Excerpts from The Good Earth, Thomas and Hudson, London, 1993; By Permission of Mr. Ableman
We cannot go on forever treating the soil as a chemical laboratory and expect to turn out natural food. What we are getting is more chemical food. Instead of eating live matter which can readily be absorbed by the body, we are consuming food which is rapidly becoming more artificial.
My life as a farmer has always been interrupted by a photographer’s wanderlust. In 1984 I left the farm to travel in the Himalaya Mountains in Nepal. But on the way there, during a stopover in Hong Kong, a friend encouraged me to take a short side trip into mainland China. This detour provided an experience that would alter the course of my life.
I had been in China for only a few days when my curiosity forced me to ignore the restrictions that kept most foreign tourists out of the countryside. I walked for several hours away from the city of Chengdu, the capital of Szechwan province, eventually up a trail to the edge of a small settlement.
I stood balancing on a narrow pathway separating the fields. All around, as far as I could see, was a network of intensive raised beds, every inch meticulously planted with a diversity of vegetables, surrounded by an elaborate network of waterways and paths. Four thousand years of Chinese agriculture seemed to merge in this moment. I stood in awe of a system so sound that the same fields could be farmed over and over for forty centuries without any apparent depletion of soil or loss of fertility.
I found myself photographing like crazy. I had so often struggled reconcile my farmer’s hand and photographer’s eye. Now in China – two aspects inside me came together.
Over the next six years I traveled to many countries seeking out the remote, often-neglected traditional farmers. I wanted to understand how my own approach to food and farming—as a natural bond between community and a generous earth—had been lived out for thousands of years, how and why our society has destroyed that bond, and how we can redeem it.
I later returned to China to study the oldest agricultural tradition in the world. In Africa I visited ancient Kenyan farming cultures, and in the mountains of Burundi I saw a remarkable interconnection between farmer and farm. In the fields of Sicily, where rocks seem to outnumber crops, I stayed with farmers who still maintain the traditions that once fed much of Europe. In the Andes I witnessed a culture’s incredible adaptation to a vertical terrain, and I was repeatedly drawn back to the land of the Hopi, to a people who have survived in a harsh desert ecology solely though their deeper understanding and connection to the earth and its spiritual forces.
Exploring food sources also took me to the landscapes of modern industrial farms where earth-crunching machinery and deadly chemical sprays at times suggested scenes from a war-ravaged nightmare. This was the provocative contrast.
But my wanderings did not stop there. This alone would have only offered a vision of what we have lost.
I wanted to discover some examples of hope. I began recording those who have quietly been working to restore the earth garden—to bring back purity, nourishment, taste, and beauty to our food. Here on these farms and gardens of the future a growing number of visionaries have combined ancient wisdom new and often unorthodox science, and a lively sense of aesthetics to create living farms that produce living food. From the fields and orchards of organic farms, to urban ghettos where food gardens have been built on abandoned lots, to communities where developmentally disabled people are nurtured through working with the land, smal1 steps are being taken— small, but powerful, steps.
I traveled over 100,000 miles and across five continents. Through my travels came the realization that a common thread connects all these stewards of the earth. Titus, the Hopi farmer singing to his corn on a remote desert mesa in Arizona; a community of some sixty people in the steep mountains of Peru, working together to plant a field of potatoes for those who cannot work; Dick Harter, an organic rice grower in Chico, California, who cares as much about the number of birds on his farm as the number of grains of rice; and Alta Felton, an eighty-year old woman whose cotton, black-eyed peas, and yams grow below the railroad tracks in South Philadelphia — all represent a small but far-reaching movement: they all reclaim and renew the earth one spadeful at a time, one bucket of compost at a time, one handful of seeds at a time.
As the truck forged deep into the mountains, glimpses of life began to draw me in. A dense mist filled a canyon, concealing all but the most distant views. As the sun burned through, the vertical face of a mountain came clear, broken into hundreds of mysterious shapes of brown and green: terraced fields of potatoes, barley, and beans.
Made by hand and expertly engineered by eye, some terraces were no longer than a suburban front lawn yet contained more than thirty vane-ties of potatoes. In fact, some terraces, as I later learned, had been in continuous use since the time of the Incas, whose short, hundred-year reign had created a range of tools and techniques that allowed people to flourish in a difficult environment. I imagined the many hands and ancient footplows that had made their indelible mark on that steep hillside — a land worked for centuries — yet I could see virtually no erosion.
Southern Yunnan, China
Our host was a quiet farmer named Jiang. Over the course of my visit we shared thoughts about growing and the earth. Philosophical discussion was often difficult as my friends struggled to interpret the local dialect. But in the fields, farmer to farmer, Jiang and I could often understand each other without too many words. I began to get an intuitive sense of how well adapted this farming was as I came to see the complex techniques that had evolved over centuries of trial and error.
Here was an integrated system far more sophisticated than my own and much of what I had seen in the West. On permanent raised garden beds, ten harvests of different crops could occur in one year. All required only minimal space yet produced sustained high yields. Soil fertility was maintained year after year through composting and through rotating food crops with “green manure” crops (grown specifically to be turned under, adding natural nitrogen and organic matter to the soil). Some beds were surrounded by waterways supporting other nitrogen-fixing plants—food for ducks and geese and food for the soil. All resources and waste materials were carefully managed, with everything used, reused, and then used again.
Refined craft and a commitment to sustaining their soils had been passed down through generations. While the broader Chinese environment has been devastated by political and economic pressures, the “simple peasants” in their fields retain a knowledge that has enabled them to bring forth food on the same land year after year, century after century—an accomplishment unheard-of in the West.
I had come to drive my friend to his field. This outing was not to work—his body was no longer able—but only to look and talk.
We drove to the top of a rock outcropping that rose from his land. From here we could see the whole of his field and beyond, into millions of acres of open desert. There was nothing more sacred, nothing more important in this man’s life than his field of corn. I could see it the moment we arrived from the way he touched his plants and looked down and beyond the rows.
The first time I saw a rugo I was amazed. This cluster of round thatched homes looked as if it had been seeded and had grown right out of the landscape. Each one was surrounded with concentric circles of terraced cropland planted with grains and vegetables, hedged with grasses for feed and to control erosion. Each rugo provided for several generations of a family, their animals, and their food, there was even a separate hut for compost.
Over the weeks of spring planting, as I watched the women tend their fields, barefoot and consumed in the rhythmic dance of hoe and seed, I observed true integration—a way of life a child learns riding on its mother’s back as she works, a closed circle where homes are ringed with crops and humans and animals feed each other and the earth.
Half of our world neighbors are supported by subsistence farming and live quietly off the land. We seldom hear much about them unless there is a major famine, civil war, or natural disaster.
They are silent, for the rhythm of their lives requires little from the outside. Yet the communities they live in and the way in which they have sustained themselves has much to offer our modern world where we no longer understand the most basic skill of feeding ourselves and the land.
It is not out of nostalgia or blind romance that we must listen to these cultures. There is nothing romantic about their day-to-day lives. The experience of Chinese farmers working in harmony with their families and the land does not dispel the horrors of Tiananmen Square: in the Peruvian village where I stayed, a family committed suicide by drinking the Western-made pesticides that were supposed to bring them a better harvest. Tribal conflicts beset farmers in Burundi, and widespread alcoholism and a long history of imposed change and control from outsiders have left few Hopi who continue the traditions of their elders. Everywhere, the pressures of new cash economies and competition for scarce resources create poverty where before there may have been enough. But beneath the hardships are examples of enduring qualities and techniques, threads that connect all true earth dwellers whether they are Peruvian potato farmers or Chinese rice growers.
First, they work with their land. They are always on it, walking it, touching it. There is a farmer’s saying that “the best fertilizer is the farmer’s footsteps on the field.” I remember my Hopi friend describing the way he visits his fields at night, walking up and down the rows, singing to his corn.
In traditional agricultural communities, there is a careful balance of hands to acres, an appropriate scale that allows for intimacy with the land, the crops, and the animals. In the fields of modern American farms one person may be responsible for the management of thousands of acres, a fleeting glimpse from a pickup truck offering too little information to aid in careful stewardship and management.
Traditional farmers take all, but no more, than a generous earth can give. They use and tend every inch and often draw forth far greater yields on their land than modern farmers do on theirs. They understand the subtleties of rotation, of sensitive fertilization, and the appropriate use of hoe and plow.
They give back to the earth all they can—everything they have—in some cases, literally the shirts off their backs. I’ve seen Chinese peas¬ants who will patch a piece of clothing till it can’t hold another patch and then throw it into the compost. Human waste is recognized as a treasure, which it can be when properly treated. They nurture their scanty resources as a community, not just because community is pleasant in itself but for mutual survival. It’s a very practical matter.
In traditional farming societies, food raising is a family affair. The knowledge is passed on, a sense of the wisdom of the earth. In Sicily I’ve seen four generations all working together harvesting or preparing field. And with the passing down of knowledge is also the passing down of seeds—seeds that contain a whole cultural history within their germ, representing local adaptation, disease and pest resistance, nutrition, and taste. The diversity of native food varieties has provided a key to the survival of those cultures, especially in areas where the climate and growing conditions are harsh.
And finally, traditional food growers take absolute responsibility for their own food—for virtually every mouthful they and their children eat. They don’t leave that responsibility to supermarkets, chemical companies, the EPA, or the FDA.
Like the Peruvian potato that can survive and produce tubers at altitudes where we find it difficult to breathe or the Hopi corn that can push its way through ten inches of soil to bear fruit in the harsh desert landscape, traditional societies have also had to adapt to changes around them: economic, political, social, and environmen¬tal. That many of the practices of these cultures have survived under such pressure, some over millennia, is testimony to the power of shared traditional values, values that provide a cultural identity that allows them to persist.
If there is one thing the tenacity of these cultures has to offer us, it might be the example of a true and integrated ecological sensitivity, one that is manifested in the careful management of local resources and a fair exchange with the natural world around them. It is the ecological sensitivity, not intellectually derived but born out of the need to survive, that must become a part of our culture. Without it every attempt at environmental conservation or restoration will ultimately fail.
From to Soil to Plant to Plate
Life is a wheel
of elimination and decay,
nourishment and fertility.
The first farmer was the first of many,
and all historic nobility rests
on possession and use of the land.
One does not sell the earth upon which the people walk