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Small Farmer's Journal
PO Box 1627
Sisters, Oregon 97759
800-876-2893
541-549-2064
agrarian@smallfarmersjournal.com
Mon - Thu, 8am - 4pm PST

Aboard the Planetary Spaceship

Aboard the Planetary Spaceship

Book Review of Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life by Edward O. Wilson

by Paul Hunter of Seattle, WA

The most dangerous worldview is the worldview of those who have not viewed the world. – Alexander von Humboldt

Edward O. Wilson’s new book, Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life (New York, W.W. Norton, 2016), offers a plan for the problem of species extinction: the dominant species, man, must hold itself back, must relinquish half the earth’s surface to those endangered. It is a challenging and on the face of it improbable thought, expressed in a terse style. But his phrases are packed because the hour is late. There is an air of finish in the offing, a great change to be rehearsed. What else is he asking for if not an awakening, an urgent and belated change of heart? Humankind must quarantine itself, must be satisfied to hold its own flawed predatory nature in check. Watching human desperation and greed kill the last rhinos in spite of massive and costly efforts at rescue, watching humanity’s thoughtless blunders erase the last of many other shy and obscure species, Wilson examines actions taken by sheer mounting numbers of humans bowing to social compulsions and market forces, often without particular malice but with deadly cumulative effect.

The “straw man” Wilson has elected to do battle with is what he calls the Anthropocene viewpoint, the man-centered view that most uncritical humans subscribe to, since it is supported by the creation story of the Old Testament, and holds that man has been given dominion over all the rest of nature. Only recently has “dominion” been reinterpreted by some thinkers and religious leaders to mean stewardship — tending, preserving and improving — which still doesn’t always recognize the right of other life forms to exist independent of their benefit to man. In contrast he posits the view of the naturalist and biologist engaged in understanding the complex web of life on Earth.

But making the case for nature-as-it-is, besieged and quickly shedding the hidden gift of its diversity, can be a tough sell. Why do we even need a biosphere with millions of species? From where we sit nearly all of those species are already invisible, and serve no clear purpose — economic, medicinal, nutritive or other — to us. It would seem Wilson must first convince the anthropocentric reader that there is hidden value to the biosphere independent of our place at the head of the table.

Regarding the urgency of our situation with 7.2 billion human mouths to feed, Wilson reports, “At present we consume nearly one-quarter of Earth’s natural photosynthetic productivity: that much of the planet’s freshly manufactured biomass ends up in our hands and stomachs and the share is growing. The remainder of the planet’s productivity is left for all of the other millions of species.” (172) He is often at his best in laying out the blunt truths of our ignorance. Speaking of the sheer scientific work to be done, he says “At least two-thirds of the species on Earth remain unknown and unnamed, and of the one-third known, fewer than one in a thousand have been subject to intensive biological research.” (104) So one large benefit of the book, not just for fellow scientists but for the rest of us, is how Wilson lays out the work to be done to even know where we stand regarding the health of the biosphere. Not just where to look and what to save, but what to do first.

Edward O. Wilson’s scientific emblem and lifework has been and remains the ant — industrious, versatile, sturdy, missing nothing as it forages among all the living underfoot. But then despite — or perhaps because of — his grounding, in mid-career he undertook an ambitious and vital work with larger implications. His book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (1975) traced social and historical connections, and more elusive behavioral echoes, between species up the phylogenetic tree, from the simplest organisms to man. It was original, vigorous and sweeping in its implications, and was hotly debated. The tracing of almost ghostly parallels and inferences between the behaviors of species was exciting, finding hidden sources and echoes in ourselves, though much of the work’s implications reached far in advance of supporting evidence. It was one of those moments, as with Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859), when science forewent its routine plodding, and suddenly leapt in the sunlight.

Professor Wilson is older and wiser now, but he’s gotten stirred up again, and regards the issue of species extinction as timely and urgent. Consider merely the most telling piece of his argument for biological diversity, which occurs when he turns to the human organism, and points out its dependence on the myriad bacteria and other symbionts that are complicit in human life. The very existence of the host — us! — depends upon healthy internal colonies with millions of members, acting in a dance of mutual benefit. He concludes with this description of our looming dilemma: “An Earth packed wall-to-wall with people would be a planetary spaceship, dependent on humanity’s future intellect and wisdom for the long-term survival of life.” (134) His view, in other words, is that the biosphere contains an alternative wisdom to the mental powers of humans, and that that diverse and vast array of life forms operates in the best interests of all aboard planet Earth.

Arriving at Wilson’s conclusions I found myself thumbing back through the book, seeing if I could glean in the flow of his argument a particular message for farmers. But there are indications that for all his hands-on science, he harbors an outsized faith in a cyber-future, and sees the problem of feeding the world as one to be solved by a combination of technology and agribusiness, rather than by millions of artisans planting what might grow well and best engage neighborhood appetites on their small diverse plots. He trusts the millennia of adaptive change and the complexity of the biosphere, yet pivots quickly in the present to put his trust in what he terms “synthetic biology,” praising “its potential benefits, easily visualized as spreading through medicine and agriculture.” (197) Yet on the previous page he had just described how maize took ten millennia to arrive at its present form, with human help selecting plants and seed potentially every step of the way. Then he concludes: “For all those millions of years…our species let the biosphere continue to evolve on its own. Then, with scythe and fire, guided more by ignorant instinct than by reason, we changed everything.” (204) Perhaps that scythe and fire were guided by ignorance, but perhaps by choices Wilson is not yet prepared to acknowledge.

I can’t help but report how this argument over the beginnings and prospects of agriculture comes on the heels of his discussion of how “Decision, even for simple physical action, can proceed without awareness.” (203) He quotes Henry Poincare’s poetic 1902 description of the process:

“The subliminal self is in no way inferior to the conscious self; it is not purely automatic; it is capable of discernment, it has tact, delicacy; it knows better how to choose, to divine. What do I say? It knows better how to divine than the conscious self, since he succeeds where that has failed. In a word, is not the subliminal self superior to the conscious self?” (203)

The relatively sudden selection of species of plants and animals to domesticate seven to eleven thousand years ago may have been conscious or unconscious. Scientists have suggested that some of those animals may even have self-selected. In particular the dog and pig might have been drawn within the circle of the firelight and accepted the deal that was tacitly offered. But this gathering arrangement of plants and animals which led to agriculture and thence over time to civilization, which is to say living in one place under a roof by a fire with stable sources of food, then politics and art and all that entails, was not an evil, but a set of choices with implications that seem in the long light of time to have mostly gone one way, with no return. No one chose to go back to hunting and gathering, for all that lifestyle’s supposed advantages, once they had taken to herding instead of chasing after wild meats, and had tasted wheat and barley, corn and beans and potatoes that might keep for years. Those species of plants and animals whose survival until then had been part of the biosphere’s general diversity, subject to the same urgencies to survive or perish, found themselves chosen to thrive as part of an unfolding but perhaps unthinking strategy of man, with an undreamt-of success, their offspring over time spread worldwide.

Contrary to Wilson’s view, perhaps we don’t need to “radically improve agriculture with new crop species and ways to grow them,” (205) when the strategies of biotech and agribusiness have been to scrub all other life forms from the soil, creating an artificial wasteland responsive only to synthetic inputs of fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides, denying the very diversity Wilson would champion. And as Wilson himself notes, “Technology without science is like an automobile without wheels and a road map.” (163)

In spite of my reservations about Professor Wilson’s consistency regarding the advent and prospects of agriculture over the last ten thousand years, and his enthusiastic appreciation of the computer’s potential for cataloguing the other species that inhabit the biosphere, Half-Earth offers some remarkable insights from the field, and an unparalleled opportunity to know where we stand regarding species diversity. The chapter entitled “the best places in the biosphere,” with its detailed survey of those lands around the world already set aside, which constitute some 15% of the Earth’s land area and 2.5% of its ocean area, should be required reading for the young and the hopeless, to know what is already being done. We might wish for more consistent insights from this statesman-scientist, yet we need the perspectives of science, especially the far-reaching, unselfish and ultimately optimistic insights of a thinker like Edward O. Wilson, whose lifetime of efforts in the wilds underfoot and around the world inform his sense of the importance to the planet of its living systems of species reaching back billions of years. “Threading the bottleneck” which he terms our present dilemma of endangered species, manmade global climate change and over-population, his is a bold and timely work that deserves our attention and thanks.

Spotlight On: Farming Systems & Approaches

Back to the Land

Back to the Land

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Tired of living in a crowded urban environment with its deafening noise and bumper-to-bumper traffic and eager to escape what they saw as an economy bent on destroying the planet, Matt and Tasha left their home in the Washington, DC metropolitan area in March 2014. In doing so, they became modern-day pioneers, part of a wave of Americans who have chosen to go back to the land over the past decade, seeking to reclaim and rebuild their lives and to forge a deeper connection to the earth, the animals that inhabit it, and to each other.

LittleField Notes Prodigal Sun & Food Ethics

LittleField Notes: Prodigal Sun & Food Ethics

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To my great delight a sizable portion of the general eating public has over the past few years decided to begin to care a great deal about where their food comes from. This is good for small farmers. It bodes well for the future of the planet and leaves me hopeful. People seem to be taking Wendell Berry’s words to heart that “eating is an agricultural act;” that with every forkful we are participating in the act of farming.

Farm Manure

Farm Manure

Naturally there is great variation in manure according to the animals it is made by, the feeding and bedding material, and the manner in which it is kept. Different analyses naturally shows different results and the tables here given serve only as a guide or index to the various kinds. The manure heap, by the way, is no place for old tin cans, bottles, glass, and other similar waste material.

Cane Grinding

Cane Grinding: An Age-Old Georgia Tradition

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Most sugar cane is processed in refineries to give us molasses, brown sugar, and various kinds of white sugar. However, some South Georgia farms that raise sugar cane still process it the old way to produce the special tasting sweetener for their own food. One such farm is the Rocking R Ranch in Kibbee, Georgia. It is owned by Charles and Patricia Roberts and their sons. The process they use has not changed in the past 100 years. This is how it is done.

Evolution of a Permanent Bed System

Evolution of a Permanent Bed System

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After three or four years we could see that the nature of our farming practices would continue to have detrimental effects on our soils. We were looking for a new approach, a routine that would be sustainable, rather than a rescue treatment for an ongoing problem. We decided to convert our fields to permanent planting beds with grassy strips in between where all tractor, foot and irrigation pipe traffic would be concentrated.

Sustainable

Sustainable

Sustainable is a documentary film that weaves together expert analysis of America’s food system with a powerful narrative of one extraordinary farmer who is determined to create a sustainable future for his community. In a region dominated by commodity crops, Marty Travis has managed to maintain a farming model that is both economically viable and environmentally safe.

LittleField Notes Seed Irony

LittleField Notes: Seed Irony

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They say to preserve them properly, seeds should be kept in a cool, dark place in a sealed, dry container. Yet the circumstances under which seeds in a natural environment store themselves (so to speak) seem so far from ideal, that it’s a wonder plants manage to reproduce at all. But any gardener knows that plants not only manage to reproduce, they excel at it. Who hasn’t thrown a giant squash into the compost heap in the fall only to see some mystery squash growing there the next summer?

Cultivating Questions

Cultivating Questions: Follow-Up On Phosphorus

We like to think that the bio-extensive approach to market gardening minimizes the risk of overloading the soil with nutrients because the fallow lands make it possible to grow lots of cover crops to maintain soil structure and organic matter rather than relying on large quantities of manure and compost. However, we are now seeing the consequences of ignoring our own farm philosophy when we resorted to off-farm inputs to correct a phosphate deficiency.

Cultivating Questions A Horsedrawn Guidance System

Cultivating Questions: A Horsedrawn Guidance System

Market gardening became so much more relaxing for us and the horses after developing a Horsedrawn Guidance System. Instead of constantly steering the horses while trying to lay out straight rows or cultivate the vegetables, we could put the team on autopilot and focus our whole attention on these precision tasks. The guidance system has been so effective that we have trusted visiting chefs to cultivate the lettuce we planned on harvesting for them a few weeks later.

Starting Your Farm

Starting Your Farm: Chapter 3

What goes with the sale? What does not? Do not assume the irrigation pipe and portable hen houses are selling. Find out if they go with the deal, and in writing.

Portrait of a Garden

Portrait of a Garden

As the seasons slip by at a centuries-old Dutch estate, an 85-year-old pruning master and the owner work on cultivating crops in the kitchen garden. To do this successfully requires a degree of obsessiveness, the old man explains in this calm, observational documentary. The pruning master still works every day. It would be easier if he were only 60 and young.

TMAHK Tripod Haymaking

The Milk and Human Kindness: What I’ve Learned of Tri-Pod Haymaking

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I have no doubt that when the time comes we are going to need to know how to make hay this way, whether it be this Proctor Tripod method, or the French rack method illustrated in André Voisin’s great book “Grass Productivity” or the Scandinavian “Swedish Rider” method of tightly strung wire “fences” for hay to dry on. Each method has its pros and cons, and it’s my belief that the “Swedish Riders” is the easiest to learn and the Proctor Method may be the most difficult.

How To Get Into Farming With No Money

How To Get Into Farming With No Money

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Let’s assume the beginning ‘farmer’ has absolutely nothing. Nothing but a will to farm and a reasonably normal body. The very first thing you must do is search out a farmer, preferably a farmer who farms close to the way that you want to farm. You must watch him, ask questions, do as you are told and learn everything you can. Very shortly you will be on your own and you will find that the more you learn now, the better you will be when you have only yourself to rely on.

The Farmer and the Horse

The Farmer & The Horse

In New Jersey — land of The Sopranos, Jersey Shore, and the Turnpike — farmland is more expensive than anywhere else. It’s not an easy place to try to start a career as a farmer. But for a new generation of farmers inspired by sustainability, everything seems possible. Even a farm powered by draft horses.

Barnyard Manure

Barnyard Manure

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The amount of manure produced must be considered in planning a cropping system for a farm. If one wishes to manure one-fifth of the land every year with 10 tons per acre, there would have to be provided two tons per year for each acre of the farm. This would require about one cow or horse, or equivalent, for each six acres of land.

Fjordworks: A History of Wrecks Part 1

Fjordworks: A History of Wrecks Part 1

I am certainly not the most able of dairymen, nor the most skilled among vegetable growers, and by no means am I to be counted amongst the ranks of the master teamsters of draft horses. If there is anything remarkable about my story it is that someone could know so little about farming as I did when I started out and still manage to make a good life of it.

Fjordworks A History of Wrecks Part 3

Fjordworks: A History of Wrecks Part 3

Working with horses can and should be safe and fun and profitable. The road to getting there need not be so fraught with danger and catastrophe as ours has been. I hope the telling of our story, in both its disasters and successes will not dissuade but rather inspire would-be teamsters to join the horse-powered ranks and avoid the pitfalls of the un-mentored greenhorn.

Cuban Agriculture

Cuban Agriculture

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In December of 1979, Mary Jo and I spent two weeks traveling in Cuba on a “Farmer’s Tour of Cuba”. The tour was a first of its kind. It was organized in the U.S. by farmers, was made up of U.S. farmers and agriculturally oriented folks, and was sponsored in Cuba by A.N.A.P., the National Association of Independent Farmers. As we learned about farming we also learned how the individuals, farms, and communities we visited fit into the greater social and economic structure of Cuba.

Small Farmer's Journal

Small Farmer's Journal
PO Box 1627
Sisters, Oregon 97759
800-876-2893
541-549-2064
agrarian@smallfarmersjournal.com
Mon - Thu, 8am - 4pm PDT