Ed. note: This piece is excerpted from the Prelude of Living Perenniality, written by Craig Holdrege and published by New Perennials Publishing. You can download a free copy of the book here.
This book weaves together the study of annual and perennial plants, agriculture and its origins, and riddles of human consciousness. The intent that connects these seemingly different topics is my overall striving to discover and articulate ways of moving from learning about nature, to learning through or with nature. I’m concerned with the development of capacities to perceive, think, and act in ways that are in sync with the dynamics of the living world. At a time when human thought and action generate so much that hinders the vibrant and healthy burgeoning of life in all its diversity and fullness, giving attention to how we can develop our own aliveness and our connectedness with the life of the planet is of no small concern.
We can learn a great deal from plants about the nature of life. In my research for this book, I took the notions of annual and perennial plants as lenses to consider how plants live and interact with the larger environment. It is relatively easy to study different plant species and to categorize them: this is an annual and that is a perennial. It is also fairly boring. The research became especially interesting when I started to see ways in which annuals have perennial characteristics and perennials have annual characteristics. “Annual” and “perennial” were then no longer categories (conceptual containers) that stood side by side. Increasingly they showed themselves as relational qualities of life itself. I was able to see the dynamics of plant life in new ways. In Chapter 2, I begin this exploration of annualness and perennialness in wild plants and expand it through the course of the book.
The focus on agriculture begins in Chapter 3 with an overview of annual and perennial food crops. All major grain crops and most staple food crops around the world are annuals. These are plants grown anew from seeds each growing season—and not perennials that live for a few to hundreds of years (think of fruit- and nut-bearing trees). Annual crops have many advantages, such as the short life span allowing flexibility in crop selection and also harvest during or at the end of each growing season. They can also be problematic. When, for example, fields are plowed each year and soil is laid bare, there is the likelihood of erosion, and in fact huge amounts of the earth’s fertile soil are lost each year.
The question of the long-term sustainability of agriculture is not only related to what kinds of crops are grown but to how they are grown. Today’s industrial agricultural practices encompass both annual and perennial crops and have resulted in remarkable yield increases. This comes at a cost. Monocultures of high-yielding crops need irrigation, applications of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, complex machinery, and more. So while yields rise, there is heavy extraction from the environment (water and fossil fuels) and widespread pollution. This high-input, extractive approach is not sustainable in the short or long term—let alone regenerative. I discuss a variety of approaches that strive to integrate agriculture into the healthy ecology of the earth. One of them is to develop more perennial staple crops.
The stage was set for the dominance of annual crops from the very beginnings of agriculture around 10,000 years ago. When widespread planting of crops began in different parts of the world, it was annuals that became the primary staples—think of wheat in the Middle East and Europe, rice in Asia, millet in Africa, or corn (maize) in America. As I discuss in Chapter 4, this preponderance of annuals is a riddle. It is also a riddle to which there are no clear answers, since the initial development of crops lies in a distant past long before there were any written records.
Many scholars have concerned themselves with the beginnings of agriculture and formulated a variety of theories and conjectures about what led people to shift from hunting and gathering food to growing and breeding crops. Some researchers—often those with natural science backgrounds—emphasize possible external factors such as changing climate, food scarcity, or overpopulation. Others—often cultural anthropologists—point to societal and cultural contexts and what we might call more internal factors such as religion. One thing is clear: there is no consensus about what might have driven (the view from the outside) or motivated (the view from the inside) the beginnings of agriculture.
While considering the wide variety of perspectives, I was struck by the dominant tendency to address the origins of agriculture as a problem to be solved. As agronomist and plant geneticist Jack Harlan writes provocatively:
“One problem I have with all the published models is that they are all conceived by middle class, university-educated, Industrial Age pragmatists, all looking for some golden bottom line that will explain it all.”1
While this statement may be a bit exaggerated, especially since there are many researchers today who realize that there is no “one” explanatory framework, Harlan puts his finger on an important issue: the “problem” of the origins of agriculture is conceived in terms that fit a specifically modern mode of viewing the world.
This mode of explaining and interpreting assumes that ancient people, in essence, had minds that work like ours and confronted a reality that was configured the way we perceive it today. In other words, the way we view things today is imagined to be a reflection of the way things are. With this assumption, agricultural practices would have arisen as strategies to deal with new problems that arose due to changes in external factors, such as changing climate.
Beyond the fact that such “explanations” are highly speculative, they ignore the evidence that ancient people did not experience the world the way most of us do today. Harlan points out that if you had asked someone who lived 5,000 or 10,000 years ago about the origins of agriculture, you would have received—from a modern perspective—a surprising response:
“In classical mythologies of all civilizations, agriculture came as a divine gift. A god or goddess came not only to instruct the ignorant in the arts of farming and of agriculture but to enlighten them with respect to law, religion, household arts and proper ways of living.”2
As I show in Chapter 5, the same is essentially true with respect to indigenous agricultural societies that have continued to exist into the recent past and present—inspirations stem from beings who communicate through nature, ceremonies, and dreams.
From an ancient or indigenous perspective (broadly seen, and ignoring for the moment all the nuanced variations), reality consists of a weaving of beings and animate forces. The human being as one being among many is caught up in that weaving. Nature is not an impersonal “out there,” separate from a personal “in here.” I discuss how the development of modern science since the 17th century consummated a shift in the Western world from experiences of nature as animate and spirit-filled to the conviction that nature, at its foundation, consists of lifeless forces and matter. Impersonal cause-and-effect relations, not beings, rule the universe. Today life is thought to be built up out of mechanisms. The inanimate, not the animate, has become primary.
This contrast opens up the topic of the changing ways in which people experience the world—the transformation of human consciousness. I do not dismiss ancient or indigenous views as superstition—since such a judgment is based on the ungrounded assumption that the modern scientific view reflects the way things are and always have been. While I acknowledge the power of interpreting and manipulating the natural world as if it were a complex
mechanism—the dominant approach in science and technology—I also see it as all too narrow to do justice to life.
Once we realize that what we call reality is always related to consciousness, we can also understand that we are always participating in and co-configuring the world as we experience it. This is an epistemological insight and leads me to recognize that connectedness, and not separation, is fundamental in life. In this respect indigenous views resonate with me even though I have a wholly different cultural background. My consideration of the origins of agriculture wants to show the limitations of theorizing and takes seriously the transformation of consciousness.
The last chapter of the book addresses the present and looks to the future. At the heart of many efforts to create more ecologically oriented, regenerative approaches to farming lies the question: Instead of imposing an extraction-based, mechanistic framework on nature and food production, can agriculture be modeled after nature’s workings? This is a call for a different way of being in the world—it is a call for biocentric or ecocentric approaches. And these can only be gained through a better understanding of living nature, including that part of nature we call ourselves.
Since the mechanistic mindset and the dominant tendency to dissolve living processes into separate factors that one thinks “make things happen” is so strong, it is by no means an easy task to develop truly living ecological and holistic insights. The framework of modern thought leads us to approach life in non-living ways and constrains us from all sides. But I think it is possible to move beyond those constraints, if only we increase our awareness of our own aliveness and focus attention on aliveness in natural phenomena so that they can teach us. I describe this dialogic endeavor here as “living perenniality.” I see in it the beginnings of a radical transformation of consciousness that has the potential to let the wisdom of the living world increasingly inform human endeavors.
On knowing that is alive
When I study nature, all my looking is informed by past experience. This includes all the concepts I have learned. Concepts are a two-edged sword. On the one hand, they give me an orientation and focus for my study. On the other hand, they can narrow my view, so that I may tend to fit what I find into preexisting categories. In his journals, Henry David Thoreau expressed in characteristically radical and fresh manner the tension that arises when a person wakefully attends to how ideas inform sensing:
It is only when we forget all our learning that we begin to know. I do not get nearer by a hair’s breadth to any natural object so long as I presume that I have an introduction to it from some learned man. To conceive of it with a total apprehension I must for the thousandth time approach it as something totally strange. If you would make acquaintance with the ferns you must forget your botany.3
In this sense, it is only when I try to leave behind what I already know that I become truly open to what is new in sense experience. This is a prerequisite for learning. But at the same time, Thoreau knew out of his own experience how important previous knowledge is:
The scarlet oak must, in a sense, be in your eye when you go forth. We cannot see anything until we are possessed with the idea of it, and then we can hardly see anything else. In my botanical rambles I find that first the idea, or image, of a plant occupies my thoughts, though it may at first seem very foreign to this locality, and for some weeks or months I go thinking of it and expecting it unconsciously, and at length I surely see it, and it is henceforth an actual neighbor of mine. This is the history of my finding a score or more rare plants which I could name.4
The art of knowing involves finding ways to let ideas (concepts) continually grow through new experiences. If I subsume new experiences under already existing notions, then I am boxing those experiences in. If, by contrast, new experiences allow my idea of ferns or scarlet oaks to expand and deepen, I am entering a living dialogue with nature. My perception is then imbued with an attitude of mind that is open to surprises and to the unexpected, and also rooted in a rich field of past experience.
1. Harlan 1998, p. 25.
2. Harlan 1998, p. 1.
3. Thoreau’s journal entry from October 4, 1859 (Journal XII: 371); in Walls 1999, p. 91.
4. Thoreau’s journal entry from November 4, 1858 (Journal XI: 285); in Walls 1999, p. 84.
Teaser photo credit: Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hazelnut_on_tree.jpg,