The Master of Jewels

A long time ago in a prosperous city a merchant arrived from afar and presented the king with a spectacular green jewel, the likes of which had never been seen before. The king was so impressed by the gift that he offered the merchant anything he wished in return. The merchant simply said “Appoint me as master of jewels, giving me the power to create jewellery workshops and tax them for your benefit”. The king was even more impressed that this stranger would propose an arrangement that would only further add to the king’s wealth and prestige. So the king agreed and retreated to his chambers to marvel at the magnificent jewel he had just received.

Outside the master of jewels set about his work. He found several prime locations occupied by filthy chicken pens or withered gardens that the peasants had built. He ordered them removed and built several spectacular jewellery shops in their place. In return he delivered more jewels to the king, who added them to his collection. Next the master of jewels, his power and wealth growing by the day, ordered more peasant gardens and shanty towns built over. The jewels continued to flow.

Several years later the princess forced her way into the king’s chamber. He had not been seen by the people for many months, preferring instead to jealously guard the growing pile of jewels in his chamber. Refusing to listen to his words she dragged him to the balcony and forced him to look out upon his city. The king was astonished to see half the buildings had been replaced with jewellery shops. The few remaining emaciated peasants had been enslaved to work in them from dawn to dusk. The cool trees and sweet flowers were all gone and dust blew along the emptied streets. The princess said “Your master of jewels has destroyed your kingdom. What good are these trinkets when everything else is gone?”

This story is a metaphor for how humans do agriculture. We are like the jewel master who has both the power to create jewellery workshops and the ability to profit from their operation. In operating our farms we displace and destroy the underlying system. We reduce the total amount of photosynthesis taking place in the system in order to take a greater percentage of the energy caught by what remains. We compensate for the lost functions from all that missing photosynthesis by stealing the outputs from a wider area, concentrating the fertility in a small space that is easier to dominate. Even more significantly than this we also use combustible plant matter as a supplementary energy source in order to make a wide variety of foods easily digestible, fundamentally changing our metabolism and place in the ecosystem and making us unlike any organism that has previously existed.

In my own practice I also fall into these patterns. The first photo is of my potato bed that has just been planted out. It was a weedy paddock a year ago, photosynthesising year round. Longer ago it was a forest with probably 2-3 times higher net photosynthesis, with the extra energy used to bring minerals from deep in the soil more effectively than the thin pasture. I housed my geese in there for a few months, causing the pasture to be killed off and manure from the wider farm concentrated in this small, manageable space. Recently some charcoal, ash, bone meal and goat manure were added and the beds hoed up, concentrating the goose manure and top soil in an even smaller space while leaving bare clay behind. For the next month or so as the tubers start to sprout the net photosynthetic output of the bed will be close to zero. The concentrated organic matter and nitrogen will slowly break down and return to the atmosphere. If we get much rain minerals will leach deeper into the soil. A few months later the potatoes will be harvested and stored for the summer, a tiny fraction of the total photosynthetic potential of the space but much more edible to humans than pasture or forest.

By contrast the second picture is of my original vegetable garden established not far from the potato bed. It went through a similar cycle of being denuded, enriched and planted but has started to transition into being a bed for perennials, so the geese will not be returning here except maybe for brief visits. The crops from last year are still growing (spegariello, eggplant, capsicum, fennel, spring onions, lima beans) or have self sown (Ethiopian kale, daikon, carrot, lettuce, endive) and a range of weedy species have been left to fill in the gaps. This bed is still surprisingly productive, producing fennel, endive, shallots and capsicums recently. Various perennial crops have also been planted in amongst everything else (asparagus, pineapple, strawberry, rosemary, tulsi, goldenrod). Since there are no small crop seedlings that would benefit from controlling competition it is tolerable to allow the weeds to fill in gaps for the most part. When weeds start seeding I will hoe them out to keep them in balance with the system and each other, though some species are less friendly and eliminated where possible. If the good weeds are hoed at the correct stage they contribute more in soil building than competition. As the season turns drier this weeding becomes easier since they are less likely to reattach to the soil, and more beneficial since the reduced competition for water benefits the perennials left behind.

The two spaces outlined represent points on a continuum from unmanaged to human dominated spaces, though both examples are at the latter extreme. Even though the diverse garden has some benefits the salvation of mankind and our reconciliation with nature will not be found there. Unlike many other thinkers in this space I don’t believe there is reason to expect humans to collectively recognise our place in the world and voluntarily give up the riches provided by agriculture. I do not believe a return to the arrangements of the pre-industrial past hold much hope either for many reasons. On the other hand I don’t believe humans are on the verge of a near term extinction.

Instead we represent a significant step forward for how a species can live and the planet is going through the process of coming to terms with this change in the rules of the game. This has happened many times before in the history of life on earth. The first blue green algae developed a new highly efficient form of photosynthesis that had the unfortunate waste product of oxygen. This highly reactive molecule had never been produced on the planet before. As it accumulated it poisoned virtually every microbe that came before it, pushing their survivors into the deep ocean and underground. It changed the composition of the atmosphere so dramatically that the planet nearly froze solid to the equator, but also formed a protective ozone layer. As life came to terms with this new pollutant it made new innovations like multicellular life possible. It is hard to imagine how dull life on Earth would have been without this disaster brought on by unchecked power and self-interest on the part of the blue green algae.

Likewise I expect the impact of humanity on planet Earth will lead to unimaginable and fantastic places in time. The power granted to the jewel master cannot be revoked. In the short term we must deal with the impending disasters that are unfolding but such has been most of our history. More on that old story in the next philosophical post.

A bowl of capsicums from the overgrown garden to add to lunch, but mostly for seed saving

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