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In the greenhouse, smears of blackberry juice catch the sun and turn it into electricity. David has placed solar cells on the roof that make use of plant dye to generate power. This, in turn, powers a UV lighting system that extends the growing time for the plants past sunset; the greenhouse glows with blackberry light at night.
Constructed from an organic polymer, these solar cells meld technology and organic matter, creating something softer than a traditional solar panel, something that feels like it can sit more easily in our environment. Silicon, the more commonly used material in solar panels, is a naturally occurring mineral. But the process of recycling silicon-based solar panels (which also contain plastic and glass) requires energy and creates waste. We have been creating a landscape of ‘hard’ materials (concrete, plastic) that can’t be reabsorbed into natural life cycles – they sit on the surface of the earth and refuse to go away once their functionality has ceased.
The greenhouse at VISUAL Centre for Contemporary Art and the programme of events around it, collectively titled Future Light from Distant Stars, constitutes an 18-month-long public forum that considers our relationship to food production, to each other and to the environment. This forum has unfolded, and will continue to unfold, in different ways – through talks and food events, and hands-on learning around planting and growing food.
What feels most important is the scale of the structure – it’s a small space, a room that encourages proximity and togetherness, both with each other and with the plant- and soil-life the greenhouse is filled with.
Talking about the future of food production necessarily means talking about technology and its role in how our food is raised. David has incorporated technology into the greenhouse (the solar cells, an automated irrigation system), but it does not overshadow or displace the human-plant relationship, which remains central. The workshop participants, David himself and the community of greenhouse caretakers, all handle the plants and touch the soil, enacting collective care at the human scale.
Recently, I lived for four months in an agricultural area in County Cork. The house I lived in felt as though it had been dropped into the middle of a landscape that was not really made for human habitation. All around the building in which I slept, ate and showered were fields of dairy cattle. There were also piggeries, though these were less visible in the landscape, pigs being kept mainly in sheds in this country.
The fields were large, separated mostly by fencing rather than hedgerows. I would walk the roads between the fields for hours at a time and see nobody. Perhaps the odd car or tractor would pass me. The cows, their swollen, milk-heavy udders knocking between their hind legs, were the only creatures I encountered, bar the few birds in the sky and the odd fox crossing my path.
The landscape was, essentially, a factory. The cows that produce the milk that is used to make our butter, yoghurt, cheese and flat whites live out their lives largely hidden from our view. They are not concealed in buildings, but many of them are confined in an area of the country most of us don’t frequent, definitely not on foot. We might pass them in a flash in a car, but without gaining any physical or intimate sense of the day to day grind of their lives. They are managed by a small number of people. Their tender udders are handled by machines, which suck the milk out and send it to other machines to be processed.
There is a sense of desolation in that type of landscape, a feeling of emptiness. The farmers are scattered far from one another; the cattle are sequestered in a layered monoculture – cows upon cows, upon fields of improved grassland. This type of hyper-green landscape is also a monoculture, of rye grass bolstered with gluts of nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous – some term it a ‘green desert’. The hedgerows are largely absent, meaning there is little habitat for pollinators and birds. In the same way the cows’ udders are managed by machinery rather than manipulated by the human hand, so the soil on these large farms is now worked by large vehicles rather than animal or human power.
In Ireland, we are not yet at the heavily industrial level of agriculture as in, for example, the USA. In his essay ‘Second Nature’, which reflects on the mass landscaping of the American north-west by irrigation schemes and dam construction, Jonathan Raban describes a landscape of “miles of ... flat, robotic agriculture” separating “farmhouse from farmhouse ... an enormous tract of government-subsidised agribusiness, a monotonous and lonely landscape dedicated to the mass production of such valuable items as the fast-food French fry”.(1) We are, however, tending in that direction.
Increasingly, human touch is disappearing from farming. This is a result of both bigger farms, and the more widespread use of technology in farming. This technology is no longer only mechanical, like tractors and combine harvesters, but now extends to digital technology, like soil sensors, GPS and drone surveillance. What is being lost with these developments is direct contact between the human body, and the soil, plants and animals we share our ecosystems with. According to the Central Statistics Office, nearly two-thirds of the food produced in Ireland in 2016 came from a small number of what are classed as ‘very large’ farms (over 100 hectares). This means that two-thirds of our food is produced with the human body at a distance, the farming relationship mediated by large machines.
At the other end of the farming scale, the market gardener, the human body is still very much entangled with the plants and the land. I have been working part-time with a market gardener called Lea Miklody who manages thirteen polytunnels almost single-handedly. In the spring, she would run her bare hands across trays of seedlings as part of the ‘hardening off’ process, preparing them for the move out of the protected environment of the polytunnel.
Lea farms along organic principles, meaning she uses no pesticides or artificial fertilisers. This also means a good deal of hand-weeding, a down-on-the-knees practice which puts you on a level with your plants, close to the earth, nose to the leaves. At the market garden scale of production, a grower’s relationship with their crops is multifaceted and sensory, a daily physical encounter. They are reading the plants and the soil through their senses, in the same way as we would read a friend’s mood in their body language, or gauge their wellbeing by the colour in their face, the sound of their voice. Another experienced market gardener I met, Jim Cronin in Clare, spoke about being able to tell the ground was too cold for a row of spinaches by looking at how they were sitting in the earth - as though ‘their shoulders were hunched’.
This kind of knowledge is endangered. In an essay on small-scale, traditional farmers in the East Anglian fens, the writer Robert Macfarlane describes the evolutionary concept of ‘ghost species’, a non-human creature that has been ‘out-evolved by its environment’. “Ghosts endure only in what conservation scientists call ‘non-viable populations’. They are the last of their lines.” (2) The farmer that knows their land through their own bodies is becoming a ghost species, the ability to read the land through the senses replaced by data points received through a screen. If there is no body on the land any longer, the land can’t be read in this way. This embodied knowledge of landscape, weather and local plant and animal life is something that has been built up over many generations, but it could be lost much more quickly if not maintained through use and exposure. The loss of human touch from farming threatens a store of embodied knowledge built up over thousands of years. In the same way that a great deal of subtle information is lost when talking to someone over Zoom rather than face-to-face, plants that are tended by machines rather than by humans are on some level ‘disconnected’, as we are from them. This disconnection is not only physical, but emotional.
The phrase ‘being in nature’ can create an unhelpful separation between humans and the rest of the material world, and the idea of pure ‘nature’ is increasingly a mythological one. But it’s true that being surrounded by plants, running water and (relatively) unshaped landscape has a hugely beneficial impact on our emotional and mental well-being. It’s been shown that gardening can help victims of trauma by repairing their sense of disrupted time, one of the hallmarks of having experienced a traumatic event. Plugging into the rhythm of seed germination and plant growth can help to pull the traumatised person out of an inescapable loop of trauma relived.
This sympathetic impact of plants on human well-being creates a feedback loop of care towards the plant, and the environment that holds it. It’s this emotional entanglement with the non-human living world that is needed to ensure we do not exploit it, as we have been doing. And for us to be emotionally involved with the plant and animal world, we need to be in physical proximity to it.
But the loss of our physical relationship with plants is only one aspect of the degraded relationship between humans and their environment. At a regenerative farming conference I attended in Maynooth recently, the focus was on how to farm without destroying soil biology, while maintaining business as usual – privately owned large farms, worked by large machines. At the conference, there were demos of machinery which could uproot cover crops in no time at all, without turning the soil. This is a move towards a more environmentally-conscious way of farming, but it does not address the social isolation of farming, or the fact that roughly two thirds of the land in this country is used for agriculture, meaning it is land that has lost human interaction. It is a loss for the land, as well as for us.
Eric Wortley, a 98-year-old farmer from the East Anglian Fens, describes the loss of the social life around farming in his part of the world to Robert Macfarlane: “We sung when we were following the horse ... Or we whistled it on. They’d all be whistling then. Walking round, you’d hear whistling from everyone working on the land. You’d stop and have a little chat over the hedgerow. Nowadays you don’t hear anybody whistle. It’s all changed. It’s a quieter life now, because nobody’s on the fields. Everybody in the village worked on the farms. Everybody now, well, they leave the village to work. We all used to be a little family. Now I never speak to them.”(3)
There is a concept in Korean cuisine called ‘son-mat’. It can be interpreted as ‘hand taste’, but also as ‘a mother’s care’. What it describes is the unique taste of someone’s cooking, their ‘touch’ on the food. In English, our equivalent might be something along the lines of ‘like mother used to make’.
This family-particular ‘touch’ for making food is absorbed through watching family members (traditionally mothers) cook – how they handle the ingredients, the rhythm of their cooking. It carries with it the history of family gatherings and family stories – a taste of a familiar ‘son-mat’ can be a portal into the past, conjuring a feeling of ‘home’.
An art project by Korean artist and bioengineer Jiwon Woo took the concept of son-mat to a more visceral level. She wanted to investigate whether the microflora on people’s hands – their ‘hand yeasts’ – were transmitting across generations and affecting the taste of fermented foods, like kimchi. She found that indeed they were – that there was something like a distinct bacterial signature to different families’ fermented foods.
Our realisation of the importance of bacteria in our lives, for our bodily health and the health of the ecosystems we live in, is relatively recent. It’s only in the last decade or two that there’s been a concerted push-back against antibacterial cleaning products, the over-prescription of antibiotics and the use of pesticides in farming, although all of these practices are still relatively widespread.
Whilst the concept of the human gut microbiome and how it influences our overall physical and mental health has now entered the general consciousness, the idea of the soil’s microbiome is still mainly only understood in agricultural circles. Industrial agriculture has held soil as something inert, a raw material to be used as a vehicle to produce food. It’s viewed as broken down rock that also holds nutrients, which we can add or deplete as needed. In reality, soil is an entire ecosystem, composed of air, water, small creatures, microbes and fungi. It’s a world full of life, a living skin on the planet, and each component, organic and inorganic – living and non-living – plays an important role in sustaining the well-being of the plants growing in it. Heavily farmed and depleted soils can, essentially, die.
There is now beginning to be a turn towards biological farming, the practice of growing food in a way that maintains a healthy ecosystem of microbes, fungi and small creatures in the soil the food grows from. In the same way we need bacteria for the health of our bodies, plants need bacteria and the mycelium network in the soil to support their immune system and fend off pests.
We have spent a great deal of time and effort segregating the life streams on the planet. We try to eradicate the bacteria from our bodies and our homes; we sequester crops and flowers in monocultures, so they grow only with their own kind; we spray the land with chemicals to kill the ‘problematic’ creatures that live there. Many of us spend the majority of our time in human-created environments – offices, our homes, on transportation, on city streets – environments which separate us from the other life-forms that live on the planet: plants and animals and the living soil itself. But increasingly, it’s clear that we are continuous with our environments, not separate to them. We arise from them, we are dependent on them.
Our interdependent and intimate relationship with bacteria suggests that what is needed is more contact, and less separation. The introduction of digital technology into farming could work alongside this contact, as with the ‘soft’ intervention of the solar cells in the greenhouse; or, it could act as a buffer between us and the rest of the living world, gradually deadening our sensory receptivity to it, threatening that store of embodied knowledge.
In the greenhouse, carbon dioxide from human breathing mingles with oxygen from plant photosynthesis, moisture from both condensing on the walls. Many different hands have touched the plants living there, and have turned the soil they grow from. It’s a gesture towards repairing a long-fractured relationship, between human and plant, and between human and human.
Rachel Donnelly is a writer based in West Cork.
1 Jonathan Raban, ‘Second Nature: The de-landscaping of the American West’, in Granta 102: The New 1 Nature Writing, Summer 2008. Granta Publications: 2008, p. 69.
2 Robert Macfarlane, ‘Ghost Species’, ibid, p. 123.
3 Ibid, p. 126-127.