Saving the world one vegetable at a time

In the last few posts, I’ve talked in rather highfalutin’ terms about the meaning of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. In this post, I’m going to metaphorically bring it down to earth and try and draw a correspondence between one of the main themes of the novel and fruit and vegetable gardening. How is this possible, I hear you cry. Read on to find out.

Two of most poignant scenes in Karamazov feature an embrace of the earth. Firstly, near the start of the novel, the Elder Zosima bows down before Dmitri and touches his forehead on the ground in front of him. Secondly, when Alyosha has his spiritual revelation beneath the stars of a clear night sky, he embraces the earth and kisses the ground.

“The mystery of the earth was one with the mystery of the stars…”

The word “humble” is derived from the Latin humus meaning “earth”. The actions of Zosima and Alyosha are symbols of humility, a humility most of the other characters in the novel do not have. The other characters suffer from hubris. Hubris comes from the Greek meaning, among other things, insolence towards the gods. The gods have been traditionally associated with the stars/the heavens, hence the symbolism of Alyosha under the stars. It’s all very well to reach for the stars but one must be standing on the ground. The classic story of hubris is Icarus, who flew too close to the heavens (the sun) and perished. He had lost contact with the earth.

Humus also has a technical meaning in English: the parts of the soil that result from the decomposition of organic matter.

The advice Zosima gives to Alyosha in Karamazov is very similar to the advice that Icarus failed to heed in the old myth. There must be a balance between the earth and the stars. Even the greatest spiritual teacher must kiss the ground every now and then. Although monks throughout history have tended the earth alongside their spiritual practices, in the monastery of 19th century Russia presented in Karamazov, the priests live by the charity of the townsfolk. They are disconnected from the earth. Thus, Zosima instructs Alyosha to leave the monastery, a place of god worship (the stars), and go into the world (the earth).

Looking at the state of western society these days, I don’t think there’s any question that we have become disconnected from the earth. This is not just a metaphorical observation. Our lack of humility goes hand in hand with a lack of actual contact with humus. I’m not talking about kissing the ground (although a little smooch every now and then never hurt anyone). I’m talking about just everyday hands in soil.

Humility has traditionally been associated with the lower classes because for most of history the lower classes worked with humus. “He came from humble origins” means his family worked the earth. Almost all humans for almost all of history did so. Only the rich avoided the job (we’ll come to that subject later). As western society got richer and richer, the first thing anybody did was stop working the earth. And now we have a humility problem. It would be ironic, except is makes perfect sense and is one of the oldest themes of religion, literature and philosophy.

In philosophical terms, the stars vs earth contrast maps onto the classical distinction between Imagination and Actuality. We think of Imagination as the ability to visualise things in the mind. But the philosophical conception is wider and sees Imagination as the storehouse of the mental models we have about the world including cultural scripts and stories, myths, religious notions, scientific theories etc.

When I invoke the story of Icarus and you understand that story, we are tiptoeing through the tulips in the fields of Imagination; fluttering like butterflies on gusts of fancy; soaring like eagles through….well, you get the picture.

The decadent form of Imagination is Fantasy. The word fantasy comes from the Greek (phantasia) but had already picked up a negative connotation in old English to mean something like “illusion”.

I did; I saw him dead,
Breathless and bleeding on the ground. Art
thou alive?
Or is it fantasy that plays upon our eyesight?
I prithee, speak; we will not trust our eyes
Without our ears: thou art not what thou seem’st.

Henry IV

The Imagination and Reality must be in harmony. Your eyes do their job of seeing what is in front of them and your Imagination does its job of embracing Possibility, where Possibility includes the potential interpretations of what you see according to the mental models you have cultivated: religious, spiritual, psychological, scientific etc.

Fantasy is what happens when the Imagination is untethered from reality. Just like the monks in the monastery in Karamazov, modern western society is disconnected from the earth and by extension from the real. Millions of people sit around in corporate offices, boardrooms, university faculties, government departments or just at home on the couch in front of the television. All of this activity takes place in the Imagination. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that unless it’s not balanced by reality. And that’s exactly our problem.

What sorta Mickey Mouse outfit are we runnin’ here?

As a culture, modern western society exists in an extreme form of Fantasy. When you lack contact with the real, your Imagination takes over and you fly off into Fantasy where anything seems possible. Next thing you know, you’re trying to eliminate a respiratory virus with an experimental pharmaceutical product or trying to stop inflation by printing more debt or any of the hundred other mad schemes that constitute modern politics.

It’s still hard to believe how much our society has become detached from reality. But it’s true and it’s true in the highest office in the land as much as in the local supermarket (arguably more in the former than the latter). We are living in Fantasy land in a philosophical and psychological sense.

In philosophy, another way to talk about reality is the concept of Necessity which is juxtaposed with Possibility. Part of the reason why death has always been central to the big questions of philosophy and theology is because death is the ultimate Necessity. No amount of Imagination can make death go away. For that reason, death can seem to destroy Possibility.

One way to react is to heroic acceptance and this is called fatalism. The most vocal proponents of fatalism in modern society are our scientific materialist atheists who are always very eager to remind us that the universe doesn’t give a damn about us.

Another way to react to the problem of death is to dissociate and escape into Fantasy. This is the more common approach in modern society. Our highly dysfunctional relationship to death in the modern West is directly related to our escape into Fantasy. We make sure death happens elsewhere where we don’t have to see it. That’s the point of nursing homes and also one of the main reasons for hospitals. About 9 out of 10 people will die in a nursing home or hospital these days.

It’s no coincidence, then, that in Karamazov Alyosha’s spiritual crisis is triggered by the death of Zosima, which doesn’t take place in a nursing home or hospital but in the monastery for all to see. Alyosha must come to terms with Necessity and find a way to accept it without losing Possibility. To do otherwise is to fall into the trap of escaping into Fantasy through pleasure (Dmitri) or embracing a completely fatalistic view of the world where Necessity is all there is (Ivan).

OK, but these are topics I’ve dealt with in past posts and I said I was going to relate all this to fruit and vegetable gardening. Why? One of the reasons is because fruit and vegetable gardening is humble. Given the scale of the problems facing the west, it seems mad to think that vegetable gardening could make any difference. But that’s the whole point. We are told that only grand heroic plans can “save the planet”. That’s just more hubris. If what we need is humility then why not go direct to the soil.

But fruit and vegetable gardening, it seems to me, is also a tonic for some of the other problems we face. Let me give a personal example of how gardening relates to the concepts of Imagination (Possibility) and Necessity we have just been talking about.

Once upon a time, I used my Imagination to dream of the Possibility of having a big apple tree in my backyard. When we use the Imagination in this way, untainted by previous experience, we always think of the happy path scenario where we’re sitting back with the late summer sun on our face munching on a delicious juicy apple. The actual work required to get the apple doesn’t enter our Imagination. That’s where Reality (Necessity) needs to come into the picture.

What it looked like in my head
What it looked like in reality (thankfully, my aphid problem wasn’t this bad)

Last year, two of the apple trees in my backyard were overrun by aphids. As I had not had problems with aphids prior to this, aphids were not part of my mental model of the garden and I was not looking for them. I knew they existed in theory, but hadn’t had to worry about them in practice.

By the time I noticed the aphid problem last year, the damage had already been done and so I had a substandard apple harvest. But now aphids have become part of my Imagination, my mental model of the garden, and so as the trees have come into leaf this spring here in Australia I have been keeping an eye out and, sure enough, the ants and aphids have returned for Season 2. Hey, I didn’t ask for a sequel, mofos. Well, it’s game on this time. Now that I’ve caught them early, I can do something about it and hopefully ensure that I get that batch of juicy apples that exists in my Imagination.

Lorikeets love apples

It’s a matter of Necessity, a law of nature, that when a new food source grows in an area, the creatures that like to eat the food source will show up to eat it. Alongside aphids, in my area the list of things that like to eat apples includes rainbow lorikeets, sulphur crested cockatoos, blackbirds, rats, codling moth and fungus. That’s reality. That’s Necessity. You can’t imagine it away. You have to deal with it or you don’t get any apples.

Fruit and vegetable gardening brings us literally into contact with the earth but more importantly it brings us into contact with reality and forces us to accept Necessity. If you want your apples, you’re gonna have to work for ‘em. And even if you give up and say it’s not worth the effort, you have still faced Necessity and you’re no longer living in Fantasy.

So, gardening is applied philosophy. Cool, eh? But there’s another aspect to gardening that relates back to Karamazov. Recall that the Grand Inquisitor chided Jesus for not providing bread. The provision of bread creates dependency and dependency creates anxiety because bread once given can be taken away. This is part of what is behind the background anxiety that is a pervasive aspect of modern western culture. People understand at some level that they are completely dependent on “the system”.

By historical standards, we are extremely dependent. For almost all of history, the average person provided for themselves to a very large extent. We, on the other hand, provide almost nothing for ourselves. It’s not uncommon now to find people who cannot even cook. For this reason, the act of providing yourself with the basic necessity of food has a liberating, even rebellious, feeling to it in the modern world.

But doing gardening is a cure for anxiety in another sense. There are no middlemen involved; no politics; no culture wars; no gaslighting; no social media trolls. It’s just you and the laws of nature. Unlike social norms, the laws of nature don’t change, at least not in a timeframe meaningful for us as individuals. So, the interaction with the realm of Necessity can give the feeling of standing on solid ground to those who have lived their whole life in the hall of mirrors that is the modern culture wars.

This fact would have seemed absurd to almost all people throughout history. For a great deal of history, the main problem was an excess of Necessity which seemed to extinguish all Possibility and gave life a permanently pessimistic overtone. We suffer from the opposite: an excess of Possibility which gives life a disorienting and hallucinogenic overtone. Whatever else can be said about them, aphids are honest. They are not trying to trick you. They just wanna eat your apple tree.

A third and related problem of modern society that gardening helps to alleviate: people have no concept of non-monetary wealth.

This is not wealth

Do a search for the word wealth and you’ll get pictures like the one above: money. But money is not wealth. The word wealth is related to the word health as are weal and heal. The etymology of these words goes back to concepts of wholeness, happiness and holiness. Money, on the other hand, is about riches and the word rich has its etymology in the concepts of status and rank. The ruler manages the coin of the realm. Spoiler alert: the house always wins.

This is wealth

If you search for the phrase well-being (the modern counterpart of the old English word weal) you get a picture like the one on the left. This is the true meaning of wealth.

Can you be wealthy if you’re anxious at your dependence on a system you have no control over? Can you be wealthy if you are living in Fantasy with no contact with reality? I don’t think so. But, in a more pragmatic sense, at this time of high inflation where the price of food has gone up substantially, when you walk into your backyard and grab some things to cook dinner with, your reality has not changed. Governments can print money as much as they like, whatever the price of food, the value stays the same. That’s a perspective that fruit and vegetable gardening can provide.

Having this perspective grounds the ideological Fantasy world of modern politics and brings it back to reality. The things that matter – health/wealth – are priceless. The financial system and the political system should be there to facilitate the attainment of those things. But it’s clear that the current political and financial systems are there to rob you of wealth and health. More specifically, they encourage you to chase riches as a proxy for wealth.

A fourth and final point. As I noted in my Age of the Orphan series, the word learning is etymologically related to the word path/track in many different cultures. To walk the path of learning is to connect to the earth. It is to bring the Imagination into harmony with Necessity as the potential becomes the actual.

Again, we have lost this sense in the modern world. We think learning is a scholarly activity. You go to school or university to learn then you go into the “real world” to do. But this is the whole problem of Ivan Karamazov as I discussed in the last post. New ideas must be tried against Necessity. Only then does learning happen. Anything else is Fantasy. When you test yourself against the world, you feel like you’re standing on solid ground and this is the opposite of anxiety.

Can fruit and vegetable gardening save the world? It sounds ridiculous and that’s the beauty of it. Certainly, nobody will accuse you of hubris. They might think you’re mad. But a little madness, a little excess of positive Imagination, is what is required right now. One way or another we’re going to need to reconnect with the earth. The only question is whether we do it voluntarily or not.

Buddha was a prince who renounced his life of privilege and went and sat under a tree to meditate. St Francis of Assisi was a wealthy dandy, the equivalent of a modern hipster, who gave his fine clothes to a beggar and went wondering in the forest. Jesus was the son of God and also a carpenter. The mystery of the stars must be balanced by the mystery of the earth.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna go and check on my apple tree.

13 thoughts on “Saving the world one vegetable at a time”

  1. Simon – this relates to – among other things – healthy gut bacteria, & the seasons, & the ageing process, that so few folk seem to respect, or they wouldn’t be so neurotically obsessed w/ hygiene… Or celebrating a northern hemisphere pagan harvest festival w/ extravagant displays of fake pumpkins & fake skeletons in spring… Or getting cosmetic surgery to address the results of overeating or simple gravity… Part of the reason so many people are dying in hospitals seems to be that Western medicine w/ its specialisation is making people sicker. E.g., you go into hospital sick from toxic doses of Vitamin D prescribed by a doctor, the doctors ignore your medical history & take away your drugs that regulate your thyroid, causing seizures, then put you in a coma to control the seizures & put you on a ventilator so you can breathe, then decide when they can’t figure out what’s wrong that they should let you die because the seizures will surely have caused irreparable brain damage, & when your family insists on a second opinion & you recover, you leave hospital free of brain damage but in a wheelchair, your legs shrunken from being kept immobilised & bent for months due to neglect due to the assumption you were going to die…

  2. Shane – true. It’s also the case that modern medicine keeps people alive beyond the point where the body really is giving up. Rather than let nature run its course, we now want to offer euthanasia on demand. It all makes money (riches). Bastiat had summarised the problem almost two hundred years ago – . Money changes hands, GDP goes up, the government collects its tax and the banker takes their cut. All that can happen while, exactly as you describe, the opposite of wealth is being created.

  3. I commented on facebook as: “Another great post by Simon Sheridan. Do read it. It is worth it. Many of us are rediscovering the same thing: the ground, the earth, the humus. or just dust. Call it the way you like, it is what we are.”

  4. David Holmgren (founder of permaculture) mentioned one of the reasons he focused on the practical side rather than lecturing like Mollison is that if he didn’t he would be off in his head too much. I certainly am guilty of the same thing, and it was one of the main reasons I came back to the farm from a very short legal career.

    Perhaps the next book you should read again is The Lord of the Rings, as this need for humility is one of the biggest themes of the story. The only two characters who successfully handed the ring back were Samwise (gardener) and Tom Bombadil (enigma, but probably some sort of representation of deep earth spirit). Of course it is also Hobbits in general that save the day. I don’t understand how modern people who have read it or profess to love it cannot see that it has within it a deep critique of the modern world and our pursuit of ‘progress’.

    Been quite a large encounter with necessity up here, with the recent floods. Some neighbouring farmers and relations spent the whole year tending crops just to see them go under at the final hurdle. Not unusual though, and you just move on. Band together, save what you can, and marvel at the power of water. The recent city arrivals from the Covid times seem to be really struggling with it though, lots of unnecessary panic and finger pointing, which the government only makes worse.

    If you live next to a river, can you really be surprised when it floods? The floods giveth (alluvial soils that make agriculture easier here) and taketh away.

  5. Skip – hmmm, that’s not a bad idea. I didn’t really like the movies and have never been much into fantasy as a genre but I guess Lord of the Rings is kind of its own genre. I wonder if Tolkien was a little too subtle. Maybe somebody should write a fantasy in the style of the original Brothers Grimm fairy tales. They didn’t pull any punches.

    Not surprised to hear that the ex-city folk are struggling with the floods. It’s interesting that the old Australian culture which we still tell ourselves we are a part of had a very fatalistic bent to it. There was a heavy dose of irony (but also wisdom) in She’ll be right, mate. How could you not be fatalistic as you try to eke out a living between the droughts and flooding rains. I’d love to see an Australian politician do a modern day King Canute and throw a spear into the flooded Murray (or Maribyrnong). Bob Katter could pull it off, I reckon.

  6. This land really isn’t suited to European style grain agriculture that needs predictable seasons and high fertility to do best, and its interesting to look back and see that the best gardeners in the early days were the Chinese; they often would provide the goldfields with fresh veg. We get by well enough now as a country with enormous (and I mean beyond belief how big) inputs of fossil fuels, but I can attest that once you get rid of most of them (go organic/biodynamic) the job becomes a lot more complex again. The fatalism is funny in a way because you only come to feel that by trying to shove a round peg in a square hole over and over and over again. This weather system now is just Queensland/Northern NSW come south, and the landscape itself is loving it.

  7. Skip – I guess the Chinese were practising the old Farmers of Forty Centuries style vegetable growing back in the day.

    I can say this from my experiences with gardening that there is a pattern that just at the moment you “give in to Necessity” having tried a whole lot of ideas that don’t work seems to be the moment when a paradigm shift happens. Your whole interpretation of the problem changes and new Possibility emerges. There’s that old quip of Churchill that Americans can be trusted to do the right thing after trying all other possibilities. I think that’s a general fact of human psychology. We’re well on the way towards that outcome right now. We’re seeing the failure of the existing paradigm on multiple fronts. As long as we can prevent everything falling apart, I think we can use that failure to generate a new paradigm.

    By the way, my garden is loving the rain too. It’s the greenest I’ve ever seen.

  8. Hi Simon,

    Your essay was like catnip to me and thoroughly enjoyable. The author and farmer Gene Logsdon, was often fond of providing advice and then adding the words: ‘like everything in agriculture, it depends’. Wise words.

    Your experience matches my own, and there always seems to be some challenging thing going on – every season. At the moment, I’m attempting to out produce the wildlife in all its forms, and have had some successes, but also some failures. However, as time goes on slowly the successes exceed the failures, but it depends! 🙂 The climate though, she’s a tough schoolmarm.

    It is funny how learning has come to be so narrowly defined. I find that to be a troubling development. Much of the infrastructure around this place we just set up as best we can to see how it works. Then over time, we learn. Then we either modify or rebuild the infrastructure. It wouldn’t be an efficient way to go, but the eventual outcomes are good (if you can ignore the hard work required to get there).

    And fantasy. One of the strangest claims I’ve heard is that predictive models of potential solar photovoltaic energy production are reality. Seriously, I’ve had people arguing that point, and they utilise all manner of tricks to win the argument. Unfortunately for them, nature has other plans – they know not what.



  9. Chris – that’s a good example of my favourite maxim – start small and iterate. It’s only “inefficient” if you know all the design parameters in advance. But for any project of complexity (like a small farm) there’s no way you can and so the only alternative is a large scale, albeit heroic, failure.

    By the way, you’ll appreciate this. My aphid problem happened at just the time I was moving away from the edible forest garden paradigm and into the orchard one. That seems very coincidental. I’m 95% sure that I accidentally removed the habit/food for lacewings and other aphid predators and that’s why the aphids got out of control. Anyway, this year I’ve planted a heap of flowering plants with the hope of attracting the lacewings especially back to the garden. Iterate and learn!

  10. Thank you Simon! You have explained in theory, why I am so satisfied with going out of bed 04.30 am, everyday in the middle of the winter, going out to the stable, to milk my only cow Doris, before going to my work in the psychiatric clinic.

  11. Olle – sounds like a great way to stay grounded. Which is probably extra-necessary in your line of work.

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