Underground secrets

Writer: 
August 11, 2017

I study farming and gardening manuals from Renaissance England. These books provide an unusual perspective on the ways that men—often working men—and sometimes women perceived the non-human world. Their understanding of the boundaries between self and environment tended to be much more porous than ours: Plants and people existed along a readily discernible continuum. The phase of the moon, for example, might affect a farmer’s mood but also the mood and behavior of livestock, as well as the growth of crops.

For many in the Renaissance, all the known universe was contained in the Bible; the world was a “Book of Nature,” a secret text to be read to reveal God’s word. Imagine then, the shock of discovering a secret within a secret, a set of worlds within the world you knew: worlds of the Americas, with people and animals and plants undescribed by any saint or sinner.

England’s first colonists landed in North Carolina during the Renaissance, and plant prospectors and botanists were not far behind. The John Tradescants, a father and son who gardened their way from obscurity into a royal household, gained celebrity in the seventeenth century by bringing back plants from North Carolina’s coastal plains. Theirs and other Renaissance gardens and gardening treatises trace early attempts at unraveling the wonders of far-flung new crops—the mysterious habits of the potato; the perfumed allure of tobacco; the doubtful accounts of the goose tree, which grew geese, or the vegetable lamb, a plant that grew a single sheep, attached to the plant by an umbilical cord of sorts. When the lamb had nibbled all the vegetation within reach of its vegetal leash, it and the plant it came from both died.

While these conceptions of the world now seem outlandish, in many respects the ways of plants are today just as mysterious. Left to our own devices, many of us couldn’t tell broccoli from a goose tree. A mentor once told me that we know more about the surface of the moon than we do about common garden soil. Dirt—soil reduced to an inert substrate by our collective industrial imagination—is a myth just as potent and as untrue as any vegetable lamb. With our own similarly limited vision, we create what we see: agricultural systems that plunder the soil’s resources even as they deny its vitality, its communities, and the irreplaceable role healthy soil plays in our survival.

Soil remains, even to twenty-first-century science, a vital and beautiful mystery. An incredibly rich ecology in its own right, a teaspoon full of healthy farm soil is estimated to contain more than a billion organisms—bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes, and others yet to be discovered. All of their interactions, the specialized niches each must fill, the millennia upon millennia that they’ve had to evolve these complex systems—it’s almost unfathomable. No wonder we know more about the moon! 

Every day I’m in the field at the Duke Campus Farm, I’m working to bring our soil, hard-used by over two centuries of commodity agriculture, back into what Renaissance farmers called “good heart.” Farming is to me a gesture of hope, an act of place-making, and it can be work of restoration as well as growing food. An inch of healthy topsoil takes roughly five hundred years to form. Part of the magic of sustainable agriculture for me is the capacity to co-create, alongside billions of microbiota, what is essentially a nonrenewable resource. It is as if, as an organic farmer, I have been given secret, alchemical powers to make diamonds from coal, spin straw into gold.

In the context of the Anthropocene, we’re starting to realize the power of our species as a geological force. Part of this is understanding that there is no longer an “outside” or an “away,” a place on the planet where we can escape our own influence on the planet’s systems. My work gives me a means to practice living with this inextricability, to see the possibilities it opens up for empathy, restoration, and repair, and to reconsider, in a new era of environmental upheaval, the porousness between self and world.  

Some secrets are better, more delicious, in the sharing.        

Cornes is farm and program manager at Duke Campus Farm and assistant professor of the practice at the Franklin Humanities Institute.