“Rural people understand that life is basically a dangerous, unmanageable mess, so that when things go wrong, their suspicions are confirmed and it’s just a blessing no one was killed.” – John Gierach
If I’m learning anything from farming, it’s the discovery of all that I don’t know – and the realization that ignorance is rarely bliss. To borrow some terminology from Donald Rumsfeld, there are the “known unknowns,” the chaotic elements that you know to expect and can reasonably prepare for, like deer and raccoon and insect pests, late frosts, rainstorms, droughts, and so forth. But there are also the “unknown unknowns:” those things that you never would have imagined could happen, except perhaps in chastened retrospect. Who could have guessed, for example, that one of our new farm dogs would decide to wriggle her way under a propped-open cold frame lid in order to sleep amid (and trample) flat after flat of vegetable seedlings? Or that our new indoor cat would eat many of the seedlings we had going inside by a south-facing window?
Many might say, rightly, that any common-sense person could have guessed these things might happen, and that I should have foreseen such events. Animals will be animals, and their behavior is for the most part predictable. It’s true that many of the chaotic elements in agriculture you can plan for. That presumes, however, that you have the time, knowledge, and perspicacity to think through all of the variables and how they will interact with each other. And even the smallest garden, much less a diversified farm, is a tremendously complex system. Even a butterfly flapping its wings in Hong Kong can affect the rainfall in the American Midwest. Who knew? Or better yet, who could know? In farming, as in governance and economics and human relationships, the system is simply too complicated to eliminate the element of chaos and unpredictability. If there’s any good reason to try to grow even a little of your own food, it’s so that you can come to appreciate just how difficult and precarious growing food really is. Ask even the most seasoned gardener or farmer, and she’ll tell you that it’s hard to ensure a reliable yield.
It’s a tough truth to accept chaos as a non-negotiable element of farming or any other activity. In fact, much of American culture is built on an attempt either to deny the chaos exists or to banish it. For example, consider the straight-line surveying grid laid over this country, regardless of terrain. Consider modern houses and public buildings, whose main regard for the outside world is (perhaps) to encapsulate a “nice view” while insulating occupants from any real effects associated with that view, like changes in temperature or humidity. Consider acre upon chemically-doused acre of monocrop corn or soybeans, with nary a weed in the rows (or earthworm, butterfly, ladybug, etc.). Control or denial of chaos is just a temporary illusion, of course, made possible by huge nonrenewable energy inputs, ecosystem degradation, and shoving real costs onto the poor of current and future generations.
If chaos is inevitable, and we try in vain to deny it or to control it completely, then risk is always going to be part and parcel of farming – or life, for that matter. The question, then, is how to make room for risk in our minds, hearts, and practice. It’s a question that reaches far beyond farming, of course, all the way to the theological: how to reconcile ourselves to a Creation in which freedom (and therefore, suffering) is one of the ground rules, and how to reconcile ourselves to the sort of God who would create such a world. How you answer the question of risk dictates not only how well you farm, but also how deeply and fearlessly you invest yourself in relationships, work, and any other meaningful human endeavor.
I don’t think there’s any way to avoid the occasional disaster (foreseen or not) in farming and gardening, just as I don’t think it’s possible to avoid tragedy and heartache in your life in general. What I am trying to do on our farm, though, is to create a system in which inevitable risks are counterbalanced by a great degree of resilience. Resilience doesn’t mean imperviousness, of course, which is impossible. But it does mean that disasters don’t end up as utter catastrophes. We may lose the sweet corn in a given year, but we have dozens of other crops to fill in the gaps. Our laying hens may get killed by coyotes, but we can still sell some timber to make up the lost egg income. Contrast that to the conventional American food system, which has traded resilience for productivity, and so has become vulnerable to disease or climate disruption that could wipe out huge swaths of our staple crops. If you don’t think that can happen, consider the mass migration of Irish as a result of the 19th-century potato famine, or ask the Russians how well their wheat crops have done in recent years.
Cultivating resilience requires a very different worldview than a pedal-to-the-metal drive for efficiency and productivity, or fearfulness that leads to paralysis and despair. At the core, I think, resilience stems from a spiritual virtue: humility. Humility is not I’m-a-worm self-abnegation, but rather a clear-eyed, realistic view of the world and our place in it. We’re not ultimately in control, we don’t have all knowledge and power, and we can’t and shouldn’t insulate ourselves from suffering. Even so, we have to live in the world. And I would like to believe it’s possible to live amid contingency while still finding a way to thrive – agriculturally, interpersonally, spiritually.
A humble and resilient way of living would entail taking responsible but not arrogant risks, taking small, slow, careful, gentle steps into the great “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns ” – not, for example, building nuclear plants at the ocean’s edge in an earthquake-and tsunami-prone region of northern Japan. It would most certainly entail cultivating broad and deep connections to others and to the natural world, as both solace and safety net. In all of this, humility and resilience imply trusting that the Creator of all is really quite a wonderful (if wild) dance partner.