I am going to say it out loud. I don’t enjoy gardening.
Yesterday, I was ready to say ‘I hate gardening,’ but I slept on it and a new day convinced me that wasn’t really true. There are parts of gardening I don’t mind (seed starting, watering), and one I actively enjoy (harvesting!).
Yesterday, though, I was doing one of the parts I hate. Wheelbarrowing. I’m on record as believing that, in the pantheon of important inventions brought to us by the Chinese, the wheelbarrow just doesn’t rank up there with paper or gunpowder. Or noodles, come to think of it. It is thanks to the wheelbarrow that gardeners everywhere have been spilling large loads of heavy things for over 2000 years.
Yesterday, it was compost. We have a big pile of what used to be pig and chicken poop, combined with kitchen scraps, leaves and straw. It is now part compost, part mostly-broken-down leaves and straw (the poop and the scraps, thankfully, seem to have broken down completely). Wheelbarrow load by wheelbarrow load, I hauled it up to the garden. It really wasn’t any fun.
Although the afternoon I spent wheelbarrowing gave me an excellent workout, I derived none of that sense of satisfaction and one-with-the-earthness that real gardeners report. Instead, I came away with the sense, and not for the first time, that what we do is woefully inefficient, and borders – literally and figuratively – on fruitless.
And now, the morning after, I come across a New York Times piece by Verlyn Klinkenborg, the Times’ house agricultural commentator. Klinkenborg grew up on a farm, and now lives and writes about “The Rural Life” for the Times, on whose editorial board he sits.
Klinkenborg is of the Agrarian Pastoral school. Wendell Berry, but without the dirt under his fingernails. He’s a gentleman commentator; although he lives on a farm, there doesn’t seem to be a livelihood involved.
I think we’re all entitled to an opinion about farming, whether we feed people or not. In fact, I think it’s important that all of us, whether we farm or we don’t, pay attention to the way our food supply works, and have discussions about it in the public space. But I get a little tired of the rose-colored glasses through which some of our commentators look at our country’s agricultural past.
Klinkenborg put those glasses on to take a trip through California’s San Joaquin valley, and lamented that the farming happening there looked so little like the farming of his youth. He brings up a couple of important issues – irrigation and water use are critical to the future, and the present, of California agriculture – but imbeds them in a meditation on mechanization. “Lost in the Geometry of California’s Farms,” he (or his editor) calls the piece, in which he regrets that, “Every human imperfection linked with the word ‘farming’ has been erased. The rows are machined. The earth is molded.” And here are the culprits: “Every tractor, vastly too small a word for the machines in the distance, was raising a dust storm all its own, and there were hundreds of them, up and down the valley.”
Come on, Verlyn! There are lots of things we need to fix about modern agriculture, but straight rows aren’t one of them. Many of the things that have made agriculture efficient have caused problems. Reliance on monocrops and overuse of chemicals are bone fide issues. But machinery? The economies of scale that allow machines to do the work of humans help keep food inexpensive without any real downside.
Any time he wants ‘human imperfection,’ Verlyn Klinkenborg is welcome to come to my house. He’ll find me tipping over my wheelbarrow full of mostly broken down compost, wishing for a tractor. Fortunately, every farmer who takes on the grave responsibility of feeding the world already has one.