I am not much of a professional sports fan these days. But every year at this time I remember myself as a kid, pulling out my old Maury Wills baseball mitt and Carl Yastrzemski bat from the basement to play outside with my friends, following what seemed like endless winters while growing up in the Midwest.
Throwing a baseball back and forth for hours felt like absolute freedom. And every once in a while you could reach an exalted state with a best friend whereby the two of you would feel at one with each other, the gloves and the ball – nothing would miss the mark, until you fell out of that groove due to fatigue, or maybe the dinner bell ringing.
The same kind of thing happens with other sports, including an outdoor sport like fishing, another harbinger of spring. As any good fisherman will tell you, it is at those times when you feel unified with the fish, and the stream in which you both do your dance, that the true nature of the sport and the freedom it has to offer is realized. For me, there is no greater sense of liberation, and belonging at the same time, than to commune in this way with nature, often in the company of a dear friend.
Farming is not that much different from what I am describing here. And sustainable farming in particular, when it is done right, is a similar kind of dance with nature, usually done in concert with other close partners who feel the same passion, the exhilaration, the liberation that comes from being at one with the land and the passing seasons. This may sound a bit overstated, but I feel confident that most of my readers, whether large-scale commercial farmers or backyard gardeners, know exactly what I’m talking about.
At this time of year we become acutely aware of how all meaningful existence is relational. Standing on the edge between winter and the rebirth that spring represents, we understand that we are at the same time powerless to change the cycles of nature, and essential participants in responding to those cycles in an intentional and productive manner.
This is the same basic theme involved with the springtime religious holidays of Passover and Easter, both of which call believers to make fundamental decisions about their relationship to each other and to the world as a whole. There is, it seems, very little distinction between the way we relate to each other and our orientation toward the natural world from a spiritual point of view. It is no mere coincidence, therefore, that such holidays occur at the same time of year when farmers – in the northern hemisphere anyway – must sow their seeds or else fail to fulfill their mission of feeding themselves and their neighbors.
So what happens when things go wrong, and the relational aspect of our lives fades away? In politics it results in the kind of discord we now consider commonplace in both Washington, D.C. and in state capitols across the country. In our personal lives we experience distrust and persistent problems with miscommunication that can rob our lives of meaning and purpose. But in farming the stakes are even higher . . . it’s life or death.
On a small scale, the breakdown of our ability to relate properly to nature on a farm can result in the loss of a whole crop or even of the farm itself. On a larger scale such dysfunctional interactions with nature can result in overwhelmingly objective signs of system failure, like tragic losses of topsoil and biodiversity, appearance of dead zones in waters at the outlets of major watersheds, widespread problems with weeds, pests and pathogens resistant to modern treatments, and epidemic levels of chronic disease in the human population. Any of that sound familiar? It’s as though in our dance with nature we end up tripping all over our partner’s feet, to our mutual detriment.
But it is springtime, and I’m in a hopeful mood. As of this writing, Opening Day is just around the corner for baseball, fishing season and, in my opinion, for the rather abrupt and comprehensive renewal that is needed in agriculture and food systems. The daily practice of farming must be reimagined and recreated in the image of a new understanding of our relationship to the land and to each other, one in which we learn how to do the dance properly. This transformation is coming not a moment too soon, and we only have one chance to get it right.
You see, it is now the ninth inning and we’re behind in the score. I am being too melodramatic perhaps, but the objective signs of system failure mentioned above are real, and things are not getting much better in any discernable way. All the alarm bells are ringing, and relatively few of our collective resources are being directed toward effective and lasting solutions.
Agriculture is at the beating heart of our civilization, no matter how disconnected average persons have become from the sources of their food. The solution is to heal that rift, to restore the critical relationship between farms and nature, and between farmers and their neighbors. Simply put, sustainable farming provides the greatest hope available that we can learn to do the dance again, in time to make a difference.