Roots and Obligations

By Michael Ableman

My International 484 three-cylinder tractor requires full throttle these days. It's tired, and pulling the disc across the front field under the best of soil conditions is a chore. With a worn muffler it's loud too, very loud, so it was a small miracle I even heard the clink from somewhere behind me. I immediately stopped, throttled down, took the tractor out of gear and got off. There behind the disc was a stone pestle, perfectly preserved except for the marks left by the steel blades of the disc. It fit comfortably in my palm, buffed smooth by Chumash Indian hands some 2,000 years ago. The farm was soon to celebrate its 100th anniversary, and as I held this ancient tool, we were suddenly newcomers. I have tilled this field a hundred times in 15 years of farming here, but the traces of my native predecessors have been inconspicuous. As hunter-gatherers they fed themselves off this land for generations, hardly disturbing it, leaving it virtually unaffected by their presence.

My presence is not so inconspicuous. I carve the soil with tractors and steel implements and replace native plants with an array of foreign crops. I am always imposing, always redefining. I favor one plant to dominate over those I call weeds, and require nature to conform to the schedule of the marketplace. The land is forgiving. It recovers when I impatiently work soil that is still too wet, it persistently reseeds itself where I have mowed and hoed, and mulched and controlled. It tolerates my enthusiastic improvements and my creative and entrepreneurial whims. It welcomes the botanical visitors I arrange into neat lines and squares -- groves of Algerian mandarins, straight rows of Italian artichokes, blocks of Guatemalan and Mexican avocados, Japanese persimmons, Andean potatoes, and Siberian tomatoes.

Social scientists tell us that agriculture was the thing that allowed our ancestors to settle and populations to grow. Human prosperity has been achieved through drawing from the body of the earth. The staff of life, the bread that we break comes to us from smashing, turning, and grinding vast expanses of soil whose nutrients are harvested along with the grains of wheat.

Farming and gardening, even at their most conscientious, are extractive. So each time we work our land, we enter into an unspoken contract with nature -- to return a little more than we have taken. The best techniques mimic nature: rotating and resting fields, cover cropping and composting, and trying to create an appropriate balance between wild and tame. When we rebuild the soils we have used, encourage diversity, and provide habitat for birds and insects, we honor our biological inheritance and help fulfill our obligation to the future. We also increase the bounty of our harvest.

This past Thursday we shared a meal of freshly picked white asparagus, mixed greens, and Yellow Finn potatoes, followed by cherimoya, strawberry, and mandarin salad for dessert. Through the dining room window I could see the fields still winter clothed with thick green manure crops. Nearby mountains of compost stewed on the hill. I enjoyed knowing that as I feasted, the land in turn will do the same.

Though human populations come and go, they share the same land. Some scientists speculate that entire civilizations have risen and fallen with the health and depletion of their topsoils. The land we live and grow on and cultivate holds the combined gifts and mistakes of all those who have come before us. What we do during our short tenure becomes the roots for tomorrow and ultimately the ancient history of this land. What will we leave behind?

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