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.
Faith in Ambiguity by Tara Adams is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License