Plants and mushrooms have intelligence, and they want us to take care of the environment, and so they communicate that to us in a way we can understand…I think they have a consciousness and are constantly trying to direct our evolution by speaking out to us biochemically. We just need to be better listeners.—Mycologist Paul Stamets, quoted in Michael Pollan’s Changing Your Mind
In many spiritual and cultural traditions, the earth and its inhabitants form a sentient and symbiotic network, dependent on one another’s tending for health and wellbeing. The murmurs and whisperings of trees and plants, water and wildlife serve as warning signals when imbalance is detected. When these warnings go unheeded, they become louder and more persistent. Today’s firestorms, tornadoes, volcano bursts, floods and droughts are speaking an unmistakable language of planetary disruption that needs to be heeded if we are to survive.
Nowhere is this clearer than in our collapsing food systems—systems built on practices that have decimated biodiversity, polluted waterways, contributed to global warming, and led to the decline of human health. Beyond the challenges of growing food where there is no or too much water, spikes in the cost of fertilizer and fuel, transport issues, trade policies, processing fires, and the culling of animals have contributed to food shortages everywhere and the highest ever increase in global food costs. For our affluent culture this may result in cutting back or a shifting of priorities; for others, whose local agroecological systems have been destroyed by the green revolution with its emphasis on chemical inputs and corporate-owned GMO seeds, famine and its attendant destabilization of people and places may result. Add in war and the effects of a global pandemic, and we are at a critical juncture: Humankind is teetering on the edge of a precipice.
The solutions being proposed—fake meat, vaccine carrying greens, GMO animals and plants, and growing vegetables in chemical soups—are more of the same technological tinkerings that have led us to an ever increasing consolidation of the food system and land into fewer hands and compromised human and planetary health.
Yet there is another path forward, imbued with the understandings of our interconnectedness, and built on the legacy of indigenous agricultural practices and pioneers like George Washington Carver.
Carters Contributions, Legacy
“I love to think of nature as an unlimited broadcasting station, though which God speaks to us ever hour, if we tune in” — George Washington Carver
Carver was born into slavery in 1864 and following the abduction of his mother was fostered by families that nurtured his knowledge of plants and herbs. He spent much of his youth in the woods, getting to know the flowers there intimately and becoming known as a plant doctor for his ability to tend ailing plants to health.
In his four decades as director of the Experiment Station at Tuskegee University, Carver gave tools and hope to farmers who inherited at emancipation not 40 acres and a mule but rather sharecropping fields of soils depleted by cotton monocropping. Carver was a practitioner and early proponent of organic and regenerative agriculture, though his pioneering work in this field has been overlooked, or worse, ignored. Through meticulous research, inspirational teaching and bulletins written in a readable prose, Carver showed southern farmers how to enrich soil, use natural fertilizer, rotate crops and cure fungal diseases. He encouraged recycling and reuse of waste, including in compost, as a way to make households and farmers resilient through the transition from a deeply unjust and unhealthy system of farming built on stolen land and labor.
Carver gave the credit for his work to his love of plants and flowers and his habit of listening to them and to spirit every day. He knew, for example, that the peanut would be an antidote to cotton ravaged soils, but that farmers could not grow it unless there was a market for it. One morning, he asked God about the peanut:
He told me, ‘separate the peanut into water, fats, oils, gums, resins, sugars, starches, and amino acids. Then recombine these under My three laws of compatibility, temperature, and pressure. Then, the Lord said, ‘then you will know why I made the peanut!
Thereafter, in his famously bookless laboratory, Carver invented over 300 uses for the peanut, including food and beverages, soap, insecticide, medicines and glues. He likewise promoted the sweet potato, cow peas, and local dyes and their products.
The need for regional self-sufficiency increased in the world war years, when fertilizer was scarce and expensive. Carver encouraged farmers to be involved not just in growing but also in processing and distribution of food, and taught its preservation through canning and drying. In his later years, Carter realized that agriculture’s focus on yield, chemical fertilizers, and expensive technology worked against farmers and the planet, and cautioned that chemicals in the soil likely impacted nutrition and made their way into humans.
A Call to Listen
“This is a time to take lessons from mosses.” — Robin Wall Kimmerer
Our challenges today, like those faced by farmers in Carver’s time, are both practical and systemic. They have to do not only with re-building soils and finding new sources of income for farmers, but also with the process of transforming a deeply disruptive and inequitable food system to one that serves not just people but also the planet. Regenerative agriculture is a systemic answer, rooted in practices that build soil, improve nutrient density, recreate equitable regional food systems, repair hydrological cycles and cool the planet.
Both regenerative agriculture and permaculture borrow from age-old practices by indigenous peoples. But just as Carver’s role as a pioneer in the field of organic agriculture has been ignored, modern day activists and farmers often erase the indigenous origins of regenerative agriculture and permaculture, according to Whitewashed Hope, a 2021 message from Indigenous leaders and organizations. And they also fail to include the bedrock understandings of people as nature and nature as intelligent and alive. Indigenous biologist and author Robin Kimmerer writes of an animate world generous in its gifts of light, air, water, and food and willing to share its secrets and teach us about collaboration and working with what we have. Indigenous understanding has led to plant medicines created with the guidance of the plants themselves, and the protection of biodiversity—currently 80% of the world’s biodiversity is under the stewardship of 5% of the world’s population that is indigenous.
The wisdom of the indigenous view of nature as sentient and communicative is being proven in labs and fields across the planet. CIA scientist Cleve Backster’s work with lie detectors showed plants reacting to the intentions of their caregivers, and “screaming” when they perceived threats to themselves or other life. Other studies detail the conversations and connections between living plants and animals through electric and magnetic fields, volatile organic compounds, scent, and song.
Works by Michael Pollan and films like Fantastic Fungi, which profiles mycologist Paul Stamets, likewise detail plant communication and sharing, including through mycelia, the earth’s internet. The study of quantum physics opens up the possibility of even more communication pathways, with quantum superposition perhaps explaining why photosynthesis is an almost miraculous transmutation of light into chemical energy.
Beyond reframing the natural world and our place in it, embracing our relationship with a caring and responsive planet opens up new opportunities for growth and healing of the planet and ourselves. The recent precipitous decline in human mental and physical health can be traced in some ways to a disconnection from our planetary home; the explosion of interest in forest bathing and books like The Overstory and The Secret Life of Trees suggests a longing to replant the canopy and to find our way back into its embrace.
As Carver, Kimmerer, Stamets, and many mystics and shamans have written, life (god, plants fungi, trees, and grasses) sings all around us. The question is, are we listening?
Tuning into the Future
The pressing question of how we can serve in this transformative time has become central to our organizational, educational, land-based and community work and wonderings at Agraria. As we learn about bioregional regeneration and regenerative thinking and practice, the development of an organizational culture in which we listen to each other and learn in community with colleagues and the planet becomes a key focus.
Informed by the work of regenerative philosopher Carol Sanford and others, we are moving from a goal-oriented paradigm of arresting disorder to a living systems paradigm of regenerating life. At a recent educational retreat, we learned various practices from Joanna Macy’s Work that Reconnects, and listened to the voices of water, rock, and moss. They entreated us to work with joy and celebration.
These emerging ideas help inform our educational practices with children and adults. Our youth educational programs provide opportunities for deep immersion in nature, and our adult programming helps our community build practical skills, gain knowledge, and pay attention and listen to what is outside and inside themselves.
On the land we continue to rebuild connective tissue above and ground. Restoration of and around Jacoby Creek will provide habitat for multiple species of birds, mammals, and insects. Our gardens and fields provide research and teaching opportunities for regional colleagues.
This year we are also starting to design a George Washington Carver Demonstration Farm to honor his holistic practices, listening ear, and indefatigable work for black farmers. With teaching areas of annuals and perennial cropping systems, research plots, and fiber and dye gardens, the GWC farm will also house a compost research and education center as well as a biochar pyrolyzer. With the farm and a silvopasture site, we hope to demonstrate how small farmers and homesteaders can become more resilient individually and in cooperative community.
In the broader community we continue to work on land access, to reconnect food systems, and to get fresh produce into neighborhoods that need it. Our work in Springfield and West Dayton is helping regrow the tissue of our bioregional community, and we are also working to heal our disconnection through story-telling, anti-racism workshops and trauma-informed training.
We hope you will join us on the land and in our surrounding communities, as we listen, learn, and adjust our practices, as we work together to be part of the great re-membering of ourselves and the planet.
Click here read the full Summer 2022 issue of the Agraria Journal.
Teaser Photo Credit: Amy Harper. Learning the language of birds requires sitting quietly, listening, observing, and opening to the natural world around us. The birds on Agraria spoke and this area resident listened during a Wednesday Bird Language program last Spring with Agraria Naturalist Emily Foubert.