Permacultural aside

In Heaven, I don’t know what the practical arrangements are, or even if they have any. They may not need them (it frightens me to think of all the things they might not need), and the idea of “sustainability” would draw an immortal laugh. Or perhaps, rather, an immortally gentle and indulgent smile.

Among us worldlings, however, here in Theatrum Mundi, eating is among the big issues. Lent would be, if nothing else, a reminder of how material we are. You don’t work, you don’t eat; you don’t eat, you get quite hungry; and so on to a bad end. Apart from His pointed advice, that man cannot live by bread alone, Christ had nothing much to say on agronomy. Neither did Socrates, for that matter, though I think he spread a rumour to the effect that men were happier in our hunting and gathering days, before we settled on farms. (I would correct his anthropology, for the evidence now suggests that we were innate farmers from the start, just as we were innate talkers.)

The question is thus not whether we should grow food, but how. I will be quickly condemned if I modestly propose that the way we are doing it now — in huge monocultural sections adapted to automotive seeding and harvesting — is not ideal. Only a city boy would question arrangements which are truly feeding more than seven billion living souls, with more calories each, on the average, than ever before. I am a city boy, however, so let me try it on.

The great majority of what I call “environmentalcases” are city boys and girls. It helps to know nothing about farming and the wilds, to have strong opinions on them. It seems whenever I ride the Greater Parkdale Subway, I see perverse public-service adverts for veganism, with pretty portraits of cows. Our farmers are frankly accused of murder, but also theft of the mother’s milk.

Yes, the idea is insane; but more so than may first appear. All these pretty cows exist because we have a use for them. When the use has passed, the cows go, too. Turn them loose, and they won’t get far. Unless, of course, we want to extend Twisted Nanny State to all the formerly enslaved farm and zoo animals. … (The road to Cloud Cuckooland winds ever on.)

But this is the scandal of contemporary agriculture, merely adjusted. It is all, essentially, insane. It requires massive “inputs” to keep it going — of fertilizers, pesticides, machinery that now includes computers, and a global infrastructure of transport and storage. A bit of war, and the whole thing collapses.

I will not lecture gentle reader on the principles of “permaculture,” which may be easily found by the search term. Suffice to say, it is opposed to “organic,” which only proposes less efficient inputs, and thus continues industrial farming, though with one hand now tied behind our back. It is the invention of people who can only think “outside the box,” according to me. We need people who can think inside the orchard.

With a little genius, here and there, and plenty of applied science, it would be possible to farm more intensively than we presently do on our arable lands, and extend them into now abandoned places. Indeed, some of that science consists of archaeological inquiry, into the works of many distant ancestors, who by trial and error (or angelic intervention) raised mixed, collusive crops — to grow themselves annually and perpetually, with the minimum of artificial intervention, and without sacrifice of the soil’s fertility. Yet with jobs, jobs, jobs: joyfully planting and harvesting by hand, in places beautiful instead of boring and ugly.

We trap ourselves in these megaproject boxes, that we have externally assembled. The best we can imagine is a smaller box; usually we’re thinking of a larger. We analyse negatively: how to correct this nuisance or that. The trick is to think positively instead, the way God does, in terms not of restriction but abundance.