Ralph Waldo Emerson said that a man eats not that he may be fed but that he may work. Although I doubt Emerson knew fully what he meant by this (I doubt the Sage of Concord knew anything fully), I am going to attempt to relieve some pressure from his statement by considering it in relation to real wealth, about which I made a few preliminary remarks in a previous essay.
By “real wealth” I mean nature’s stock, which backs whatever paper we are habituated to mistake as actual wealth.
Nature’s stock isn’t gold but, rather, available goods beginning and ending in what feeds us. There are other goods, certainly, but none as important as food (after which I would name, without ranking them, clothing, shelter, and fuel). If you aren’t being fed you’re not going to become a coal baron or a railroad tycoon and then, if luxury affords it, a philanthropist. You’re going to be a corpse with only the worms and grass and trees to thank you for your generosity. The fellowship of dust cares nothing about donor intent.
And if we were really interested in wealth in the older and deeper sense of weal (whence common weal and commonwealth), we would do the intelligent thing and make health and wholeness and true agricultural potential the gold standard. There would be no such tyrant as a bottom line, because we would be engaged in a less reductive and less simplifying and less despotic enterprise than the one we’re currently engaged in. We would be engaged not in selective but in comprehensive bookkeeping. A depleted aquifer would go on the books as a cost offsetting the harvest it nourished. Divorce, though it increases the unimpeachable GDP (which Ed Abbey called it the “grossest domestic product”), would go on the books as a cost offsetting the purchase of extra dishwashers and toasters. These and other costs—poor health, obesity, smog, the emotional damage children inevitably bear when parents fail to love each other sufficiently—would go on the books and be subtracted from whatever gains we think we’re making. And whatever “net” gain we’d come up with after doing all the math carefully and honestly might turn out to be no gain at all but, instead, the kind of loss that some people could conceivably regard as a compelling reason to adjust their behavior.
What feeds us, obviously, is food. But food isn’t contingent upon piles of money, as most of us are habituated to think. It is contingent upon healthy topsoil, adequate water (preferably rainwater), sunlight, salubrious seasons, and the human intelligence that encourages the issuance of food from the earth. All flesh may indeed be grass, as the prophet said, and this may suggest that our lives are ephemeral, but that’s just the metaphorical sense of the phrase. There’s a literal sense to it as well. All flesh is grass because we are constantly converting what the earth produces, by the grace of sunlight and water and soil, into human flesh—into us, ourselves.
If sunlight falls and grass grows and a cow eats the grass, and if a man comes along and eats a steak cut from the flank of the grass-eating cow, what the man is doing is precisely the same thing that the cow did: converting grass into flesh. The cow is the man’s intermediary, but the man’s flesh, like the cow’s, is still grass. It is also sunlight, water, and soil. The body that I understand as “me” or part of what constitutes “me” is grass (or bananas or potatoes or whatever). It is as true to say that as to say that a healthy pasture, or hay in a barn loft, is stored energy. A horse that grazes and then pulls a cart has converted grass into energy. In this case all energy is grass, and in this case the energy happens to be solar—energy run on contemporary rather than ancient sunlight. The biggest difference between a horse and a tractor isn’t horse power. It’s energy. A horse uses sunlight that is falling right now or that fell yesterday or during the most recent growing season; a tractor running on oil uses sunlight that fell a long time ago. (About this, more presently.)
We must get used to the fact that the grass is soil plus sunlight plus water. We must get used to the fact that the cow is soil plus sunlight plus water plus grass. And as a carnivore I must get used to the fact that I am soil plus sunlight plus water plus grass plus cow.
That is what I am in material terms.
But that is not all that I am. I used the phrase “part of what constitutes me” just now because I was speaking not of the whole but of a mere part; I also used it because there is, unmistakably, an immaterial part of me as well. Call it “mind” or “spirit” or “soul” or what-you-will; nevertheless, it is still “there.” I know it and can point to it, and so can you. Everyone capable of saying “I am” must admit of an immaterial part of himself that is as real as a thumbnail or a kneecap; he must admit of an interior life that is as real as a life of framing houses or barbering heads. Not the spleen, not the liver, but consciousness says “I am.” No one’s colon ever said “Thanks. That’s very kind of you.” For such an utterance you need a source more full of gratitude, which is immaterial, and (if you will pardon the idiom) less full of shit, which isn’t.
But distinctions between the material and the immaterial notwithstanding, the paradigm nevertheless obtains. Call the human person what you will. I am describing a fact as much natural as theological and liturgical: you are what you eat. I agree that man does not live by bread alone; I am only pointing out that he doesn’t live without it either.
And so for the moment my emphasis is on the bread. I’m describing a stage, though not necessarily the telos, of a process called “eating.” A man eats not that he may be fed but that he may work: that is, that he may be.
By now, however, almost everyone who eats is as abstracted from soil and water and sunlight as from sound theology. The average lunch-goer in any diner anywhere knows pretty much nothing about the quality of the soil that nourished the wheat that the bread on his plate came from. And I’d wager that the lunch-goer knows far less about the dangerously depleted aquifer that watered the wheat.
(For the record, soil is eroding and aquifers are being depleted at alarming rates. Eating, the unum necessarium, is in jeopardy way beyond knowledge or, apparently, concern.)
And the eater’s fund of knowledge about the sunlight that feeds him is no doubt equally unimpressive, but it bears saying, and saying emphatically, that by now a fair amount of that sunlight is not, as I said a moment ago, contemporary but ancient. The eater is being fed in large measure by ancient sunlight that fell and brought to life plants that lived and died and then, as decaying matter, turned into the black gold we refine and use for pretty much everything—and which, because of our profligate use, is now in steady remorseless decline. We eat today thanks to the massive infusions of ancient sunlight that power the machines and artificial fertility of modern agriculture. That those infusions are costly, whereas the daily infusions of contemporary sunlight are not (they’re free), goes some distance in suggesting how poorly we keep our books.
And I’ve not yet said anything about the human intelligence, formerly known as “husbandry,” that, far from being a kind of magical incantation that conjures food from the earth, is instead a place-specific kind of knowledge that encourages the earth’s productive capacity, a knowledge kept in both the mind and the body, in memory as we commonly think of it but also in muscle memory as well.
A consequence of this ignorance—I mean ignorance of the sources that allow us to walk around as ignoramuses—is that almost everyone who eats knows nothing not only about soil and water but also about the human intelligence that brings forth food. Eaters participate in the food economy as eaters only. It is true that they shop for food, so they’re also “consumers,” but a consumer in this sense is just an eater who is extra lazy and equally unresourceful. By now we’re all baby birds competitively squirming in a nest, our beaks open, waiting for the pre-masticated food to drop into our mouths.
Of course there’s nothing wrong with being a baby bird if you’re a baby bird. But there is if you’re a mamma bird.
A baby bird may think at first that food comes from his mother’s beak, but he’s wrong and in due time will learn otherwise, mainly because the worst thing that happens to us won’t ever happen to him: he won’t be duped into thinking it’s okay to remain a child forever: that is, he’ll grow up and learn to do something more than simply consume. He’ll learn to search for food rather than merely wait for it to appear. He’ll learn that a bird eats not that he may be fed but that he may work.
We would do well to note from this scenario a natural fact: that man is less intelligent than this bird, for the bird will grow up and learn to do something more useful than go grocery shopping. Reconciled to his condition, which is to work, he’ll learn to get food by the sweat of his brow, as it were. (And it is always better to reconcile yourself to your condition.) In his food economy he’ll be more than a mere eater—more indeed than a consumer—and his noble fate will be to die as a bird. The consumer’s baser fate, by contrast, will be to die as a consumptive.
Unlike the baby bird, we who were putatively “given dominion” over the birds of the air have learned to think from infancy to dotage and deliquescence that, so long as there is money, food can be bought, for to anyone abstracted from the true source, money is the magic that conjures food. Money is the new soil plus water plus sunlight plus animals. It is, as Marx taught us, the object par excellence, a kind of pixy dust that alters reality by altering perception.
And it has allowed us to live the lives of the petro-chemical applicators, either actually or by proxy. Eating that we may be fed, we forget about the sources and the human intelligence. Just as the petro-chemical producer thinks that fertility comes from the concoction in his sprayer, so the eater thinks it comes from the artificial wealth in his bank account. Both are mistaken. And what both have in common is abstraction from the gold standard: health, wholeness, and agricultural potential. Both are duped, one by artificial fertility, the other by artificial wealth, but both by what is not real.
Both eat that they may be fed rather than that eating may continue. Both are interested in the multiplied loaves and fishes, as we might expect them to be, but not in the one who blesses and multiplies them, as of course they should be. And both prepare for a future in which they will be fat, not for one in which worms will be fattened. But fattening worms is the only real future in store for either of them. For, whether coming or going, all flesh is grass. Let them therefore reconcile themselves to this before the evil days come—if indeed they are not already upon us.