A New Aesthetic
Updated: Jan 31, 2020
There are all these good ideas – intensive agriculture, organic farming, permaculture, the local food movement. But why is most food still not grown this way, if it really is better? Why don’t farmers switch to sustainable land use methods? It seems to me there are at least four reasons.
First is the conservative nature of farming. Any activity that involves a large and long investment for an uncertain outcome is going to be conservative; no one wants to experiment when a year’s income is riding on the results. Farmers tend to stick to what has seemed to work. The psychology of previous investment plays a part in their choices as well. Once you’ve bought the huge combine, well, you have to use it.
Even when things don’t work so well, farmers will keep doing them if there are financial incentives to do so. This is the second reason. Government programs have tended to encourage big agribusinesses and have been less friendly to smaller, more varied farms.
Third, farmers love their machines. All Americans do. We fall every time for the promise that new technology will make our lives easier, more fun, more productive, and more sophisticated, and people with outdated technology, whether cell phones or tractors, get made fun of. Many people don’t have the time or the patience for more manual ways of working. I knew of a horse farmer who recently complained that he wouldn’t hire young men on his farm because they got impatient with the horses and, as he put it, just wanted to be roaring off with an internal combustion engine. (His workers were young women). These young men have become habituated to the speed and power made possible by fossil fuels and get rattled when asked to move more slowly.
Finally, there is an unconscious but still powerful motivation why farmers don’t want to stop spraying and switch to more natural methods of food production. It is a mistaken aesthetic that dictates how people see and judge the land around them, that tells us what looks beautiful and productive and “American” – that is, efficient, high-tech, and gleaming with the promise of the future. Perfect, undisturbed expanses of commodity crops, synchronized lines of combines churning through thousand-acre wheat fields, shiny factories, and brightly colored grocery stores are our proof that we are not a third-world nation, or Amish, or hippies – that we are still orthodox worshipers of the god of progress.
I don’t dispute the attraction of the aesthetic. Honestly, the land around here looks pretty good. Or at least it looks pretty. But the cost of those perfect fields and vast expanses of monoculture may be more than we can pay. Our aesthetics are as damaging to the environment as our greed or carelessness. So we need to move toward a new aesthetic.
Before we can do so, we need to ask ourselves: how much of the world are we responsible for tidying up? Nature is messy by our standards. A patch of disturbed earth becomes populated with a swirling mob of what we’d call weeds – dock, plantain, dandelion, mulberry, crabgrass, lamb’s quarters, and a hundred plants I don’t have a name for. And that bothers us. We spray, mow, and weed, in the process disturbing the natural succession of plants. We say that keeping our lawns, gardens, and fields as pure monoculture is more efficient and attractive. I drove with farmers past fields of soybeans shortly after the introduction of Round-Up herbicide, and they talked about how beautiful the thick carpet of identical plants is. They’re not wrong. The lush uniformity is beautiful. But I’m not sure we have the right to expect the same sort of beauty from nature that we can create within our houses. Should a farm field look like wall-to-wall carpeting? Should every molehill be leveled, every fence row scorched, whatever the cost, just because we think it looks nicer?
We have neighbors down the road whose property has been described as a doll’s house because of its detailed perfection. It’s a good description – they treat their two acres as if it were as entirely under their control as a doll’s house. The fences have lines of brown under them where the mower can’t reach and herbicide has been sprayed. Their lawn is grass only, no violets or dandelions. Their mature hardwood trees are all pollarded to be a matching height. It’s pretty, I suppose. It’s also horrifying as an illustration of their attitude toward natural beauty. To speak in hyperbolic terms, those friendly neighbors are conducting an all-out war on nature, with policies of scorched earth and ethnic cleansing, and the result is extreme totalitarianism. This stands in striking contrast to the permaculture sites I’ve visited, which look like a hodgepodge of annuals, perennials, weeds, and small creatures and don’t involve any mowing. I suspect that everyone’s first reaction to seeing permaculture in action is, in fact, “Why don’t they mow?” They have their reasons, and they have a different aesthetic.
I admit I like the cleanliness and order that humans impose. I’m all right with keeping my house clean, but I have to decide how far my household extends. If I find insects on my kitchen counter, I kill them. But should I kill the insects in my yard? All the insects in the world? Because if farmers adopt a policy of insect genocide, as most do, it’s going to have costs to the surroundings – which include me. When the summer crop-dusting airplanes fly overhead carpet-bombing bugs and weeds, I have to run to bring the laundry inside and shut the windows if it’s windy, which it usually is, because – call me a crazy tree-hugger – I prefer my sheets and towels to smell of fresh air and not the toxin du jour. That’s where my aesthetic differs from the farmers’.
Farmers around here will tell you that they are aiming for efficiency, and I do appreciate that harvesting crops is easier when the equipment is not clogged with morning glory vines and ragweed stalks. I also understand that weeds and other plants compete with the crops and lower farmers' yields, so there is a financial as well as an aesthetic motivation for them to keep their fields clean. But there's no question that these farmers are also driven by the false aesthetic of human-imposed purity. I watch while they grub out a small patch of trees that they had no problem maneuvering around, just so the field looks “clean.”
It’s a competitive aesthetic, too. People in this small community will gossip about and criticize landowners whose fields aren’t clean – I hear them every year talking about whose land isn't yet sprayed, tilled, or ditched. People from out of our area have asked me when they've come over to visit, "Whose land is that down the road? It looks bad." What they mean when they say that farmers are not keeping their land "clean" is that farmers are not leaving a toe-hold for nature on their property. Rabbits and deer have no right to a corridor of shelter; killdeer and quail have to keep packing up and moving as their surroundings are cut down; coyotes are shot. And once we’ve expunged the aborigines, we can live the mindless imperialist lifestyle we like.
I have some sympathy, I guess. I don’t want coyotes eating my goats or rabbits ruining my garden. But I have to ask the question again: how much of the natural world do we have the right to control at the same level that we control our houses and yards? If we are going to live in a better balance with nature than we do now, we have to change not only our acquisitiveness and our focus on profit and exploitation; we also have to learn to see beauty in what we now consider messiness.