Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Anatomy of Place

This past weekend my girlfriend and I headed to Kentucky for a terrific weekend vacation; Caroline's best friend lives in Louisville with her boyfriend, the two of them our hosts. Over beers on Saturday, I remarked that Louisville seemed a place so definitively defined by Louisville; that is to say, it seemed a place unto itself, explicitly aware of and imbued with its own selfness. J.P. agreed; Louisville, he said, has a stronghold on both bourbon and horse racing, both of which have been a mainstay of the town for well over a century. I neither drink bourbon nor attend horse races on a regular basis (though I partook in both to certain extents over the weekend), but it was clear that this was the truth. Bourbon whiskey seems to flow like tapwater in that town, and horse racing seems to be Louisville's national pastime.

I was continually struck by the singularity of Louisville, and it caused me to reflect a good bit on why I place such a heavy emphasis on localism and local things. If one were to attempt to nationalize the horse races at Churchill Downs---that is to say, if one were to try and take Louisville's horse racing and turn it into a national commodity akin to corn or television entertainment---one would fail terribly. A Kentucky horserace in California would be a cheap gimcrack of the real thing. There are certain things for which one needs to be there---wherever "there" is---in order to experience it as itself. And while you can certainly drink Kentucky bourbon across the country and achieve a measure of the same effect as if you were in Kentucky, there is a lack. A locality reenforces itself and the things unique to it.

I was struck by the same sentiments while looking at my garden upon returning to Virginia. I say "my" garden, though it is in my mother's backyard, for hers is the landed gentry to my feudatory; she has the land, and I do most of the labor (though, perhaps ahistorically, I do it happily and willingly). In any case, there is a garden in a backyard to which I tend, and walking through it on a recent afternoon, I was again reminded about how place energizes itself, be it via bourbon, or horse racing, or agriculture, and further why the industrial food system in particular has been such a cosmic failure, given that it is divorced from any one locality or region. The corn belt is not feeding the corn belt; it is feeding everywhere else in addition to the corn belt. It does not concern itself with itself, but with the money and the resources of far-flung places from which it must draw. It pulls energy and finances from other environments and economies, and it depletes its own energy and finances it turn: the corn farmers are going bankrupt in order to mine the soil of whatever real fertility it might have left. On top of that, it is making sicker and less healthy the people and the places from which it pulls fertility and money; it sends bad food off to far-flung localities with nary a thought to the health of those who eat from it or the health of the soil from which the bad food was drawn. Biologically, historically and economically, it is a system built on bewildering absurdities, chiefly---perhaps entirely---because it concerns itself with no specific province whatsoever, and because it seems to thrive on these absurdities: you will never see the industrial commodities of the industrial agricultural system at any local farmer's market; it will always be somewhere else.

Contrast that with my backyard garden, in which I was walking as I thought these things. The okra, I noticed, was not doing great---but the soil may have been slightly too acidic for it, given the high content of chicken manure that had been mixed into it (okra favors a neutral pH); but of course it's relatively early in the summer growing season. The broccoli was trudging along; the heat was probably retarding its growth a decent bit, and it had been planted somewhat later than the rest of the crops. Tomatoes and cukes were doing fine, especially the tomatoes; they are heavy feeders, and they have plenty to feed on, because we have done the work to ensure this. And the moisture-holding capacity of the soil which we have made is top-notch for tomato plants. The squash was predictably expanding to overtake everything, so I knew there was nothing to worry about for the squash. The peppers are still somewhat disappointing, though it is still early, and I am aware that we will have to do some research to figure out how to grow good peppers in our area if these do not turn out well. The collards suffered an attack by some type of pest, perhaps aphids or caterpillars, which suggests they aren't as healthy and resilient as they could be, which means the soil is not healthy enough. They are still edible, but they could be better, and they will be better if appropriate steps are taken next season. The corn was performing excellently, aside from the rabbit that got into the garden last week and gnawed a stalk right in half. The garden was good and healthy.

All of this was observed in sight of the chickens that make the manure that make the compost that eventually make the garden, and in sight of the compost pile that acts as intermediary between the critical parts of decay and growth. Compost is a delicate, exquisite art, and one which I am still learning; nevertheless, I was able to see, a mere twenty feet away, the pile of organic materials that would eventually be transformed into food for us to eat, and I was able to observe the chickens that would play an indispensable role in the entire scheme, as they scratched for bugs, and worms, and tasty clover.

Add in, too, my observation of how the sun moved across the backyard, and how the trees blocked some of it out and let some of it in, and how I was aware of which plants needed more sunlight and which plants could do with less, and how that reality reflected upon how well the garden was doing; then, too, I was aware of how much rain we had had in the past week, and how much we were slated to get in the coming week, and whether or not the garden needed to be watered by hose or if it could afford to wait for the sky to open up.

This is an intimate awareness of a tiny backyard, and the knowledge to do a good garden in this backyard was and is entirely dependent upon the knowledge of all of the backyard's elements: the soil, the sunlight, the water, the protection from the neighborhood's voracious herbivores, the crucial element of a good compost pile made nearby. You cannot divorce any one of these things from the garden and still have a good garden; they all must be factored in. Is there anyone that believes that industrial agriculture takes the same things into account, and is conscious of the same factors and eccentricities of a place? Or might we accept that the industrial corn or soybean farm concerns itself only with machines and chemicals, and with places other than itself, and with nothing else?

Another backyard gardener in another place summarizes these realities perfectly:

In my garden, sunflowers and tomatoes grow and produce the most consistently. Next up, would be chard, beets and peppers. Smaller varieties like lemon cucumbers have produced the best in past years. The larger, green skinned varieties have a tendency to be inconsistent and bitter (could be the gardener doesn’t pick them very consistently, but that is part of the growing process in my yard). I have just about given up growing squash and melons in the ground due to squash bug infestation. This year I have some volunteer squash or cucumber or melon plants coming up in the chicken area. I am just babying them to see if the squash bug hordes find them or if I will harvest something this year. Chickens are no help with squash bugs; apparently, they don’t like the bugs taste. I have it on good authority Guinea chickens are the way to go for this type of bug management; unfortunately, living in town is not a good fit with Guineas. They are larger and like to roam.

How familiar the gardener is with his backyard---it is greeted as if it were an old friend, and indeed in many ways it is. And the farmer's awareness of his backyard's capacity is no less impressive as he comments upon Guinea hens: "They are larger and like to roam." In one stroke, the farmer recognizes completely the limits imposed upon his own farm and his own land: one cannot have Guinea hens if Guinea hens will not have the place. And this, to me, is the failure of industrial agriculture writ large. The sometime-fertile soils of the Midwest cannot, and will not, have the intensive and devastating monocultures under which it suffers year after year, and they are signaling as much to their farmers, but the farmers will not listen; the only response is to dump more chemicals upon the land and farm it more intensively, because they are not concerned with the soil, and the land, and the farm, and the limits these things impose. They are concerned with supermarkets and with the scant amount of money they will make selling to these supermarkets. It would be heartbreaking if the tragedy were not so self-imposed.

I am not unaware that my beliefs regarding place, localism and agriculture inform and often dovetail with my beliefs concerning government; that is to say, I believe that the more local both government and agriculture are, the better for everyone concerned, and that the defining aspects of a locality are best-expressed in both its governance and the way it does its food. "They are larger and like to roam," writes our farmer friend regarding guinea hens; does our centralized government, or even our State governments, view their citizens with as much respect and as much awareness of our individuality as does the backyard gardener his guinea hens? The answer is no; they cannot, or will not, allow us the same respect that a responsible land steward affords his chickens. So both farms and government must shrink, and become more rooted in specific surroundings and specific constraints, to both be good and do good. The chances of these things happening seem remarkably slim, but of course one does not need to wait for things to get better to do a backyard garden and reap its rewards; nor does one need to wait to begin to appreciate the essence of one's surroundings. As usual, Wendell Berry says it better than I could possibly hope to say; and as a native Kentuckian himself, his words seem appropriate to include within this little missal regarding both economy and agriculture:

An economy genuinely local and neighborly offers to localities a measure of security that they cannot derive from a national or a global economy controlled by people who, by principle, have no local commitment.
We learn from our gardens to deal with the most urgent question of the time: How much is enough?


  1. A beautiful essay. Much to ponder.

  2. Daniel,
    I found myself skipping over the quotes to get back to your writing. Let the wisdom grow in you, where it has taken root.

    Dr. J.