals. It’s from working with what we have and sharing what we’ve learned by observing and tinkering.

Chicken tractors, for example, are cheap, effective alternatives to rototillers. The hens not only devour bug eggs, they till, weed and fertilize as you move them around the garden.

Daikon radishes grow and rot to work wonders. Their roots quickly drill down 8 feet to bring up nutrients, as their lush top growth smothers weeds.

If you and your neighbors propagate and share cuttings from your gardens, everyone saves money. Teas from comfrey leaves, grass clippings and manures make all the free, complete fertilizer you need.

When you work the soil, you notice how things seek some rough balance over time. Wet years raise the water table; too much rainfall encourages mold and disease. Dry years raise sugar levels in fruits. Cold winters kill bugs that plague us in the summer heat.

Gardeners don’t put all of their eggs in one basket. Soils, like people, need variety. No monoculture lasts forever. Regardless of the species, diverse plantings have healthier gene pools and life spans.

As Wendell Berry notes, agriculture isn’t just an economic necessity, it’s a political, historical and moral one, too. When societies lose the “culture” of agriculture, they forget where food comes from and how it’s grown. The mad mystique of machines and markets becomes more important than taste buds, health and community.

At this point, we need to ask ourselves, “Are we destined to treat each other as neighbors or as commodities?”