When you can’t dazzle’em with brilliance, baffle’em with definitions

March 7, 2013

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

All of life is related — you and I and plants and wildlife are kin.
– California native saying

Actually, Jason Godesky is rather brilliant; his 30 Theses deserve a good look. He struggled mightily with defining horticulture and agriculture, did not quite get it right, but made a lot of good points. Can I do better? Or at least, can I come up with something that will enable us to communicate more clearly about these matters? With trepidation, I am giving it a shot. The purpose of this post is not to find the Right and Correct definition, but to untangle the definitional knots so that we can talk with one another and get somewhere.

On the basis of some baffling conversations I’ve had, it occurred to me the other day that there are three definitions of horticulture. As though two were not bad enough! Rereading Jason’s essay made me realize there are actually four. Muddy waters, anyone?

The first definition of course refers to gardening. Second and third definitions are anthropological, and the fourth is perhaps best termed permacultural. Together, they make it nigh impossible for us to make sense of each other’s point of view. According to definition #2, horticulture is simple cultivation aided by hoes, typically involving slash-and-burn and long fallow periods, defined by the anthropologists at Oregon State as “agricultural technology distinguished by the use of hand tools to grow domesticated plants; does not use draft animals, irrigation, or specially prepared fertilizers.”

In definition #3, anthropologists have shifted away from simply describing specific techniques of cultivation. Starting with an assumption of a “cultivation continuum of intensity,” horticulture is small scale cultivation using a variety of mixed crops, and augmentation of nearby forest or meadow with fruit and nut trees. It is “plant cultivation carried out with relatively simple tools and methods; nature is allowed to replace nutrients in the soil, in the absence of permanently cultivated fields.” Sustainable cultivation is seen as a problem of resources and of lowering their consumption, considering energy invested and energy reaped, and noting that moving in the direction of greater intensification means efficiency losses in terms of calories spent to calories gained. Agriculture in both these frameworks means “intensive cultivation — use of irrigation, draft animals, terracing, fertilizers, selective breeding, mechanization, etc., to grow more food.”

A combination of #2 and #3 is what I have assumed in the past. It got me into trouble with people who follow Godesky’s definition #4, which shifts the focus to ecological relationships. Jason criticizes definition #3 as a “view that carries with it the bias of the agricultural society it came from. We are still looking at cultivation solely in terms of production; we may have widened our view to consider the energy invested in cultivation as well as the food energy such cultivation provides, but there is still lacking from this perspective any consideration of how cultivation relates to the ecology it is based on.” He also inveighs against tilling, fields, monocropping, and abandoning foraging for part of one’s nutrition. Defining agriculture as cultivation that relies on suppressing succession, and horticulture as cultivation by means of succession, he insists on a purity that actual horticulturists rarely exhibited. (He backpedals in the comments.) Eventually, he goes out on a limb, insisting on a “yawning chasm” between agriculture and horticulture, and brands agriculture as “cultivation by means of catastrophe [plow tillage].” It ends up a confusing mish-mash along with some questionable claims. However, he makes an excellent point when he says: “what divides agriculture and horticulture is less a question of a particular technique or even the intensity of investment, but rather, the ecological effect of their strategies.” He lifts into prominence it deserves the careful consideration of how cultivation relates to the ecology within which it exists, and all the relationships involved.

We then encounter a problem: the Easter Islanders were horticulturists by definition #2, leaning toward agriculture according to definition #3 on account of their steady intensification, and agriculturists according to definition #4 since they clearly failed to encourage succession and regrowth of the forest canopy. And all this despite the fact that they neither irrigated, used the plow, wielded anything other than simple tools, and cultivated gardens, not fields! Are you confused yet? I can add to the confusion by pointing out that all forager/cultivators used the “catastrophe” of fire regularly to suppress succession. Or that the Tikopians might have been defined as agriculturists when they first colonized the island and rapidly, heedlessly intensified, and as horticulturists much later with their restrained and regenerative practices (killing the pigs, leveling their social structure, capping their population, and learning to grow forest gardens that gave the land a chance). Counter-intuitive, this. And where do pastures fit in? Then there is the whole issue of leaving foragers out of these dueling definitions: they too sometimes intensified to the detriment of the landbase, they too sometimes got too heavy-handed while imposing their will on the land, fraying ties with ‘all their relations.’

I am of a mind that all these definition carry a part of the truth. Nevertheless, in discussions with our allies it is important to pay attention to the definition each person uses. Only then can shared language be put to use in an effort to increase mutual understanding. And let me make a plea: if a person not given to flights of intellectual fancy uses the word ‘agriculture’ in a more general sense — such as “sustainable or regenerative agriculture” — or God forbid, while referring to horticulture or permaculture, let’s give them plenty of slack. After all, it’s shared values and commitments and good mutual relationships that will enable us to move ahead together on taking better care of the landbase.

I have learned something in this brief exploration. While I see ratcheting intensification of food production as the main factor that tips relatively benign foraging/cultivation practices towards the damaging end of the spectrum, the nurture of mutually beneficial relationships cannot be ignored, and indeed may buffer certain amounts of intensification. Restraint in the choice of tools and techniques, limits on how much human food can be removed from a given area with attention to regeneration, as well as the cultivation of “right relationships” with the living beings who feed us, all add up to an economy that endures.

In addition, selectively incorporating cycles of succession into our patterns of cultivation makes eminent sense. I rather like professor Kottak’s definition in his Cultural Anthropology textbook.

A baseline distinction between agriculture and horticulture is that horticulture requires regular fallowing whereas agriculture does not. Horticulture is non-intensive plant cultivation, based on the use of simple tools and cyclical, noncontinuous use of crop lands.

Godesky rejected this definition because it mentions fallowing, and fallowing was in wide use among medieval peasant farmers. But their fallowing gave the land no rest; it meant keeping the field out of grain production for a season or two while plowing it several times to gain an edge against pests. Perhaps he would approve now; true fallowing allows the land to follow the succession sequence of that particular ecology long enough for the land to reach its steady-state apex accompanied by soil regeneration. (There is another kind of fallow called ley fallow, where a field is converted into a leguminous pasture for a number of years, allowing it to recover. This type of fallow played a key role in the “agricultural revolution” of early modern Flanders and England, and on primarily forested land it provides an intermediary point between bare field fallow and succession fallow.)

Rose by any other name will smell as sweet. Ruinous cultivation by any other name still offends the senses. Behold the stinkers:

  • Reckless application of new tools and techniques without adequate consideration of their longer term consequences,
  • ratcheting intensification of human food production,
  • a broken nutrient cycle,
  • relentless fight against succession,
  • seeing the living beings that feed us as mere things and resources, to be used and abused at will,
  • and failure to grow new soil.

Hex them, each and every one of them! Now, and forever, amen.

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Tags: agriculture, horticulture