Crossing the Internal Frontiers

Agri-Culture book coverExcerpt from: Agri-Culture

  • Publisher: Earthscan
  • First published: 2002 (English edition), 2005 (Japanese edition)
  • ISBN: 978-1-85383-925-2 (English edition)

Redesign and Aldo Leopold

Human connectedness to nature has deep roots, as for five to seven million years we walked this earth as hunters and gatherers, entirely dependent on our knowledge of wild resources, and on our collective capacity to gather plants and catch animals. About ten to twelve thousand years ago, we began to domesticate plants and animals. For most of the time since then, the culture of food production was intimately bound up in some form of collective action, and in an intimate knowledge of nature. Where city states emerged, as in Greece, Rome, Mesopotamia, China, Maya and mediaeval Europe, then the number of people no longer needing this intimate connection for their livelihoods grew. But it was not until the advent of the agricultural and industrial revolutions, just two hundred years ago, that food production in some countries began its drift away from the majority of the population. It is barely two generations since agricultural became industrial, and modernist agriculture came to dominate, and transferred food into only a commodity. This industrialisation of a basic human connection has undermined many things.

So for three hundred and fifty thousand generations, we care and hunt, use and overuse, harvest and replant, cut and re-seed, and from all this emerges the human condition. Not a type of condition – but how we are. The state of the world is an outcome of this relationship. For generations, our effects were globally benign, though not necessarily locally. Today, though, we are largely disconnected, and because of that we are less likely to notice when the environment is further degraded, or when valued resources are captured and damaged by others. We are satisfied to know, or at least believe we are, that more and more food is being produced. But if we lack the innate connections, we no longer question when environmental and social problems emerge. We do not notice that the extrinsic is damaged at the same time as the intrinsic withers away. Though these breakdowns are symptoms of systemic disarray, there is still hope.

There is a great hero in landscape and community regeneration, and he is the fictional creation of author, Jean Giono, resident of Manosque in France for most of his life. In TheMan Who Planted Trees, Elzéard Bouffier, shepherd and silent roamer of the hills and valleys of Provence, helps to transform a whole rural system. Giono stands alongside all the greats of nature and wilderness writing, perhaps surpassing many as his concerns are centred on the connection between land and its people, and on what each can do for the other. According to translator Norma Goodrich, Giono termed his confidence in the futureespérance, the word describing the condition of living in hopeful tranquillity.

In the fiction, the narrator comes upon Elzéard planting acorns amidst a desertified landscape. There are no trees or rivers, houses are in ruin, and a few solitary people eke out a meagre living. “In 1913, this hamlet of ten or twelve houses had three inhabitants… hating one another… all about the nettles were feeding upon the remains of abandoned houses. Their condition had been beyond hope”. The unnamed narrator returns five years later, then again in twelve years, and finally thirty-two years after the original visit. Over all this time, Elzéard continues to plant acorns, and seedlings of beech and birch, and the landscape is steadily transformed. When the forest emerges, then the wildlife returns, the rivers run freely, and the community is regenerated. “Everything had changed. Even the air. Instead of the harsh dry winds that used to attack me, a gentle breeze was blowing, laden with scents. A sound like water came from the mountains: it was the wind in the forest….Ruins had been cleared away, dilapidated walls torn down… The new houses, freshly plastered, were surrounded by gardens where vegetables and flowers grew in orderly confusion, cabbages and roses, leeks and snapdragons, celery and anemones. It was now a village where one would like to live”. This is the glorious key to whole landscape redesign – the creation of places where we would really like to live in espérance.

Most of the main principles for redesign are present in this story. There is leadership from a hero, someone willing to take a risk, to do something different for the benefit of more than themselves. There is ecological literacy, with knowledge about the particulars of local agroecology helping to shape actions. There is the building of social and natural assets as foundations for life and for sustainability. There is also a sense of how long it takes, but just how good are the rewards. But the shepherd is a loner, and achieves change only on a small scale. This new agricultural sustainability revolution will not happen all at once. It will take time, and require the coordinated efforts millions of communities worldwide. But of one thing we should no longer be in any doubt. This is the way forward, and it offers real hope for our world and its interdependent people and biodiversity.

An Ethic for Land, Nature and Food Systems

Aldo LeopoldAldo Leopold’s masterpiece, Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There, was published in 1949, a year after his death. His greatest contribution to us all was the idea of the land ethic. This is a proposal for an ecological, ethical and aesthetic science to shape human interactions with, and as a part of, nature. Leopold’s land ethic sets out the idea that the beauty and integrity of nature should be protected and preserved from our actions.

Ethics is about limits to freedoms. We are free to destroy nature (and we do), yet we should prescribe and accept certain limits. Leopold sees humans as part of nature, not separated as distant observers or meddlers. In the Sand County Almanac, he says ”We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect… That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics.” Such an ethic should be “a differentiation of social and anti-social conduct”.

Aldo Leopold's Shack Aldo Leopold's Shack Now
Aldo Leopold’s shack – then and now

This land ethic implies thinking of land and community as a connected network of parts, which includes us as humans, and in which each element possesses intrinsic rights. There are many different views of this land ethic: some say it is visionary, others that it is dangerous nonsense. But the point remains that most people in industrialised countries still see nature as a bundle of resources separate from us. Thus the land ethic remains radical, more than half a century after it was woven together by Leopold.

In truth, such an ethic is what makes us human – the recognition of and respect for these limits. Freedoms are vital, but we have obligations and responsibilities too. If we accept that we are an intricate part of something, as we are of communities of the world, or that something is a part of us, as are our livers or lungs, it should be absurd to engage in some action that endangers a component, since the whole will suffer. The Amazon is not a part of me, so I may destroy it. Yet if I do so, the consequences for the atmosphere are severe, and in the end I will suffer. Leopold understood the connection between economies and nature: “I realise that every time I turn on an electric light, or ride on a Pullman, or pocket the unearned investment on a stock or a bond, or a piece of real estate, I am `selling out’ to the enemies of conservation… When I pour cream in my coffee, I am helping to drain a marsh to graze, and to exterminate the birds of Brazil. When I go birding or hunting in my Ford, I am devastating an oil field, and re-electing an imperialist to get me rubber”.

Aldo Leopold's First Daughter Aldo Leopold Working Aldo Leopold's Second Daughter

These choices matter. They do in today’s food system. Each time we buy some food, our choices make a difference to nature and communities somewhere – though there is perhaps a danger of overstating the power of consumers in the face of structural economic constraints. We are connected within a much larger system, and we can make these connections work to the good – if we wish. Albert Howard was one of the most influential of British scientists to take an holistic view of the connections between nature and people. He spent twenty-six years in India, and developed the Indore Process in which modern scientific knowledge was applied to ancient methods. He called for a restoration of agriculture based on an improvement to the health of the whole system, saying that “the birthright of all living things is health. This law is true for soil, plant, animal and humans: the health of these four is one connected chain. Any weakness or defect in the health of any earlier link in the chain is carried on to the next and succeeding links, until it reaches the last, namely us”.

What do we need to do differently? Perhaps the most compelling of Aldo Leopold’s essays is a short but brilliant piece called Thinking Like a Mountain, in which he details the relationship between the wolf, deer and mountain in Arizona. He first recalls his own shooting of a mother wolf caring for a tumbling pack of cubs: “in those days, we never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf”, and then mourns their loss and his earlier lack of understanding. He goes on to describe the consequences of eliminating the wolves, for, without them, the deer expand too greatly in numbers, and the mountain loses all its vegetation. In the end the whole system collapses. He says “Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of the wolf. Those unable to decipher the hidden meaning know nevertheless that it is there, for it is felt in all wolf country, and distinguishes that country from all other land”. These interconnections are true, though, of all lands, and are again something that Leopold saw, echoing Thoreau’s phrase of almost a century earlier: “In wildness is the salvation of the world. Perhaps this is the hidden meaning in the howl of the wolf, long known among mountains, but seldom perceived among men”.