July 5, 2020

Letters to My Niece: Refer to Nature, Defer to Nature

Editor’s Note: Michael Zuck wrote several letters to his niece Lillie shortly before he died on March 7, 2015. His wife Gail shared them with Garden Maine. This is the fourth of five, ending with an essay and a poem. (Read the previous letter here.)

Dear Lil,

Having just waxed eloquent in praise of technology in the garden, I think it’s worth looking at the overall philosophy of the would-be back-to-the-lander. You have noticed my frequent references to organic gardening and farming practices. Gail and I are longtime members and supporters of MOFGA. It’s a wonderful organization that has achieved far more positive social change than was thought possible. I think the success is due to the accessibility of the underlying concept. Which would you rather eat, a plate of sprayed vegetables or a plate of unsprayed vegetables of equal or better quality? Kind of a no-brainer, isn’t it?

Behind the simple distinction between sprayed and unsprayed crops, there are equally important aspects of organic agriculture to consider. The rules that govern certified organic growers force them to practice much safer soil management practices, thereby reducing pollution of both surface and ground water. Nevertheless, the concern has arisen that large corporate organic farms, mostly on the West Coast, are cultivating vast acreages using tons of water and fossil fuels. They may be technically organic (and thus worth supporting if no other options exist), but their scale of operation seems to violate the original spirit of the organic movement.

How does this affect you? Only by shining a light on the power you can exercise by growing your own food. Just say no to corporate farming, organic or otherwise.

You may be aware that the USDA, under pressure from corporate farmers, stepped in a few years ago to define the standards of certified organic farming. It was not a politically pure process, but at least the final rules didn’t drive the small-scale organic farmer out of business.

A lot of back-to-the-landers, myself among them, support the principles of organic farming, but don’t subject themselves to the rigors and expense of being annually certified as organic. The typical patrons of the farmers market are more concerned with buying local than buying organic. They want to touch the hand that grew the broccoli they’re about to buy, and they want to be told by the grower that their broccoli is safe to eat.

This brings us to the subject of the proper goals and methods of the back-to-the-lander. It seems to me there is an overall guiding principle that can be summarized in six words: Refer to Nature, Defer to Nature. It sounds easy enough, but in reality this idea commits you to a lifetime of studying the natural processes that are going on in the garden. You will never get to the end of this study, but you don’t have to feel frustrated if you learn to enjoy the journey. The journey will take you solidly down the same path as the certified organic grower, so perhaps there’s no real distinction here. The point is that a certified organic grower may believe he has arrived at the end of a process (because his certification says so) while a “natural” gardener has a sense of moving along a continuum.

The thornier issue that confronts the modern back-to-the-lander is “sustainability.” You could easily adopt a purist’s viewpoint with respect to such things as carbon footprint and the use of fossil fuels in growing your own food.

Fair enough. Buy a nice spading fork, and use your own energy to turn the sod and remove the grass roots. For the first hour or two, you may actually enjoy the process as you slowly subdue the prairie, so to speak. As time passes, you will either become very patient and very strong, or you will find someone with a plow and get your quarter acre turned in an hour with what amounts to a relatively modest one-time expenditure of fossil fuel. You decide.

Of course, you could skip the whole sod-busting process by killing the grass using anything that excludes light to cover the ground you hope to garden. Give the process six weeks, but a whole growing season would be better. Another splendid example of how pacifism works in the garden.



Next: Letters to My Niece: A Bit of Unexpected Fun