Dirt Eaters

Work, Food, and Communal Transformation

(from the frontlines of a hopeful revolution)

Small and Stupid

Out in New Mexico, at Carlsbad Caverns National Park, there are two ways to get to the caves. One feels pretty standard and unremarkable: you walk into the visitors center, buy a ticket, and hop in an elevator for the long ride down. The other was so incredible, so memorable, that it still shapes my view of the world eight years later. Called the Natural Entrance, it’s a large hole in the ground where you, simply put, walk into the Earth’s crust. Starting out in the Chihuahuan Desert, you wind your way down steep cave walls, past millions of roosting bats and 200,000 ton boulders, until you’re 750 feet underground, in a dark and cool room that was previously an ancient coral reef. You feel like the smallest, most insignificant speck on this massive planet.

I gotta say, I absolutely loved that feeling, and ever since my trip to those caves, I seek it out constantly.

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“Every century we get smaller,” writes Martin Amis in his 1995 novel, The Information. His main character tells the tale of humankind’s gradual dethronement from the center of the universe. First Copernicus, then Darwin, then ever more research showing that we don’t hold monopolies on intelligence, or agriculture, or tool-making, or even language. It seems that we aren’t - contrary to what our brains often tell us - all that different from other animals, or even from plants.

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I found that quote referenced in a recent New Yorker issue that lay on my parents’ staircase when I arrived for all the holiday-ness. It was by Michael Pollan, and it was on plant intelligence. It had basically zilch to do with farming, but it thrust me back into the mind space I occupied while reading about botany a few weeks ago, a mind space of sheer wonder and awe.

In preparation for his botany class, Tyson, our head vegetable grower, had assigned us the better part of Botany for Gardeners. As I opened that book, I expected a long and practical slog through important plant information, full of new vocab and lingo, of italicized scientific terms, of mitosis diagrams. I got all that, for sure. But I also got something completely unexpected: a sense of mystery, of incredulous amazement at all that makes up the non-human world.

It seems to me that the more we humans research, the deeper we delve, the more clear our ignorance and insignificance becomes. The more we know, the more we don’t know.

For example, we’ve figured out that plants react in real time to their environment, that they produce hormones in response to gravity and sunlight, that they produce pheromones to communicate with other organisms, that they cultivate specific colonies of fungi around their roots, that they utilize animals to spread their seed and protect them from attack.

But, wait, what?! HOW do they do all those things? We’ve put names to a lot of what happens, but at some fundamental level, we’re still in the dark ages. It’s magic. At least, it is to me.

I had the same reaction as I read bits of Bert Holldobler and E.O. Wilson’s magnificent work on social insects, The Superorganism. We had a class on bees right before break, and I find them to be incredible and impenetrable, an object of study where my individual-centric worldview really gets in the way. I wanted to know more, to see if I can wrap my mind around them and how they work, if for nothing else than to be a better steward.

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So I read about the development of Eusociality, of the intricate division of labor in insect colonies, of the voluntary suppression of reproductive instincts, of the periodic release of different hormones in bees to change their physiology as they acquire different tasks through their lifetime, of how leaf-cutter ants cultivate and harvest a particular species of fungi, of how stunning hive architecture is created one decision at a time, of how colonies of seemingly infinite complexity arise when thousands of individuals follow simple rules.

I think I learned a bit more about bees, I think I’ll be a bit of a better beekeeper. But mostly, when I finished reading, I just closed the book and shook my head. What a world.

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I’m still trying to figure out the role of wonder and awe in farming. While it seems crucial to living a spiritually-fulfilled life, yes, will it help me fill out my CSA subscribers list? That’s less clear.

But farming may just be a profession where humility pays off, where reckoning with how small and stupid we are on a daily basis will lead to better crops, healthier animals, and even a more successful business. It seems to me that a lot of agricultural errors of the last 150 years have come about through arrogance and overconfidence, through a human-centric view of the universe, through ignorance of our own ignorance. By realizing how little we know, how much we rely on complex systems that we barely understand, how many intricate dramas are playing out below our radar, maybe we become better farmers. Maybe we try to collaborate with, instead of dominate, non-human systems. Maybe we design farms that imitate what has supported abundant life for thousands, or millions, of years. Maybe our minds are more focused, and we pay closer attention to the countless details hidden in our soils, our pastures, our forests.

Maybe, maybe, maybe. It’ll still be a hard-as-heck, financially-fraught profession. But at the very least, it’ll make working with plants and animals that much more fun. They make me feel dumb, which means I'll never be bored.