Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Weeding, reading, and sweetcorn erotica

I've been reading Atina Diffley's Turn Here Sweet Corn, a memoir about coming to farming and recognising the sanctity of generous soil. Atina (we're on a first name basis, by the way, on account of how I've read her book and all) gets close, several times over, to making me want to move to Minnesota and grow watermelons on rich prairie loam beneath the beating Summer sun. Prairie loam, for pea's sake! It sounds like chocolate cake. I feel very tenderly for Australia's much-abused earth, but prairie loam elicits a whole nother kind of love.

It's basically vegetable erotica, is what this book is. Take off your clothes and lie down on the warm soil and let someone read you this huskily*:
It is a humid, still August evening; pockets of clammy heat sit stagnant in low spots. The scents are pungent, corn pollen the predominant bass note. Normally corn is a sweet-sour, central aroma, riding high above the kale earthiness but far below the tomato pheremone. But tonight the pollen smells burnt, like it has been roasted on low in an oven all day. Now at half dusk, the heat is off, and the scent pours out. It is gravelly and scratchy, brown and heavy. It catches in the back of my throat and tastes of scorched barley malt and sugar. It rolls of the corn ocean and settles, dense and sultry, in the gullies. It is the overriding fragrance, blocking out the flirtatious sprays of cantaloupe perfume and purslane succulence. I feel it settling into my hair and onto my skin, sugar coating me, as if I too could slide pollen down my silk and fertilize my kernels with the fountain of youth. (262)
And there's plenty more where that came from. Romancing the kale. Adoring the squash. Canoodling with onions. Prostrating oneself beneath the solanaceous apples of love.

Amidst all that (and more, including our author's battle against an oil company that tries to lay a pipeline through her kale forest), there's a passage in the book that really arrested me, where I felt Atina saying more than she meant to say. It's the Day of the Weeds. They're on the verge of flowering and setting seed, so what happens on this day determines whether the vegetable plots are overrun for the year or not. All hands are hacking away with hoes, when one of the visiting workers crumples.
"All we do is kill things," she says. "I thought organic farming would be about life. I feel like the hand of death."
"They're just weeds," I say. "Killing weeds is part of farming."
"They are living organisms. They deserve a place on the planet."
"Yeah, they're our allies, and our job is not to annihilate them - don't worry we can't - but we still have to manage them." (199)
Everything eats, everything is eaten, Atina explains. Death is part of life. She ends the passage by wryly wondering how the worker will feel when it's time to cut off the broccoli heads. Toughen up, young person.

There's something familiar and true in what she says. Death is part of life, and there are ways of killing that promote life (i.e., if the weed becomes fertiliser) and ways of killing that destroy more than what is meant to be killed (i.e., if herbicides are used that annihilate the microbial life of the soil). But unfortunately for my opinion of organic annual-culture and the righteous slaying of weeds, a few days after putting down Atina's beautiful book I read Wendell Berry's Guardian interview. Wherein Berry says:
[A]t present, 80% of the land [in US agriculture] is planted annually in annual crops such as corn and beans, and 20% in perennials. ... It's pretty clear that annual plants are nature's emergency service. They're the plants that come in after, say, a landslide, after the land has been exposed, and they give it a temporary cover while the perennials are getting started. So our predominantly annual agriculture keeps the land in a state of emergency. It's hard to make a permanent agriculture on the basis of an emergency strategy. By now the planted acreages have grown so large that most soybean and corn fields, for instance, are not seeded to cover crops, and so they lie exposed to the weather all winter. You can drive through Iowa in April before the new crops have been planted and started to grow, and you don't see anything green mile after mile. It's more deserted than a desert. And the soil erosion rates in Iowa are scandalous.
The desert that Berry is describing is far, far, far from Atina's farm, which is, on the contrary, best practice mass annual farming. The Diffleys grow cover crops that renew soil fertility; they do have small-scale monocultures, rows of this, rows of that, but their farm is a mixed species one; they leave edge-rows of weeds to permit the survival of "beneficial insects" (quotation marks because, you know, beneficial to whom?); and their management of the unrulier annuals - the weeds - is mechanical rather than chemical.

Even so, a ploughed field is still land in a state of emergency, innit. And the fact that they have weeds to hoe out proves it. Those weeds are there because of the emergency conditions. (As I'm writing this, I'm hearing emergency as the noun that follows the adjective emergent, which actually doesn't sound so bad. Emergency conditions as conditions out of which life emerges?)

Though the Diffleys' farm is in a relatively gentle climate, it's still subject now and then (likely to be nower and thenner as climate change effects kick in) to unusually high rainfall, or unusually low rainfall, or unusually fierce winds, etc. And although they've increased the organic soil content so that it retains water, and generally done everything that can be done in an annual cropping environment to stabilise the system, annual cropping is inherently unstable. Its condition is the rapidity of its life cycles. All the cabbages germinate together, grow together over five months, and then they're harvested together, leaving, suddenly, a cabbageless, plantless, swath. I've got my own annual veg beds, very small scale, and they couldn't be more gently treated, with manures and mulches and mixed species and sub-surface water, and yet still, they have periods of bareness. And they sprout weeds, of course, because those weeds are nature dealing with a state of emergency.

So, I don't know. A huge percentage of my diet consists of annual species. My staples are lentils and chickpeas and soybeans and rice and wheat. Then I add mostly annual veg. I love a sun-ripened tomato. And the sweet orange flesh of a pumpkin. I love beans, and cabbages, and caulis. Omidog, basil. And beetroot! And garlic! The eggs we get from Shirley and Esme and occasionally Griselda depend on the chooks' largely annual-based seed and pulse diet. It's true that most of my fruit comes from perennial species - trees, bushes, brambles, vines - and I eat the odd perennial vegetable (globe artichokes, Jerusalem artichokes, rhubarb, sorrel, warrigal greens) and mostly perennial herbs. And nuts, of course. And, hey, cocoa comes from a perennial. But - however numerous the bunya nuts and peaches in my life - I find it hard to imagine switching to an 80% perennial diet.

It seems worth trying, though. Trying to find a way of eating that doesn't require the yearly harrowing of soil and the emptying out of fields. Eating food that grows on trees (or from a sorrel clump, a prickly pear cactus, the rhizome of an artichoke) means promoting deep roots over shallow ones, relative ecological stability over upheaval. I guess it means olive oil rather than seed oil. Tamarillos rather than tomato. Sorrel before lettuce. Thyme instead of basil. Honey rather than cane sugar. And maybe finding ways of grafting annual species to perennial ones (eggplant to some kind of super overwintering solanum, for instance).

Perennial-based vegetarian protein sources, not so easy. Maybe I really do have to start eating snails.

On that alarming note, here ends the essay, for now.

* Not an actual husky, though.


  1. Hmm. A confronting thought. Which I will have to consider. Drat you.

  2. Not too confronting, I hope. It was secretly my way of arguing for the cocoa, hazelnut, raspberry and coffee diet.

  3. Yes, it's easy with fruit but veg perennials are less prevalent. Have you read Paradise Lot? It's a great book about a couple of horticulturists in America growing a food forest, which consisted mostly of perennial plants many of which were veg. I'm suture there are lots of perennial veg options out there in nature, just not widely cultivated, available or understood.

  4. I have read that book. I've got to get hold of some sea kale seeds.

    I got a bit distracted by the honeyberries they kept mentioning, actually, and am disappointed to read that they probably wouldn't make it here -- not enough chill.