To Survive In Farming, Try Taoism

July 30, 2015

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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I thought I had made a tremendous discovery a few years ago. It came to me one day when I was hoeing (hoes are great think machines). I decided, all of a sudden, that the world was eternal. It had no beginning and won’t end. That was a frightening idea because it went against all that I had been taught in science or religion. Every effect was to supposed to have a cause. But the idea of a world without beginning or end resolved the major philosophical contradictions and mystifications clambering around in my mind so I decided to go with it. The funny part is that I believed my hoe and I were the first to come up with this idea. I had no notion, until a year or so later, that this was the basis of a philosophical system that dated back thousands of years— Taoism. My hoe and I were way behind the times. We didn’t even know how to the pronounce the word correctly.

As with any new discovery, I then began to see Taoism popping up everywhere. There’s even a new gardening book out by Carol Deppe, titled The Tao of Vegetable Gardening. But it was not until last week when I read a post by William Edelen who writes “The Contrary Minister” on the Ukiah Blog that is the companion to this one, that I realized just how appropriate Taoism is for farmers. We are either gnashing teeth for lack of rain or going out of our minds because it won’t quit raining. No matter how hard we work or how clever we are, we do not have as much influence over farming as my hoe has.

In a recent blog, the Contrary Minister says he is a Taoist. No wonder I have enjoyed what he writes. But up to now, I had not known much about what a modern Taoist thinks beyond contemplating the awesome notion that the material universe just might be forever. According to him, a happy life is all about accepting the world as it is. He wasn’t addressing farmers particularly, but what he says is especially appropriate for us. He compares life to a flowing river. When the river meets an irresistible object, it simply flows around it. Humans should do the same. Don’t curse the boulder blocking your path. Don’t shatter yourself to mental anguish trying to shatter it. Just quietly flow around it. In other words don’t be a control freak. Says Edelen: “No matter how much structure we create in our lives, there will ALWAYS be things we can’t control and if we let them, these things can be a huge sense of anger, stress and frustration.”

Well, okay, Taoism sounds a little like a fancy justification for laziness. But that’s what all of us go-getters need, or at least our hearts do: a dose of laziness. Farmers and gardeners are by nature control freaks. We get a lot of satisfaction out of taking a small piece of this earth and turning it into our notion of loveliness and order. We reject all arguments about how chaos rules nature. Not on our farms; not in our gardens. We will have order. We will have straight rows. We will obliterate every threatening weed, bug or animal from our domain. Our fences will never sag. Our machines never squeak or rust. No thorny brush will sully our fence lines. No blade of grass will grow taller on our lawns than the other blades of grass.

Good luck.

One of my control freak friends used to even try to keep his trash looking neat. He would bend the wires from his hay bales into neat little folds and then stack them, like cordwood, at the edge of his junk pile back in the woods.

An incident I once observed in a hay field became my favorite control freak story. A young farmer from a family of extreme control freaks was raking hay. A sharp wind came up. As fast as he rolled the swaths into windrows, as fast as the wind blew them apart. He kept going faster, trying to put the windrows back in their proper places quicker than the wind blew them into disarray. He was shouting and cussing. By God, he would show who was boss. Had he thought a little bit, a brisk wind like that probably meant rain was on the way, and it would be better to wait anyway. Rain on the unraked swaths would dry away quicker than from rolled up windrows. But no, he would not go with the flow or with the blow. He’d fight to the bitter end. It took him about twenty minutes before he finally began to understand that he was not really in control.

I never did learn to go with the flow. I just got old and had to.

Gene Logsdon

Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio. Gene is the author of numerous books and magazine articles on farm-related issues, and believes sustainable pastoral farming is the solution for our stressed agricultural system.

Tags: building resilient food systems, farming, Taoism