My grandmother won prizes for her gorgeous chrysanthemums. She had a huge rose garden that was designed like a Persian Carpet. She had two full time gardeners who kept her topiaries trimmed and her lawns like billiard tables. She taught me to love making things grow and to respect the endless powers of Nature.
One of her pet peeves: “Why must Americans call it ‘dirt’? It’s soil. It’s earth. It’s not dirty. It’s wonderful.”
Last week, I thought about her often as we watched a wonderful film about turning dirt into magic. The Biggest Little Farm is a documentary about the Chesters, a cooking blogger and a filmmaker, who worked for eight years to transform a mistreated farm into a Garden of Eden.
When they bought it, the land was parched, rocky, gray, starved by the monomania of modern agriculture. They decide that the solution is “biodynamics”, planting a super-diverse set of crops that will work together to support each without chemicals or machines.
They plant 200 types of cover crops alongside 76 varietals of fruit trees, and bring in a children’s library of barnyard animals: ducks, sheep, chickens, pigs, woolly cattle, bees and dogs. In a couple of years, the soil is transformed and the crops explode.
But with this bounty comes trouble. The gophers attack the tree roots, the leaves are eaten by snails, the coyotes attack the chickens, and draught, wind and fire threaten the whole enterprise.
Finally, the miracle of an integrated ecosystem kicks in to save the farm. The ducks eat the snails. The coyotes eat the gophers. The cover crops protect the soil from the wind. When the full chain is left to thrive, all the links connect.
Can this approach replace the industry that feeds the world? Maybe not. Unlike the giant factory farms that surround them, they focus only on feeding their local community. They can thrive by selling eggs by the dozen and fruit by the basket rather than filling endless refrigerator trucks with mechanized, chemicalized produce. But the Chesters and their film aren’t trying to subvert the food industry, just to remind us of the rich complexity of nature, and the powers it has to heal and restore.
It’s not just agriculture that has become hyper focussed and out of balance. I’m also concerned about losing touch with the importance of leading a diversified life. Reading all sorts of books. Talking to different kinds of people. Working but also playing. Expertise but also experimentation, lifelong education, exploration and wonder.
A life out of balance grows depleted, unproductive, overmedicated, lost. How are you restoring your own mental and spiritual ecosystem so you can continue to flourish?