instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Friday, September 14, 2007

The great ecological et et

The larger theme I drew from The Ominvore's Dilemma is disintegration: We are disconnected from the food we eat (what exactly is xantham gum?). The price of the food we eat is disconnected from the cost of producing it (where does the fertilizer go when it rains?). Plants have been reduced to machines for converting nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium into calories. Nutrition is a suite of vitamins and minerals pumped into food from which vitamins and minerals have been stripped; this is called "fortifying" food. "Diet" is a ratio of fats to carbohydrates, or calories to days; a word that used to mean "what we eat" now means "what we don't eat."

When he was visiting Polyface Farms, Michael Pollan learned of the value its 450 acres of woodlot offers the 100 acres of pasture. The trees calm the winds that would otherwise flatten the grass; they cool the farm in summer; they attract birds (who eat insect pests) and chipmunks (who are eaten by weasels (who therefore don't go after the chickens)); they provide woodchips for compost; they store water.

As Pollan writes:
I'd always thought of the trees and grasses as antagonists -- another zero-sum deal in which the gain of the one entails the loss of the other. To a point, this is true: More grass means less forest; more forest less grass. But either-or is a construction more deeply woven into our culture than into nature, where even antagonists depend on one another and the liveliest places are the edges, the in-betweens or both-ands... Relations are what matter most, and the health of the cultivated turns on the health of the wild.
The Church is the environment (one both natural and supernatural) in which man can best flourish. The analogy with ecological environments suggests that both "cultivated" rules and "wild" freedom are necessary, and moreover that it is where rules and freedom meet that the Church will be liveliest.

That, at least, is the hypothesis suggested by my reading. The monoculture of Rules Alone, so to speak, is unsustainable and will eventually lead to sterility and starvation; the wilds alone ill-fit our needs and will lead to malnutrition and starvation.

Pollan concludes the chapter with a quotation from Joel Salatin, the owner of Polyface Farms: "One of the greatest assets of a farm is the sheer ecstasy of life."

Isn't that also one of the greatest assets of the Church?