The SAP has influenced my outlook in ways that are simultaneously simple and complex. By just spending time here, listening to the enthusiastic people involved with the farm and witnessing firsthand the art of agriculture, anyone has the potential to see a depth and significance reflected in all aspects of life. The outlooks I’ve noticed are simple because the observable life-lessons are universal and thus accessible to everyone regardless of background. But at the same time, that universality invites an almost overwhelming complexity because of its relevance in every facet of life. I’m speaking vaguely here, so perhaps specific examples can better articulate my points.
Thinning is important. In fact, it’s necessary for the growth of healthy produce. Simply, thinning is the process of removing the smaller fledgling crops that crowd out and take resources from their more vigorous neighbors. While it may “feel bad” to snuff out the life of a radish or beet that has only started to taste fresh air, it may, for the overall health of the harvest, be necessary to reduce their numbers. Practically, for you and me as individuals, it may also be necessary to thin out aspects of our own lives hampering our growth and preventing us from being as successful as we could be. I’ve learned to try to be more thoughtful about how I spend my time; there is value in thinning out unproductive hours, hobbies, memories, and grudges that prevent us from being as successful or affable as we ought to be. Nurture your strengths. Let your beets be as hearty as they can be.
In that same vein, fire can be good. There is a flame weeder at the farm that scorches the earth were young weeds are growing and prevents them from being as vigorous as they could be. I did not know such things seriously existed before I began interning here. I imagined a flame weeder would have been too great of a risk to the lives of desirable plants. But you can be tactful with such a tool, and there are indeed times when scorching the soil is justified.
Occasionally the conversations that took place as we worked turned to subjects like the ecological importance of wildfires. Certainly, large out-of-control fires are damaging and undesirable, but small controlled burns can clear an area out for new growth. Too much undergrowth can make an area ecologically stagnant, and when a wildfire does take place, the fire can be too severe if the flammable materials were building up for too long. On a personal level, similar disturbances in life can actually benefit individuals by making them strong and tolerant to larger scale tragedies. Large scale disasters tear through vast amounts of emotional resources, but by learning about yourself and strengthening your responses to small scale misfortunes, greater challenges can seem less daunting. Because you went through the process of thinning yourself and disturbing your inner soils, you can emerge confident and hardy.
Beware of excess fertility. This is a more nuanced point because fertility certainly benefits growth. However, if there are too many good resources concentrated in one area, then it may ultimately harm the quality of the end harvest if a farmer is not prepared. Applying too much water to a bed can actually suffocate or stunt a plant because the roots have no incentive to travel deep into the soil. Too much water can make the roots grow shallow, and thus the tomatoes or carrots never tap into the natural reservoirs below the surface. High nutrient soil and plentiful water also attract weeds. While desirable plants can grow wonderfully thanks to good quality compost, that same bountiful environment will also fuel the growth of weeds. Too many weeds will choke and out-compete the crops. Be aware of the costs and benefits that come with such fertility.
It is not difficult to connect these agricultural aspects into other areas of life. The observations about water and growth incentives reveal lessons on self-reliance and the necessity of sustainable forays into maturity. While a life of gifted resources is secure and comforting, it won’t necessarily cultivate competence. Consider, for instance, the responsibilities parents have when nurturing their children toward lives of confidence and self-reliance; too much stifling care throughout the growing process will lead to weak and shallow-rooted children. Maturing into adulthood from adolescence requires risky decisions and self-learned wisdom. Again, a little disruption, fire, or thirst can be good. Likewise, great success is not without its own obstacles that scale with the reward. Larger business endeavors will produce more weed-like challenges seeking to disrupt or take advantage of the ultimate reward. But, as the old wisdom goes, greater risk means greater reward. It’s not so difficult to deal with weeds if a levelheaded farmer can anticipate and identify them.
Appearances can be deceiving; vitality surrounds us. The north fields at the farm have less access to irrigated water, and the soil looks absolutely arid at times. The earth can be cracked and even the relentless grasses seem reluctant to claim the land. But with one turn of the shovel, it is quite clear the earth beneath is darker because it is retaining moisture. While the surface is dry, there is still something below that thirsty roots can reach for. Furthermore, plants are far more resilient than I was led to believe. If you take a young lettuce or pepper plant and transplant it to a new location, the leaves will lose some vigor and the poor plant may begin to droop. But if you give the plants some time, and water, and a cool morning, there is a good chance the plant will take hold in its new home. Plants are resilient, and environments are more supportive than they may appear. We once talked about centuries-old seeds that archaeologist discovered. They were ancient, yet the seeds still sprouted after being pulled from their shadowy tombs and granted sight of the sun once more. My point is, we too, like these resilient plants, can endure far more disturbances and fires in life than we may think.
We should be aware of our own personal environments too. Are we really in the arid ruts we believe we’re stuck in, or is there more life and motivation surrounding us we’re simply not seeing? Or can we perhaps do with some disturbances in our old routines? Maybe we’ll wilt a little, but will changing our environment inevitably do more good than harm? Perhaps. Everyone is different. But after working at the farm over the summer, I’m beginning to see some patterns reflecting the accessible complexity of all facets of life. I assure you you have the eyes to see them as well. We can all afford to spend more time with our hands, our natural instruments of labor, deep at work within soils of all types.