Friday, March 18, 2011

The Agricultural Dance

I want to return to my last post for a moment and discuss a bit further the mechanization of agriculture and the movement against such.  We questioned briefly the sustainability of an agricultural model that relied on heavy machinery and equipment—not only because of this system’s dependence on fossil fuels and otherwise environmentally unfriendly resource depletion but also because of the social and cultural loss signified by the isolation and depreciation of community as spurred through the competition among farmers involved in commodity agriculture.  I might comment that with the rise of mechanized farming methods came a shift in agricultural identity and that this shift might not always be construed as negative but merely as an adaptation of rural agricultural work, but this would serve only to nudge this post in a direction I do not wish it to go.  Instead, I’d like to highlight a couple of perspectives that further idealize the non-mechanized agricultural methods, specifically as a romantic reminder of what once was and as a return to more “sustainable” methods for the world’s agriculturalists. 

I’ll return to Wendell Berry’s poetry, if only because he expresses his views on the matter so clearly it is impossible to ignore his argument.  In his poem, Horses, Berry compares the task of plowing with a team of horses to a musical performance—a dance, a song.  In the poem, Berry reminisces of a boyhood chore  he thought of as play—tilling the fields using a horse-drawn plow—and how the music of this energy transfer between man, beast, and land was choked by the introduction of engines in field work.  His language is strongly romantic, as that founded in memory is apt to be, but as we know Berry preferred horse-power to work his own fields in Kentucky we can presume this poem to be not only an ode to the “old ways” but also a personal creed as to his preferred way of life.  Berry writes of hearing “that song/again, though brokenly/in the distances of memory,/is coming home” and of coming “to/a farm, some of it unreachable/by machines, as some of the world/will always be.”  Not only has Berry conclusively tied agricultural to a sense of place—in this case “home”—but he has also speculated as to the limited nature of mechanization.  Literally, Berry is referring to marginal lands where machines cannot (and as he assumes may never) go, but there is also a sense of the inequality that has risen through agricultural mechanization and the inability of certain cultures (think the global south) without access to mechanization to compete with those who have access (hmm…the global north?) 

                By Wendell Berry

When I was a boy here,   
traveling the fields for pleasure,
the farms were worked with teams.
As late as then a teamster
was thought an accomplished man,
his art an essential discipline.   
A boy learned it by delight   
as he learned to use
his body, following the example   
of men. The reins of a team   
were put into my hands
when I thought the work was play.   
And in the corrective gaze   
of men now dead I learned   
to flesh my will in power   
great enough to kill me   
should I let it turn.
I learned the other tongue
by which men spoke to beasts   
—all its terms and tones.   
And by the time I learned,
new ways had changed the time.   
The tractors came. The horses   
stood in the fields, keepsakes,   
grew old, and died. Or were sold   
as dogmeat. Our minds received   
the revolution of engines, our will
stretched toward the numb endurance   
of metal. And that old speech   
by which we magnified   
our flesh in other flesh   
fell dead in our mouths.
The songs of the world died   
in our ears as we went within   
the uproar of the long syllable
of the motors. Our intent entered   
the world as combustion.   
Like our travels, our workdays   
burned upon the world,
lifting its inwards up
in fire. Veiled in that power   
our minds gave up the endless   
cycle of growth and decay
and took the unreturning way,   
the breathless distance of iron.

But that work, empowered by burning   
the world’s body, showed us
finally the world’s limits
and our own. We had then
the life of a candle, no longer
the ever-returning song
among the grassblades and the leaves.

Did I never forget?
Or did I, after years,
remember? To hear that song   
again, though brokenly
in the distances of memory,   
is coming home. I came to
a farm, some of it unreachable
by machines, as some of the world   
will always be. And so
I came to a team, a pair
of mares—sorrels, with white   
tails and manes, beautiful!—
to keep my sloping fields.   
Going behind them, the reins
I fight over their backs as they stepped   
their long strides, revived   
again on my tongue the cries   
of dead men in the living   
fields. Now every move   
answers what is still.
This work of love rhymes   
living and dead. A dance   
is what this plodding is.   
A song, whatever is said.

Berry is not the only advocate of non-mechanized farming systems.  In Scott, Michigan there exists a non-profit organization called Tillers International (Tillers International website) devoted to “encouraging an attitude of experimentation to produce more local food with less global fuel.”  Their mission statement is “to preserve, study, and exchange low-capital technologies that increase the sustainability and productivity of people in rural communities,” and they primarily work as an education service, teaching skills otherwise denoted as archaic: plowing with oxen and draft horse teams, harvesting using hand-held scythes and draft-drawn reapers, etc.  Tillers International prides itself on “studying American agricultural history and re-invent it for modern use in international projects.”   Tillers does provide domestic instruction for anyone enthusiastic about learning these “artisanal skills,” but they also focus on adapting these technologies in developing countries as improved methods of production at rural sites.  Here, then, we see an alternative method of agricultural intensification and extensification—one that embraces innovation and technology but only those methods independent of fossil fuel.  If we are to believe Berry, this will serve to foster community and sustain culture, and this surely cannot be a bad thing…but what about the inequality perpetuated through this promotion of non-mechanization?  This is most certainly NOT the intent of Tillers International, but their focus on this track towards sustainability continues to exclude the global south from the level of production the global north has embraced for several decades now.  I’m not suggesting I would like to see developing countries adopt commodity agriculture (although arguably some already have) but it is curious to think about how this focus on “sustainability” may in actuality deprive developing countries of the opportunities developed countries have already taken advantage of.  What would happen if an organization with a similar intent on improving rural innovation would use machinery and equipment but in a way that was socially and environmentally sustainable?  From my experience in Senegal I’ve gleaned that developing countries (or at least Senegal) do in fact want the technology—it is rather an issue of capital that keeps them from exploiting it.  Who’s to say they would exploit it in the same manner that the western world did?  So many advocates for sustainability seem intent on vilifying mechanization…but does mechanization always and inevitably lead to socially and environmentally negative outcomes?

1 comment:

  1. I'm focused on the line, "Our intent entered
    the world as combustion." A beautiful image with an intense meaning.

    I think we need to ask what the purpose is of mechanization to understand how it will be used.