Toward the end of my previous essay I said that to anyone abstracted from health, wholeness, and true agricultural potential, money is the magic that conjures food.
But, true though this is, by now almost all of us are abstracted from the sources that feed us. We are drawn or pulled away from them, as the etymology of “abstract” suggests. We live at a great distance from those sources, and to us they are abstractions.*
My generation is abstracted—it lives at a distance—from the land because our parents left the farm and then brought us up to do anything except return to it. Our own children are even more abstracted from the land, and some of these children, the least fortunate, are the unsuspecting victims of educational experts who, noticing that a nine-month school year no longer makes any sense now that children aren’t needed as farm hands, want to send these poor inmates to prison year-round. It would never occur to an educational expert to send the children back to the farm so that they can be disabused of the superstition that money produces food. The experts are as abstracted and therefore as ignorant everyone else.
I am not trying to be unnecessarily severe. It may be true that you can’t fix stupid, but not all ignorance can be mitigated. I myself am incorrigibly ignorant of many things. But I’m willing to go on record as saying that to be an eater and yet remain ignorant of and uninterested in food is a serious problem. It is a problem because the health, wholeness, and true agricultural potential of which I wrote last week are in jeopardy, and they are in jeopardy because people who eat are uninterested in them. That the sources are in jeopardy is an even greater problem because the people who depend on them don’t know that they’re in jeopardy—and, not knowing, apparently don’t care. (It is a property of abstraction to thwart knowledge and to make affection and concern nearly impossible.) Meanwhile, as topsoil heads toward the Gulf of Mexico and aquifers run dry, we who remain on what’s left of a once rich land must reconcile ourselves to such absurdities as Iowa, which is a beautiful state, mostly farmland, but which does not feed itself. Iowa is a farm state but imports close to 90 percent of its food. There are farmers there, but by now a “farmer” is someone who accepts federal subsidies to raise corn and soy beans. People who raise food, by contrast, are “growers” whom the Fed does not help, and the foods that they raise are called “specialty crops.” Many of them live in California, which has a nice long coastline but no water. Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink, as the Sage of Highgate said.
It bears repeating: “specialty crops” used to be called “food,” and they were raised everywhere on diversified farms. The emblem of these multicultural farms was the old barn. As Wes Jackson has pointed out, the hay loft of the old barn was a “‘fuel tank’ sponsoring meat, milk, and traction energy for draft animals.” The lower story had “straw or hay for bedding, which captured manure and urine (nitrogen) to be returned to the fields [as fertility] via a manure spreader.”
That these beautiful old barns are falling down everywhere is a sobering reminder that diversified farming has been replaced by something far more simple and simplifying. The ammonia tank (that is, the sprayer filled with nitrogen fertilizer whose feed stock is natural gas) has replaced the free fertility absorbed by the straw and hay or freely dropped on pastures, and the diesel tank has replaced the barn loft.
But that description of the simple and simplifying replacement is itself is too simple, though it is not for this reason untrue. It is a way of saying quickly that cheap energy and cheap money replaced people, that the money and energy sponsored a farm-to-city migration not only coeval with but in a real sense made possible by the second world war. The Haber-Bosch process, which made the production of nitrogen fertilizer economically feasible on a large industrial scale, was originally used by the Germans for munitions. And since that all-havoc-raising but unsuccessful campaign, this war-faring technology has been used to wage war on the farm land over which, because of that very process, there are too few eyes to keep watch. Vigilance may be the eternal price of freedom, but it is also the eternal price of other things as well, including healthy soils. And, for want of vigilance, we no longer have any. What we will do for fertility once the feed stock for nitrogen fertilizer runs out is simply another one of those problems apparently scheduled for solution by people too clever to be wise. Progress is their religion, and they are the moronic fundamentalists who practice it.
Thoreau said, “Simplify, simplify!” He wasn’t wrong to do so. He meant something like “reduce the distractions in your life.” But the thing about life is that it is complex, and to be equal to it we must complexify our thinking. Our thinking may never be as complex as topsoil, but we should not for this reason reduce it by simplified methods born of simplifying thought. That could lead to ill-advised wagers.
And the wager we have placed is this: fossil fuels and the artificial fertility we have concocted from them will be available forever, even though they obviously exist in limited supplies on a finite planet.
That is, we have bet the farm not on a long shot but on an absurdity.
And it’s not only that we’ve put all our money on this, though we have. It’s that we’ve staked the lives of our children to the proposition that there is no need for the old knowledge that ran the diversified farm or for the intelligence that designed the old barn where dwelt a genuine diversity and multiculturalism without which the ideological kinds that our “intellectuals” are so obsessed with will obviously go away.
I pause for emphasis. Take the real and necessary kinds of diversity and multiculturalism away—the biological kinds on which actual life depends—and the ideological kinds on which university careers depend will become even less relevant than they are now—which hardly seems possible, but there you have it. Only people abstracted from the real diversity and multiculturalism of actual life could have enough time on their hands to invent the ideological kinds that we use as substitutes for morality and jargon for book contracts. Is it any wonder that black-clad purple-haired narcissists who have never had to breed a mare find themselves on university-sponsored retreats designed to help them figure out their sexual identities? Is it any wonder that, to account for the rampant narcissism, sociologists have to keep inventing new genders? A migration back to the farm could solve a lot of problems. For starters it would reduce the number of psychoses that enrich therapists, counselors, pharmaceutical companies, and Swiss surgeons, to say nothing of sociologists.
I have placed the dots without connecting them, but, yes, I am suggesting that the Haber-Bosch process has caused more mischief than has been accounted for. And this is a commentary not only on the illusions of progress and technology but also on the grim logic of war.
Wordsworth: for this, for everything, we are out of tune.
* It is a curiosity of the word “abstract,” at least as we use it, that it means something immaterial or intellectual or highly abstruse. Really difficult ideas, we say, are “abstract,” by which we don’t mean “drawn or pulled away from this place here.” We mean “over my head” in the sense of “incomprehensible.” And yet this word, the root of which also provides us with the word “tractor,” implies not an immaterial but a concrete physical distance—a distance from, as in “drawn or pulled away from this place here.” Descriptivist grammarians and lexicographers may say what they will about the word’s current use; its history insists on spatial relation, and that history is instructive.