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The sincerest form of reverence

I’ve commented more than once in these essays about the mismatch between history as it happens and history as it’s finally written down after the fact. Events that seem to pile up on top of one another in the history books are usually experienced, by the people who were there at the time, as widely spaced threads in a fabric woven mostly of the ordinary occurrences of daily life. Even when drastic changes break over a civilization, the people who are affected normally have to spend so much time scrambling to make ends meet that the scale of the transformation becomes evident only in retrospect.

I’ve come to think we’re in the middle of such a process right now. Recent headlines note events that most people would have considered cataclysmic not that long ago. The price of oil is bouncing along above $80 a barrel, the International Energy Agency has now admitted that peak oil happened in 2006, the United States is openly covering its debts by means of the printing press, and agricultural commodity prices have jolted upwards to unprecedented levels under the paired pressures of an increasingly unstable climate and a disintegrating global economic system, just for starters.

If I’d presented a scenario for 2010 ten years ago that included these details, most people who read it would have dismissed me as a wild-eyed prophet of doom. Yet here we are, and most of us in America, at least, are paying more attention to the upcoming holidays than we are to the accelerating dissolution of the only world most of us have known, and the rapid approach of a future that a great many of us will find very unwelcome indeed.

Still, this is normal. The human mind does not readily grasp the perspectives of deep time; it takes a fair amount of study and practice to get to that inner state where the mind slips free from the tyranny of daily life and grasps time on the grand scale. That inner state has been an option for a very long time; Mayan itz’atob, to name only one example from the past, were perfectly able to apply their knowledge of observational astronomy to time here on earth, and imagine a past that reached back over quite impressive periods and a future that stretches for millennia beyond the 2012 bak’tun-rollover that’s attracting so much undeserved attention these days. I doubt that such perspectives were easy to achieve then; they certainly aren’t easy for most people now; but they’re crucial for this week’s post, which focuses on one way that green wizards can take part in the process of evolution.

I use that word with a great deal of trepidation. There may be other concepts that have been as heavily frosted with myth, misunderstanding, ideological static and sheer unadulterated drivel, but just at the moment I can’t think of one. Our culture’s obsession with a Utopian future has turned Darwin’s simple and elegant insight into a shuttlecock batted back and forth by a flurry of ineptly handled intellectual rackets; believers in progress equate it with their notion of a future of infinite improvement, believers in apocalypse treat it as a flat denial of their faith in a future where everyone who disagrees with them will be roadkill on history’s highway, and a great many people who don’t manage to fall into either camp seem to have lost track of the fact that it means much of anything at all.

My favorite example is still the woman who put up her hand at the end of a talk of mine in a small and very liberal Left Coast town and said, “But don’t you think that children are so much more evolved than adults?” It took a few baffled questions on my part to figure out that by “evolved” she meant “nice,” from which I gathered she hadn’t spent much time around children lately. When I suggested that she might consider reading Darwin’s The Origin of Species before using the word “evolution” again, she looked horrified and asked, “Do I have to?”

Evidently so. In fact, I don’t think it’s going too far to ask my readers – especially those engaged in the Green Wizards project – to follow the same advice. Darwin was a more than capable writer; his The Voyage of the Beagle counts as one of the classics of travel literature; his scientific works are written in a more discursive and formal style than their modern equivalents, and this can take a bit of getting used to, at least for people – the majority these days, one gathers – who don’t usually read books older than they are. Still, The Origin of Species is not an intolerably long book. It can be read in a few evenings, and it’s worth investing that much time to watch the foundation of today’s life sciences being built by one of the modern world’s great minds.

Now it’s true, of course, that some of the details of Darwin’s theory have had to be changed since his time, as more evidence has come in. This doesn’t make The Origin of Species any less worth reading. There’s much to be learned, in fact, by treating the theory of evolution as an example of the process it describes: the intellectual mutation set in motion by Darwin’s work spawned a flurry of variations, which were then sorted out by the selective pressures of further research. As Thomas Kuhn pointed out in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, the same process can be traced all through intellectual history – one piece of evidence among many that evolution, in something like the sense Darwin gave the word, is a basic property of all complex systems.

One of those complex systems is the one we’ve been discussing in the last dozen or so posts, the backyard organic food garden. One of the first and most crucial things to keep in mind about that system is that it’s an ecosystem like any other; like many ecosystems, it’s primarily shaped by the actions of a single species, which in this case happens to be yours. This last point is sometimes exaggerated into the claim that a garden is somehow separate from Nature or wholly subject to human will, which is nonsense; that might be the case if you were growing your plants in a sterile growth medium sealed off from the rest of the world – a bad idea under almost any conditions, and particularly so in an age of diminishing energy and resource availability.

A more useful way to think of a garden, rather, is to compare it to those East African forests that are primarily shaped by the presence and activities of elephants, say, or the tallgrass prairies in North America that took their basic ecological beat from the pounding hooves of the buffalo. No boundary separates such ecosystems from the rest of Nature; countless other organisms evolve ways to take advantage of the opportunities opened up by the dominant species, which coevolves in turn to benefit from, or at least not get clobbered by, the other species in the ecosystem. It’s not the only way to run an ecosystem – there are plenty of ecosystems that have no single dominant species – but it’s tolerably common, and very often highly successful.

That’s what a garden is, when it’s worked in harmony with local environments and natural cycles; there’s nothing uniquely human about it at all. The one wild card is that human beings have pushed the trick of transmitting behavior by learning rather than instinct about as far as it can go, and a lot of our behaviors – in and out of gardens – thus can change far faster than the glacial pace of natural selection would permit. That’s our great strength as a species, and it’s also our greatest weakness; what it means in practice is that, on the downside, we can never be sure how well our learned behaviors are suited to the demands of our environment, and on the upside, if we pay attention to nature we can pick up useful behaviors in a tiny fraction of the time it would take for those same behaviors to get established as instinct by natural selection.

That’s also what a garden is or, rather, what gardening is. Human beings have been a dominant species in most environments since we spread out of Africa most of a million years ago; despite fashionable claims to the contrary, successful hunter-gatherer societies manage their environments, using fire and many other methods to encourage natural food production and discourage competition by other living things. What marked the shift from hunter-gatherer to tribal horticultural economies was not a change from blissful dependence on Nature’s bounty to brutal manipulation of the Earth, but rather a shift from one mode of ecological management to another, more sophisticated one. The key to the latter wasn’t planting things where they don’t grow naturally – archeological evidence shows that this was already being done in the Paleolithic – but taking a conscious role in the process of coevolution mentioned above. Instead of taking seeds from wild plants and scattering them in new places, as many hunter-gatherer cultures do, they began selecting seeds that had desirable properties and breeding new varieties of plants for their own uses.

Does that sound daunting? If you save the seeds of your own vegetables and replant them in your garden, you’re already doing it. Those seeds that don’t thrive well enough in your garden’s conditions to produce plants healthy enough to set seed themselves are being removed from the gene pool in the usual way; if you’ve got the sense the gods gave geese, you’re saving seeds from the healthiest and most productive plants, too, which means you’ve become an agent of natural selection, tilting the playing field in true Darwinian fashion in favor of the most viable variations.

It really is as simple as that. As I mentioned in last week’s post, saving seeds can be a good deal more complicated than it looks at first glance. Breeding new varieties of plants, by contrast, is a good deal less complicated than it looks; once you’ve worked out the details of saving seeds, all you need to do is pay attention, and you’re on your way. You aren’t going to create a new species, since you don’t have a million years or so to work on it, but you can certainly contribute to the genetic diversity and regional appropriateness of the species you’ve got.

This can be done equally well with perennial plants, and it can also be done with animals. Each of these have wrinkles of their own. Breeding perennials is generally a slow process, though this depends on the plant in question – when you plant an asparagus crown, for example, you normally have to wait for the third season thereafter to harvest asparagus spears and find out how they taste, so breeding a better asparagus is not a project to attempt in a hurry. Animals – at least the small and edible kind that make sense in a backyard garden – breed annually, and so developing your own breed is very much an option; you’ll need to learn something about genetics, but since most of your rabbits are going onto the menu before they breed anyway, you’ve got plenty of opportunities to select the traits you want to develop and exclude (and serve up for dinner) the ones you don’t.

If you decide to pursue this end of green wizardry at anything beyond the simplest level, The Origin of Species will become one of your better resources. Here as elsewhere in the Green Wizards project, the key to success is to figure out the way Nature does things, and copy her shamelessly. Just as, among human beings, imitation is said to be the sincerest form of flattery, I’ve come to think that when dealing with Nature, imitation may just be the sincerest form of reverence; put another way, it’s by learning Nature’s ways and adopting them as a basis for our own that we become better able to benefit ourselves and the biosphere at once.


The only worthwhile book I know on breeding your own vegetable varieties is Carol Deppe’s classic book, which sensibly enough is titled Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties. Information on developing varieties of trees, vines, and other perennials can also be found in the more comprehensive books on individual crops, and those who are interested in breeding animals will find the information they need in books covering individual species. Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species begins with a thoughtful chapter on the variations of domesticated species, and while it’s not a practical manual for the breeder, the principles Darwin sketches out in this book ought to be kept in mind by any green wizard.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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