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In praise of promiscuous cultures: Part 2

April 26, 2023

In this second part (part 1 can be found here) of our series examining indigenous Mediterranean polycultures, we focus on the personal, intellectual, emotional, philosophical and socio-cultural elements.

Agriculture must change from large mechanical operations to small farms attached only to life itself. Material life and diet should be given a simple place. If this is done, work becomes pleasant, and spiritual breathing space becomes plentiful.

The more the farmer increases the scale of his operation, the more his body and spirit are dissipated and the further he falls away from a spiritually satisfying life. A life of small scale farming may appear to be primitive, but in living such a life, it becomes possible to contemplate the Great Dao. I believe that if one fathoms deeply one’s own neighbourhood and the everyday world in which he lives, the greatest of worlds will be revealed.Masanobu Fukuoka, One Straw Revolution

Many of us have fond memories visiting pick-your-own farms as children, where we relished the opportunity to sample a single choice crop, such as strawberries, straight from the field with our families, marvel at the ladybugs and other strange insects patrolling the plants, and carry home crates of fresh delicious produce we had harvested ourselves. Others know the joy of mushroom hunting or the thrill of foraging wild foods from the forest. Now imagine the pleasure offered by farms where families are free to roam fields filled not just with one crop, but dozens – from mushrooms and tubers to berries and small fruit trees, with larger nut trees towering above and edible vines in between. This is the true, incalculable value of promiscuous cultures.

Source: Raffaello Sorbi, ´La Festa della Vendemmia´, 1893. Note the married vines, the wide spacings between them, and the lines on the ´dance-floor´ indicating rows of cultivated vegetables separated by pathways

Promiscuous cultures went into decline because they take longer to harvest than monocultures, and in a world where time is money and money is God, this was enough to sign their death sentence. But what a monoculture gains in time, it loses in joy. Besides which, what it gains in harvest time is lost again by the extra work of soil preparation, fertilisation, irrigation, and war against “weeds”, “pests” and diseases that continue throughout the year.

When the main crops are resilient climate-adapted perennials (which require minimal maintenance annually), the main labour of farming becomes harvesting and processing. This is the sense in which promiscuous cultures can be compared to “drive-through fast-food for hunter-gatherers”. When the biggest job of the season involves harvesting a dense diverse crop mixture (since reaping is a form of plant-hunting, and hunting is itself “the sport of kings”), the separation between work and play tends to dissolve, as does the separation between cultivation and foraging, wilderness and domestication.

More people are required to cultivate the same amount of land, but more people are supported by it, and the work itself takes on an adventurous, treasure-hunt like quality more redolent of productive play than the monotonous drudgery of which “the idiocy of rural life” (as Marx infamously put it) is  today too often comprised. With a greater population density inhabiting an increasingly recreational productive landscape with an incalculably greater scope for the practice of creativity, mastery, ingenuity, sensuality, philosophy, genius, caprice, voluptuousness, tenderness, contemplation and wonder, such intensification also serves to regenerate the human basis of rural communities with the festive atmosphere inseparable from youth and beauty. Historic paintings such as The vine-harvesting party (1893) by the Florentine painter Raffaello Sorbi capture, in a manner somewhat redolent of Breughel, something of the carnivalesque atmosphere that blossomed within the coltura promiscua of the Tuscan countryside, which itself recalls the ceremonial work-parties common to many indigenous societies around the globe to accomplish labour-intensive tasks such as house-building and farming: neighbours are invited to work collectively, the hosts providing food and beer, and everything is accomplished in an atmosphere of festivity accompanied by music, drunkenness and dance.

Scenes from the modern-day grape harvest festival in Aversa, between Naples and Caserta. Note the wall of grapevines towering above the dancers and the similarities between these contemporary photographs and the 18th and 19th century landscape paintings illustrated elsewhere in this article. Source:

Another invaluable emergent property born from promiscuous cultures is flavour. In The Third Plate: Notes on the Future of Food, chef Dan Barber describes his journey following the finest ingredients that reach his kitchen back to the fields where they were grown. One of his first discoveries was the way that flavour, nutrient density, and healthy soil all go together. He reports on the adventures of his friend, an heirloom seed collector who stumbled on a remnant version of coltura promiscua which once flourished throughout the southern United States. Here, a conscious distinction is very clearly made in the mind of the farmer between commodities for selling, which may be produced through mechanical means, and food for eating, which can only be produced through artisanal means:

Source: Károly Markó, ´Landscape near Tivoli with Scenes from the Grape Harvest´ (1846)

He found one moonshine operation completely “off the grid.” The family had been farming the same land since the late 1600s. But this wasn’t just a moonshine operation. The family also raised pigs, goats, and sheep. And they grew countless crops for food. Everything was intertwined, and everything grew together.

“So, you didn’t have field peas as field peas; you’d have field peas and corn together in the same field. You didn’t grow just wheat; you’d grow wheat that was, say, thirty inches tall, and then you maybe grow rye above it that was seven feet tall; harvest the rye first, cut it high, then cut low for the wheat, and then they’d have clover down at the bottom, or winter peas, or whatever. No one thing was growing in a field.”

Grape harvest in with contemporary “married” vines from Aversa, Italy. Source: iBorboni

It was unlike anything Glenn had ever seen. “Like an idiot, I said to the father, ‘You can’t machine this.’ By that I meant you couldn’t run a tractor combine to harvest it. He looks at me real funny and says, ‘Why would we want to machine this? This is eating food.’ He wasn’t growing for animals. He was saying, ‘This is our kitchen food. This is what we eat.’ He would just as soon run a combine on his field as he would grow genetically modified corn. These people were frozen in time.”

Glenn ate lunch with them. “Holy crap! I mean, everything on the table—everything—had been grown and processed on the farm,” he said. “It was unbelievable food. Breads, butters, jams, hams, even wine—you name it. Oh, the best corn grits I’d ever eaten. Unreal, impeccable flavor, simply and honestly prepared. I sat there with the bootlegging family in the middle of this food paradise and felt in reality what my mother had always said about southern kitchen gardens, and about the food she grew up on.

Anyone who has tasted the difference between fruit from the shop and fruit from the hands and lands of a good gardener, as between a meal from Burger King and a meal from a good cook, will understand the advantages of promiscuous cultures perfectly well. Furthermore, the multifunctionality of promiscuous cultures forms the basis for a locally-produced, complete & balanced diet, yielding staples of complex carbohydrates in the form of nuts, tubers, cereals and grains; proteins in the form of legumes, meat and dairy; fats in the form of olive oil and butter; vitamins and minerals in the form of fruits, vegetables, salads, foraged fungi and greens; alcohol in the form of beer, wine, brandy, gin, and fruit liquors; and medicine in the form of aromatic herbs, tree bark, leaves & roots. Beyond food & medicine, they provided fuel for lighting, heating, cooking, and local industries in the form of firewood, tallow and olive oil (traditional bio-fuels for lanterns); furniture, storage, transportation and building construction material in the form of timber, palm and reed thatch, coppice, roof tiles (produced in wood fired ovens from local clay) and lime (the primary ingredient in traditional mortars and plasters, produced in charcoal-fired kilns located directly in forested landscapes); and textile fabric in the form of wool, leather, cotton, flax, hemp and assorted plant dyes — to list only the key elements in a subsistence economy that this author is aware of.

Source: Teresa Pinto-Correia and Willem Vos, Multifunctionality in Mediterranean landscapes – past and future

In the first part of the series, I have referred to the radical difference produced in sensuous psychogeograpfic affect between these diverse, aesthetically delightful landscapes and the flat two-dimensional monocultures of conventional plantation agriculture. Not only does the vertical element introduced by the incorporation of trees add a third dimension, but the succession of harvests throughout the year, each one including its own set of songs, dances and rituals, creates a rich complexity within the passage of time resulting in a fully 4D farming experience within a landscape that is both cultural as well as agricultural, recreational as well as productive.

With the sweet sound of birds instead of the numbing sound of motors in the ears; with the festive sight of fields festooned with tree-trellised vines as if at carnival, interspersed between vegetables, pastures and cereals, in a mosaic of colours and textures throughout the year, rather than the green desert of a single crop stretching from horizon to horizon in the eyes; with the heady scent of flowering fruit trees rather than the stench of diesel and industrial biocides in the nose; with the flavour of food grown for taste and nutrition rather than commodities produced for bulk on the tongue; the inhabitants of such a landscape are nourished by all their senses. Is it any wonder that masses flee a countryside that has been made as mind-numbingly boring, ugly, and toxic as a factory? If the landscapes of urban areas are no better, they are scarcely all that worse, and at least cities provide the compensations of comfort and consumption.

A more subtle cultural element to promiscuous cultures is the intellectual stimulation, sensory integration and profound ecological connection available to those who work the land. The same four-dimensional complexity that is so pleasing at the level of the senses acts as a pleasing stimulation to the head, heart and body. The diversity of activity provided the body with a mode of subsistence filled with nutritious movement, a key component to the near-universal state of optimum health and vitality observed among indigenous people by travellers and ethnographers in the early colonial era. The intimate intercourse and nourishment from every element of the natural world enmeshed individuals in a web with thick ropes of connection extending to all the plants, fungi, birds, beasts, winds, stars, mountains and rivers around them, weaving a sense of kinship, security, reverence and respect that led such farmers to perceive the vital animacy of all things. This animist world-view, which survived the imposition of monotheistic religions for centuries in many parts of the globe, encouraged these farmers to care for and venerate all elements of nature, not merely money and the cultivated products of their own fields. The war on “weeds”, the extermination of predators and “pests”, and the wholesale deforestation of land so commonly associated with agricultural societies today were not characteristic of promiscuous horticultural societies. Farming, far from the despised burden it became in modern times, formed the basis and focus of ritual life; the countryside, far from the despised backwater it has become in which the mating of rural idiocy with industrial monstrosity breeds nightmares, was known as the home in which the domestic world of human life and the uncontrollable mystery of the wild intermingled and married; the farmer, far from a despised reactionary bumpkin, performed the sacred office of husbandry to the holy in nature just as diligently as the office of producer and provider to the human community. “The idiocy of rural life” so sneeringly denounced by Marx was replaced with a diverse variety of occupations that resembled his descriptions of a future communist society “where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.”

Grape harvest from 15 meter high married vines in Aversa, Italy. Source: ibid

Promiscuous cultures, whether in the Southern US or Tuscany, were peopled by sharecroppers. They were neither capitalists, as modern commercial farmers are, nor wage-slaves, as modern farm-workers are. They farmed first and foremost for themselves and their families, giving a portion of their harvests to their landlords in rent. They were thus not forced into the narrow roles maintained by the rigid divisions of labour at the heart of capitalist economies (and the chattel-slave plantation economies upon which capitalism is modelled). Mapping out the almost dizzying interplay between the various elements of the systems they invented and managed is enough to demonstrate at a glance the diverse scope of the activities available to inhabitants of these cultures. A further example is furnished by the philosopher-farmer Masanoba Fukuoka in his One Straw Revolution:

At the end of the year the one-acre farmer of long ago spent January, February, and March hunting rabbits in the hills. Though he was called a poor peasant, he still had this kind of freedom. The New Year’s holiday lasted about three months.

Gradually this vacation came to be shortened to two months, one month, and now New Year’s has come to be a three-day holiday.

The dwindling of the New Year’s holiday indicates how busy the farmer has become and how he has lost his easy-going physical and spiritual well-being. There is no time in modern agriculture for a farmer to write a poem or compose a song.

The other day I was surprised to notice, while I was cleaning the little village shrine, that there were some plaques hanging on the wall. Brushing off the dust and looking at the dim and faded letters, I could make out dozens of haiku poems. Even in a little village such as this, twenty or thirty people had composed haiku and presented them as offerings. That is how much open space people had in their lives in the old days. Some of the verses must have been several centuries old. Since it was that long ago, they were probably poor farmers, but they still had leisure to write haiku.

Now there is no one in this village with enough time to write poetry.

This was the opposite of the mind-numbing, monotonous, back-breaking, soul destroying, nasty, brutish and mean life of relentless drudgery associated with farm work in modern societies. What explains the discrepancy? In a word: enclosure. At the beginning of the modern era, as each country went through a phase of what Marx called “primitive capitalist accumulation”, commons were stolen from the common people by the state or by the rich to become private property, and landlords evicted their tenants in order to transform their estates into a form of plantation-style agriculture based on indentured labour (in this case, what Marx called wage-slavery) common to most civilisations. In Europe, such plantations disappeared with the collapse of the Roman empire, along with the institution of slavery. With the rise of capitalism as a new, soon to be global, imperial civilisation, both the plantation and the slave-labour returned. The few workers who were required to produce profits for the large estates were retained as landless proletarians (or actual slaves in the case of the Americas), and it is their unfortunate lot which gave rise to the dismal idea of rural life in modern times.

Lameiros are a form of coltura promiscua indigenous to Northern Portugal. Source: ibid

Like indigenous societies around the world, the best agrarian cultures of pre-industrial Europe by no means conformed to the calumny – that they were people mired in ignorance, misery and endless want – projected onto them. If so few want to work close to the land in modern societies that the average age of farmers now exeeds 60 years old, it is because the way modern societies feed themselves has been reduced to degraded and degrading activity, intellectually poor, culturally weak and spiritually empty, concerned with nothing but material development and maximising profit. Given the fact that agriculture is currently one of the worst possible ways to pursue material gain imaginable, it is not difficult to discern why almost all ambitious, resourceful and intelligent people go to the cities in order to make money money. It wasn´t always like this. It doesn´t have to be this way. As Max Paschall observed in his excellent essay The Lost Forest Gardens of Europe, our present is defined by an “essential struggle between extractive imperialist systems, and indigenous land-based lifeways.” I can give no better conclusion than the one he gave to his own text:

The rapid disappearance of the dehesas, coppice woods, willow beds, hedgerows, and Mediterranean forest gardens are all connected in this fight. What’s at stake in their survival is not the preservation of a bygone relic, but the protection and expansion of relationships with the land that can feed our communities, preserve biodiversity through climate change, and create productive ecosystems that last for millennia.

They are an example of what we might lose if we forget too much, but also of what we can create again… We may have inherited the most destructive systems of extraction and exploitation ever seen, but we have also inherited the seeds for a better way to live: a way that our oldest ancestors knew and cherished.

Perhaps it is time that we plant those seeds once again.”

In the third and final part of this series, we will examine the political-economies of promiscuous cultures and compare them to those of modern industrial societies.

Suggested Reading:

The One Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka

The Unlikely Peace at Cuchumaquic by Martin Prechtel

The Lost Forest Gardens of Europe by Max Paschall

The Third Plate by Dan Barber

Siddiq Khan

Siddiq Khan is a South African poet, revolutionist, mycologist, philosopher, gardener, and researcher residing in Spain, where he has worked for the last five years at a large Andalucian dehesa leading projects focused on deep nature connection, wilderness awareness, grassland regeneration, agroforestry, mycology, natural beekeeping and wildlife conservation. He is the founding director of the nonprofit association Mycosomatic Magic.

Tags: Building resilient food and farming systems, mixed farming, polycultures