The Story of Here Begins

To read the first post in this series, "The Story of Here Begins" click here.

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Tao of Farming

I have officially given up on the green beans at New Leaf Gardens. This year it was their turn to remind me that farming is nearly always an exercise in letting go.

We like to think that modern life has been made entirely mathematical, reduced to a predictable algebraic equation. In Math World most functions are linear and most variables can be boiled down to a single letter of the alphabet. If you want a good harvest of X just plug in a value for Y and solve for Z. Simple. If you get the wrong answer it’s your own fault—probably something to do with the order of operations.

If this is indeed a rule (a questionable premise), then let’s just say that farming is an exception. Take our green beans for instance.

The vines came up, deep green and gorgeous, as they always do. They put on radiant, flirtatious blossoms, as hopeful as teenagers at a school dance. A handful of them did more than flirt, and they grew up overnight into respectable beans. I hoped the rest would follow along; but they are stubbornly content to tease and titter and wait till next year. They look good, but it seems that’s the only satisfaction we’re going to get.

Why? Who knows? A paucity of pollinators? Perhaps, but unlikely. Our own bee hives are a mere block away, and I know of several others in the neighborhood as well. Not enough water? Too much? Soil pH not to their liking? The porridge was too hot? Too cold? You can drive yourself crazy wondering where the sweet spot of “just right” lies from one year to the next. Taking too much responsibility is not only foolish, it’s arrogant.

Sometimes plants simply wake up on the wrong side of the bed, and nothing you can say or do will brighten their sulking mood. That’s not what the chemical sales rep or the county extension agent wants you to hear—but it’s the truth.

Sure, there is a science to farming that is important. You ignore the factors listed above at your peril. But there is also an art to it that is nothing short of mystical--Taoist, in fact. As Stephen Mitchell's translation of the Tao te Ching says, "Governing a country (or tending a farm) is like frying a small fish. You spoil it with too much poking." 

To let go of the outcome and avoid excessive "poking" requires us to accept that we don’t “manufacture” our food; we facilitate its arrival. As any good midwife will tell you, the best birth is one in which she does what is prudent—and then gets the hell out of the way. The baby is coming (or not), is healthy (or not) largely under its own steam. The outcome is not ours to “guarantee”—only to influence as best we can. For all our big-brained expertise, at the end of the day we are all carried along, just like every other creature on earth, by a great current of Invisible Mystery. It’s nothing personal—just the way things are.

This is the knowledge that awaits us as peak oil, and the financial contractions that inevitably follow, begins to take hold and to shrink our world: We aren’t in control. Some of the things we try, in an effort to re-localize our lives, will yield a bumper crop. Some will put on lots of leaves but no fruit. Others will refuse to germinate at all, no matter what we do.

That’s why diversity is so bloody important, mono-culturists be damned. This winter when I go to the root cellar I will mourn the lack of green beans on the shelf. Then I’ll shrug and reach for a jar of beets instead; or corn, cabbage, sauerkraut, black-eyed peas (yes, my roots are in the South), tomatoes, pickles, eggplant, chard, Brussel sprouts, squash, sweet peas, spinach, sweet potatoes, red potatoes, okra, onions, peppers. For every failure, there are usually a dozen successes, for those who bother to plant the seeds. That’s the mystery of it.

Had we planted nothing but beans, we’d be in big trouble now. Likewise, if we put all our time and resources into one version of “preparation” for the coming storms, we could get lucky, I suppose. But odds are better that we’d live to regret a lack of well-developed options. I learned a long time ago, navigating the back alley shops of Seoul, Korea, that there is no such thing as a “one-size-fits-all” shirt.

Having drawn a ten-mile circle around my home to define my world, I fervently hope there are many others like me out there getting to know their neighbors, resurrecting community, and working on the practical problems of doing for themselves. I also hope they aren’t carbon copies of each other. We need each other’s unique contributions like never before. 


Peak said...

Thanks, Alan.

risa said...

We had this experience as well. Summer things not so good or even never made a showing -- spring things still looking great -- individual cabbages and kale taking up six feet of the garden all by themselves. Weird! Not in our 35 years of gardening have we seen the like. We rolled with it and have been dehydrating brassica leaves, making them into little flakes that go on (and in) everything.

Alan Ray said...'re welcome.

Risa...weird is right! Of course, with all the changes occurring on the earth right now the weirder thing might be to see no effect at all. Rolling with it is the skill of the future I expect.


Suburban Guy said...

Same thing here in Austin. Beautiful vines, very healthy, tons of blossoms, but no beans.


Life goes on.

Alan Ray said...


Odd indeed, though in our present state of flux it is hard to know what is "odd" anymore. We'd better get used to it, I suspect.


Wandering Sage said...

heaps of beans here in vermont...and I've never seen so many tomatoes. but things do seem rather strange...just a feeling