Time of Gardens
Time of Gardens
Guangxi Province, China. Photo by Severin Stalder.

Time of Gardens

by Lynn R. Miller of Singing Horse Ranch

The terraced rice growing regions of south east China embrace several thousand years of farming traditions. In this enchanted and dramatic landscape, there are many mysteries and much magic tracing back even before the garden beginnings of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers of the middle east. Every detail holds key to this legendary sustainability. For example, it is told that Chinese families of long history leave a window open in the spring so that swallow pairs, when they return, may come straight home to their mud nests in the ceilings of those houses. These migratory bug-eating birds are considered good luck by the Chinese farmers. And they are also an important aid. The elders of the community pay close attention to the exact day of the swallow’s arrival and compare notes to determine when is the best time to plant the rice. The swallows are always right. No one can say when this tradition and this trust was first embraced.

“Two years ago, we noticed that the tomato plants were stunted and the fruit was prodigious. Last year the plants were luxuriant and there were fewer, and smaller, tomatoes. When I told the old Japanese farmer this he just smiled and said, ‘Two seasons, that is very young. More and deeper lessons and those tomatoes, no matter the size, will taste of hundreds of years of near failure, the taste of frightened glory. The balance is strong and fragile. But you cannot reach this without many many old and courageous neighbors.’ What can that mean?”

Today’s civilization sorely needs a culture of farming which looks, with every decision, to at least a thousand years of fertility, growth and health, all of that with the fullest biological diversity. A farming of community, family, intricacies and the pulse of intimacy.

The trajectory of modern industrial agriculture (and this includes today’s China) is straight towards extinction for farming, humanity and the planet. The broad expanse of prairie lands and big river valleys, denuded, stripped of trees, brush and debris, leveled and drained, farmed by chemical fiat, sterilized, these are the poisonous expanse of coming extinction. These are the rapidly desertified vistas that deny the “culturing” of interwoven biologies, that inherent and buildable diversity which gave mankind the opportunity and trust for an eight thousand year heir-apparency to our gardening and health. These industrial fields have no kinship with nature’s design.

The electronics which pervade our world, the ‘memory’ storage, it is all made to disappear, to go poof. This civilization must return to small tangible, physical piles of ‘things’, piles of actual evidence to declare itself forward. The digital stories die, the cloud memories fill with gas and flutter to idiocy then evaporate to nothingness. What we are able to actually hand off, only that is what will remain. The stone tablets of past, the paper and ink, the actual prototypical machine, the walking – talking – working magician farmers, the tangibles. And it is those remainders that shall contain all the seeds, the secrets, keys, maps, histories and best jokes.

In the U.S. four million good, capable and decent farmers mourned as they found themselves complicit in terrible servitude to the insidious engineering and governance of banks, farm programs, unethical economists, and corporate disdain. Those four million good farmers, many of them dead and gone now, were born to or mentored as wizards. They were entrusted with holy pieces of ground, with generations of farming secrets, formulas, recipes, and knew by experience the fragility of the hand-off. On their ground and at the human level, respect and acceptance were intrinsic to keeping it all going. They were guardians of actual piles. What has happened to all of that?

All people who choose to farm begin, even today, with a sacred bargain that calls for work within nature. No one who chooses farming does so with the intent of destroying nature and natural balance. The villains have never been the individual farmers, no matter the scale or aspect of their enterprise. The villain has been an overarching industrial systems-management in place to control and profit at any cost. The villains have been the charlatans of commerce who daily paint pictures of how lowly farmers might attain membership in higher society. Work hard they say, obey the ‘rules’, “be active borrowing-buying participants in commerce” and perhaps one day your grandchildren will be ok in the eyes of their grandchildren? Any respect and acceptance today be damned. It would seem modernity requires turning a blind-eye to the workings of tradition and to sacred trust, the acknowledgements required deemed a waste of time.

We have a big white dog we call Riley. He’s a mix of predator control breeds with a conflicted personality. He thinks he’s a comedian. Chases his tail a lot. And has the happiest demeanor of any dog you’ll ever hope to meet. As befits his job description he has complete free reign of the ranch, goes wherever he wants and needs to. And, without training, he has figured out where the boundaries are, he never strays from our place. He’s athletic and springy; whenever he wishes he bounds over our front yard picket fence like its not there. Inside that yard, along with our Corgi, Wendell, Riley knows he’s with family. But about the ranch, when we are around, he stays out of the way unless he gets any hint that you are willing to scratch his head or pat his back, then he’s right by your side. And if you are sensitive you can feel the change come over him when you do. It’s like he just wants you to acknowledge him.

Similar thing when we go through the little yard-fence front gate. He will stand off slightly and wait. If you hold the gate open for him, he will straighten up and come through with all the slow grace and dignity a big dog can muster. He could, and does, fly over the fence whenever he must to enter the yard. But for him the gesture of allowing him to follow you through the open gate makes him feel genuine. You can call it a demonstration, that he wants respect, but I think its something quite different and perhaps larger. He wants to be acknowledged.

This little vignette about our dog is actually a story about life within defined margins and how it feeds identity and in that way also feeds biological health.

Don’t matter the scale of operation, or the cut of the clothes, or the outside memberships, in today’s America the farmer is regarded as a low life. And the hyper-drive of instant digitized social networking has only aggravated that societal hypothesis. Individual farmers are often ignored, apologized for, and generally treated as though unworthy of acknowledgement. They don’t belong in the wider successful world.

I use the word ‘don’t’ in grammatical violation, and many say ‘see, there is the evidence, there is the proof, even with education farmers cannot escape their low condition’.

Low condition? To be fully invested in all aspects of life, living, giving life, sustaining life, creating life, adding aspect to life and riding life with faith to its natural conclusion – how is that a low condition?

A dry-clean-only, precarious, cannibalistic economics, is ‘neath it all. The contradictory accounting-based premise of profit at all cost joins class distinction setting the stage for Madoff-esque rule.

The dullard farmer understands, in spite of it all he understands. Perhaps because of it all, he understands. He sees the Emperor’s naked butt, grimaces, shakes his head and walks away. He does not hang around for the parade. He doesn’t tweet about what he just saw. He understands it is a lie and a silly waste of time. And in his understanding and withdrawal he poses a threat to the very core of society’s pernicious self delusion.

For what truly motivates a farmer is a mess of things so deliciously intangible that they bugger wonder; it is a force which strips the foundations and authority away from government and social institutions. Strips away the dead end logic of rudderless philosophies. He says in every way, “I’m a farmer. You can’t pay me little enough to make me quit, but you damn sure need to find a way to afford me, and respectfully.”

At a seaside farmer’s market I spoke with the vendor/farmer and orchardist raising filberts and enjoying a diverse, older, small orchard and garden. He told me that when they acquired the old farmstead, they found a few acres thick with black berry bushes and suspected, from the branches peeking out above, that inside and engulfed might be fruit trees. After a couple of years of establishing their farm operation they decided to “deal with” the blackberry expanse and indeed discovered inside an old homestead orchard. With careful work they managed to resurrect the trees and find they had apples and pears of most unique characteristics. Research determined that one of those trees was a Seckel pear, tiny fruit of perfumed sweetness. This tree was discovered and saved because an individual farmer had the wider view.

Many of today’s people, farmers the exception, are unable to process a wider view. They must have an acceptable near-in view with manageable questions or they withdraw like turtles. They are immune to suggestions that magic may be buried just out of view.

In America, it is held by the self-ordained socioeconomic brokers, that if one group of people are to gain, others outside of that group must lose. If farmers are to gain, consumers must lose? If the class-driven economic universe is about a finite set of possessed or held elements, where in the loss of some thing here we create a commensurate gain of some thing there, then zero sum game holds. But if zero sum game is the culprit responsible for holding back societal elements while rewarding others, then we are left with entire classes of folk who must skillfully hide their efforts to build underground economy as a win win. The developed world’s grotesque profitable imbalance, this zero sum game, has always been easily shown as a false rule justified by spurious arguments shown to us in a set of fractured oily mirrors. Only thing is, no one is looking at the wider view, with a need to actually see.

You say, that’s just the way it is. And I say, not in my world. An eleventh commandment: thou shalt not benefit nor gain at the expense of others.

Is there a solution to the plague of these days? Yes. And it is without the push of commerce. Economics must not lead, not any longer. Economics must follow and record. Politics must be pushed back behind economics. We need new testaments of divination. Comfort purely for comfort’s sake is unholy. We need eleven new eleventh commandments. The perpetual divine needs to be owned through imbalance, uncertainty and a tired jester’s courage. We need to unplug from electronics. We need to introduce ourselves to our neighbors. We should benefit from quiet time holding printed and written paper in hand and slowly digesting good reading. We must return to shared meals with friends and family. We need desperately to return to a time for gardens.

Weather and nature provide ample analogy for these thoughts. Wind blows in a storm, pretenses wrinkle, then flap flat, the clear day turns grey, you are heard demanding a truth you can accept, and nowhere is found righteousness, instead, if you hold still, it finds you. And another morning comes with a light all its own. You feel different, you feel ready.

If you think about it? If you ride it? If you become the work of it? If you allow faith to follow? Respect the ways in and each small jot is for everything.

I wake because of, and with, inquisitive thoughts, then follow the morning rituals just barely holding those thoughts. Many minutes later I find myself, pen in cramped hand, and I cannot remember. Old enough now to forego any wrestling with myself over memory loss, instead I step on to forward thoughts and observations. Today we will go for firewood; fire hazards are lifted. It is good to see the plowed furrows darken and know fall grasses are enjoying the rain. I can hear it now on the roof and it is an abiding comfort. Something about the permission rain grants, to feel cleansed, to feel hopeful, to feel awakenings in the soil, to feel the chatterboxes stilled even if for just a moment. To feel the songbirds resting their tonsils, and the squirrels testing their stores. To sense a thousand noses discovering new smells and the air in full rinse. To be reminded that nature is a fantastic web of straws all drawing moisture, storing it and writing in thin slow lines a future of growth and hatch, of release and capture, of changing carpets and hidden steams. Sometimes forgetting what you meant to say is a quieting not unlike the hush rain brings, a quieting that can set the stage for new, or next, or both.

Ridiculous class distinctions and the slow death of humanity’s compunction, rationale, motivation, and drive. How determinations, side by side, and married to working notions of the ‘good view,’ give any society – large or small – its flavor, beauty, urgency, energy and future. If enough positive determinations populate a landscape we have the beginnings of worthy culture. And today it is sorely needed, the beginnings of a worthy culture.

Cultures on the ground and immediate should invite participation from every quarter. Living cultures of intricate complex diversity – cultures which vibrate with fertility and aggravated harmonies – these cultures want forward as they want sheltered, margined.

Gardens are the model as much by required action as design. Gardens must be built and maintained and that only happens successfully if the gardener, the farmer, comes to the task with totes full of past successes, highest expectations and devotion.

The ancient Chinese of sub-tropical regions modeled their magnificently fertile and productive gardens after what they saw every day, what they lived with every day, in their surrounding forests.

Except for farmers, for four thousand years mankind has presumed to inflict himself on nature and this planet at every turn denying the sacred fullness of alignment.

Eight thousand years of rice cultivation, the hand work decided in tight stair-stepped, spooning, lozenge shaped paddies, which delineated families and conjoined work. Next efforts decided as much by ‘sign’ as by day’s nature. Plant when the swallow pairs return and designate.

Once the books and aging minds kept record, allowed the anxious memories suitable rest. Then the books came to argue against culture and for the industrial presumptions and the aging memories were medicated into a quieted oblivion. So much lost in that thin shallow bargain for the greedy coward’s logic. The swallow nests knocked to the ground. The future debased and argued away.

Is there a solution to the plague of these days? Yes. Believe in yourself and have patience. Hold the wide view, love those around you, farm and work as you know you must – and have that patience which goes beyond your time into the time of your kin and the time of gardens.

The solution is to farm with a gardener’s heart.

Leave me show you
this is that farm
shaped from paths
long from patterns
of sorrows and
door backs
birded walks
soil flour
prickly wire framed

She and I
learned love here
some tunings
taut to sharp
others thumpy
and off-spring
for failed dreams
less than those
squeezed true
this is that farm