I longed to hear the story of her life, which surely must captivate the ear strangely. Instead, I settled for the story of the way our species came to feed itself in the mad mad world in which I’d chosen to live out my life.
“There really are two dominant schools of thought. Well, three, if you count the thinking of those who want to continue with the madness that’s killing the earth and its people.” Gracie settled back in her sling back chair. We were sitting in our usual spot outside the cabin enjoying a pot of tea. Not Early Gray; this tea for two was homegrown chamomile and mint. Lovely, really.
“One school of thought is that it was the industrial revolution of the19th century and the wars of the early twentieth that led us to where we are today in terms of food production. Population was growing rapidly and the wonders of science and technology seemed to promise answers to every problem, from food production to defeating disease by wiping out insects.”
As if by serendipity, a butterfly alit on her tea cup as she continued.
“Machines like the plow did such damage to the soil that erosion became a big problem. Microbial communities were destroyed, making fertilization absolutely necessary. Ground water was pumped up in regions where evaporative demand is greater than precipitation rate, which drove moment of salts up toward the surface. Constant removal of biomass with little to no fallow time between crops sucked the life out of the soil. Planting single crops over huge expanses of land reduced biodiversity so drastically that the community interactions within systems that had been functioning beautifully since the time of the last ice age were destroyed. Damned near every living thing not the crop of choice became an enemy to be defeated”.
The butterfly went on its way, taking wing as she lifted the cup to her lips.
“Separation mentality at its worst”, I replied. “We’ve learned the wisdom of ecosystems in my time, or at least the version of it I’ve come from. There are apparently other versions where that’s not the case”.
“Yes, we’re learning that now. It was during the wars that separation mentality really grew, and it seems to continue to get worse.” Gracie’s smile had left us for a while. “A lot of money started being invested in learning about what we used to somewhat ironically think of as better living through chemicals. Everything from fertilizers to pesticides to medications designed to cure diseases that didn’t yet exist started being produced.”
“I must say, the trip to the superstore was quite enlightening. One could do an entire anthropological dissertation on the Malmart culture alone. The boxed food like substances were chilling, reminiscent of some of the horror stories we liked to scare ourselves silly with as children.” The entire scene had been rather horrifying, from the interactions I observed to the materials people were collecting from the shelves. It’s hard to imagine what anyone would want some of those things for, particularly when living on a planet so obviously stretched to its limit in resource provisioning.
“Mechanization of food production created a system in which most people were completely disconnected from it. Well, you saw what it’s like at Malmart. Most of the people buying that ground beef have no idea what its production means to the animals being eaten, how horrific their lives are. Even as a culture, we only really became aware of such things when people started getting sick, just from eating. They’re sick from the diseases the animal stock are carrying, diseases that didn’t exist when they were allowed to roam freely and graze on what grew in the pasture rather than the grains produced in industrial farming. They’re sick from the chemicals being sprayed on the plant crops, sick from the gene products we’ve induced those crops to make. They’re sick from nutrient deficiencies despite excessive caloric intake. We produce lots of so-called food that is toxic and lots that has the nutritional value of cardboard.”
She sighed. It was heartbreaking in all it expressed.
“Cardboard?” Perhaps I could get her on something less dire.
“It’s made from trees. Please, don’t get me started on trees just yet, that story will come. We used it to make boxes. Remember all that stuff at Malmart?”
“How could I forget? It was mind boggling.”
“You must have noticed that everything was wrapped up in boxes or plastic or foils, the clothes hanging on hangers, the individually wrapped servings of foods. The whole shebang is really quite a mess.” Her frown had deepened.
“You said that there were two schools of thought. What is the alternative hypothesis?” Perhaps I could cheer her a bit, perhaps the other story was not quite so dire.
She smiled before she shifted her position, tucking her legs up beneath her in the chair, but it was a smile lacking mirth. The slight shake of her head that accompanied it showed its irony. She held the teacup in both hands before her as if it might warm her, despite being well below tepid at that point.
“That the whole mess started ten thousand or so years ago when humanity starting thinking itself above nature, something separate and superior. It started when we abandoned the animist gods of nature and started creating them in our own image. It started when we let ourselves believe that the laws of nature did not apply to us.” She paused. “This is the school of which I’m a rather ardent student. It started so long ago and the progression toward disaster has been so slow we’ve failed to observe it happening.”
“The wise man’s folly is anatomized”. Somehow I could always manage to find a quote from the Bard that might fit. Perhaps I could lighten her mood a bit; I certainly didn’t want for her stories to rob her of her spirit, it was so wild and free I feared it might flee the task of telling them. She already shown me how to use the crude tools of the era with which they shared knowledge. I could Google much of this.
“No being is so important that he can usurp the rights of another, and that’s what we’ve been doing for thousands of years now. We’ve been running over all manner of life on this planet believing that it was ours to dominate. Hell, these days even those in the green movement talk of stewardship.” She sighed again. “We aren’t stewards, not masters of some machine. We’re organisms in the biosphere!”
The desire to take her hand in comfort was great, but I restrained myself.
“But clearly, here, in this community, you’re living in harmony with the land!”
That got a real smile out of her, the kind that engaged her whole being and shone from her eyes. It warmed me, fully.
“Yes, permaculture. Living in harmony with the land and with each other. There’s a lot less about it online, but I can help you find it, and of course I can tell you what I know of it firsthand. But it’s getting late; perhaps we can take a walk around the lake, give you a chance to meet some more neighbors. Unless of course you’re ready for some solitude.”
It was funny. Gracie and I recognized one another as solitary souls, but we’d yet to need much space. At least I’d yet to need much. “That sounds lovely. Shall we?”