Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Wisdom From the Soil: Process Matters

Now that I am gardening again, it seems to me that all of the collected wisdom of human existence can be rediscovered in this process of producing one's own food. Every time I reach for the metaphor I want to  express an abstract that I am writing, my hand grasps something covered in soil.  The world tends to filter through me like that–in great gushes of meaning–pounding onto me like monsoon rain, until I am drenched beyond reason, standing in pools of analogy. At some point later, I will look back and think indulgently, "Ah, gardening, was it? How quaint."

Gardening, though, it is. I am sorry if gardening is not your thing. My writing, when I am not attempting to make fun, is the sermon given by a dilettante obsessed with the poetry of ordinary living. Or a preaching of the doctrine of "provoking a bee hive to see what the bees might do." Life is this Bible which is constantly illumining me with its intricate strangeness, causing me to sing Hallelujah. All I want from my readers is to go to church with me.

Today I am interested in process, in means and ends and the ripples that they cause in groups of humans when decisions, like a stone, are thrown in among them. This is where permaculture and other organic gardening practices depart from conventional and it is where communities of intention depart from communities of expediency.

There is a tree in my front yard, a large elm, that has grown too large. I am in favor of elms. They are all to the good, providing natural habitat for faeries, children and compost piles as they do.  This one, though, has grown old and arrogant. It is reaching its crown to brush our power lines, its long, rooty toes deep into our sewer system and is overshadowing a lilac bush, which now fails, almost every year, to bloom. It occurred to my husband that it could be removed and that we could then plant a few fruit trees in the area, which would grow shorter and, of course, produce food. I like this idea, in a practical sense. In an emotional sense, I never feel quite comfortable with the cutting of a tree on my property. It's always as if someone has suggested casually that we slaughter an old elephant. Trees have character. Perhaps I am an animist. I do not feel that one should just cut down trees willy-nilly. I do concede, however, that its relationship to our power lines and sewer are problematic.

My husband's friend, who we hire to do general work for us, suggested that we could cut our elm and then inject poison into the stump to kill the roots. I smiled politely at this suggestion, and immediately prepared to go to war against it. I am not an expert on tree removal. If, perhaps, this is the only reasonable way to rid oneself of invasive tree roots, I am sure we will soon know, but I am not prepared to casually introduce blight into a soil I have treated like a soup gently simmered over the years. The relationship between a plant and the soil is reciprocal. The plant pulls water, draws nutrients, and introduces elements back into the soil. This is why we plant nitrogen-fixing plants in gardens to improve the soil. Knowing this demands that one think further than simply getting from A to Z, on a more complex level than tree to soil. It requires thinking like a system.

It is the same with decisions made in a body of people–in a family, in a community group, in a workplace. Process matters. It matters, in many ways, more than results. If you have loaded your soil with chemical fertilizers, pesticides and weed-killer, if you have farmed it in a way to work the land to exhaustion, you may yield a cornucopia for a year, but your soil will die. And if you make decisions outside of established processes, allow power to collect in the hands of too few, and only inform others later of decisions that have been made without them, you will kill your community. To foster an engaged group of employees, volunteers or family members requires that they know they have a role that matters. Systems of democracy, or systems for input, are built up to provide perspective, to spread responsibility and to balance the representation of different points of view. It is never safe to ignore them in order to get things done faster or more easily.

In the nineteen years of my adult life, I have been privileged to be a part of many different communities, all of which functioned very differently. Some have been groups organized around a cause or common purpose, others around a spiritual need. I have been there to see many of them falter and lose their way, and this always happened when they failed to define a process by which decisions could be made democratically or to stick to that process. The most successful, inspiring community I have ever been a part of was the General Service body of Alcoholics Anonymous, its democratic representation. There are more checks built into that system for valuing the opinion of the minority, for gaining the perspective of as many as possible, and for slowing a headlong dash toward any major change than I have witnessed anywhere. It was thrived for almost sixty years and kept an organization alive that saves people's lives every day, despite being run entirely by people who are fundamentally crazy. Not every organization could, or should go as far, but most could go much further in the direction of what AA has done.

Process matters. Healthy soil is more important than a first harvest. A strong community is more important than a good decision. In the end, a rich soil will yield a bounty. In the end, a macerated soil will kill fruit on the vine. When in doubt, always invest in your soil.


  1. Wow, this one I'm going to have to re-read a few times. There's so many wise points in here. Very well done!

    1. Thanks, Emily. It is a great compliment that someone, besides myself, editing madly, would want to read me more than once.

  2. I read this twice. You've given me so much to think about. I love the line, 'they know they have a role that matters.' Years ago, when my oldest was having a hard time, I prayed and prayed to know how to help. The answer I got was that he needed to know I believed in him. (A role that matters.)
    Thanks for sharing your great insight.

    1. In our town, the local youth leaders have, for years, been promoting, the 40 Developmental Assets (which you can read about here if inclined: One thing I remember hearing discussed is that what predicts if an adolescent will feel valued in their community or family is that they have a role in them, with jobs and responsibilities, which people count of them to perform. This was more important than a number of other features of families and communities: Work. Meaningful work.

  3. I'm not sure why, but that last line brought me to tears.

    Beautiful. And very thinky.

  4. A. I don't think you have to pour poison into your stump.
    B. I agree with you about chopping down trees and I love the sentence "It's always as if someone has suggested casually that we slaughter an old elephant." I love it so much I might take it out to dinner.
    C. If more people put this kind of thought into both their gardens and their communities, the world would be a much more beautiful place.
    D. Write about gardening all you want.

    1. A. I think I will just ask the roots politely to curb their enthusiasm. I will do this respectfully, while trying to respect their needs.
      B. Think of all the gnomes we might accidentally kill!
      C. If more people put this kind of thought into things, probably nothing would get done. No one would ever publish anything. No baseboards would be washed. Certainly we would never go to war without first consulting all stakeholders. This is why I am not a good "leader."
      D. Thanks. My next post will deal with a metaphorical exploration of mycorrhizal fungus.

  5. I would totally vote for you if you ran for office. I totally would.

    1. If I ran for office, I would do nothing but make impassioned speeches and drink coffee. This is why I am not allowed to participate in organizations larger than church committees.

    2. I could be your vice president of impassioned speeches and coffee drinking.


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