Roots and Obligations
by Michael Ableman
The International 484 three cylinder tractor requires
full throttle these days. It's tired, and pulling
the disc across the front field under the best of soil
conditions is a chore. With a worn muffler it's
loud too, very loud, so it was a small miracle I even
heard the clink from somewhere behind me. I immediately
stopped, throttled down, took the tractor out of gear
and got off. There behind the disc was a stone pestle,
perfectly preserved except for the marks left by the
steel blades of the disc. It fit comfortably in my
palm, buffed smooth by Chumash Indian hands some 2000
years ago. The farm was soon to celebrate its 100th
anniversary, and suddenly holding this ancient tool
we were newcomers.
I have disked this field a hundred times in fifteen
years of farming here, but the trace of my native predecessors
was inconspicuous. As hunter/gatherers they fed themselves
off this land for generations, hardly disturbing it,
leaving it virtually unaffected by their presence.
My presence is not so inconspicuous. I carve the soil
with tractor and steel implement and replace native
plants with an array of foreign crops. I am always
imposing, always redefining. I favor one plant to dominate
over those I call weeds, and require nature to conform
to the schedule of the marketplace. The land is forgiving.
It has recovered when I impatiently worked soil that
was still too wet, it persistently reseeds itself where
I have mowed and hoed, and mulched and controlled.
It tolerates my enthusiastic improvements and my creative
and entrepreneurial whims. It welcomes the botanical
visitors I arrange into neat lines and squares --groves
of Algerian Mandarins, straight rows of Italian Artichokes,
blocks of Guatemalan and Mexican Avocados, Japanese
Persimmons, Andean potatoes, and Siberian tomatoes.
Social scientists tell us that agriculture was the
thing that allowed our ancestors to settle and populations
to grow. Human prosperity has been achieved through
drawing on the body of the earth. The staff of life,
the bread that we break comes to us from smashing,
turning, and grinding vast expanses of soil, whose
nutrients are harvested along with the grains of wheat.
Farming and gardening, even at their most conscientious
are extractive. So each time we work our land we enter
into an unspoken contract with nature -- to return
a little more than we have taken. The best techniques
mimic nature: rotating and resting fields, cover cropping
and composting, and trying to create an appropriate
balance between wild and tame. When we rebuild the
soils we have used, encourage diversity, and provide
habitat for birds and insects, we honor our biological
inheritance, and help fulfill our obligation to the
future. We also increase the bounty of our harvest.
This past Thursday we shared a meal of freshly picked
white asparagus, mixed greens, and Yellow Finn potatoes,
followed by cherymoya, strawberry, and mandarin salad
for dessert. Through the dining room window I could
see the fields still winter clothed with thick green
manure crops. Nearby mountains of compost stewed on
the hill. I enjoyed knowing that as I feasted the land
in turn will do the same.
Though human populations come and go, they share the
same land. Some scientists speculate that entire civilizations
have risen and fallen with the health and depletion
of their topsoils. The land we live and grow on holds
the combined gifts and mistakes of all those whom have
come before us. What we do during our short tenure
becomes the roots for tommorow and ultimately the ancient
history of this land. What will we leave behind?
This essay originally appeared in National Gardening
Magazine's May/June 1996 issue. No portion of this
article may be reprinted without permission.