Taking a long-term view in food & farming

Our culture seems to be obsessed with short-termism. Somehow we’ve found ourselves filling every moment, taking pride in how much we can maximise an instant and focusing our attention on how to maximise the next. If we want to understand how to take a long-term view in food and farming then it might be worth understanding how we wound up here, and what inspiration we might draw from other ways of viewing time.

We find ourselves in a world in which every few seconds an email lands in our inbox. Between all the apps and methods of contact I seem to feel like I’m trapped in a swarm of notifications most of the time. My attention is being pulled in every direction. It is hard to think long term when I am simply trying to keep up. In such a chaos of information planning almost seems futile. It is as much as we can do to respond to what is right in front of us. Each moment of time has never felt so bloated than it is now.

Similarly, time has never been more certain than it is now. I remember when I could fool myself by turning my wrist watch forward five minutes to make sure I was on time. Being late or early to things was just the norm because we all lived in slightly different times. Even a slight difference in time is unusual in the context of our species. Prior to 1880 there was no such thing as national time. ‘Local Mean Time’ was the official time, and defined by the church bells was unique to the radius in which the bells could be heard. It was only when required for safe and reliable railway connections that time was unified between cities and Greenwich Mean Time became the standard. For most of human history time was loose, undefined, guided by the sun and irrelevant compared to the happenings around us.

The clock is our tool for unifying time. Excluding digital time, the clock mimics the movement of the sun around the earth. To a mechanical clock, time is a cycle of hours and days and months and years, essentially repeating, but never in exactly the same way. Intuitively, time and space are intrinsically linked. Time changes as you move through space — seasons behave differently, days change in their duration. It was Aristotle that first postulated that time is essentially linear. Soon after an abstract framing of linear space was developed by Euclid but it wasn’t until Newton that western philosophy formally separated time and space and firmly embedded a theory of time that is absolute, mathematical and ‘flows equably without regard to anything external’. This way of thinking dominates our collective understanding despite Einstein’s proof that time and space are, in fact, inseparable after all. To western culture time is a relentless, unidirectional march.

Many cultures have vastly different perceptions of time. It might be useful, in the context of this exploration, to draw on the perceptions of time of cultures with deeply sustainable food and farming practices. As a white European with a keen intention on learning from the wisdom of other cultures I have spent much time learning and reading works written by indigenous people. I wish to share some of this learning here, but I want to be clear that my understanding of indigenous cultures is very limited and do not intend to speak on behalf of anyone. I ask for forgiveness in any mistakes that my immature understanding conveys in the cultures I speak of, and posit these thoughts only with the hope of sparking curiosity in other readers.

Most people have encountered in simple terms the Native American perspective to make decisions with regard to seven generations in the future. I have read that many Aboriginal Australian peoples and the Inuit people of northern Canada see in a young child the great grandparent of that child. When an elder dies they will soon come into this world again in the body of the newborn. As a person, you are not only yourself, but also your great grandparent and your great grandchild. Time does not flow in a linear way. Time is cyclic — day to night, full moon to new moon, longest day to shortest day. Sap rising and falling. Breathing in and breathing out. Everything about our phenomenal nature indicates that time loops. It is a quirk of western culture that from year to year we have separated from this cycling to see our world in a linear way. We treat time like we treat any commodity — a one way supply chain with matter coming in one end and going out the other. We waste it counting seconds like we waste our ecosystems counting carbon.

If we want to find the people in our culture that might still embrace the cyclic nature of time I’d suggest we turn to farmers. Their livelihoods, unlike those of us that spend most of our time staring at a computer screen, depend on understanding and interacting with these cycles at just the right moments. Biodynamic farmers take this a step further and structure their growing calendar around the cycles of the moon. I remember from my years living in a self-built hut in the woods and working on biodynamic farms that being deeply engaged in cycles is humbling. You cannot control natural cycles. You are guided by them. You allow them to make the decisions for you. As you wait for the right moment you have time to reflect, you have time to observe, you do not rush from one task to the next. You ask questions, ponder options, observe impacts. You develop a deep sense of respect. You know you can’t fight and you learn how to dance. You play with the options available. You move out of time, sometimes. But you learn, you become a better dancer, and maybe next month, or next year or in 20 years time you perfect the dance with all the steps in time. Or maybe not.

This dance cannot be learned from books. There is far too much to process, it is best learned with the heart and with elders. It must be learned through trying and making mistakes. It must be learned through the guidance of those that have been dancing for longer, and those who have learned from those dancing before them. Even if you spend a whole lifetime gaining the knowledge to read the cycles and hear the patterns you’ll barely scratch the surface. This is not a melody, but a symphony. A complex and emergent explosion of reality in every instance in which every rock and river and bird and seedling and tree and animal are all listening to each other. All the cycles and patterns interact, mutually engaged and yet autonomously acting. Dancing. There is always more to understand. There is always more depth to hear. Genuinely sustainable cultures understand this. They have been passing on the stories and wisdom of these cyclic patterns for tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of years.

How do we take a long-term vision of food and farming? I guess the first thing to do is simply to take a moment — breathe, listen and observe. There is vast wisdom to learn from more advanced cultures than our own. I suspect that once we stop to listen we’ll see that a cycle is a cycle is a cycle. A cycling second is the same as a cycling year is the same as a cycling generation. If we can put the same level of attention on each type of cycle as we can put on each second we might start moving in the right direction.

This blog was inspired by a question from Dan Crossley on Twitter. Thanks for the inspiration!

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