“Disappointment” in the Garden

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In February I left my AmeriCorps assignment at the Southside Community Land Trust (SCLT) in Providence, Rhode Island. Healthwise, too much was deflecting my attention from professional pursuits. So I am now officially unemployed and living again with my family in Connecticut. 

Considering how much expectation I exuded about my new work in the essay “In Search of Querencia,” my return to Connecticut could be seen as disappointing. Indeed, I was disappointed whenever I was drawn away from the SCLT office for medical reasons, or when I noticed how my body was protesting in ways it never had against agricultural labor. By the close of 2020, I could see my break with Providence coming, and that was frustrating.

But when the break did come and I had time to reflect, I wasn’t let down, full stop. I began to see the tyranny of my expectations and how they were keeping me from imagining any sort of narrative beyond that of linear ascent. It turns out a likelier scenario to ascent is failure. Though not as glamorous as instant success, falling short of one’s goals can inform and enrich the larger journey.

In her book Active Hope, Joanna Macy addresses the phenomenon of failure:

Why might failure and frustration be necessary parts of the journey? Because if we stick only with what we know how to do, what we’re comfortable with and confident about, we limit ourselves to the old, familiar ways rather than developing new capacities…The good news about frustration and failure is they show that we have dared to step outside our comfort zones and to rise to a challenge that stretches us. What we’re doing here is reframing frustration and failure in a way that encourages us to persist rather than to give up.”[1]

According to conventional wisdom, I shouldn’t have signed up for an AmeriCorps position titled “sustainable agriculture coordinator”—my health history should have induced me to stay on the sidelines. But I did try my hand at novel, challenging work for several months deep within a pandemic. I must thank the staff at SCLT for extending that opportunity to step outside my comfort zone and experiment with new capacities. Furthermore, I achieved the goals I set forth in “In Search of Querencia:” I did meet key figures who pointed me further, just in a roundabout way I was too vain to consider a year ago.

Now I have time to experiment with the meditation methods, shamanic techniques, and somatic modalities I have absorbed over the past several years. But these practices don’t always yield noticeable progress. When they do, the forward momentum often feels too slow. So the path I am on can be interminable when what I really want is a quantum leap to a new state. Yet Joanna Macy goes on to address interminability, which, like failure, may yield delayed but even greater gratification:

Consider what happens to a bottle of water when it is left in the freezer. As it cools down, there is a steady, continuous change in its temperature. The water won’t change much in appearance until it begins to get near the critical threshold of its freezing point. Then, as it passes this, an extraordinary process happens. Tiny crystals form, and when they do, other crystals form around those crystals, until there is a mass movement of crystallization in the water that rapidly changes state from liquid to solid. This is discontinuous change. 

With discontinuous change, a threshold is crossed where rather than just more of the same happening, something different occurs. There’s a jump to a new level, an opening to a new set of possibilities. We might think it impossible that a small amount of water could crack something as hard as glass, but as the ice expands, it breaks the bottle.[2]

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, my attention has been repeatedly drawn to exponential—discontinuous—processes in nature that bring about phase shifts. So I know my guides are urging forbearance as I repeat my qigong and fourfold breath routines each day, indoors. I may have been expelled from the garden for now, but I’m being asked to trust the process. Like the tree that grows heavy with buds for a month before leafing out, or the bottle of cooling water Joanna Macy writes of, I have to trust that I too can undergo a phase shift.

Discontinuous change and phase shifts are the things of cocoons—metamorphosis. Most of us are familiar with the general concept of how a caterpillar will form a chrysalis then emerge weeks later transfigured into a butterfly. Less well known is how the caterpillar resists change. As it dissolves in its own digestive acids, the immune system of the cocooned pupa will attack the imaginal cells that are trying to transform it. In turn, a nascent imago will fall again and again into the soup of its former self. But this seemingly counterproductive immune response serves to strengthen the imaginal cells so that they can finally give rise to a winged, visually stunning creature.[3}

Photo courtesy of Walter del Aguila on Unplash

The way in which repeated failure is necessary for a butterfly pupa to undergo the discontinuous change of metamorphosis is instructive not just for myself, but for society at large. Cell biologist Bruce Lipton and political philosopher Steve Bhaerman, co-authors of a book titled Spontaneous Evolution, propose that the metamorphosis process can be a model for cultural evolution. They write that the immature stages of complex adaptive systems in biology are marked by excessive competition and auto-cannibalism. But existential crisis—such as a pupa running out of food—can engender evolutionary leaps towards maturity and cooperation[4]. In this manner, we can regard the countercultural and protest movements of the past 60 years not as aberrations or duds, but as pulses of a burgeoning energy that had yet to encounter an existential crisis that could catalyze enduring evolutionary change.

A pandemic, economic stagnation, ecological collapse, and shambolic politics, all shadowed by exponential global warming. These entropic seeds of cataclysm most definitely constitute a polycrisis that demands a rapid shift in human conduct. Proclamations from politicians to the contrary, normal as we knew it is not being restored (nor should it—the old normal was killing us). The pandemic hasn’t ended, climate disruption is now a fact of life, the buried rage of centuries is animating ever-more vitriolic public debate. I am still being urged deeper into the cocoon, and most of us are also being impelled to continue going inwards. When we are embraced by darkness, we may feel not just disappointment, but downright grief. The old normal may have been suicidal, but it is natural to grieve a way of life one was comfortable with.

So I must circle back to the conclusion I drew more than a year ago—that we are encased, waiting for the active ingredient that will bring about our own phase shifts. For many of us, that catalyst will be grief, which is an emotion the old normal never let us explore deeply. But when we allow ourselves to feel the wound, we can expand our wings and discover that, in the words of Wendell Berry, “the dark, too, blooms and sings.”[5]


Notes

[1] Macy, Joanna, Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy. (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2012), 189.

[2] Ibid., 189-90.

[3] Pinchbeck, Daniel, How Soon is Now: From Personal Initiation to Global Transformation. (London: Watkins Publishing, 2017), 179-80.

[4] Ibid., 180.

[5] Berry, Wendell, “To Know the Dark” in Terrapin: Poems by Wendell Berry. (United States: Counterpoint).

Thoughts on Toil

The following is from Jean Toomers poem “Harvest Song”:

I am a reaper whose muscles set at sundown. All of my oats are cradled.

But I am too chilled, and too fatigued to bind them. And I hunger.

 

I crack a grain between my teeth. I do not taste it.

I have been in the fields all day. My throat is dry. I hunger.

These two stanzas speak with accuracy to the history of farming in this country on a number of levels. More immediately, though, I have been thinking about the hard task of working the land, and thought the lamentations of Toomer’s imagined reaper conveys the drudgery inherent to agricultural labor.

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A wagonload of hay after harvest at Sylvester Manor, ca. 1900.

Last weekend I was bone tired. I slept excessively, my neck and back were sore, and I went about about chores with a longing for the next opportunity to sit down and rest. At first I was worried that I had contracted a tick-borne illness. But when my energy returned and my neck muscles relaxed after a stretch of languid non-activity, I realized that perhaps my body was only adjusting to and expelling three weeks of exhaustion from the constant, repetitive physical motions of farming. Granted, unlike the rest of the Sylvester Manor farm crew members, I only work in the field three days a week, with the rest of my time going to to my research and writing for this project. But as an individual with a chronic health condition, I have to contend with a different set of challenges when I am in the field.

Yet I have voluntarily taken on the responsibility of working as a member of the farm crew, while for the vast majority of farm laborers in the world right now and throughout human history, agriculture has been anything but voluntary. In his 2017 book Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, James C. Scott distills the findings of the last 20 years of neolithic archaeology to demonstrate that human societies’ transitions to decidedly sedentary, agricultural means of organization was almost always accompanied by the coercive powers of a centralized state. Intensive fixed-field agriculture devoted to the production of one or two cereal grains – the type first practiced by the kingdoms of Mesopotamia – was associated with shorter life expectancies and lower overall health, greater inputs of intensive labor, and less individual agency than the diversified pastoralist-horticulturalist-hunter gatherer lifestyles of the region’s pre-state populations. Moreover, it is generally recognized among researchers that the latter lifestyle yields a greater caloric return upon energy invested than the former agricultural lifestyle, regardless of what region of the world one is examining. With this historical background in mind, it is little wonder that from its inception in the Tigris-Euphrates floodplain until well into the 19th century, the modern agricultural state has leaned heavily on the sweat of slave labor.

My point here is that when we lionize farming and a “return to the land,” even in the context of small-scale organic agriculture, we must do so while being mindful of what exactly we would like to return to. The Jean Toomer poem I quote at the beginning of this piece was written in the ferment of the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural movement born out of the cosmopolitan centers of New York and Chicago at a time when whole communities of African Americans were leaving behind the impoverishment and state-sanctioned tyranny of the rural South. Toomer himself never worked in agriculture, but wrote ‘Harvest Song” in an attempt to capture the body- and spirit-crushing work of farming to which his enslaved African ancestors were bonded. Toomer is in fact writing about spiritual disenfranchisement, and nothing denies the humanity of an individual quite like staring down a chattel worker in a mono-cropped field and working him or her like a common beast.

The uncomfortable questions raised by the toil of agriculture extend beyond the slavery of yore. Today hundreds of millions of rural farmers in China and India are abandoning the countryside en masse in an attempt to elbow their way into the middle class, while farmers from Vietnam and Bangladesh to France and the United States are grappling with unprecedented rates of suicide. There are uniquely modern factors involved in this agricultural crisis: the demands of a globalized economy and social isolation, to name a few. Yet these unique 21st century challenges are only additional to age-old problems that have bedeviled farmers since the palace officials of Akkad and Shang Dynasty China established the world’s first state granaries. As Dr. Mike Rosmann writes in the journal Behavioral Healthcare, “Farming has always been a stressful occupation because many of the factors that affect agricultural production are largely beyond the control of the producers.” In an increasingly complex world where ever greater portions of our lives seem to be at the mercy of opaque bureaucracies and computer generated algorithms, we can’t blame the millions of used-to-be-farmers who have given up a way of life that is so thoroughly shaped by outside influences.

When we bemoan the emptying out of rural communities, we need to be clear-eyed about the drudgery inherent to agricultural life in many parts of the world. So, when small community efforts and organizations like Sylvester Manor Educational Farm set out to revive rural economies and ways of life, it is paramount to determine what was missing in the past. With that question answered, a life based on farming and that beloved character of “closeness to the land” can be reoriented around joy, justice, inclusion, and nourishment of both body and the soul.