Consulting the Genius of Place

Wes Jackson is a geneticist  an ecologist, an activist, an author several books including 'Consulting the Genius of the Place- an ecological approach to a new agriculture', published in 2010 by Counterpoint press.

In "Consulting the Genius of the Place' he makes the case for a new kind of agriculture, agriculture that is not eroding our soil, poisoning our water, reducing biodiversity, and using intense amounts of fossil fuels.  This type of agriculture would be a reflection of the particular place that you live in.  It would be observation based.  It would focus on perennials to care for our soils and reduce the amount of water and nutrients needed in the system   Farmers would consult the environmental conditions, the biodiversity, the micro climates,  the water conditions, the people using the land... to determine this ecological agriculture, to determine the genius of place.

Sounds a bit like permaculture....

Here are some of his thoughts as well as sources that he used in 'Consulting the Genius of the Place'

Traditional huts and animal pens near Kongoussi, Burkina Faso

Observe and Interact
In The Georgics (36-29 BC) Virgil says:

" Before we plow an unfamiliar patch/ It is well to be informed about the winds, About the variations in the sky, /The native traits and habits of the place, /What each locale permits, and what denies"

Virgil pronounced the first principle of permaculture, observe and interact, about two thousand years before Permaculture was born!

Goat pen, Burkina Faso

What we do to the soil, we do to our own bodies
In Aldo Leopold's "The Land Ethic" he wrote:

 " We can bolster poundage from depleted soils by pouring on imported fertility, but we are not necessarily bolstering food-value."  

Yield can be a simplistic and misleading term in agriculture.

Rural village, Burkina Faso

Agriculture as culture, Agriculture as nature
Wes Jackson describes a professor, Ben W. Smith, that provided this guidance

"We need wilderness as a standard against which  to judge our agricultural practices."

We also need to value the farmers and the communities that practice agriculture and celebrate food.
Wes Jackson talks about Wendell Berry, and says

"Wendell has relentlessly featured people, land and community as one.  No mere nostalgia here; art and the practical necessity are one." 

This wealth of knowledge is the creator of abundance, and the practices of sowing, growing, storing, preserving and eating food are important in living in place.

Rural village, Burkina Faso

High energy destroys information
High energy (eg. the availability of low-priced non-renewable energy) can destroy information. This is another element to the transition movement.  While fossil fuels are incredibly useful and can help us to do work- there is a tendency to go too fast and break the ecology of landscape, or miss important information along the way.

Wendell Berry, a great conversationalist said:
"How much numb metal can we put between ourselves and our land and still know where we are and what we are doing?  Working with a tractor is damned dulling and boring.  It is like making love in boxing gloves."

And while I appreciate the work that machines can do without breaking my back... what can we not do?  Can we practice agriculture in a way that doesn't rely so heavily on fossil fuels?  Can we re-tool, re-think, re-plan our lives to transition to a better type of agriculture?

Rural village, Burkina Faso

Ethics and why they exist

In permaculture, there are three main ethics will help inform any decision we make:

  • Care of earth
  • Care of people
  • Fair share
In many circles, we talk about nature and when we talk about humans, they are dealt with separately.  But this is a fallacy... which Wendell Berry deals with below, and which is why in permaculture earth care and people care are wrapped together with fair share.

see this cute video of the permaculture ethics and principles in song and animation.

Burkina landscape at the end of the rainy season

Here is a letter from Wendell to Wes Jackson about conservation:

"May 30, 2002

The job we have now is to oppose the proposition that natural diversity and the integrity of the natural world can be preserved (1) by making a strict division between the natural world and the human world and (2) by radically reducing the cultural, economic, and domestic-genetic diversity of the human  world....
Can we preserve nature intact in half the world by utterly degrading it in the other half?
Can we preserve nature intact anywhere by radically oversimplifying our economic relation to it, dismissing nature's integrity as an economic standard, and ignoring its processes- in effect, replacing it with the standards and processes of industrialism?
Can we afford to abandon forever the possibility of a living harmony between humanity and nature, economy and ecology? It is just to say" forever  here, because if we destroy all the land-using or land-based cultures, we may be unable to develop them again-not at least, with the present population in the foreseeable future....
What are the political implications of reserving half the world for nature and delivering the other half to the corporate economy?  What governmental, police, and military powers and measures will be required for that?  There is no possibility here of separating science from politics and industry.  This, in fact, looks like a deliberate relinquishment of science (and every other discipline) to politics and industry....
Finally, what is to keep the corporations, once they have demolished the natural integrity and diversity of the human half of the world, by the prescribed industrial methods of land use, from going directly on to apply the same methods to the natural half? (I'm adapting my language  by courtesy to the absurd notion that nature can be whole in half the world.)
So, as I see it, the long-building opposition between agrarian conservationists and puritan conservationists is now becoming public.  That's too bad.  In many ways it will be destructive.  But I see no alternative to standing up and defending the side we're now forced to take."

Field of sesame beside millet, Burkina Faso

Scientific reductionism in the study of ecology

In permaculture, we try to work from patterns to details.  We try to see the whole system instead of focusing on each aspect independently.  Each element can be connected.  Each element has relationships with other elements that will add up to more that the sum of those two elements.  Culture, wilderness, ethics, sharing are spiralled into one.

Wes Jackson quotes Stan Rowe extensively when he talks about seeing agriculture as an ecology, not just a simplified system to be controlled.  Below Wes Jackson elaborates on annual monocultures:"Annual monoculture on the landscape are not there year-round.  Their extent is usually limited, depending on the species.  In such a manner we built an agriculture that was at once simple and simplifying, disrupting countless subtle, ancient processes that had be reliable over millions of years."

Wes Jackson thinks that move to monoculture is in part the result of scientific reductionism in the study of agricultural ecology.  Stan Rowe comments about scientific reduction here:

"The rightness of reduction is assumed by questioning whether anything other than parts can really exist.  Science does not entertain the awkward possibility that reality might be distorted by giving priority to parts over the whole."

Stan Rowe "the search for meaning at lower and lower levels of organization blunts the higher level search for more inclusive realities."

When we study only the parts, or the species rather than the spaces, and the whole interactions, Stan Rowe says " It is from this error that the whole world suffers."

Analyse de la situation de travail, grands cultures, Burkina Faso

Wes Jackson expands on the idea that an ecology, a subset of species in community at a given place and time, are necessarily affected by the place and time.  That it is not possible to look at the system without the environment, the place itself.

Stan Rowe explains further "But just as the living parts of an organism depend on the vitality of the whole, so living organisms depend on the energetics of planet Earth from which they evolved and by which they are maintained.  From an ecological viewpoint, planet Earth, the inclusive supra-organic ecosphere, is a logical metaphor for Life."

" An alternative to the view that organisms possess "life" is that "life" possesses organisms.  By this hypothesis, the secret of "life" is to be sought outwardly and ecologically rather than (or as well as) inwardly and physiologically." -J. Stan Rowe

Sesame flowers, Burkina Faso
On Growth
In permaculture, we say that we are working towards regenerative landscapes/people/cultures.  Regeneration implies a type of growth, a rebirth if you will, but it does not imply GROWTH.  JOBS AT ALL COST.  MONEY AT ALL COST.  Cancer is a growth that does not stop multiplying.

We can create transformation, regenerative communities, where we have room to grow and create without destroying others, or destroying the wild lands.

Gregory Bateson says:
" Now I suggest that the last hundred years have demonstrated empirically that if an organism or aggregate of organisms sets to work with a focus on its own survival and thinks that is the way to select its adaptive moves, its "progress" ends up with a destroyed environment.  If the organism ends up destroying its environment, it has in fact destroyed itself... The unit of survival is not the breeding organisms, or the family line, or the society... The unit of survival is a flexible organisms-in-its-environment."

Donella Meadows says "Growth has costs, among which are poverty and hunger, environmental destruction- the whole list of problems we are trying to solve with growth!" in Limits to Growth

Sesame pods, Burkina Faso

SOIL is at the ROOT of It ALL

I preach about soil alot.  I talk about its qualities, about the beautiful organisms that live in the soil... but that is because soil is fundamental to food (in an agricultural society).  And food is fundamental to, well, pretty much everyone.  You don't eat, you die eventually.  You don't care of your soil, you die eventually. Ok harsh.  right?  Well, if you look back in the history books, those that don't care of the soil or water... die.  (skip this next bit if you want to avoid some depressing quotes)

But here is where it comes all together.  Wes Jackson takes us though some of the human patterns discussed above: use of high amounts of energies (fossil fuels), scientific reductionism, loss of agricultural 'culture', separating conservation and agriculture, the inability to observe and interact, a myopic growth pattern... and distils all of these processes into the loss of our soil.

Plato, in one of his dialogues, has Critias proclaim:

" What now remains of the formerly rich land is like the skeleton of a sick man, with all the fat and soft earth having wasted away and only the bare framework remaining.   Formerly, many of the mountains were arable.  The plains that were full of rich soil are now marshes.  Hills that were once covered with forests and produced abundant pasture now produce only food for bees.  Once the land was enriched by yearly rains, which were not lost, as they are now, by flowing from the bare land into the seas.  The soil was deep, it absorbed and kept the water in the loamy soil, and the water that soaked into the hills fed springs and running streams everywhere.  Now the abandoned shrines at spots where formerly there were springs attest that our description of the land is true."

A local farmer with his family and Pierre, Burkina Faso

Dr. John Detwiler, president of the Canadian Conservation Society in 1940s said " We begin to realize, that an overcrowding of people on a diminished soil base may impinge on the intellect, lead to physical and nervous disorders, and break forth ultimately in the hidden hunger that brings on wars.  Perhaps when we organize conservation on an international basis we can avoid the hidden hunger which brings on wars"

In the Land Quarterly in 1945 he says " To preach conservation at such a time, when all our resources, national and otherwise, are being sacrificed in unprecedented measure, might seem to some anomalous, even ironical... But we firmly believe, and now are more acutely aware than ever that conservation is basically related to the peace of the world and the future of our race"

Onions growing in Burkina Faso

Wes Jackson
" humans are now the primary earthmoving agents.  During the ice age, glaciers deposited an average of about ten billion tons of till in moraines and outwash fans every year.  Agriculture today contributes as much displacement as the glaciers of the Peistocene, and agriculture is not alone.  The total movement of earth by humans now is estimated to be around forty to forty-five billion tons per year.  We are the most important agent current shaping the surface of the earth, according to geologist Roger Hooke.  The glaciers were giving us fertility by pulverizing the rocks, releasing essential minerals available for life.  We agriculturists, in the form of soil erosion, send those valuable minerals toward a water grave.  Nearly  40 percent of the soil of the world are now seriously degraded.  Globally, nearly one-their of the land devoted to farming has been lost to erosion since 1960, and continues to be lost at a rate of some twenty-five million acres per year."

author Stuart Chase said " We are creatures of the earth and so are a part of all our prairies, mountains, rivers and clouds.  Unless we feel this dependence we may know all the calculus and all the Talmud, but have not learned the first lesson of living on this earth."

Painted house in the style of  SW Burkina Faso

Consulting the Genius of Place

For all that we know about the human patterns of growth: too much use of fossil fuels, myopic growth, disconnect with nature etc... we also know ways to live the good life.  Permaculture and the research that Wes Jackson is doing at the Land Institute are part of the methods, to get us back to the 'good life'

In the book, Wes Jackson talks about: " Chris Field, a National academy of Sciences member, reported in Science magazine(2001) that natural ecosystems generally do better than agriculture and other human-managed systems in converting sunlight into living tissue,  The plants that anchor those ecosystems have extensive, long-lived root systems with divers architectures; they have longer growing season; and their species diversity protects against epidemics and the vagaries of weather.  As a result they can produce, year in a and year out, more biomass per acre the agriculture systems without requiring a subsidy of fossil fuels and without degrading soil and water."

In permaculture, we look to mimic nature to provide abundance.  As David Holmgren says, permaculture is 'Consciously designed landscapes which mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature, while yielding an abundance of food, fibre and energy for provision of local needs.'

Under a shea tree,Burkina Faso

Wes Jackson and the Land Institute are in the process of rediscovering the wild in the cultivated, bringing some balance and diversity to the practice of agriculture.  Wes Jackson said: "We can now envisions an agriculture in which we bring the ecological processes embodied within wild biodiversity to the farm, rather than forcing agriculture to relentlessly chip away wild ecosystems."

We are the change we seek....


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